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"A remarkable human document that explains better than a hundred political treatises why there is still no peace in the Middle East." —Amos Elon
The house where my family lived, and in which I was born, was the summerhouse of my grandmother. Its proximity to the deep-set Ramallah hills could have made for a pleasant life except for the nagging feeling of being in the wrong place. I was always reminded that we were made for a better life — and that this better life had been left behind in Jaffa. Jaffa, I was told, was the bride of the sea, and Ramallah did not even have a sea. Jaffa was a pearl, a diamond-studded lantern rising from the water, and Ramallah was a drab, cold, backward village where nothing ever happened. Jaffa was affluence: a house with original oil paintings, and my grandfather's fully equipped Continental Hotel, which my grandmother always boasted had a restaurant with enough china and silver cutlery for two hundred guests. Jaffa was where my father had developed a comprehensive law library in his office in Nuzha Street; where there were courts, a busy nightlife, Dora, the excellent Jewish seamstress from Tel Aviv who made my mother's clothes, tasty pastries from Kapulski's, and orange groves. And above all these, Jaffa was the sea with the Abdo falafel stand right by the water, where my parents ordered sandwiches and strolled in the silver twilight on the golden sand in warm winter evenings with the waves of the sea gently rippling against the shore.
How I yearned throughout my childhood for these imagined pleasures! How I thought life would have been more resplendent and exciting had we still been there, across the horizon, in the beautiful city that I only heard about and yearned to see.
This version ofJaffa that I grew up coveting was mainly my grandmother's. It was she who, after living for more than thirty years in Ramallah, remained gareebeh, a stranger. She was still the aristocrat from Jaffa, the daughter of the owner of the Nassar Hotel in the Street of the Kings in Haifa and the wife of Justice Saleem Shehadeh of Jaffa. Ramallah was but a village where she could never again have the kind of life to which she had been accustomed. Her eyes were always on the horizon, and through following her gaze I too learned to avoid seeing what was here and to fix my sight on the distant horizon. I saw Ramallah and its hills not for what they were but as the observation point from which to view what lay beyond, at the Jaffa I had never known. We would be walking home in the evening and she would stop me on the top of the hill before going down the street leading to our house: "Look," she would say. "Look at the lights on the horizon." And she would stand in reverent silence. I stood next to her, holding her soft warm hand, and held my breath as I tried to concentrate all my attention on the lit horizon, imagining what sort of place these lights illuminated. For a long time I was hostage to the memories, perceptions, and attitudes of others that I could not abandon. My sense of place was not mine. But I never thought I had the right to claim it. My elders knew better. I felt it was natural to defer to them on such matters.
In Ramallah we lived far away from the sea, but not so far as not to see it on clear days. Fold after fold of the cup-shaped hills rolled on to the sea. They were called partridge, duck, and swan, a whole herd of tumbling birds with their backs turned to us.
From our house I could follow the valley that meandered between the interlocking hills on both sides, making the land seem like a turbulent wavy sea that slowly dropped from where I stood all the way down to the horizon, folding and unfolding in a continuous stretch as far as the eye could see. Our house was the perfect observation point from which to watch the land to the west that I grew up hearing so much about.
The hills on both sides of the wadi were varied in texture. Some were rockier than others. Some were planted with olive and vine. This made them assume different hues at different times of the day. In the morning they had frank strong colors, white and brown and green. Midday the slowly moving clouds cast their shadows, creating different shades as they slid across the sky. Toward sunset the hills became rosy and luminous as the rays of the setting sun streaked the limestone boulders and rocks. But when the humidity from the sea wafted along from the west they became downy and covered with a velvet mysterious blue that blurred the vision. And when in autumn the weather became very humid we would wake up to find that the fog had filled up the spaces between the hills like a sea of white thick snow.
Unlike my grandmother, my father rarely spoke of Jaffa, at least not to us, his children. How did he feel when he stood angry and despondent among these same hills? Was he disdainful of the smell of the dung as he listened to the mooing of the hungry cows and the chatter of the refugees from Lifta, who came from their village in West Jerusalem and squatted in the large empty house across the street? He was handling an eviction case against them. His eyes invariably took a cursory scornful view of these Ramallah hills and would then focus on the distant horizon, the bluish line of the sea in the day and the glittering array of lights at night. Night after night he stood motionless, hardly breathing, seemingly captured by this grand vista and trying to imagine what went on over there, in the luminous world of Jaffa he had abandoned. Here was only brown thistle and stone, an arid land without hope or future. One part of him lived in the distance, in the lit horizon; the other lived in the cold, unwelcoming summerhouse of my grandmother across the street from the offensive smell of the cows of the Lifta refugees.
