Finding Peace in the Middle East, and Within Growing up in divided Jerusalem, Palestinian philosopher and peace activist Sari Nusseibeh eventually came to see Palestinians and Israelis not as enemies, but as natural allies. His new memoir dramatically details his displaced life, and how he became an insider in the struggle for peace.

Finding Peace in the Middle East, and Within

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

On this show in 2004, we interviewed the well-known Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz about his memoir "A Tale of Love and Darkness." Oz vividly recalled the night in November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition British-ruled Palestine into two states - one Jewish and one Arab.

(Soundbite of NPR archived interview recording)

Mr. AMOS OZ (Writer, "A Tale of Love and Darkness"): I remember the huge outburst of emotions. It was a burst of excitement, fear, hope, almost a messianic fervor. But then, five or six hours later, the fighting began between Israel Jews and Palestinian Arabs, the same fighting that has not ceased until this very day.

LYDEN: Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh was born shortly after the State of Israel. While reading artist memoirs several years ago, Nusseibeh decided to write his own political autobiography. The two men know each other through years of cooperation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace camp.

Like Oz, Nusseibeh is an activist, a public intellectual and a leading voice of moderation among his people. Though he was schooled at Oxford and Harvard, he was also educated in prison. Israel jailed him for three months in 1991, he believes, on account of his political activism.

Today, Nusseibeh is president of Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in Jerusalem. For a time, he was the PLO's chief representative in the city. Sari Nusseibeh has long-argued that Jews and Arabs are not enemies but natural allies, and it turns out, Nusseibeh grew up just 100 feet from the boyhood home of Amos Oz. But as children, they were worlds apart. As Sari Nusseibeh recalled in an interview this week - Jerusalem was physically divided in those days.

Mr. SARI NUSSEIBEH (President, Al-Quds University): From the back of our house, the garden looked on to something called no man's land, which was in itself a very strange phrase, you know, to call something no man's land. And if you're four, five years old, if you're beginning to learn language, and you are told this is called no man's land, it immediately creates in your mind images, shadows that live on with you. And I knew that across no man's land lived the enemy, Israel.

There was a wall, in fact, dividing the two cities further up. And they often -you know, I'd walk along that. There was a gate called the Jafa Gate. And you weren't allowed to come close to it. There is army that prevented you from coming anywhere close to it. It was always locked. And looking at it from a distance as you're walking as a kid, you'd think to yourself, well, this was the gate to the end of the world. You know, there's nothing on the other side.

LYDEN: Your family history is legendary and reaches back, you say, 1,300 years - one of the founding families of Palestinian nobility. And maybe you would tell…

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well…

LYDEN: Yes? You wouldn't agree with that description?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yeah. I mean, I think that this, as I say, my father always told me, it's really - a lot of Arab families basically boast about themselves and I imagine my family also boasts about itself and creates stories.

LYDEN: But your family does have the key, I understand - you write about this -to the Church Of The Holy Sepulcher where Christ is buried, or thought to be buried?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yes, we have the honor of opening. We are doorman. We open the door to the Holy Sepulcher and we close it. We open it in the early morning and we close it. And it's been with us, this particular job, for some time. We share the honor of being associated as modern families with the Holy Sepulcher. We share this honor with another family, another Muslim family, but it's an honor. It's something that I look upon personally as a great honor to be associated with this very holy place.

LYDEN: After your own father's death, you discovered a manuscript that he had written about the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Your father was a judge. He was lawyer. He did participate politically. He was involved in the Herod's Gate Committee, a team of Palestinians defending territory. He lost his leg. Tell us just a little bit about that.

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yeah. He was - well, as you just said, he was a lawyer. He became party - became involved in setting up a committee. He was a member of that committee in Jerusalem trying to find ways and means of defending Jerusalem as people felt the war was coming closer. He wasn't, you know, he wasn't a soldier. He had studied law at Cambridge in England. He had been to the bar in England. So it wasn't for a life that he had prepared himself for.

He played tennis. You know, he loved to play tennis. And so he wasn't really prepared for a fighter's life. But he ended up, in a sense, being involved in fighting and trying to bring arms in front(ph). And he lost his leg and he was shot also in several places, but he managed to go beyond that. And then after he came back from hospital, he was appointed to be the youngest member, actually, of what was called at the time the All-Palestine government. And as a lawyer, he was asked by the people that formed the government to try to write up a constitution. This, you must remember, was done at a time when Israel itself was created. So it was a kind of reaction. And he spent about two years in Cairo, working as an official in the All-Palestine Government. And finally, he decided it was all for nothing, and that he'd rather come back and live in Jerusalem at the time Jerusalem, or East Jerusalem, had come on to Jordanian rule.

