Just finished “Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life,” the recently published memoir of Sari Nusseibeh. The president and professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, Nusseibeh also served as the PLO’s chief representative in Jerusalem from 2001-02. But more to the point, Nusseibeh is one of the great heroes of our time: a longtime Palestinian advocate of a two-state solution, he has been consistently targeted by enemies of peace on both sides of the conflict. In the end, however, he is guided by his eminent humanity, his willingness to reach out and, as he puts it, his “belief in the basic decency of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples” (p. 461).
There’s so much I want to say about this important, moving book. It’s worth reading on so many levels: as a history of the Palestinian experience, a insider’s account of the peace process, a personal memoir and love story. It is also a remarkable account of a man who is repeatedly (and reluctantly) drafted into the political process, but is really a teacher and philosopher at heart. His inner rhetorical struggles to come to grips with this conflict were for me the most valuable and inspirational aspects of his book. Here is but one example – his personal take on the thought of Abu Hāmed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazālī, a 12th century Islamic philosopher:
(Al-Ghazali) argued that the world and all the objects within it including our soul, are composed of discrete, featureless, and interchangeable “atoms.” These atoms take on various shapes, so if God chooses to turn water into wine, all he has to do is shift the atoms around a bit. Or, going back to politics, hatred many seem as immutable as Dr. Johnson’s nose, particularly in the Middle East, where blood feuds can keep it going for generations. Yet, emotions are not Aristotelian essences, but can be transformed through an act of will. It’s up to us to turn hatred into understanding. No matter how hopelessly entrenched two parties may be, their feud can be solved through an act of human will (pp. 127-128)
If there will be an way out of this “hopelessly entrenched” and tragic conflict, it will only be due to those such as Nusseibeh – a man with the soul of a philosopher and the true courage of his convictions.
Several years ago, as board members of Chicago Peace Now, Marc and I were involved in bringing Sari to Chicago to speak alongside an Israeli about the peace process. The hostility of a certain small but vocal segment of the Chicago Jewish community was stunning. Full-page ads were run in the Jewish News accusing the host Rabbi of “sleeping with the terrorists,” and the forum was disrupted multiple times by individuals who screamed threats and had to be escorted out by the police.
In the midst of this, Sari sat in a state that bordered on Zen quietude, and then softly addressed the obstacles that the Palestinians and Israelis face if they are ever to learn to listen to one another and treat each other with basic humanity. Safely tucked into the covers of a book, this philosophy seems abstract and benign, but in the midst of the conflagration of hatred that we witnessed, it was the most moving act of strength we have ever seen.