Once Upon a Country A Palestinian Life

Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David




Trade Paperback

584 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the YearA San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of the YearA Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year In Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiography, his dramatic life story and that of his embattled country converge in a work of great passion, depth, and emotional power. Nusseibeh was raised to represent his country. His family’s roots in Palestine traced back to the Middle Ages, and his father was the governor of Jerusalem. Educated at Oxford, he was trained to build upon his father’s support for coexistence and a negotiated solution to the problems of the region.

But the wars of 1967 and 1973 spelled the beginning of the end for the vision of a unified Palestine—and Nusseibeh’s response to these events, and to those that followed, gives us the recent history from a Palestinian point of view. From his time teaching side by side with Israelis at Hebrew University through his appointment by Yassir Arafat to administer Arab Jerusalem, he holds fast to a two-state solution, even as the powers around him insist that it is impossible. As Palestine is torn apart by settlements and barricades, corruption and violence, Nusseibeh remains true to the ideals of his youth, determined to keep hold of some faint hope for the life of his country.


Praise for Once Upon a Country

“Mr. Nusseibeh’s very existence poses a challenge to many Israelis’ beliefs about themselves. But as Once Upon a Country, his fascinating and deeply intelligent memoir, makes clear, Mr. Nusseibeh is really an Israeli dream . . . Such 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, The New York Times 
“In 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising and amid harsh Israeli military offensives, two prominent individuals unveiled a courageous peace plan. The Israeli author was Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, his country’s internal security agency. Plunging headfirst into the public debate was, for him, a relatively novel exercise. Not so for his Palestinian partner. Sari Nusseibeh, the author of the captivating Once Upon a Country, is a repeat offender . . . Nusseibeh’s new memoir, Once Upon a Country, is a remarkable chronicle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seen through this improbable pair of eyes . . . 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. Nusseibeh’s offers a possible means of escape. Far more will be needed to convince his fellow Palestinians it is the best one.”—Robert Malley, The Washington Post Book World
Once Upon a Country is a deeply admirable book by a deeply admirable man. It is largely a political memoir, about a reluctantly political Palestinian trying to bring politics to his people, as the forces of occupation, religion and terrorism interfere with the very possibility of politics. Nusseibeh’s book is written out of a refreshingly candid awareness that the reasons for the persistence of the Palestinian in their stateless misery are multiple and complicated . . . Nusseibeh recounts his political activity in vivid, witty and excessive detail . . . Once Upon a Country is not only a celebration of Palestinian national life, it is also a criticism of it—a ferocious criticism.”—Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review
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 . . . Nusseibeh’s message—that true Islam need not be hostile to the Jewish nation—is of extraordinary importance today. As is this sometimes maddening but often profound book.”—Jeffrey Goldberg, Los Angles Times
Once Upon a Country is an often enthralling book, with a lucid unfolding of the issues and a subtle analysis of the games played on both sides. The narrative radiates both an empathic understanding of the Israelis and a deep love of his own people and their religion, which he sees as grossly perverted by the fundamentalists. It also gives us a poignant portrait of the city of Jerusalem, which becomes the tragic embodiment and victim of the struggle. It’s full of richly drawn characters, too, among them the often baffling and enigmatic Yasser Arafat . . . It’s a story worth hearing, and this complicated man, shrewd, idealist, pragmatic dreamer, peaceful warrior—is very much worth knowing.”—Charles Matthews, San Francisco Chronicle  
Once Upon a Country is a passionate, well-written book, an altogether fresh, subtle, and often humorous approach to what Nusseibeh calls the ‘selfish contention between two ethno-centric tribes’ . . . His book has the ring of hard truth that no other Palestinian I know of has been willing to express with comparable eloquence and courage.”—Amos Elon, The New York Review of Books
Once Upon a Country is much like Nusseibeh himself: elegant, eloquent, intelligent, wryly ironic—and subtly yet deeply disturbing, as he deconstructs and debunks some of Israel’s and the Palestinians’ most cherished myths.”—Eetta Prince-Gibson, The Jerusalem Report

“[An] absorbing autobiography . . . Nusseibeh’s memoir presents an introspective gloss on his life and times."—Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Nusseibeh’s political memoir is a monumental achievement both in breadth and boldness . . . Nusseibeh details the financial fraud of the ring around Arafat with painful precision—automobiles bought abroad with public funds then sold to the local populace with the profit pocketed, collusion with unscrupulous local Jews in smuggling in gasoline. He argues persuasively that Arafat gained no personal financial benefit and was not squirreling away millions as has been charged . . . He is a thoughtful, passionate and fair-minded moderate.”—Howard Kaplan, Jewish Journal

