Father and son

Steve France

Mondoweiss  /  July 31, 2023

Raja Shehadeh’s new memoir tells of his father, himself, and the cost of resistance.

A Palestinian Memoir

by Raja Shehadeh
160 pp. Other Press $22.99

Raja Shehadeh’s memoir, Strangers in the House, was rightly acclaimed when it came out in 2002, and is still widely read. So why has Shehadeh written another memoir in which the focal point remains his frustrating relationship with his father, Aziz, a prominent Palestinian lawyer and political dissident, who was murdered in 1985?

The answer lies in Shehadeh’s encounter with two objects.

First, a few years ago, a friend showed him the 1944 telephone directory for Palestinian Jaffa, where his father had practiced law until Israel expelled the Palestinians in 1948. When Raja saw the listings for his father’s former office and his grandfather, a distinguished judge, he was engulfed by a sudden wave of nostalgia and grief, thinking, “All that history of their life in Jaffa has been denied, just as my father’s history of political activism … has been erased.” 

This epiphany sent him to the second object: a filing cabinet, one that he had avoided for decades. It had sat unopened in Raja’s Ramallah office since just after his father’s 1985 death. In it was a detailed record of his father’s struggles on behalf of Palestinian rights. Raja had always felt guilty about ignoring the files, but the idea of opening them filled him with dread. To him, they evoked his father’s  “years of hardship and trouble”: his imprisonments, a two-year exile, and his last 20 years as a political pariah in Palestine and the Arab world. 

Even when he wrote Strangers, Raja had been unable to bring himself to consult the files, sure that they would confirm his mother’s view (and that of others) that her husband had brought his woes on himself – and his family – by pursuing reckless, and controversial challenges to authority. Instead, Raja discovered an impressive, well-organized collection of clippings, memoranda, legal briefs and rulings, receipts, memorabilia, etc. Several articles by his father struck him especially as “powerful, honest and articulate.” Some had never found a publisher brave enough to publish them.

Having gained a new awareness of his father’s immense efforts – and commensurate frustrations – in fighting for justice, Raja resolved to give full and proper due to his father and to his work, something he had not attempted in Strangers. Writing the second memoir transformed his understanding of his father, his beloved mother, and himself as a son. 

As for the premise of the new memoir’s title — We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I – Raja argues it would have happened if only he had done more to “understand and appreciate” the grueling disappointments of his father’s battles against the Israelis, the Jordanians who ruled the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, and the many brittle, insecure Palestinian leaders, who ignored or savagely opposed him. 

With deep regret, Raja says that, instead of behaving like the devoted son of a heroic father, he had cut himself off from Aziz. So, for example, he chides himself for not even remembering his father’s return in 1958 from months of brutal, even life-threatening imprisonment in Al Jafr prison – Jordan’s harshest – deep in the blistering desert. “How is it that his unjust imprisonment under such harsh conditions didn’t make father a hero in my eyes?” Raja laments. “My attitude was never one of admiration. I made no effort to ask him about his prison experience or to understand the political battles he fought.” 

This burst of self-recrimination is one of many. Thus, he blames himself for siding with his mother, who detested politics and condemned as reckless her husband’s bold and costly efforts to save his people from destruction. Growing up, Raja preferred to listen to his literary mother’s enthralling stories rather than try to understand his often-absent, always-preoccupied father’s legal and diplomatic strategies, how they were foiled and betrayed, and how he was punished for his efforts. 

However, it seems clear enough from the memoirs that the father made little effort to understand the son on the son’s own terms. Along with many virtues, and great strength of character, Aziz emerges as tremendously ambitious, proud, combative, supremely self-confident, opinionated, stubborn, and bossy. While he had charm and imagination, his conception of fatherhood was quite traditional.  

Raja, meanwhile, was no rebel. On the contrary, he bowed to Aziz’s authority, even when he disagreed. In June 1967, when the smoke of Israel’s conquest of the West Bank had yet to settle, Aziz became notorious among Palestinians and Arabs for proposing the establishment of a Palestinian state along the borders traced by the UN partition resolution of 1947. The proposal, and he himself, were violently denounced by the PLO, most local politicians, and the Arab states of the region. Israel ignored the proposal, except to cherry-pick for propaganda purposes examples of enraged Arab rejections of the mere idea of negotiating with the Israelis. 

