An elder statesman
The Palestinian philosopher, key to the first intifada, has evolved. By Daniella Peled
THERE IS an unexpected air of detachment running through much of Palestinian philosopher and activist Sari Nusseibeh’s new memoir. One can imagine him, a scruffy and bemused academic with a slight smile on his face, observing key moments of his people’s narrative, from a Jerusalem childhood to his time as one of the organisers of the first intifada and as a security prisoner.
Perhaps it is this detachment that has allowed him to keep so fundamentally moderate through decades deeply involved in the bitter twists and turns of the Arab-Palestinian conflict. “Maybe because, right from the beginning, I was very introverted, self-centred,” he says, sipping coffee into which he appears to have poured the contents of at least a dozen sugar sachets.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nusseibeh’s political stance was not forged from the hardships of the violent struggle. Born in Damascus in 1949 into one of Jerusalem’s oldest dynasties (his family are the traditional guardians of the key of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), he had a privileged upbringing which included an education at Rugby, Oxford, and Harvard.
But from the boyhood days when he peered across no-man’s-land to catch glimpses of the inhabitants of a place only ever referred to as “the Zionist Entity”, to his current vocal opposition to an academic boycott of Israel, Nusseibeh has always sought his own, equitable path: “In a sense, I was more interested in pursuing my own personal thoughts and questions than interested in pursuing those happening outside,” he says. “I only got involved in nationalist issues because of issues which touched my individual life.”
Indeed, his early stance was that nationalist projects failed to make much sense. At first, he was an avid supporter of a one-state solution. Only later, he says, did he realise that two states for two peoples was “the only way we can eventually achieve basic values important in the life of an individual”.
Nusseibeh — currently president of Jerusalem’s al-Quds university — is not uncritical of his own people’s mistakes. “Today, we are very disappointed with ourselves,” he says, gently clicking his ever-present string of worry-beads. “We have not succeeded in the past 10 or 15 years in creating a government, or managing to address our primary concerns of dignity, self-respect, equal worth — all of primary concern for the life of an individual. I’ve never called myself a nationalist in an ideological sense. I don’t call for the state because it in itself is something fantastic. It is a means to an end.”
This idiosyncratic approach has made him as many enemies as friends. During the first intifada, Israel claimed he was acting as a conduit for PLO money, closed down the news service he was running, and banned his weekly newsletter. During the first Gulf War, he spent time in an Israeli jail after being accused of acting as an Iraqi agent, although he was released without charge after 90 days.
His own side has also accused him of being a collaborator, for meeting Israelis when dialogue was considered traitorous (not to mention teaching classes at Hebrew University), for accepting that compromise had to be reached over the refugees’ right to return, and most recently for vigorously opposing the academic boycott.
“I am still under a lot of attack for this, but one has to be consistent,” he says. “It’s an extreme paradox that, out of all the relationships, the one that comes under attack from Palestinians is the only one where we stand to benefit, and not as clients.”
He remains committed to the justice of his cause. Not so much out of optimism, he says, but out of conviction of “our ability to make things better”. The present Hamas-Fatah stand-off will be resolved, he maintains. “They will make themselves right again and stabilise.”
And his vision of the future Palestine? “First of all, we have to have a state. Secondly, we have to have excellent management, in a sense. We have to run our affairs of state in a way that would make our neighbours in Israel jealous and our neighbours in the Arab world jealous — and make them look for our assistance.” Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life, by Sari Nusseibeh (with Anthony David) is published by Halban Publishing (£20)
Sari Nusseibeh: “We need to make our neighbours in Israel jealous”