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Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine

Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine

by Raja Shehadeh

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This "is not a political book," Anthony Lewis writes in his foreword. "Yet in a hundred different ways it is political.... Shehadeh shatters the stereotype many Americans have of Palestinians. Hath not a Palestinian senses, affections, passions?" This revealing memoir of a father-son relationship, the first o its kind by a Palestinian living in the occupied


This "is not a political book," Anthony Lewis writes in his foreword. "Yet in a hundred different ways it is political.... Shehadeh shatters the stereotype many Americans have of Palestinians. Hath not a Palestinian senses, affections, passions?" This revealing memoir of a father-son relationship, the first o its kind by a Palestinian living in the occupied territories, is set against the backdrop of Middle East hostilities and more than thirty years of life under military occupation.

Three years after his family was driven from the coastal city of Jaffa in 1948, Raja Shehadeh was born in the provincial town of Ramallah, in the rural hills of the West Bank. His early childhood was marked by his family's sense of loss and impermanence, vividly evoked by the glittering lights "on the other side of the hill."

Growing up "in the shadow of home," he was introduced early to political conflict. He witnessed the numerous arrests of his father, Aziz Shehadeh, who, in 1967, was the first Palestinian to advocate a peaceful, two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He predicted that if peace were not acheived, what remained of the Palestinian homeland would be taken away, bit by bit, through Israeli settlement. Ostracized by his fellow Arabs and disillusioned by the failure of either side to recognize his prophetic vision, Aziz retreated from politics. He was murdered in 1985.

Strangers in the House
 offers a moving description of the daily lives of those who have chosen to remain on their land. It is also the family drama of a difficult relationship between an idealistic son and his politically active father complicated by the arbitrary humiliation of the "occupier's law."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Palestinian perspectives on the Middle East conflict don't often reach the West and today they are more relevant than ever. In this fascinating memoir, leading Palestinian lawyer Shehadeh offers a chilling and moving view of life inside the Occupied Territories. He was born into a prominent family around the time of Israel's establishment in 1948. As Shehadeh recounts his relationship with his parents, his first love, intellectual experiments in college, world travels, law career and human rights work, his struggles under Israeli occupation distinguish his story. Shehadeh names his father, Aziz, also a prominent attorney, as the first Palestinian in the late 1960s to advocate recognizing Israel and adopting a peaceful two-state solution. The author gives a gripping narrative regarding Aziz's murder and the Israeli authorities' sluggish investigation; it's widely assumed that Aziz's killer was a Palestinian who disapproved of his willingness to compromise with Israel. More broadly, Shehadeh deftly renders the Israeli government's systematic harassment and humiliation of the Palestinians, ranging from constant surveillance at checkpoints to random searches in homes and offices. Such situations, Shehadeh makes clear, account for the powerlessness, frustration and anger experienced by most Palestinians. His deliberate analysis of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, a major obstacle to the peace process, is especially intriguing. The author argues that these settlements are illegal under international law, but have slowly and surely been aligned with Israeli legal statutes. Anyone seeking a nuanced view of Palestinian experience should read this brave and lyrical book. B&w photos. (Jan. 2) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
On the cover is a photograph of Raja as a student at the American University of Beirut in 1971. This memoir he has written is subtitled "coming of age," but in fact this is an intricate, complex autobiography that may appeal to only those YAs with a serious interest in Palestine and Israel. Raja was born several years after his family left Jaffa when Israel became an independent state in 1948. He grew up in Ramallah (so often in the news today) on the West Bank, with his father (educated in England) working as a lawyer. In the war of 1967, when the Israeli army occupied the West Bank, Raja's father saw then that the solution would be to establish two parallel states—Israel and Palestine. This position caused him to be considered a traitor by other Palestinians and the greater Arab world, for compromising with the Israelis. Raja too was educated as a lawyer in England and returned to live in the occupied territories, working at his father's law firm. But the two men didn't agree, and the struggle of father and son becomes the central story of this memoir. The father felt that Raja should marry and have a family and continue with rather safe legal work in the family firm. In fact, Raja established a human rights group, El Haq, and monitored the torture and ill treatment of Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli military. In this way, he continued the struggle, even after his father was murdered. Although this is as much about fathers and sons as it is about the politics of an exceedingly complex region, it is poignantly about loss, as the Palestinians since 1948 have increasingly lost more and more of their land and their autonomy. There is so much sadness and hopelessness in this onefamily's story, and events in our daily headlines tell us of endless more sorrow experienced by so many families living in that place. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Penguin, 238p. illus.,
— Claire Rosser
Library Journal
In this autobiography of a Palestinian living in Israel, Shehadeh, a lawyer and founder of Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, reminisces about growing up "in the shadow of home" and coming to terms with the political situation in which he was born. It wasn't until he was an adult that he finally understood the work of his father, Aziz, an early advocate of the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who was murdered in 1985. In a strong voice that is without diatribe, melodrama, or anger, Shehadeh describes the uncertainties of life during a period of national difficulty. Readers will get a glimpse into the emotional and political turmoil of the region and possibly form a better understanding of the troubles in the Middle East. This book also shares the insight of one man's journey and the maturity that allowed him to see his life in context. Recommended for public and academic libraries with Middle Eastern collections or biography collections that extend beyond the famous. Naomi Hafter, Enoch Pratt Free Lib., Baltimore, MD Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A former political activist in the occupied territories looks back on his youthful struggle to come to terms with his father, as well as with an idealized Palestinian past and an unrealized Palestinian future. Shehadeh, a lawyer and a writer who now lives quietly in the West Bank town of Ramallah, founded the internationally respected human rights organization Al Haq, which mounted legal challenges to Israeli settlements on the West Bank and exposed the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Raja's father, Aziz Shehadeh, was also a prominent lawyer and a political activist. A refugee from Jaffa following the 1948 conflict, Aziz came to believe that recognizing Israel was the only way to maintain a Palestinian nation. He was condemned by Arab nationalists and also drew fire when he became the defense attorney for those accused of assassinating King Abdullah of Jordan. He was murdered in 1985, not for his political beliefs but probably over a minor legal wrangle. All this lays the foundation for Raja's reflections on his childhood, during which family members incessantly recalled their former comforts and refused to confront the reality of the Israeli takeover. Chapters about Raja's education in London and India reveal the emotional conflict between father and son, as well as Raja's efforts to find a role for himself in the political struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. Partly as a result of his disillusionment with the Israeli investigation of his father's murder, he affiliated with the first intifada and became a legal advisor to the Palestinians at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He left "in despair a year after they began." Shehadeh also describes eloquently thedevastation of the biblical hills surrounding his home as Israeli bulldozers make room for settlements. A memoir both political and personal, offering a human and humane perspective on one Palestinian's life. (b&w photographs)
From the Publisher
"Unusually honest, beautifully written....Few Palestinians have opened their hearts and minds with such frankness." —The New York Times Book Review

