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.