Once Upon a Country NPR coverage of Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh and Anthony David. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Once Upon a Country

Once Upon a Country

A Palestinian Life

by Anthony David and Sari Nusseibeh

Hardcover, 542 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $27.50 |


Buy Featured Book

Once Upon a Country
A Palestinian Life
Anthony David and Sari Nusseibeh

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

A Palestinian scholar and leader offers a look at the troubling recent history of his country and the Middle East from a Palestinian perspective, sharing his rationale for promoting a two-state solution to the problems affecting the region.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Once Upon A Country

A Fairy Tale
Almost forty years ago the Israeli army conquered Jerusalem, a city my family had lived in since the days of Omar the Great, and soon afterward I fell in love with Lucy. Everyone agreed at the time, including the two of us, that it was an odd match. We were both students at Oxford, which at least on the surface was where our similarities ended. Lucy was the daughter of John Austin, one of England’s mightiest modern philosophers, and I was the nineteen-year-old son of a man who had spent the last twenty years serving a Jordanian-administered Palestine, an entity recently wiped off the map in six brief days. Lucy was expected to marry into the British intelligentsia and to pursue a dazzling academic career of her own. By contrast, I no longer had a country, and the old ruling class my father represented had been plunged into a crisis from which it would never recover. The children of the privileged and educated, including all five of my siblings, began heading for the exits.
 Had I intended to stay in exile, the love that Lucy and I shared perhaps would have raised fewer eyebrows. But I wanted to return, and I wanted her to go with me. But how do you ask the daughter of a famous Oxford don to follow you to the war-scarred, embattled, poor, and occupied city of Jerusalem? How do you break the news that your fate will be tied to one of the most volatile corners on the planet, with two major wars in its recent history and the Arab leaders worldwide calling for another? It seemed too preposterous even to try, so I wrote a fairy tale instead.
 It was second nature for me to use myth to get across something so important. At the time I was, as I remain, under the thrall of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for in it I saw how a children’s yarn could say more than a dozen philosophical treatises.
 Fairy tales are also in my blood, and how could it be otherwise, with my having been raised surrounded by such a timeless and magical landscape? When my ancestors arrived in Jerusalem from Arabia thirteen centuries ago, the city’s history was already so hallowed by time—and of course by the ancient Jewish prophets who once roamed its streets—that it left the newcomers from the desert in awe. That awe was so strong that as a child 1,300 years later, I couldn’t walk to the corner market without feeling it all the way to my fingertips. Sometimes, when I watched my uncle’s camels graze among ruins of Suq al-Khawajat, or Goldsmith’s Souk, which had belonged to the Nusseibehs from time immemorial, the sensation of being a character in an ancient story swept through me—as it did when I watched a different uncle, the doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, take a foot-long skeleton key and, as in the story that my Christian friends told me of St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, unlock a door thick enough to withstand a battering ram. In a city whose lanes were too narrow and crooked for a tank, this massive oak door still gave off a sense of impenetrability.
 After snatching the city away from the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, Omar the Great made our family’s ancestor High Judge of Jerusalem, and from that point on my family has served the Holy City as judges, teachers, Sufi sages, politicians, and as doorkeepers to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
 With all this in my background, my fairy tale’s first line was as truthful as it was unsubtle: “Oh how I wish I could go to the Holy Land.” The rest of the story is about an angel on a flying donkey who takes an English girl named Louise on a ride to Jerusalem. The model for my story was Mohammed’s Night Journey to Jerusalem, my favorite childhood fable. One evening the Prophet mounted a winged steed named al-Burak, Arabic for “lightning,” and took a magical trip that over time would inspire the tales of flying carpets. Apart from the revelation of the Koran, in the only miracle ever associated with the Muslim prophet, Mohammed flew on al-Burak’s back over the endless dunes and rock deserts of Arabia to a land described in the Koran as holy and blessed.
 The destination of the Night Journey was the site of Solomon’s ancient temple in Jerusalem and the place, according to Jewish tradition, of Abraham’s sacrifice. To be more precise, he and his steed landed on the rock where some say Adam was created, and where he first set foot on earth after his expulsion from Paradise. (They’ll also tell you that if you look closely enough, you’ll see his footprints.) It is from that rock that the Prophet then ascended to heaven to receive instructions for the Abrahamic message of Islam, or faith in the one God.