There was always a breeze coming from the hills. They were like a funnel through which the wind always blew. I would look at the hills next to our house for relief from the narrow confines of our close living quarters. To me they were the untamed wild, so close and yet so distant, a space of promise and mystery someday to be explored — yet for now but a funnel for the humid wind from my father's mythic Jaffa.
The house I lived in as a child had two bedrooms for our family of six. Wind whistled through the pine trees in the garden. A constant gentle breeze in summer; in winter a strong humid wind that swept the needles off the majestic trees and added drama to the cold interior of our poorly insulated house. The incessant angry roar caused me to feel great insecurity and fear and increased my yearning with every ferocious wave for the mild and windless winters of the Jaffa of my parents.
Many of my parents' friends were leaving the city as early as December 1947. They were rich and either had houses elsewhere or were going to stay with relatives. They planned to stay away until the fighting stopped. My mother recalls walking up the streets and counting the number of empty houses that belonged to friends she used to visit. The population of the town was shrinking. Could we have made the wrong decision by staying? my father wondered.
They had a two-year-old daughter and my mother was pregnant with her second child. The questions they continued to ask themselves were whether they would be left without food for the children and whether they would be safe.
Then a truck carrying a load of oranges managed to elude the checkpoints and make its way into the center of the town. It was driven by members of the Stern Gang, the extremist Jewish group, who left the booby-trapped truck to explode, causing indiscriminate damage and scores of casualties.
This incident caused a new wave of departures from the city, but my parents were determined to stay. On April 22, 1948, the port city of Haifa fell to the Jewish forces, and many of my mother's relatives were forced to leave for Lebanon. It was becoming clear that Jaffa would be next. On April 26 the Irgun mortars began shelling Jaffa to cut the Manshieh quarter, not far from where my parents lived, from the main city. With daily shelling of the city, life became unbearable. The Arab forces were disorganized and ineffective, and the British seemed to step aside and allow the Jewish forces a free hand. My parents felt unprotected.
My parents are first cousins. Both their fathers had left Ramallah as young men and never returned. My paternal grandfather owned a weekly newspaper and a printing press in Jerusalem, where my father was raised. My maternal grandfather was a district court judge in Jaffa, where my mother was born. My father opened a law office in Jaffa in 1936, married my mother in 1945, and settled there. My maternal grandfather built a summerhouse in Ramallah, where he brought his family to escape the hot and humid summers of Jaffa. He deposited them there and went on his annual vacation to Austria. A question that will never be answered is whether my parents would have left Jaffa had my maternal grandfather not owned this house in Ramallah. Its presence at such close proximity to Jaffa provided them with a tempting alternative. Moving to it in April would save them from the hardship and danger of the skirmishes that were disrupting life in Jaffa. Once the situation became calmer they would move back. They thought they were leaving for two weeks. For a long time I wondered why they had fixed on a two-week absence until I realized that in my father's calculations the worst that could happen was the implementation of the UN plan for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state; if this happened, Jaffa was slated to be on the Arab side. The British were due to leave in mid-May. He left at the end of April, two weeks before what he thought was to be the decisive date. But the Palestinian population had rejected the UN plan and the Jewish one had its eye on a larger territory — which they were able to secure through the war that ensued. The two weeks stretched into forever.
On May 14, three weeks after my parents left Jaffa, the establishment of the Israeli state was declared over an area of land that was larger than what the UN had reserved for the Jews. Jaffa was included. My father could not return. But if my father blamed himself for having left, these feelings receded with the events of the evening of July 17.