"[Once Upon a Country] is an admirable and necessary [book]. Americans need to hear the Palestinian story told in terms that they can relate to . . . Sari Nusseibeh is a man committed not just to reason and nonviolence but to hope."—Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Commonweal

"While the book is Nusseibeh's autobiography, it is also an account of the Arab-Israeli efforts, including the impediments, to establish peace in the region. For Nusseibeh, the only viable solution is the creation of two states. Nusseibeh begins with the Balfour Declaration, describes the Six-Day War, the strife between Fatah, led by Yasir Arafat, and Hamas, and the Israeli attack on the Palestinians after the Park Hotel Passover Massacre. He also provides an interesting account of his activities as a university teacher and president, his role as Arafat's representative in Jerusalem, and his problems with both the Israelis, who refuse to believe his two-state non-violent approach, and the militant Palestinians, who regard him as a traitor."—Thomas L. Erskine, Magill Book Reviews

"This is the story of how Sari Nusseibeh, committed all his life to Palestinian national liberation, committed himself also to Palestinian-Israeli peace. Modestly told, but wonderfully engaging, it is a tale of political independence and moral courage."—Professor Michael Walzer, Institute of Advanced Study, author of Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism

"Sari Nusseibeh is a man of enormous personal integrity, courage and vision. If the people of Israel and Palestine some day enjoy the peace and national sovereignty that they deserve, they will owe a lot to Sari Nusseibeh’s pioneering leadership."—Paul Wolfowitz

"Once Upon a Country is a subtle, sad, and humorous memoir that casts a fresh light on the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, and a vivid picture of Palestinian society as well."—Amos Oz, author of A Tale of Love and Darkness

"From the first elegant sentence, Sari Nusseibeh uses his poetic sensibility to illuminate the dislocation, oppression, fratricide, and extremism that have plagued his 'violated and broken land.' In his honest and unsparing account of a remarkable life, this courageous advocate for peace makes clear why this tragic conflict is so enduring, and a resolution so essential."—Richard North Patterson, author of Exile

"This is a compelling narrative of a life lived at the cross-roads of history, which is also a moving personal story of an individual of rare integrity who creates a political vision that is both true and useful. It is difficult to find the 'middle ground' in the Middle East conflict, but Sari Nusseibeh opens up a space for reflection and dialogue that balances the cunning of history with the irony of one man's adventures and aspirations. As he confronts his own complex circumstances, Nusseibeh reveals a landscape of hope, generosity and justice that makes this a crucial text of our times."—Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language Director, Harvard University

"Philosophy professor and political leader Nusseibeh, as the Oxford and Harvard-educated descendant of an ancient and influential Jerusalem family, draws on deep roots in his account of a dramatically displaced life. That's one reason why, despite his relative privilege, his autobiography dovetails persuasively with the larger story of Palestinian dispossession and struggle in the 20th century. Nusseibeh, as a former PLO representative, also has the vantage of a political insider. Equally instructive are his differences from his fellow Palestinians, many of whom he encountered as his students in the classrooms and cafes at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and later as president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. These interactions, among others, give shape to the story of this curious but reticent loner's immersion into national politics, which is overshadowed by the memory of his father (a fiercely independent former Jordanian minister and governor of Jerusalem). In relating the Palestinian perspective on the expulsions, expropriations and deprivations during and after the wars of 1948, 1967 and beyond, Nusseibeh convincingly interweaves personal experience and tectonic historical shifts, while charting his own political evolution and eventual and resolute insistence on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Key

WHEN I WAS A CHILD it seemed that everywhere I went I came across traces of my family’s history in Jerusalem. My father once told me that we Nusseibehs came from a long line of thieves. All family dynasties, he explained with an expression between earnestness and jest, can trace their histories back to some act of brigandage. I think he said this because of the pride Arabs often take in their ancient roots. You have to live in the present, Father lectured to me over and over when I was a child. Whereas I never pinned down precisely who the thieves were,

Read the full excerpt


  • Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David

  • Sari Nusseibeh, a philosopher, was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief representative in Jerusalem from 2001 to 2002, in which role he advocated a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the president of and a professor at Al-Quds University, the Arab University of Jerusalem. Nusseibeh was educated at Oxford and Harvard, and was a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard for 2004–05. He is the author of two previous books.
  • Sari Nusseibeh Rina Castelnuovo