 In the yarn I wrote for Lucy, after an angel wearing a turban and riding the magical donkey whisks Louise away to Jerusalem, she meets a variety of characters, including Mr. Seems, who is never what he seems to be. Another figure she encounters stands guard at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Since the time of the Crusades, this knight of the Holy Sepulcher has been asleep at the same spot, as rigid as the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, and just as teary eyed, because a thousand years ago he vowed not to budge until there was peace in the Holy Land.
 While at Oxford, I never finished the tale. I got Louise as far as Jerusalem, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with her once she arrived. Would she help awaken the Crusader knight outside the Holy Sepulcher? Would she help bring peace to the Holy Land? I was stumped.
 Anyway, Lucy didn’t need a fairy tale to fall in love with Jerusalem: before I wrote the story she had already spent time in the Holy Land, while on tour with an Oxford choir, and had begun to identify with the landscape, history, language, and people with as much avidity as a native.
 And so for more than thirty-five years my tale sat in a drawer, untitled and unfinished, and the knight remained very much asleep. More pressing matters—academic work, family life, and three decades of war and upheaval—got in the way. It was only last year, as I was preparing for my upcoming fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, that I picked up the tale again. I asked my twelve-year-old daughter, Nuzha, bedridden with the flu at the time, for her opinion on its merits. An avid and critical reader of stories and an aspiring writer herself, she gave me the thumbs-up, and I packed the tale along with the rest of my things to take to America. So as the institute’s distinguished mathematicians, historians, and biologists pursued their academic and scientific endeavors, I worked on my fairy tale.
 The aim, of course, was no longer to persuade Lucy to run off with me to Jerusalem. Now other motives had surfaced. Lucy and I now had our own children, who had to make their own decision as to whether to stay in a land far more mired in tragedy and seething with resentment than it was after the Six-Day War. Could I so easily say to my children, as I said to Lucy back then, that a life in Palestine would be an adventure? Even if I tried, they would never respond as Louise does in the tale. (“It would be so exciting . . . Just think,” she pleaded, with her palms pressed together as if in prayer.) The only way to convince them about the possibility of a future in Palestine was to make a good case that our conflict with Israel could be solved. Somehow I had to wake up the sleeping knight in front of the Holy Sepulcher.
 Weeks of toil resulted in some new characters and a couple of mystical Sufi riddles. But I still didn’t know how to awaken the sleeping knight. No wonder, for after decades of effort, the magical formula for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed more elusive than ever. The Goldsmith’s Souk, my favorite haunt as a child, had been taken over by a sect of messianic Israeli settlers, who had turned the ruins into a flourishing colony—but also a strategic dagger thrust into the center of the Muslim Quarter. More seriously, the country had been ruined by armed conflict. Suicide bombers had invaded Israeli cities, and the Israeli army had responded by reoccupying the West Bank. The Oslo Agreement was in shambles, and whatever was left of Arafat’s rule in the Occupied Territories was being challenged by Islamic extremism. Meanwhile, the Israelis were using terrorism as a pretext for erecting the “Security Fence,” a twenty-foot-high concrete wall that began to weave its way through the West Bank like some malevolent snake. Each time I returned to Jerusalem for important meetings at Al-Quds University, where I work, I had to be shadowed by my two bodyguards, ubiquitous, like characters in Kafka’s The Castle. Far from peaceful New England, my bodyguards reminded me just how asleep my fictional knight remained.
The solution to the riddle came to me on a plane returning to Boston after Chairman Arafat’s funeral.
 A few days earlier, I had been at the Skidmore College lodge preparing for a lecture I was to deliver the following day when an urgent message came from Jerusalem. Chairman Arafat, enfeebled and holed up in his destroyed compound encircled by Israeli tanks, had succumbed to a mysterious illness. Chairman Arafat hadn’t been a well man for some years. The last time I met with him, before leaving for my sabbatical, he had looked gaunt and frail. When he fell ill this last time, he was flown to Paris, where a few days later he died. The Old Man, as he was known, was gone. That evening I cut short my stay in beautiful Saratoga Springs and took an overnight flight to Jerusalem.
 Predictably, Arafat’s death unleashed a variety of crackpot theories. There were some who accused the Shin Bet, Israel’s shadowy security service, of having poisoned him; others alleged that AIDS had done him in; still others pointed the finger at rival Palestinian factions, or at the PLO itself. Some Israelis, thinking that divine justice had finally been meted out, let out a chorus of hallelujahs. “The wicked witch of the east is dead,” said a prominent Brooklyn-born rabbi. Whatever the cause, everyone agreed that Arafat’s death had reshuffled the deck.
 In an ancient world such as ours, the truth inevitably gets embellished with a thick layer of legend. Depending on your point of view, Arafat was a freedom fighter, a terrorist, or both. (As if to complicate things for those who needed to see him as either one or the other, when he showed up at the United Nations for his first speech to the world body, his holster was empty and he spoke about “guns” and “olive branches.”) Above all, he was a symbol of the scattered, defeated, humiliated Palestinian people. Through rousing slogans and by means both foul and fair, he had forged a nation out of people without leadership and divided by clan, geography, religion, and class, many of whom were refugees living in squalor and despair. He had rekindled their national identity and provided them with hope. This no one can take from him.
