Shehadeh: Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine
Rarely does one encounter a memoir that so artfully, richly, and poignantly balances the tensions between telling an individual and a collective story as Raja Shehadeh does in his riveting memoir. A master of understatement, a gifted raconteur of anecdotes that are parable-like in their compactness, richness, and in being eminently re-tellable, and as subtle and introspective a narrator and observer of himself and all in his midst as one could possibly hope for, Shehadeh offers a moving and nuanced account of the arduous path of his sense of coming into personhood, of the complex relationship with his father, of people and social relations within his upper-middle-class milieu, and of living a life examined under the conditions of dispossession and occupation in the West Bank. Incredibly enough, he manages to impart much in all of these areas without emphasizing or developing one at the expense of another.
Even for those who have read widely about Palestine, the conditions of occupation, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the intersection of the lives of individuals with all of these, Strangers in the House offers a refreshing and invaluable contribution. While Shehadeh certainly is presenting an account of the collective experience of Palestinians, it is clear from the outset that he has no interest in delivering a “generic” or predictable composite portrayal for readers seeking affirmation of what they expect to read about the life of a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. At every turn, his narrative is enriched, textured and layered with idiosyncrasy, at times with humor in the written equivalent of a deadpan delivery and always with an irrepressible impulse and dedication to apprehending things, people, and events in their irreducible complexity.
He gives an unparalleled portrayal--in uniquely Palestinian-inflected terms--of a second-generation, “second-hand” subjectivity, characterized by “postmemory,” the “experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events” that cannot be accessed or apprehended directly (Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory [Harvard University Press, 1997], p. 23). Most pointedly through his maternal grandmother, Julia, and his father, and more diffusely and constantly in almost all aspects of his everyday life in Ramallah, Shehadeh tells how he grew up feeling that his and his family’s real life was in Jaffa, how he constantly was reminded of their “cataclysmic fall from grace” (p. 11), of the details of life in Jaffa--its streets, smells, breezes, sea, opulence, worldliness, people--of its being the place where he and his family truly belonged. Even the description of the symptoms of his grandmother’s hypertension are described by her in terms of Jaffa, the sensation of throbbing pain being likened to the rhythmic movement of the waves along Jaffa’s coast. He describes his grandmother’s eyes as always fixed on the string of lights along the shore in Jaffa, visible from Ramallah on the horizon, and how he too “learned to avoid seeing what was here and to fix my sight on the distant horizon” (p. 4), ardently yearning to know Jaffa, to exist there. The unique texture of this memoir is evident in his not being loath to reveal what the family discovered upon his father’s return visit to Jaffa in 1967: The lights they were gazing at on the horizon all those years were in fact those of Tel Aviv, not of Jaffa. Shehadeh conveys the poignant irony of this realization without a trace of irreverence toward the memory of Jaffa or those who gazed at it wistfully from afar.
Shehadeh gracefully and empathetically portrays how “history writ large”--including the guideposts of the nakba, displacement into exile in 1948, Israeli conquest and occupation of the West Bank in 1967, return visits to the lost homeland--intersects with the lives of the very three-dimensional protagonists of his memoir. Without detracting from just how seriously these events affected his family, he is able to relay some of their particular and idiosyncratic experiences with a sense of humor, irony, and the absurd. Shortly after their fateful departure from Jaffa in 1948 (before Shehadeh’s birth), his father is sent by his mother-in-law to retrieve what he can of their furniture and other valuables. Overwhelmed by his encounter with the reality of his home and hometown abandoned and emptied out, his father returns to exile in Ramallah with only one souvenir of their former life in Jaffa: a porcelain statue of a Buddha with a mocking smile. Grandmother Julia relentlessly reminds the entire family of this act--its absurdity and its consequences for the family--as it enters the annals of family lore, resurfacing often in fights between mother-in-law and son-in-law. Shehadeh exquisitely portrays how this grandmother tenaciously struggles to maintain the aristocratic demeanor and lifestyle of her former life in the face of its objectively having been stripped away in exile in Ramallah. She repeatedly expresses consternation at the fact that she cannot serve tea to visitors in her bone china tea set, lamenting the fact that tea simply does not taste as good in other cups and reminding everyone of Raja’s father’s failure to retrieve it from Jaffa. Shehadeh confesses that as a boy he found himself wondering “which loss was worse--Jaffa, or tea in her own cups” (p. 20).
It is refreshing to read a memoir that does not blur or submerge class and its stratification within Palestinian society from view in the course of telling the collective story of Palestinian displacement, dispossession, and occupation. The author is very precise about situating his own family’s class standing, keenly aware that his fate is not “equal” to the fate of those in the tents of refugee camps but also not as protected and privileged as those in the uppermost echelons and powerful families of Palestinian society. His memoir affirms that narratives of loss by those in positions of relative privilege can be just as compelling and poignant as those by others who suffered more extreme or different loss.
The relationship between Shehadeh and his father, Aziz, his grappling with it, and the degree to which his sense of self was displaced and shaped by it, figures centrally throughout the memoir. At times, such as when Shehadeh recounts the story of his father’s first return visit to Jaffa in 1967 (without Raja), and Shehadeh attempts to be his father--almost literally placing himself inside his father’s mind and body in the process of trying to imagine and reconstruct his father’s feelings, observations, and sensations on this fateful trip--is almost as wrenching as what we learn of his father’s encounter with lost home, hometown, and homeland. Even when the author has come into his own, carved his personal, professional, and political path with independence and integrity, even after his father’s tragic murder, Shehadeh still hopes that his father would support his choices --for example, his wholehearted participation and faith in the first Palestinian intifada.
Reading this memoir, one feels privileged to be made privy to the expansive and subtle mesh of Shehadeh’s “eye view” of his father’s controversial political views and initiatives, both pathbreaking and rankbreaking, as well as of his own path-breaking human rights and legal work; his first experience of falling in love; his encounters with Israel and Israelis; his keen experience of his body--from an eating disorder, extensive childhood illness, and physical frailty to discovering the deep delights of yoga, the grinding humiliation of daily life under occupation, and a subtle, self-conscious account of his associations with shaving and being accepted within the ranks of manhood; and his surprisingly beautiful and lyrical descriptions of his natural surroundings and landscape. His ability to weave these seemingly disparate threads together into a richly textured, integrated whole offers his readers a singularly nuanced, sensitive, and eminently readable portrayal of a life--a particular Palestinian life--poignantly examined.
Carol Bardenstein teaches in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.