Otherwise Occupied Travels With an Uncle

Raja Shehadeh: An attempt to revive landscape, names and social contacts.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

On the plane on my way back from Istanbul, an acquaintance surprised me when he asked, in the midst of our chat, "And do you have a second passport?" The question, he explained, was the result of our shared fear of a deterioration in the political situation whose outcome is difficult to imagine.

Raja Shehadeh.Credit: Osama Silwadi

A few days earlier, a Jewish Turkish acquaintance had told me that Spain was offering descendants of the Jews who were expelled from that country in the 15th century to submit requests for citizenship. You too can do so, she explained. Just go to Sarajevo (where my mother was born ) and all you have to do is to bring a certificate from the Jewish community there confirming that your family was expelled after 1492. There are Jews in Turkey who have already begun the process, she said. They are afraid of a combination of growing Turkish nationalism, that often comes under the guise of religious fervor and that is supported by a sense of religious exclusiveness.

Meanwhile in Ramallah, on the day of my return, the writer and attorney Raja Shehadeh launched his new book, "A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle". His great uncle from his mother's side, Najib Nassar, a resident of Haifa, fled from the Ottoman police. He was facing a death sentence for refusing to serve in the army in World War I. The land in which he wandered did not know the borders of today and certainly not the barbed wire fences that today delineate the cages in which Palestinians must live. It's a ghetto mentality that produced these fences and movement restrictions, Shehadeh remarked.

He follows in the footsteps of his uncle, from the edges of Asia Minor along the mountains of Lebanon, through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, both sides of the Jordan River - which his uncle could cross on horseback without a passport or rubber stamps and without circumnavigating enclosed areas for firing and military exercises. In the book, he tries to revive not only the landscape and names that have been erased from Israeli maps but also the human interactions and social contacts that were lost.

"There are many points of similarity between Turkey and Israel," Shehadeh said at the book's launch: modernism, a language that is relatively new and was designed to fit the needs of a new state, militarism, extreme nationalism. "Take Route 90, for example, that runs through the Jordan Valley," he said. "The Israelis found no other name to give it other than "the Gandhi route," named after Rehavam Zeevi who preached transfer [of the Arabs]. If you miss the first sign post with the road's name, you will see another and another and another. This pettiness is strange on the part of a state that is as powerful as Israel." He added: "I had some prejudice about the Ottoman Empire but while I was working on the book, I learned that the problems began after World War I. Before that, it was one region, and that's what it should return to be."

The launch was initiated by the East Jerusalem Educational Bookshop, located on Salah a-Din St. It took place at the Friends' Meeting House in Ramallah, the center of the Quaker movement which began in 1869 its educational and health activities in the region when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Palestinians in the audience, most of whom were elderly, could not travel the 12 kilometers from the stone house near Al-Manara Square in Ramallah to Jerusalem, where another book launch took place two days later. For the great majority of Palestinians, Jerusalem is as distant and as near as the moon. Haven't we mentioned, already, the barbed fences, the bureaucracy of travel permits and the freedom of movement for Jews alone?

The shop's owners, the six Muna brothers from Jerusalem, attempt to erase fences and to encourage a culture of reading and debate in their community. The second book launch last week was held in cooperation with the French Cultural Center in East Jerusalem. The event was hosted by the French Biblical and Archaeological School which was established in 1890. The book is composed mainly of lectures delivered in the past 30 years by the mythological Palestinian ambassador Afif Safieh (who headed the PLO's mission in London, Washington and Moscow until his call for reconciliation with Hamas lost him his job in the Russian capital ).

His book, "The Peace Process - from Breakthrough to Breakdown" traces the PLO's political route from its proposal of a bi-national state to the point that Safieh, who was born in Palestinian West Jerusalem, is saying: "Besides my doubts about the feasibility of this proposal (one state ), I have serious reservations about its desirability. A fanaticized Israeli Jewish community is hardly a partner one would seek with relish as co-citizens. The disparity between both societies...makes the one state formula a mechanism for the perpetuation of the domination of one community by the other.

Safiah's remarks at the event, like the lectures documented in the book, are peppered with witticisms and insights: "The Oslo process put Norway on the map, not Palestine," and "Faisal Husseini said about the armed struggle: 'If you want to defy (Mike ) Tyson, don't invite him to a boxing ring but to the chess board.'"

A-propos the chess board: Two proposals he had made were adopted by Fatah's revolutionary council. The first was to hold an international scientific conference to discuss historic examples of relocating capitals from Bonn to Berlin, from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia and from Istanbul to Ankara in preparation for moving the Palestinian capital from Ramallah to East Jerusalem. The second conference he has proposed would be by and about the Palestinian Jerusalemite Diaspora and would be held in East Jerusalem.

Can Fatah then play chess? He was asked. That is, can it stop being the stateless nomenclature it has turned to? And Safieh replied: "Our public should be more demanding. I always encourage the Palestinians to be more critical. And I have always said: We Palestinians do not have the leadership that we deserve and the opposition that we need."



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