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Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
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A Palestinian Life

A-Once Upon a CountrySari Nusseibeh traces his family tree in Jerusalem back some 1,300 years to an ancestor entrusted with the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Such deep roots, however, hardly imply a parochial worldview. This former confidante of Yassir Arafat, Oxford- and Harvard-educated philosopher, admirer of Israeli writer (and boyhood neighbor) Amos Oz, former PLO representative, and president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem examines the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the internal struggles among his own people. Nusseibeh passionately protects his heritage while simultaneously understanding the necessity of resolution. His stance is unpopular even with many Palestinians: a "two-state solution" whose success, Nusseibeh understands too well, could be undermined at any point by politics, religion, and terrorism.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 560 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0374299501

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[F]ascinating and deeply intelligent. … Refreshing self-deprecation—rare in Arab public writing—runs throughout this memoir, one of the best personal accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever written." Ethan Bronner

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Nusseibeh’s book is written out of a refreshingly candid awareness that the reasons for the persistence of the Palestinians in their stateless misery are multiple and complicated. … [His] formidable achievement—his articulation of a liberal nationalism, his championship of nonviolence in the midst of savagery, his humane understanding of an inhumane predicament—leaves a drop of despair, because of how exceptional it is." Leon Wieseltier

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Once Upon a Country is a big-hearted, admirable and exceptionally interesting account of Nusseibeh’s struggle for an equitable peace in a conflict in which compromise is often interpreted as treason. This is a rare book, one written by a partisan in the struggle over Palestine who nevertheless recognizes—and bravely records—the moral and political failures of his own people." Jeffrey Goldberg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Nusseibeh’s eloquent and compassionate book no doubt will stir yet another round of polemics; his actions usually do. … Once Upon a Country is a magnificent study of hope under siege." Robert Malley

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Nusseibeh has a cause to promote, and he’s skillful at shaping his life story to that end. But it’s a story worth hearing, and this complicated man—shrewd idealist, pragmatic dreamer, peaceful warrior—is very much worth knowing." Charles Matthews

Critical Summary

Sari Nusseibeh is the ultimate insider, and he draws on that vast experience to shed light on the prospects for peace in the Middle East. He patiently examines complex issues and offers enough nuances to please readers who want to understand the ongoing conflict on a deeper level. The author’s relatively evenhanded stance (despite a less-than-flattering portrayal of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as some contested historical details) distinguishes Once Upon a Country from other, more agenda-driven efforts, as does its call for nonviolent resolution and compromise. Nusseibeh, echoing Voltaire’s notion that "the wisest course of action is surely to tend to your own garden," casts a critical eye on both sides. The result is "a deeply admirable book by a deeply admirable man" (New York Times Book Review).