Upon my arrival at Ben Gurion Airport the following morning, my two bodyguards picked me up and we drove directly to Ramallah. Arafat’s body was to arrive by helicopter from Cairo three hours later.
 Rather than take the normal Jerusalem-Ramallah route, which we figured would be crammed with people, we drove into Ramallah from the west. The Israeli army, expecting foreign dignitaries and the odd Israeli well-wisher, allowed us to pass the roadblocks without undue delay, and within an hour we arrived at the head office of HASHD, the Arabic name for the People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy.
 At the office, a motley team of young leaders, nearly all of them veterans of Israeli prisons, made black flags and banners with the message the people’s campaign mourns the death of arafat. The plan was to use the occasion of the funeral to distribute fifty thousand leaflets calling for nonviolence and a two-state solution with Israel.
 From there we continued on to the Muqata, Arafat’s rubble-strewn compound at the edge of town. My colleagues had made special arrangements for me to enter through the VIP gate. When we arrived, the large iron gate was shut. Palestinian security guards pushed back a crowd of hundreds of people screaming to get in. My bodyguards managed to clear a path. “The president of Al-Quds University has arrived!” they called out to the guards. Suddenly, in what seemed like a military operation, a narrow slit in the gate opened, and out streamed a column of Palestinian security guards, who swept me off my feet and hauled me in, slamming the gate behind them. The banging and screams of the crowd reverberated in my ears. I pulled my blue worry beads from my pocket and started rubbing them.
 Once inside the compound, I made my way upstairs to the PLO offices. Gathered there were public figures, some top PLO people, Prime Minister Abu Ala, and a number of leaders from Gaza whom I hadn’t seen in years thanks to Israeli closures. The mood was grim.
 Everyone was waiting for the helicopter carrying Arafat’s body, along with Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, Abu Mazen, Abed Rabbo (the cofounder, with the Israeli Yossi Belin, of the Geneva Agreement), and my longtime ally and friend Jibril Rajoub. The plan was for the dignitaries on the ground to join those in the helicopter in conducting a dignified ceremony.
 The best-laid plans of mice and men! By the time the helicopter appeared on the horizon, hundreds of people had already stormed the gate and scaled the walls. Crowds were everywhere. A group of Moonies from Maryland even mingled peacefully in the horde.
 In the meantime, I left the whispering dignitaries and went downstairs into the crowded compound. The entire area, the size of four soccer fields, was teeming with people. Young activists clambered atop heaps of rubble and twisted rebar to get a better view. The mood was strangely expectant, even jubilant. The solemn recital of the Koran was drowned out by the cheering and chanting of the crowd. Among those assembled, I saw colleagues and friends from ten years past, and activists with whom I had worked in the first intifada, and earlier. One was Mohammed Dahlan, the so-called “strongman” of Gaza, who headed up much of Arafat’s security apparatus.
 A few minutes later, a column of dignitaries led by Abu Ala emerged from the building and walked toward the helicopter landing site. Mounted security guards trotted through the crowds, trying to carve a path between the helicopter landing site and the main hall where the official burial ceremony was supposed to take place. But as soon as the guards managed to push back the crowds, the space they’d cleared filled in again, more tightly packed than before.
 The helicopter finally appeared; it hovered over the crowd, unable to land. People now rushed forward, clambering on top of one another, trying to get close to the landing helicopter. Emotions began to spin out of control, and the incoherent screams turned into chants, like at a sporting match: “With our blood, with our souls, we are yours!” Lovingly they called Arafat “Abu Ammar,” or “Father of Ammar.” People didn’t seem to believe that their leader was dead. Maybe they expected him to pull off another of his daredevil stunts, like the time he crash-landed in the Sahara and walked away with barely a scratch. Perhaps they thought the Old Man could trick death itself.
 The people pushed harder and the chants grew louder, as did the din of crackling gunfire from rifles discharged skyward, and the shouted quotes from the Koran. One man, a member of the Central Committee of Fatah, Arafat’s faction of the PLO, fainted in front of me, having been deprived of air by the pressing crowd. Others fell to the ground, hit by falling bullets.
 The helicopter eventually managed to land. From a distance, I watched as people snatched Arafat’s coffin out of the cargo section. Carried by the outstretched hands of hundreds of mourners, it was pushed for a few feet in one direction only to be pulled back in another by people wanting to lay hands on it, like worshippers seeking a magic-working relic.
 I was now squeezed against a wall, and adding to my general sense of discomfort were the spent bullet casings and the pieces of masonry, dislodged by the weight of onlookers, raining down around me from the balconies above. Fearing the entire building would crumble, and having seen enough, I decided not to stick around for the funeral. I had done my duty and paid my respects.