LYDEN: I want to talk about the 1980s. When the first inter-Fatah broke out. You sought to harness the energy of it, and you said in your book that you wanted to keep it from becoming a blood bath. And you were part of this group of people who wrote leaflets - secret publications - that were published on the ninth of the month like clockwork. What were you trying to direct people to do with these?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, you know, the inter-Fatah that broke out back in the late '80s was like a volcano. It was a people's revolution. It was totally unplanned at the time. It was just an outburst of frustration, of - it was a cry of despair, if you like. And what we tried to do at the time - a few us - was to draw a strategy to harness the energy that was there, to try and lead us to a conclusion and we decided that the best thing to do is to try and harness it towards arriving at a solution with Israel, at a two-state(ph) solution with Israel.

LYDEN: What exactly, though, were these leaflets, which were much anticipated, which the Israelis were trying to hunt down the writers thereof? You've got scenes in book where you and your colleagues are writing them, they're being -you're being talked to by the Israeli authorities.

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yeah.

LYDEN: Stripped searched in one case. They're being printed out in the house next door. What was it (unintelligible)?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, it is amazing. You know, I mean, it was, basically, a month-by-month program of action - a strategy by which we hope we would disengage ourselves from the Israeli administrative tentacles. For instance, the first month we would ask people who are working in the police force to resign. The following month, we would ask people working in the tax department to resign. In one, for instance, month, we would ask people to stop paying taxes, and so on and so forth.

LYDEN: You are, today, a university president, and you have, in many ways, been one of the biggest powers in the Palestinian brain thrust. When you taught, whether it was at Birzeit University or later at Al-Qud University, I'd like to talk about how you applied what you knew - a philosophy - to students many of whom had come from prison, others who haven't had wide educations, a lot of extremist and fanatical thinking, how did you use philosophy to challenge that?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, the first thing that happened when I started teaching was that I realized immediately that I had to listen, and I had to learn. My main concern was, you know, the idea of freedom - whether it was religious freedom, sexual freedom, political freedom, freedom from occupation, academic freedom, freedom of thought of opinion. The idea of freedom was primary and the - it was primary because we were under occupation. And it was this that I tried to develop in my sons and in my students.

LYDEN: So, what we're teaching them about freedom? A lot of them had been in prison, had been submitted interrogations. It was almost a rite of political maturation to go through prison. You yourself would go later.

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, you know, the thing is that - so, you normally think that if you go to jail or if you'll sitting inside a cell, or if you're being interrogated by an interrogator, that you are the underdog, that you are in chains, that the chains are placed on you by the other party. But, you know, as I came to understand talking people, people who had been through this experience, they very often felt free in many ways much more than, for example, the interrogator, simply because they believed in what they were doing.

So, in a sense, in a very peculiar way, the interrogator and the prisoner are having a contest of wills. And, in fact, the person that was in power, very often was the person who was being interrogated simply and so far as they maintain mastery over themselves.

LYDEN: Quoting from your own book here, you write, "the question of national freedom is similar to that of identity. The interrogator offers freedom from pain at the price of inner servitude. By contrast, the prisoner does not receive inner freedom from his master. He seizes it without asking permission. Palestinians need to seize sovereignty."

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Well, exactly. It's not something that comes to you as an offer or as a present from any party. I've told people not to expect sovereignty to be sent to us, for instance, from the United Nations on a silver plate, that we have to seize it. It's something that you exercise, and you exercise it even in jail, you exercise it even under occupation. And insofar as you can exercise it whether in jail or under occupation, I think you can actually achieve it, objectively in the world around you.

LYDEN: Would you say that Palestinian leadership has failed to seize its sovereignty?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Yes, well, I think we've certainly been, you know, we've been taken away from the past of seizing our sovereignty. I think it's a great pity. I say this with a great sense of pain that we didn't really, we didn't dream 10, 15 years ago, that, you know, this is where we are going to end up being. We, I think, failed ourselves. We failed our own people so far. We fought for human values. We fought to be free. We fought to have dignified lives. We fought to be human beings that have respect, but we haven't as, you know, as soon we've established our own government, we haven't, in fact, governed ourselves in ways that provide those values to our people.

And so in this respect at least, I think we failed, and I think that we can still do it but we have to recognize our failure.

LYDEN: You called this book "Once Upon A Country," and it refers to the fairy tale that you created to blend those three great religious traditions in Jerusalem. Has the future that you dreamed of for Palestine, has that entered into the realm of myth and fairy tale?

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: You know, it's - I'll be frank, I feel a little bit depressed at the moment. However, I don't, you know, even as I feel depressed that we haven't achieved what we've set out to achieve. Nonetheless, you know, the element, the positive side is that I feel that this is a passing feeling. I feel that it's not a permanent feeling. And that's a positive sign, I think, that, you know, we still have hope. And I think, you know, what was once a country can, you know, become another country, become a country. It just needs work.

LYDEN: Well, thank you very, very much for being here with us today.

Mr. NUSSEIBEH: Thank you.

LYDEN: Sari Nusseibeh's new memoir is "Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life." To read an excerpt, visit our Web site, npr.org.

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