"It was a windless, warm evening," I later heard my father relate to friends. "We were able to sit out on the porch late into the night. It was already eleven when we finally turned in. Two hours later, I was awakened by knocking on the door. When I opened the door I found my close friend Dr. Bishara standing there, looking very haggard and exhausted. He had refused to leave Jaffa with us and instead had moved to Lydda to continue serving patients. I was shocked to see him standing there so late at night. I will never forget how he looked. He was so changed that he was like a stranger to me. His face seemed longer than usual, with two lines down the middle of each cheek. He was pale and withdrawn. His lips were black and thin and his mouth was parched. But what stood out most of all was the look in his brown eyes. The dark circles around them were common enough after several sleepless nights, but Dr. Bishara's pupils had an inward gaze. His eyes were not wilting from lack of sleep. Opaque, they held a deeply pained, bewildered expression of dread and emptiness, a vulnerable emptiness. Usually filled with warmth and humanity, they had a look of revulsion. He was unable to communicate the horror he had witnessed.
"Much as I wanted to know what had happened, I asked no questions. I gently helped the doctor to the living room couch. The yet-untold horrors he had experienced perturbed me. When we got up the next morning we found that thousands of refugees who had walked all the way from Lydda and Ramle were pouring into Ramallah, each with a story of the misery and hardship they encountered in the course of their forced march from the coastal cities to the hill town of Ramallah."
That first winter brought one of the worst snowstorms Ramallah had ever had. My father said that the snow seemed to bring the hills across the valley closer to our house. The hills wore single lumps of snow over their large humped backs and looked like huge igloos. Down toward the west the snow was punctuated by swerving dark brown lines along the terraces, dotted all the way with green olive trees. Farther on along the horizon the hills remained uncovered, shimmering with their usual range of blue colors: a symphony in blue.
Thirty thousand refugees had poured into Ramallah, and most of them had to take shelter in tents that were provided by relief organizations. Comparatively speaking, my father's circumstances were less desperate. At least he had a roof over his head, although it belonged to his mother-in-law. But what began as a temporary stay in Ramallah became a permanent one. Three years later I was born in that same summerhouse across the hills from Jaffa.
Excerpted from Strangers in the House by Raja Shehadeh. Copyright © 2002 by Raja Shehadeh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Strangers in the House is a personal memoir in which the primary conflict is between father and son. Nevertheless, it's suffused with the tumultuous politics of the Middle East and the Palestinian issue forms much of the fabric of the author's relationships. This contributes to the multiple meanings of the title, which echoes the author's feelings about his family as well as the situation in Palestine in general. Raja Shehadeh was born in the West Bank into a family of two strong, very different wills—his stately, aristocratic grandmother, always looking to the past, and his father, Aziz, full of nervous energy and barreling toward the future. In their immediate world, British misgovernance of the areas of the Middle East under its purview had quickly lead toward violence between Jews and Arabs. Thus, Raja's first breath was taken in a personal and political world already brimming with contention. But while his father is fighting to realize a realistic solution for Palestinian sovereignty and dignity—efforts for which he is branded a traitor to the Arabs—Raja grows from being a sickly boy to a promising, intellectually vigorous man. Despite Aziz's brilliance, however, he is perhaps the last man to acknowledge his son's potential. Raja instead seeks out wisdom in his school experiences as a student of English literature in Beirut and London, an abortive trip to India, and a love affair with an American woman. The father's world of politics and law seems the last place Raja is headed. Eventually, however, that's exactly where he ends up, working as a lawyer side by side with Aziz in Ramallah while the city is under Israeli occupation. Raja becomes a leader in developing legal means to assert Palestinian rights, even as the fire that once burned in his father's belly grows noticeably colder. Raja earns international kudos for trying to stop the disintegration of Palestinian law as an author and for his human rights work. But an increasingly depressed Aziz has no encouraging words for his son. Where others see Raja as making strides in ending the excesses of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Aziz feels he is stirring up trouble. When the Israelis begin harassing the law firm and its employees, Aziz interprets it as evidence that he's been right all along. In the end, it's nearly too much for Raja, who temporarily leaves the law firm. He eventually returns, but his relationship with his father isn't mended in time. While Raja is abroad on a speaking tour, Aziz is murdered. The public embraces the idea that he was assassinated as a traitor by a Palestinian extremist. However, Raja is convinced that Aziz's death is unrelated to politics. Transforming himself from an international human rights lawyer into a criminal prosecutor, he investigates the murder while goading the Israeli police into doing more about his father's case. After several setbacks and false victories, he is given a tantalizing glimpse of the truth: An Israeli police officer claims that one of Aziz's opponents in a land dispute killed him. Raja's oath to lay his father's spirit to rest with justice looks as if it's about to be fulfilled. But his optimism is short-lived, when he realizes that the murderer is being protected by the Israeli administration because he's an informant for the occupiers. Politics in Palestine, it seems, is inextricable from the personal.