"A remarkable human document that explains better than a hundred political treatises why there is still no peace in the Middle East." —Amos Elon

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Strangers in the House

Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine

By Raja Shehadeh

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2002 Raja Shehadeh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-213-4


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 of Jaffa 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.


It never seemed possible to heat the summerhouse, not even during winters milder than that first one in exile. The cold and clammy wind seemed to find its way to my bed and dampen it, chilling me to the bone. Every night my mother wrapped me in thick blankets and put me down like a mummy under more heavy quilts warmed by a hot-water bottle. [right arrow] But still I was cold. The only warm place in the house was around the woodstove where in the evening the whole family gathered, toasting ourselves and placing the peels of Jericho oranges to burn and sweeten the air with an audible fizz and a sharp citrus smell. Even my grandmother admitted that these Jericho oranges tasted more tart than those from Jaffa.

But I did not like oranges. I did not like food altogether. Throughout my childhood I persistently tried to starve myself.

"Eat," my mother would plead, holding a spoon close to my face. She would be so close I could see the sweat in the pores of her skin. Kind but perplexed brown eyes beneath a wide brow looked into mine, asking: "Why? Why don't you want to eat?" I don't know. I want to make my mother happy, but I can't eat. I scrutinize her face, her high cheekbones, her thin nose, and her full lips. "But you must eat." I look at her fingers holding the spoon to my mouth and wonder how her thumbnail became slit in the middle. "For my sake, just this spoon." But I clench my teeth and refuse to allow food to pass through my lips.

My mother, Wedad, used all kinds of tactics to distract me. The most successful was to tell me dramatic stories, which would enchant me to such a point that I would relax my jaws. As the tears welled in my eyes, my mother would slip the spoon between my teeth and sigh with relief at her temporary victory.

Sometimes she pretended that the spoon was a ship traveling through the sea of porridge she was trying to feed me. "Let's follow the ship sailing in the sea," she would say. She would pass the spoon around, causing a spiral of thick waves in the porridge. I thought of the hills outside, which I could see from the window across from where we sat on our small chairs. The hills were also like waves, folding and unfolding, and their color in winter was like the color of the porridge. The olive trees were like the granules in the porridge, thick and coarse. The ship completed its course at the center of the plate. Then it flew up. My mother rounded her lips and blew at the hot porridge to cool it. My mouth was the harbor where the ship had to dock. Thus I swallowed one shipload after another after they had completed their voyage through our hills and into my mouth.

I grew up weak and vulnerable and had to be confined to the house. My mother was overprotective. As for my father, he was critical of the excessive pampering I received. He refused or was unable to accept that a simpler way of dealing with my stubborn determination to starve myself could not be found. He tried gentle persuasion and then severe physical punishment. He even tried withholding food so that I would come asking for it. When none of these tactics proved effective, my father dragged me to the doctor and insisted that there must be a pharmaceutical cure for my condition. But my stubbornness knew no bounds. The only thing that seemed to work was storytelling. It was fortunate that my mother had a rich imagination.


Excerpted from Strangers in the House by Raja Shehadeh. Copyright © 2002 Raja Shehadeh. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Unusually honest, beautifully written....Few Palestinians have opened their hearts and minds with such frankness." —The New York Times Book Review

"A remarkable human document that explains better than a hundred political treatises why there is still no peace in the Middle East." —Amos Elon

Meet the Author

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.

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