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Book Review: “All About My Father: Growing Up is Even Harderin the West Bank”

For Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh, life in his native Ramallah goes on. But it is, as he explains from the outset, nothing like it could have turned out had there been no “Strangers in the House”.

STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine

by Raja Shehadeh Steerforth Press Dollars 25, 240 pages

For Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh, life in his native Ramallah goes on.  But it is, as he explains from the outset, nothing like it could have turned out had there been no “Strangers in the House”.

On April 22, 1948, when the port city of Haifa fell to Jewish forces, it became clear to Raja’s parents that Jaffa, the seaside town where they lived and his father worked as a lawyer, would fall next. In a hurry, they left empty-handed for Ramallah in the West Bank, where Raja’s maternal grandmother owned a summer house. Their hope that they would soon return home was quickly dashed when, on May 14, three weeks after Raja’s parents left Jaffa, “the bride of the sea”, as it was known, was handed over to the Jews as part of a newly created Israeli state. Raja, the eldest, born three years later in the Ramallah house, would grow up with the “nagging feeling of being in the wrong place”, all the time reminded by his family that a better life had been left behind in Jaffa.  Bearing the subtitle “Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine”, this book acts as both a heartfelt memoir and a coherent account of why, while new Jewish settlements continue to encroach on existing Palestinian ones, there can be  no lasting peace in the Middle East. Raja’s story is underpinned by his relationship with his father, Aziz, a man of Shakespearean complexity whose example of political activism acts as both anathema and spur to his eldest son.

It is only when Aziz is tragically murdered that Raja finally learns to live life with what he calls “No rush.  No goal.  No glory,” and in so doing becomes his own man.  In one of the book’s most poignant episodes, the son remembers standing by the sink as a young man watching his father shave: “It never occurred to me that my friends did not wait for their father’s consent before they bought themselves shavers.” While this is a book with huge sensory impact, possibly Shehadeh’s greatest gift as a writer is his almost forensic ability to experience vicariously and > then write about other people’s lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in his dissection of the events leading up to and beyond his father’s murder.

He writes with chilling precision: “Evil thrust his knife into his flesh and made a deep cut through his neck and then swept up the knife and dropped him to the ground.”

The hunt for this evil comprises the last portion of the book. Up until this point, there is no faulting Shehadeh’s objectivity as a guide, but seeking out one’s father’s murderer must be a desperate business. Shehadeh roundly criticises the Israeli police for failing to do their duty in catching his father’s killer; however, his claim that the same police are willfully protecting the murderer, a useful informant, is not a waterproof one and must be viewed accordingly. It is to be hoped that Shehadeh, who in 1976 became the first western- educated lawyer to return to the West Bank since 1948, will have his day in court.  Then, perhaps, his suspicions will be vindicated.

Until that time he is a more valuable guide when he describes the daily grind that the Israeli occupation engenders.  (The “small, daily, persistent harassments and obstructions . . . were constant, part of a policy to make the life of Palestinians so difficult that it would seem better to leave than to stay.”)  Or when he is far-sighted enough to recognize the Palestinians’ own lack of institutionalized progress. In one revealing encounter he talks about the 17-year-old Jewish son of one of his father’s friends, who is engaged in pre-army training: “I was sure it was much easier for Avi.

After he finished school he would join the army, become a soldier, a member of an army unit,” Shehadeh writes.  “There was a clear, recognized structure to his life – all he had to do was follow the track.  But I had no track to follow.”  Shehadeh’s words sound alarmingly familiar: it was after all this very lack of structure that so many have blamed on the turn of events which led 19 young Arab men to kill themselves and thousands of others in such a calculated fashion.  It must be stressed that Strangers was written prior to last year’s tragic events, and that most educated Palestinians have openly criticized Osama bin Laden and his terror tactics. It is clear, however, that the present intifada, which Shehadeh supports, is the manifestation of a heightened desperation – which, he says, is born out of the Jewish settlement programme begun in September 1968, when the Israeli government approved Kiryat Arba, the first Jewish enclave to be established in the West Bank. As long as “our towns and villages continue to be squeezed by ever expanding Israeli settlements planned to further disrupt the contiguity of our land,” Shehadeh writes, “the prospects of a negotiated final settlement appear more distant than ever.”  It is why – unlike many educated Palestinians who have moved to the US and Europe – Shehadeh chooses to remain in Ramallah, because he knows that if he goes then he, like them, will have stopped believing that there will ever be an in-dependent state of Palestine.

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-2002



2016-10-24T07:35:23+00:00 February 21st, 2002|Categories: News|