ABOUT RAJA SHEHADEH
Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah. He is a founder of the pioneering, nonpartisan human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights, and the Middle East.
AN INTERVIEW WITH RAJA SHEHADEH
You paint Julia as such a strong character from the start. In comparison, your father makes his presence felt gradually. Why did you begin with Julia and not Aziz, or your own birth?
For the longest time my father represented to me the outside world. That world claimed him and deprived me of him. My mother and grandmother were the world of the house and of the two it was my grandmother, Julia, who was the stronger presence. She represented stability and generated a sense of physical well-being that was not apparent in others. To a sickly child this was a source of attraction and comfort. At the beginning of the book I was trying to show that "my sense of place"(p. 4) was not mine. How better to show this than by describing the figure who determined for me my sense of place, Julia? At the same time Julia represented Jaffa. She also represented one pole of my character, the more sensual, aristocratic, and elitist. What I was attempting to do in this first chapter was to develop the narrative through the sensory perceptions of the child. It was Julia who had the strongest impact on me as a child.
At one point you wonder whether not being able to drink tea from her own teacups was worse for your grandmother than the eviction from Jaffa (p. 20). Have you come to a conclusion about your own question yet, and, if so, what do you think your answer says about your grandmother?
Eviction from Jaffa meant parting with one kind of life, it meant being degraded, humiliated, and turned into a refugee. By insisting on her ways (on finding the best cups in which to drink tea) my grandmother was resisting all these attempts at putting her down and breaking her will. My grandmother was not a nationalist or a political person. She was an obdurate elitist trying to preserve a way of life. Defeat meant succumbing and my grandmother was not one to give in. If she could no longer be in Jaffa then she would at least try and preserve as much of her way of life as possible and will keep on looking for the best bone china cups in which to serve afternoon tea.
The memoir is primarily meant as a personal account, yet your prefacing chronology is meticulously devoid of personal references. How did you decide on what went in the chronology when your book is largely about how the politics of the larger world and the drama of the personal world are inextricably intertwined?
I've always thought that the book should be able to stand on its own. Yet I could appreciate that many readers would need to have the political/historical context to better appreciate the personal story. This I attempted to provide through the chronology in which I tried to present major events as objectively as possible. My choice of what to include was determined both by the salient historical events and more specifically those mentioned in the book. It's absolutely true that my personal story is suffused with the politics around me but the book is not about politics. The chronology is simply a readers' aid. To have included personal references in the chronology would have contradicted the spirit of the book which works entirely through the personal.
On page 28, you describe your father as having a "vague ethos" that bade him to remain free, exercise his own will, and, when confronted with a choice, to never choose to inflict evil on others. How did this imperative play out in his dealings with you?
I do not believe that my father was particularly calculating in his dealings with me. He had traditional notions of what were a father's duties towards his son and he tried to fulfill these as conscientiously as possible. By living out his personal ethos he must have hoped that I would learn from his example. Ultimately I did. But not without suffering the exercise of his strong will over me which at times threatened to stifle me forever.
Ultimately, who do you think are the greatest enemies of and obstacles to Palestinan freedom? The Israelis, other Arabs, members of the Palestinian diaspora, the Palestinians themselves? In what ways do the shortcomings of all of these groups interact?
By refusing to withdraw and end its occupation of Palestine, Israel undoubtedly presents the greatest physical obstacle to Palestinian freedom. But freedom will not be achieved only through the liberation of the land from the occupier. The Palestinians have not been blessed with good leaders. Despite the enormous resistance and resilience of Palestinian society, we are often at the mercy of the manipulation and self-interest of Israel, Arab leaders, and sometimes our own miscalculations.
Why do you wait until late in the book (p. 180) to reveal that your family was Christian in a religiously charged conflict that many on the outside erroneously see as purely Jewish versus Muslim? You also allude to the ambiguous position of Palestinian Christians as a subculture during your murder investigation, yet you don't go into detail. Why is this?
