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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #42 (October 14-21,
2003), page 16.
"We would be walking home in the evening and she would stop me on the top of the hill before going down the street leading to our house. ‘Look,’ she would say. ‘Look at the lights on the horizon.’ And she would stand in reverent silence. I stood next to her, holding her soft hand … hostage to the memories, perceptions, and attitudes of others that I could not abandon."
-- Raja Shehadah, on his evening walks with his grandmother
Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine
By Raja Shehadah
Penguin Books, 2003
Paperback, 238 pages, $14.00
Includes Palestine chronology, maps, historical and family photos
Raja Shehadah, author of Strangers in the House, is the first son of murdered Palestinian activist-lawyer Aziz Shehadah. The elder Mr. Shehadah’s killing, inside Israeli-occupied Palestine in 1985, remains an unresolved sorrow for his family and an unsolved crime against the Palestinian people.
In this first English-language memoir written by a Ramallah Palestinian, pioneering human-rights lawyer Raja Shehadah tries his hand at setting down, first-hand, a history of the Palestinian struggle for legitimacy.
The author was born three years after Nakbeh, the 1948 "Catastrophe" — the erasure of old Palestine by the newly declared state of Israel. Mr. Shehadah grew up on the notion that his family’s forced removal by the Israeli Army from their ancestral Jaffa home was only temporary. He was nurtured by his elders’ dream that return to their seaside lands was inevitable, that the demands of neighboring Arab nations, and of the obviousness of justice, would make their deliverance only a matter of months.
Months, of course, became years — years turned to decades.
Mr. Shehadah’s persistent dream was forged by his father’s stubborn idealism. No reality on the ground seemed to derail the elder Shehadah. Not repeated Israeli victories over Arab military challenges, not regular police intrusions taking him away in the middle of the night, stalled the single-mindedness of his vision of their return to wrongfully occupied Palestinian homelands.
"I had been brought up to think of my father as a respectable lawyer, not a prisoner who grew a thick beard because he was not allowed to shave … I didn’t know how to understand what was happening, and no one tried to explain it to me."
Not until the elder lawyer Shehadeh’s happenstance visit to his distant Jaffa, some 20 years after their family’s mythic exile, did the old dream turn cold, and a new idea emerge. "It was at that point that my father … realized that the glittering lights to which his eyes had been riveted all those years were not the lights of Jaffa but those of (the bourgeoning Israeli metropolis of) Tel Aviv. For as the sunset, Jaffa lapsed into slumber and darkness. It was Tel Aviv that glowed with the glitter of night-lights." While Palestians stalled, dreaming their hazy past, Israelis were furiously building a gleaming new reality.
In 1967, author Raja Shehadeh’s father generated the original and controversial "Two-State Solution" that has since become the mainstream strategy adopted by the international community. Thirty years ago, the man and the idea were declared traitorous by leading Arab nationalists. He was largely ignored by Israeli policy leaders.
Although Israeli occupation forces never established the motive for Azziz Shehadeh’s murder, popular Palestinian opinion has it that he died for this unpopular belief of acknowledging each state’s right to exist, side by side.
The next 30 years of the younger Mr. Shehadah’s life were therefore characterized by his personal and political separation from prevailing Arab militancy, and by his commitment to the rule of law no matter the ultimate root of its legitimacy — vanquished Palestinian or victorious Israeli juridical systems.
In the same way his father’s fateful journey in time, back to his beloved Jaffa, freed him from his impotent idealism, Mr. Shehadah says "the writing of (this) book liberated me from that bondage."
Raja Shehadah founded the non-partisan human-rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate organization of the prestigious International Commission of Jurists.
For a number of years, the author participated as a legal advisor to the Palestinian delegation negotiating efforts to reach an accord with Israel. Raja Shehadeh has since withdrawn from politics and human rights, finding no redeeming vision among political leaders on either side. He now writes on human rights, international law, and Middle East affairs from his home on the West Bank of River Jordan. Still not Palestine.