 Slipping quietly out, I had my bodyguards drive me to the home of some friends in Ramallah, and watched the rest on television.
During the flight back to Boston my mind shifted between Arafat’s legacy and the future of Palestine on the one hand, and the book I was reading, Amos Oz’s masterpiece A Tale of Love and Darkness, on the other. It was then that I thought of a way to conclude my fairy tale.
 What now? I asked myself somewhere over the Mediterranean. For forty years Arafat had juggled various factions and interests and ideologies. Now that he was gone there was a sense of dread among many of the Palestinian leaders I had spoken to in Ramallah. With the father gone, would the children be at one another’s throats? Would Hamas and the other Islamic extremists take over? Would our nation come apart at the seams? I felt certain that the Palestinian nation wouldn’t degenerate into armed pandemonium, like post-Saddam Iraq. Arafat was not your run-of-the-mill Arab despot; he never took on the role of godlike Pharaoh. He may have brought together a shattered nation, but he hadn’t created it.
 It would be more accurate to say that the nation created Arafat than to say that Arafat created the nation. In particular, since the first intifada, in matters involving peace and national independence, Arafat and the PLO leadership had always lagged behind the people. Over the decades the Palestinian people had developed a will to live in peace with Israel, and the PLO leadership had to come to terms with that. It was our collective desire for the same freedom and dignity that other nations enjoyed that lured Arafat out of his underground lair and forced him to come to terms with Israel and the Jewish people.
 With that settled in my mind, my attention turned to A Tale of Love and Darkness. Over the years I’d gotten to know Amos Oz at peace rallies, demonstrations, and debates between Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals. We first met after Lucy and I visited him at his home in the Negev in 1978. His autobiography impressed me for the sheer beauty of his language, but what made it particularly poignant was his description of his childhood in the 1950s.
 Born the year Hitler invaded Poland, Oz was nine when the Jewish-Arab war began in 1947. His descriptions of a parallel city on the other side of the conflict startled me.
 As a boy, Oz sat on the floor of his parents’ small, dark apartment devising complex military strategies to defend the Jewish people. But in his boyhood imagination, animated by the buzz of fighter planes and bold forays across enemy lines, he knew nothing of the ancient cobbled lanes of the Old City, or of the Haram El-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where Mohammed had touched down with al-Burak. (Jews and Christians know it as the Temple Mount.) Nor could he have had an inkling of my mother’s pervasive sense of having been terribly wronged by the same Zionist movement to which Oz owed his life. In fact, there were hardly any Arabs in his story, and not a hint of the world I knew as a child. Russian and East European literature, yes, along with Jewish scholars and historians, and Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud—just not the foreboding creatures beyond the barbed wire of a divided city. Uppermost in the Jews’ minds were the Nazi death camps they had narrowly escaped.
 I was raised no more than a hundred feet away from where Oz lived out his childhood, just on the other side of the fortified “No Man’s Land” established in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli War.
 When I thought about the absence of Arabs in Oz’s childhood experiences, I had to think about my own upbringing. What had my parents known of his world? Did they know about the death camps? Weren’t both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other? Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the “other” at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
 I set the book down and let my thoughts wander—to my childhood, to my twenty-five years in politics, to all the carnage produced by senseless hatred, and finally to the Crusader knight I had abandoned in front of the Holy Sepulcher more than thirty-five years earlier, not knowing the secret that could release him. It suddenly occurred to me that I could conclude the fairy tale, and thus release the Crusader knight, only by taking the story originally conceived as a journey into the dream world of the past, and turning it into a journey into the dream world of the future. The secret I wasn’t able to come up with thirty-five years earlier now came to me in a bright flash. It was empathy and the simple work of human hands.
 I took out my laptop and began to type. My tale now had four central characters: Abdul, the son of the doorman who opens the door to the Holy Sepulcher; Louise, the little English girl; Amos, a Jewish boy; and a wizard who lives in the former home of a very wise Sufi sage near the Ecce Homo Arch.
 The secret to awaken the knight lies in the sweet smell of honeysuckle. A fortune-teller leads Louise first to Abdul, and then to Amos. The three march off to the Ecce Homo Arch to have an audience with the wizard, who reveals to them the secret. The three must work as one, tilling the soil until the flowers of the honeysuckle blossom and their liberating scent spreads out over the city.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David. Copyright © 2007 by Sari Nusseibeh. Published in April 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.