Then 16-years-old, Raja shared the defiant, angry mood of his classmates. Nonetheless, he stuck with his father, even as “insults and accusations were being hurled at [Aziz] from all sides.” Raja writes that with his friends he forced himself to be “calm, unemotional, resilient and supportive,”  repeating to them what his dad said at home, even though he felt he was “speaking a different language.” Aziz never backed away from his proposal but died before the PLO agreed to a two-state solution that promised a smaller Palestinian state.

As a university student in Beirut, Raja wrote long, soul-searching letters to his dad, trying to develop a deeper relationship, to no avail. He agreed to study law in London (subordinating his own literary aspirations) and returned to Palestine to work with his father. In 1979, he founded Al Haq, devoting enormous efforts to pioneer the practice of human rights law and expose Israel’s cruel and arbitrary persecution of the Palestinians to the international community. Aziz seemed unimpressed. He criticized Raja for taking time away from his law office tasks. (Al Haq remains highly effective to this day, as shown by Israel’s current brutal attempts to shut it down.)

The year before his father’s death in 1985, Raja had come upon a new Israeli military order for the West Bank with a map that revealed the Israelis’ long-term plan to build a network of settler-only roads to connect scores of future Jewish-only settlements. He brought his frightening find to Aziz and argued it was urgent to challenge the order. Aziz showed no interest, yet he provided some valuable tips about relevant local land-use laws, and curbs in international law on an occupying power’s authority to develop such settlement infrastructure. Eventually, he worked with his son on a legal brief against the land-grab blueprint. When the PLO ignored requests to take up the challenge, Raja was dismayed, but Aziz was unsurprised. Then he was murdered. 

Aziz’s death put an abrupt end to Raja’s vague expectation that one day a friendship would blossom with his “fundamentally benevolent father,” with whom “for years … [Raja] was temporarily fighting” (italics added). 

Raja did everything he could to aid the two-year investigation by Israeli police, who had jurisdiction, but they never did identify Aziz’s killer, let alone bring him to justice. As Strangers in the House recounts in detail, the investigation turned out to be a charade, designed to confuse Raja and to hide the killer’s identity. Why?  Because the man was a useful informant. An extra incentive for the Israelis to hide the killer’s identity was to encourage people to conclude that Aziz, who was a public figure, had been murdered by political rivals, of whom he indeed had many – thus confirming Israeli stereotypes of cruel, lawless Arabs.

Years later, Raja himself managed to identify the killer, a man whom Aziz was suing on behalf of a client. The motive for the murder was simply money. To date, the Israelis have neither confirmed the killer’s identity nor admitted to the hollowness of their investigation.

Raja regrets that his human rights work, which involved a lot of travel, was so “all-consuming” during his father’s last years. He went abroad even after death threats arose against Aziz, including by the man who killed him. When Raja got the news of his father’s murder, he rushed back to Palestine “like a madman, stricken, bewildered, irredeemably guilty.” 

His grief and guilt seem to have led him to overstate his own faults and the readiness of his patriarchal father to treat him as a friend. But these emotions also have driven Raja to apply his legal mind — and gifts for storytelling – to present a tight and dramatic account of his father’s public life in a forgotten but pivotal time for Palestinians. Aziz often fought virtually alone — but always at high levels, for high stakes — against what, in effect, was a conspiracy of the powerful to keep the Palestinians utterly powerless.

To encounter Aziz, a forgotten champion of law and justice, shines a bright light on the endless obstacles placed in the way of Palestinians after 1948. The memoir also sheds light on Palestinians’ unbroken history of resistance to Israel’s implacable bid to destroy them – and the severe personal costs it has entailed. 

The story of Raja and Aziz’s intense, mutually frustrating relationship – and Raja’s emerging sense of having been too small-minded and self-absorbed to see how great his father really was – is itself a marker of the depth of Palestinian resistance: the father and son got along badly and disagreed on political tactics, but in the end, each one contributed mightily to the cause of justice for Palestine. Aziz’s bold exploits and sufferings are finally told in Raja’s new memoir. The book is an absorbing and thought-provoking addition to the library of Palestinian resistance.

 Steve France is a retired journalist and lawyer in the DC area