Image credit: We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I by Raja Shehadeh (Other Press, 2022)
For a long time I thought it was father’s politics that distanced me from him. Now I am aware that a more important reason was the politics within the family; the struggle between my parents over me was responsible for the rift, rather than the politics of the world outside the house.
Until his marriage my father had led a rollicking life. Afterwards he felt it was time he settled down and started a family. He was now the envy of everyone – he had it all: a beautiful wife, a successful law practice, a well-furnished house. And soon they had a daughter, intelligent, attractive and so charming, whom they called Siham, which means “arrows,” in reference to her large piercing eyes.
When the 1948 war began, my father feared that chaos would ensue in Jaffa. He felt that in Ramallah his family would remain out of harm’s way. They would stay there until things quietened down. Then in 1949 more of his world began to crumble, with one crisis following another. His uncle Salim died in Beirut, but he wished to be buried in Ramallah. With their limited resources they had to charter a private plane to transport his body back to Ramallah for burial. Throughout these turbulent times, Aziz felt he was being tossed about in a raging sea. Yet he would not be brought down. He was a good swimmer and felt able to deal with every calamity and swim to shore.
For the rest of his life the pattern recurred: he would put himself at the service of a cause, give it what he could, then, when he could see it was of no apparent use, he would go back to his practice and attempt to lead a more settled life.
In 1936, during his first year as a lawyer, he wrote the A.B.C. of the Arab Case in Palestine. The title is so modest. The booklet is described as “an exposition of the Arab case in concise and readable form, which, it is hoped will be a step towards a deeper and more widespread interest in the Arab side of the question.” It was written in English, for an English-speaking audience, perhaps primarily with the British in mind. He didn’t need to explain the case to the Palestinians, who, he believed, understood their own situation perfectly well. My father never showed me this booklet. Nonetheless, it was the precursor to similar ones that I would write years later with the same objective, except that in my case it was to help the world better understand the nature of the Israeli occupation of the rest of Palestine.
I don’t remember seeing this booklet in my father’s library at home. But in 2019, when I was having dinner at the Snowbar cafe with Mahmoud Hawari, an archaeologist who had just completed his term as the director of the Palestinian Museum, and his wife, Helen, Mahmoud said he had a present for me and produced a copy from a brown paper bag. The last time I had seen this booklet was not at our house but at my grandmother’s, on her small bookshelf in the hall. I remember opening it and being surprised to find my father’s name there, but I don’t remember reading it. Nor did my father ever mention it to me, even after I started writing myself. It was not among the papers he left which I stacked in the cabinet in my office. Mahmoud had come upon it in a secondhand bookshop opposite the British Museum in London, where he was working. Years later he found it among his books and papers as he was packing to leave Ramallah and move to Cyprus, and he thought I would like to have it. I was of course very grateful. When I got home I immediately read it. It revealed how well my father understood, as early as 1936, what Zionism was all about.
In the chapter on the Palestine administration my father wrote:
“The Palestine Government is serving five masters. It tries to please all at the same time: the Arabs, the Jews, the Colonial Office, the Permanent Mandate’s Commission and the questioning members of the British House of Parliament. It is thus one of the most perplexed governments in the world. It has no heart or will of its own … Normally it is supposed to follow the dictates of the Colonial Office, but it easily becomes swayed by questions which are asked in the House of Commons by Jewish members or sympathizers, finally coming up against what the Permanent Mandate’s Commission may approve or disapprove.”
As I read this I thought of the striking similarities with the present situation in Palestine as regards Britain.
But foreseeing events and living the reality once it strikes are two different matters. When they left Jaffa in April 1948 without their winter clothes my parents could not have imagined that their exile would last through the winter. The weather that winter mirrored their growing despair. It was especially cold and a severe storm brought snow that covered the city and its hills and the tents that had been laid out there with a white layer of ice.
My father still resisted thinking about what he would lose if the return to Jaffa did not happen. He could have worried about losing his law office, with all his books and case files; their newly furnished beautiful apartment, with all his wife’s well-tailored clothes and all his suits, not to mention the plot of land that he had bought south of Jaffa near the present Israeli city of Beit Yam, where he planned to build their grandiose future home. What he couldn’t have realized then was that he was also losing his country.
Excerpted from We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I by Raja Shehadeh. Copyright © 2022 Raja Shehadeh. Published by Other Press.
Raja Shehadeh is the founder of the pioneering Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq and the author of several acclaimed books, including Strangers in the House, Occupation Diaries, and Palestinian Walks.