Holy Land Memoirs: Oz, Nusseibeh, Shehadeh, and Shulman

Adina Hoffman in The Nation reviews some new memoirs:

If Oz is interested in forging a myth of his own origins as well as of his country, Sari Nusseibeh prefers to debunk. While he, too, was raised in a hothouse, as the privileged son of one of Jerusalem’s most distinguished and ancient Muslim families (since the seventh century they have held the literal key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), he has perhaps a bit less to prove and never once casts himself as the victim. On the other hand, as a Palestinian–and a Palestinian writing in English, for a foreign audience–he starts out as something of an underdog, and he and co-writer Anthony David have clearly set out to make a subtle political point or two to a readership that is probably much more familiar with Israel’s saga than Palestine’s. But the book is not a polemic. It’s very much the story of Nusseibeh’s political and intellectual growth, told in a mild and good-naturedly self-deprecating tone and cast against the backdrop of his people’s troubled history.

Once Upon a Country was inspired, he says, by Oz’s memoir, which, in the generous terms typical of Nusseibeh, he calls a “masterpiece.” Although he grew up “no more than a hundred feet away from where Oz lived out his childhood,” he was struck by the fact that “there were hardly any Arabs in [Oz’s] story, and not a hint of the world I knew as a child.” (Born in 1949, Nusseibeh is ten years Oz’s junior.) His book attempts to tell something of what went on across the road while also offering a cleareyed reckoning of the state of the Palestinian national movement. There are no heroes here, even though Nusseibeh himself might reasonably be viewed by readers as one: he could easily live a much more carefree life elsewhere but has chosen to stay in Jerusalem and work not just for his people’s independence but also for what might be called, without condescension, their education. With admirable humility and a pair of mismatched socks, he goes about the business of helping shape a university (Al-Quds), a state, a civil society.