Book review: Raja Shehadeh – We could have been friends, my father and I – a Palestinian memoir

Raja Shehadeh (Sarah Lee - TG)

Rachel Aspden

The Guardian  /  August 6, 2022

A human rights lawyer charts the history of his country through his late father’s papers.

For those not forced to live them day to day, the realities of Israel’s occupation of Palestine can be conveniently repackaged with whatever euphemism fits the prevailing political mood, from “peace initiative” to “rising tensions”. For the past couple of years, the buzzword has been “normalization” – the aim of the US-brokered Abraham accords of 2020 by which a number of Arab states, led by the UAE, discarded their red line of independence for Palestine and established official relations with Israel. The Palestinians themselves were not invited to the talks, and the star US negotiator, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, described their 70-plus-year history of violent dispossession as “nothing more than a real-estate dispute”. The new tactic for dealing with the injustice at the heart of the region’s modern history was simply to act as if it didn’t exist.

The backdrop to this sudden reversal is a changing Middle East in which faith in the US is shrinking, hostility to Iran is growing and repressive Arab regimes now find they have more in common with the occupiers than the occupied. Normalization has not only opened up Dubai’s luxury hotels to Israeli influencers, but given Gulf autocrats access to preferential weapons deals, intelligence training from the Mossad and Shin Bet and Israel’s world-leading surveillance technology. Earlier this year, a New York Times investigation concluded that sales of the notorious Pegasus spyware – which a major media and NGO project revealed has been unlawfully used by states to target rights activists, journalists and political opponents – played an “unseen but critical role” in securing the 2020 deal. In the new regional status quo created by normalization, Joe Biden could last month fly the previously forbidden direct route from Israel to Saudi Arabia, after the most cursory and noncommittal of calls on the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

While Kushner was overseeing his self-proclaimed “historic breakthrough”, the Palestinian human rights lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh was sifting through the history it would prefer to erase. In 1985, Shehadeh’s father, Aziz, himself an eminent lawyer and activist, was murdered outside his home in Ramallah. He left behind an archive of meticulously catalogued files spanning his decades of legal struggle for the Palestinian people – and the personal calamities that began in 1948, when he was forced from his comfortable home and legal practice in Jaffa to become a refugee in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. When Shehadeh finally unpacked them during lockdown, they told a story in which the technology of repression may have been simpler, but the double-dealing and cynicism were the same. We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I weaves the archive into a powerful rebuttal of the current attempt to sever today’s situation in Palestine from its roots.

Over the past two decades, Shehadeh has become one of Palestine’s best-known writers. His 10 books tread and retread the geographical and emotional territory of his homeland from the changing vantage points of age and experience. They also grapple repeatedly with his complex and often difficult relationship with his driven, distant father, from whom he reluctantly inherited not just his vocation but the narratives of exile and oppression that came with it. At just 160 pages, his new memoir distils these sprawling themes into a personal and political struggle for justice. It’s a mark of Shehadeh’s brilliance that this latest revisiting is full of surprises: it’s even in tone, but jet-fuelled by implicit emotion; there’s no conventional suspense, but it is absolutely gripping.

I thought it was my father’s politics that distanced me from him. Now I am aware it was the politics within the family

It’s also a stinging corrective to the whitewashing of Britain’s imperial history and its repercussions. The biggest villains of Shehadeh’s account are what are called in Arabic the Ingleez – the colonizers who oversee the catastrophe of 1948 and provide the blueprint for all the repression that follows. Worst of all, for this lawyerly family, they are “propagators of false justice”: ready to twist and corrupt any legislation they haven’t previously rewritten in their own interests. The defining moment of Aziz’s career is the 1953 case in which he takes on Barclays Bank following an order from the Israeli government to freeze its Palestinian customers’ accounts, then transfer their assets to Israel. His improbable, hard-fought victory becomes a personal touchstone, a cipher for “years and years of accumulated rage” at the “arrogance, deception, deviousness and assumed superiority” of the former colonial power.

But his triumph is short-lived in the face of a parade of new oppressors and antagonists. There’s Jordan: at the time it seizes the West Bank in 1948, it is a brand-new state just emerging from British control and quick to use the brutal tactics it, like Israel, has inherited. As a result of Aziz’s advocacy, the Jordanian regime first exiles him to Lebanon, then throws him in the remote desert jail of Al Jafr (inevitably, built by the British – “It always came down to the Ingleez,” he muses, shackled, in the prison van), then strikes him off as a lawyer. There are the other Arab nations, happy to alternately trumpet public solidarity for the glorious cause of Palestine, and privately ensure its people remain disempowered and subservient. There is the ineffectual, compromised UN and the nightmarish double-bind its bureaucracy traps the Palestinians in: “As long as the refugees received aid from UNRWA they were not even recognized as refugees.”

And of course there is Israel, perpetually stalling over negotiations while using “brutal methods of torture, house demolitions and deportation” to incrementally create “facts on the ground”: the 3 or 4 million Israelis now living in 500 West Bank settlements with segregated roads, infrastructure and services. Closer to home, there’s the politically and ideologically fragmented Palestinian community, and the numerous opponents of Aziz’s pursuit of a separate state. Closest and most painfully of all, fault lines run through Shehadeh’s family too: he sides with his mother against his father’s inconvenient activism; he falls ill on an unhappy visit to see Aziz in exile in Beirut. “For a long time I thought it was father’s politics that distanced me from him,” he writes. “Now I am aware that a more important reason was the politics within the family.”

This isn’t a polemical book. Shehadeh’s writing is clear and pared-back; it wears its power lightly. But his masterly, remorseless selection and accumulation of detail builds an unanswerable case against Palestine’s historic and current oppressors. It also, finally, re-establishes the relationship that is the memoir’s emotional centre of gravity. “Now that I know how much we have in common, what I regret most of all is the fact that we could have been friends,” Shehadeh writes. The insight is a victory of sorts, however qualified and bittersweet. But there’s no resolution here – the book closes with him once again being blocked from accessing the Israeli police file into Aziz’s murder. And beyond its pages, the same old story continues: in May last year, the human rights NGO Al-Haq, co-founded by Shehadeh in 1979, submitted a file to the International Criminal Court detailing war crimes and crimes against humanity it said had been committed during that month’s Israeli attack on Gaza. In October, the NGO discovered that it had been targeted with Pegasus spyware. Shortly afterwards, the Israeli military designated al-Haq a “terrorist organization”, banning it in both Israel and its West Bank home.

We Could Have Been Friends My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir is published by Profile; London: Profile Books, 2022; 160 pages

Rachel Aspden – is a freelance writer and editor