When I was growing up I never felt that my Christian identity was under threat. Nor did I feel in any way that I was a member of a religious minority. When my father used to point out that in addition to coming from a small family he was also disadvantaged in being Christian, I used to take issue with him. After all, ours was a national struggle that aimed at developing a modern secular state where there would be no manifestation of religious differences or discrimination. It was only when I came to realize that we might not be successful in achieving this objective that I was able to understand his fears. The point was also driven home when I had to go alone through my difficult ordeal after he was murdered. The Israeli Palestinian struggle is not a religious struggle; it is national. The fact of my being Christian has never been a defining aspect of my personality. Only at those times when law and order were on the wane and traditional sources of power on the ascendancy, did I feel at a disadvantage because of my religious affiliation.
You compare yourself to the Good Soldier Schweik, "coming into a charged battlefield, a highly politicized situation, and refusing to recognize it for what is was" (p. 181). In that never-finished tale, Schweik always comes out on top almost because of his ignorance, while you often suffered while trying to attain wisdom. Do you think the parallel holds as far as Schweik's effortlessly happy endings? Or do you think that in gaining wisdom you forfeited happiness?
I think that I have remained to this day like the Good Soldier Schweik in my refusal to submit to politics while living all my life in a highly politicized situation. Like him this must be accredited to some extent to ignorance about politics. Whether or not this was willful I cannot decide. I don't know if I have gained wisdom or forfeited happiness. I still seek both. What I would like to believe is that like the Good Soldier, I have insisted on my own way of seeing things. Where the analogy definitely fails is that in my case the process has been arduous and far from effortless.
At one point, you describe your visit to Martello Tower, "from where Joyce's hero, Stephen Dedalus, began his famous day" (p.95). Conventional wisdom names Ulysses's primary protagonist as not the young man Dedalus but his father figure in the novel, Leopold Bloom. The date is even celebrated in Dublin every year by Joyce fans as Bloomsday. How do you think your own relationship with your father is reflected in your interpretation of Joyce's novel? How do you think it's reflected later in your book, where you cast yourself as the "protagonist of a mysterious tragedy" (p. 202), when it's arguable that the central figure in the murder is your father?
When reading Joyce my identification was always with the son, not the father, with Dedalus, not Bloom. In Chapter Ten where I describe my visit to the Martello Tower, I was describing an extremely self-involved young man who took courage from the details of the life of Joyce, his single-mindedness, his rebelliousness, and his dedication to art. It was this identification with Joyce that brought me to the Tower from whence I wanted to launch my new life in the world. Clearly at this point in my life I was more interested in the son and his experience in the world than in the father. In the course of writing Strangers in the House my relationship with my father developed. Still my self-description later on in the book as the "protagonist of a mysterious tragedy" is not made with any sense of irony. I was expressing what I felt at the time: that my father had died and left me with a great calamity, a greater challenge than I felt I could handle. I saw myself, not him, as the protagonist of this particular tragedy. My interpretation of Joyce's novel at that point in the book clearly reveals my bias and unresolved relationship with my father.
What do you believe motivated your father to nearly take his own life? Do you understand his point of view?
When the 1967 War ended and Ramallah was occupied by Israel, my father must have felt once again that his world was utterly destroyed. He was not expecting this crushing defeat of the Arabs. He was not prepared psychologically for it. The defeat brought to mind the nakbeh of 1948 when his loss was total. Now as a middle-aged man he must have felt skeptical whether he would be able to pick up the ruins of his shattered life as he had done the first time and start again. Knowing my father, as I believe I do, he must have blamed himself for leaving himself and his family so vulnerable and exposed. He saw no point in living. The first time I felt I understood my father's experience of utter gloom was after the Oslo Accords were signed. When I read the text, I believed that our long struggle for ending the occupation had been forfeited by our leadership and the strong legal case that I had worked on for so long was destroyed. Like my father I was eventually able to overcome my depression and forge ahead.
Events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have changed swiftly even since your 2001 Afterword. Are you optimistic that any sort of peace can be achieved, and do you think it will ever resemble the plan your father tried to realize?
The events that have occurred since the book was finished have only rent the two sides further apart. The physical changes on the ground, with the tremendous expansion in the number and size of Israeli settlements and the extensive road construction that have taken place to connect them to each other and to Israel, make it seem unlikely that there can be a return to how things stood when my father made his peace proposals. Yet peace will not come if it is not based on a genuine and full recognition by the two sides of each other and an equitable resolution of all the outstanding issues. Among these there must be a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the areas they occupied in 1967. Arrangements for peace that fall short of this will simply not endure.