A Palestinian Memoir
Profile Books, £14.99, 152pp
Review by Tim Llewellyn
This is a slight book physically, but boiling with emotion recollected in less than tranquillity, a son’s difficult voyage in time to try to connect with, understand, explain and love his father. To what extent he succeeds in this harrowing mission must be left to the author and the reader. But on that journey, Raja Shehadeh, in his ninth book about the dispossession of the Palestinian people, and the varying types of struggle against their oppressors, also gives an account that draws us from the oppressive bullying and betrayal of the British Mandate, through the Nakba of 1948, the indignities and exploitation of Jordanian annexation, to the 1967 war and the subsequent and unending Israeli Occupation.
It proves to be a litany of the different phases of the Palestinian fight for self-determination, the methods of resistance Aziz Shehadeh used as a leading lawyer, from the 1930s to the 1980s, how friends and enemies betrayed or opposed him, a story as his son, also a barrister, tells it that cycles through the phases of time and circumstances so irrevocably that we keep returning full circle.
Aziz Shehadeh was undoubtedly a brave fighter, from the beginning, taking risks with the various rulers of Palestine and even Palestinian opponents that saw him debarred, detained, jailed and exiled. Many of his own Palestinian family, friends and associates wished he would try to fit in with the various powers.
Perhaps, Raja thinks, it was his mother’s and subsequently his own failure to accept the heroism of Aziz, even to resent it and guard against it by retreating from it, that created the alienation that still torments him. Eternalizing this dilemma, Aziz was murdered in 1985 by a resentful loser in a civil court case about squatting, when Raja was still in his early thirties, beginning to make his way as a lawyer and Palestinian civil rights campaigner. This tragedy was used, by Israel and Jordanians, as a political tool to discredit the activist and Palestinian nationalist: the Israelis will not release details of what they know about the killing, nearly 40 years on.
The question of whether, as Raja reached middle age and learned more and Aziz also mellowed into his late 70s and even 80s, they could have shared their experiences and their love hangs heavily over the book.
In We Could Have been Friends… two books are intertwined, the first personal, the second being an examination of the father’s resistance against all outside masters. These stories are a revelation to those of us who study Britain’s seminal role in the fate of the Palestinians.
What will be I think news to many of those interested but not immersed in the Mandate period’s conspiracy and betrayal is one of Aziz Shehadeh’s great successes after 1948, a vital legal case that his son would have wished to revisit with him in later years.
In February, 1948, three months before Britain had scheduled its departure from Palestine, abandoning the Mandate to a controversial United Nations partition plan, the Treasury announced that it would “exclude Palestine from the sterling area…”. This meant that from May 15, 1948, the date of Israel’s creation, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were fleeing their homeland, their currency, the Palestinian Pound savings many had in banks or even carried with them in their flight, was no longer legal tender.
Those who had not managed to exchange their pounds for gold or other convertible currencies in the chaotic months between February and May 15 found themselves abandoned in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan unable to change their Palestinian pounds. Britain washed its hands of the problem, as it had Palestine; Israel froze all Arab accounts inside Israel and proceeded to effectively steal the moneys to spend as the new government and its agencies saw fit, for the benefit of their Jewish citizens. In one case, Palestinian savings were deployed by Israeli firms to irrigate the orange groves they had stolen from the Palestinians of Jaffa.
Aziz eventually won against all odds a legal case against Barclays Bank, on appeal, in a courthouse in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem, for the return of a Palestinian customer’s money, creating a precedent for other account-holders. It is one of the most compelling stories in the book. Raja Shehadeh describes how his father would have seen the bank’s towering, beetle-browed English Establishment barrister Hartley Shawcross, a representative of those “overbearing Ingleez, propagators of false justice…”
It did Aziz no good in the eyes of the Jordanian rulers, who ran the West Bank and East Jerusalem very much to the advantage of Amman and the East Bank., and who had colluded with the British to split Palestine between Israeli rule and Jordanian annexation. Aziz was seen by the Hashemites as a political threat. Soon after the case he was banished for many years, then, after his return, jailed. The very jail he was in and the system of administrative detention the Jordanian Government used to exile and confine him were inherited from British Mandatory times.
Father and son joined Palestinians generally in resenting the power in Jordan (until 1956) of General Sir John Glubb, Glubb Pasha, who led the Arab Legion against the Jews in 1948, so far and no further, to ensure Palestine was carefully split between King Abdullah’s Jordan and Israel, with Britain as co-ordinator. Glubb Pasha was a revered figure in England. I remember his return here in 1956, after the young King Hussein sacked his old Colonial wazir. He came to my school as a newly appointed governor and we Sixth-formers cheered him as a conquering hero, dishonoured by ungrateful, treacherous Arabs (so we were told). To the likes of Aziz, Glubb was a bully, a political intriguer on the Old Colonial Masters’ behalf, a commander of Bedouin soldiers from Jordan’s East Bank who were happy to brutalize Palestinians if ordered, as they regularly were.
Another of Aziz’s great legal achievements also went against the Jordanian political grain. After the assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan (he of the collusion with Israel) as he entered al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, in July, 1951, Aziz successfully defended three men accused of the crime. As his son puts it, ‘in the process he cemented the regime’s unwavering hostility.’ Raja’s mother, Widad, said this courthouse triumph had earned him a nuqta sawda (a black spot) in the eyes of the Hashemites. Raja Shehadi writes: “Being a literal child, I used to wonder about that black spot and how large it was. Now I think it was so black and large that it blotted my father from view and for a while stood in the way of my getting to know and love him.”
The period covered in this book and the battles that Raja’s father and he fought at different times and in different ways show how the imperatives of this impasse have both changed and yet stayed the same. Aziz believed after 1948 despite intense opposition and threats–variously from Jordan and Palestinian political forces–in the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Jordan wanted to control the West Bank and East Jerusalem, at primary benefit to Jordan. He also fought for the rights, sustenance and independence of the Palestinian refugees, outside state or any outside control. This was anathema to the Arab states and to the Palestine Liberation Organization until after his death. As political shapes shifted, some Arab states and the PLO accepted the formula of a separate Palestinian State (the PLO officially in 1993 under the Oslo Accords) effectively abandoning the centrality of the refugees and their right of return. Now, the two-state solution has been killed as a practical outcome by Israel’s occupation and divisions of the West Bank and the isolation of Arab Jerusalem. Confusion reigns among the Palestinians and those who seek a solution.
Aziz Shehadeh survived as a brave and outspoken opponent of Britain’s repressive Defence Emergency Regulations in the Thirties and Forties, Jordan’s rule and then Israel’s occupation, both states enforcing those same inherited British laws. He was 73 when he was murdered. His son thinks his anger at the unpopularity of his father’s politics put a barrier between them. But “the main reason why the love between us remained unacknowledged was me.”
After an imagined conversation with his father, in which Aziz stresses that peace with their enemies is the only way Palestinians can find victory, Raja finishes: “I can almost hear my father asking, ‘Are you listening now?’ To which I answer, ‘Yes, now I am.’ “
Another question remains: Is Israel listening? Is anyone listening? And what are the British and their allies in Europe and the US doing to force Israel to listen?
Tim Llewellyn is a member of the Balfour Project Executive Committee and a former BBC Middle East Correspondent. The views expressed in this review are his own.