We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I (Profile Books, 2022) is a subtle psychological portrait of the author’s relationship with his father during the twentieth-century battle for Palestinian human rights.
Aziz Shehadeh was many things: lawyer, activist, and political detainee, he was also the father of bestselling author and activist Raja. In this new and searingly personal memoir, Raja Shehadeh unpicks the snags and complexities of their relationship.
A vocal and fearless opponent, Aziz resists under the British mandatory period, then under Jordan, and, finally, under Israel. As a young man, Raja fails to recognise his father’s courage and, in turn, his father does not appreciate Raja’s own efforts in campaigning for Palestinian human rights. When Aziz is murdered in 1985, it changes Raja irrevocably.
The following are a few excerpts from the book.
In 1936, during his first year as a lawyer, he wrote the A.B.C. of the Arab Case in Palestine. The title is so modest. The booklet is described as ‘an exposition of the Arab case in concise and readable form, which, it is hoped will be a step towards a deeper and more widespread interest in the Arab side of the question’. It was written in English, for an English-speaking audience, perhaps primarily with the British in mind. He didn’t need to explain the case to the Palestinians, who, he believed, understood their own situation perfectly well. My father never showed me this booklet. Nonetheless, it was the precursor to similar ones that I would write years later with the same objective, except that in my case it was to help the world better understand the nature of the Israeli occupation of the rest of Palestine.
I don’t remember seeing this booklet in my father’s library at home. But in 2019, when I was having dinner at the Snowbar cafe with Mahmoud Hawari, an archaeologist who had just completed his term as the director of the Palestinian Museum, and his wife, Helen, Mahmoud said he had a present for me and produced a copy from a brown paper bag. The last time I had seen this booklet was not at our house but at my grandmother’s, on her small bookshelf in the hall. I remember opening it and being surprised to find my father’s name there, but I don’t remember reading it. Nor did my father ever mention it to me, even after I started writing myself. It was not among the papers he left which I stacked in the cabinet in my office. Mahmoud had come upon it in a second-hand bookshop opposite the British Museum in London, where he was working. Years later he found it among his books and papers as he was packing to leave Ramallah and move to Cyprus, and he thought I would like to have it. I was of course very grateful. When I got home I immediately read it. It revealed how well my father understood, as early as 1936, what Zionism was all about.
In the chapter on the Palestine administration my father wrote:
The Palestine Government is serving five masters. It tries to please all at the same time: the Arabs, the Jews, the Colonial Office, the Permanent Mandate’s Commission and the questioning members of the British House of Parliament. It is thus one of the most perplexed governments in the world. It has no heart or will of its own … Normally it is supposed to follow the dictates of the Colonial Office, but it easily becomes swayed by questions which are asked in the House of Commons by Jewish members or sympathisers, finally coming up against what the Permanent Mandate’s Commission may approve or disapprove.
As I read this I thought of the striking similarities with the present situation in Palestine as regards Britain.
The prospect of not being allowed to return home and instead being ruled by the mainly Bedouin army of King Abdullah under the English bully Glubb was anathema to my father and his fellow Jaffa residents now residing in Ramallah. They were determined not to allow this to happen.
For several years he and others continued to look for ways to return home. Unbeknown to them, secret negotiations had already been taking place, as early as 1947, before the British Mandate in Palestine ended. These were between King Abdullah and the Zionist leaders, who were united in their goal of preventing the birth of a Palestinian state under their common enemy, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian head of the Arab Higher Committee, which was established on 25 April 1936 and outlawed by the British Mandatory administration in September 1937 after the assassination of a British official.
The British government was continuing with its determined efforts to deprive the Palestinians of their country, exploring the possibility that the Arab parts of Palestine, which it believed would be unviable as an Arab Palestine on their own, could be fused with the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, established in 1946. At a secret meeting in London in February 1948, Ernest Bevin, the UK foreign secretary, gave King Abdullah the green light to snatch part of Palestine provided that the king’s forces stayed out of those areas allotted by the UN partition plan to the Jews.
It was only at university, when I educated myself regarding the history of Palestine, that I became aware there had been such a plan. I and my generation, schooled under Jordanian rule, did not get to know this from our curriculum. Nor was I aware that my father’s experience, witnessing the transformation of the West Bank from being part of the Palestine he knew to being annexed by Jordan, mirrored my own experience of the same territory as it was transformed after the Israeli occupation of 1967.
Before I read my father’s papers, I was also unaware of the role that he and others had played over many years in the struggle for the Palestinians’ right to return home. I had heard him mention his participation in the Lausanne Conciliation Conference in 1949, but knew nothing of what had taken place there. To this day, Palestinian students following the curriculum of the Palestinian Authority learn nothing about the attempts of their people to resist the annexation of Palestine by Jordan, or of the persistent efforts of those like my father who struggled through legal and political means to ensure the return of Palestinians to their homes after the Nakba.