Palestinian Identity: the complicated idea of Palestine

By Sari Nusseibeh, April 17, 2008

Palestinian identity 

A prominent philosopher and political activist — once the PLO’s man in Jerusalem — explains how he has seen his people’s quest for nationhood confronted by the reality of life under occupation In the 1950s, a lot of people thought that we should be part of a pan-Arabist world. The slogans referred to a “united Arab nation”. They felt good that the Ottoman empire had been dismantled, but bad that the Arab world which had got rid of that Ottoman yoke had become cut up. So the natural reaction was that we should all become one again, that we should re-unite. There was no extreme sense of being unique in Palestine, or Egypt, or Jordan, or Iraq, or Syria. My father came back to East Jerusalem in 1951 when I was two years old. He had left the job he had in Cairo as the person in charge of the Palestinian government-in-exile. He decided that there was no use for it, and was very quickly wooed by the Jordanian government (he became a minister). Everybody grew up feeling mostly Jordanian. There was still tension between pan-Arabism and being Palestinian or Jordanian. There were also frictions during those years between the Jordanian government and the Palestinian nationalist elements. I grew up as Jordanian, but we hardly ever went to Jordan itself. For us, Jerusalem was the centre of life. Before 1967, I always assumed that Jerusalem was the capital. We all looked down on Amman as a kind of backwater. One expected that sooner or later Palestine was going to be regained, and then we would assume our natural role as Palestinians in Palestine. Nobody at the time thought it possible that you could have a state on one part of Palestine. Maybe after 1967; that was the first time you could hear voices saying, “Now let’s go for a two-state solution”. My father was not an open supporter of that. But he would have supported it if the PLO had gone in that direction. In the 1980s, I saw that there was a kind of a split personality among Palestinians. They were becoming more immersed in the Israeli system. I use the image of an Egged bus. Right after 1967, it looked like a monster coming from outer space — this terrifying thing with Hebrew writing, driving fast, zooming through the streets of East Jerusalem. Then slowly there would be bus stops, and in time you would find Arabs getting into the bus because by then they had started getting jobs. Several years later, you would see that the driver was an Arab. So imagine the transformation from being somebody from totally outside that foreign system to stepping inside. But while that was happening, very strangely, and perhaps in reaction, the Palestinians were developing at the intellectual, psychological and spiritual levels a sense of being distinct. So the more they became immersed, the more distinct they came to feel themselves as a nation. I said before the first intifada broke out that this was unnatural, like a rope being pulled very tightly that was going to snap. One of two things would happen. The Palestinians would either call for total separation and an independent state, or for total annexation into Israel. Unfortunately, in the last few years, people in the region have become far more chauvinist, far more extremist. There was a time just after Oslo when it looked like you could have acceptable, liberal, nationalist ideologies co-existing side by side. And this might come again. But if we are stuck like we seem to be at the moment, it’s becoming crazy, it’s fragmenting, it’s becoming very ugly. I do not feel at all enthusiastic about wanting a Palestinian state. There was a time 15-20 years ago when I looked upon the Palestinian state and the nationalist ideologies as a liberating phenomenon. Today I am not sure it is. I have no problems if Egypt takes over Gaza, or if Jordan and the West Bank merge. There is nothing sacrosanct about any particular political solution. The only thing that is sacrosanct is whether the solution will provide me with the kind of life that is worth living as an individual: a life of dignity, freedom and equality. If they make us part of the United Kingdom, or Switzerland, or the United States, if they give United Nations passports in Jerusalem — fine. I feel maybe now that we allowed ourselves to an excessive degree to be prisoners of place, of space — Palestinians, Muslims, Nusseibehs, Israelis, Jews. The mark of progress I believe now has to do with being able to transcend place and to feel at one with wherever you are. Animals like to territorialise. If you can only feel at home in one specific location, then you are still an animal; you have not grown up.

Last updated: 12:50pm, September 16 2008