Once Upon a Country - A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David Picador 2007
A difficult to read but beautifully-written book - an elegiac study of the Palestine of the author's childhood, the loss of it, and his reluctant activism; his efforts to bring about a peaceful solution against all the odds. And there is no happy ending - his efforts are heroic but this is no simple story where the hero wins - this is a story where there are no winners, and everyone is losing. The Nusseibehs are an old Jerusalem family with land and property that has been in their family for generations but none of this matters to an Israeli leadership bent on a takeover of the land by whatever means necessary and the ways and means they employ makes for some hard reading. A land grab as it is being perpetrated by Israel is supposed to belong somewhere in the past but it is very much of the present and as the book makes clear, since the Oslo Accords, Israel has expropriated more and more of Palestinian land at a faster and faster pace. Despite the fine words of academics and politicians on both sides of the debate, it is the action that stonewalls; Arafat because of his interminable inability to make a decision and the Israelis because at no time has the leadership had any intention of an equitable peace with the Palestinians.
And still his hope is indefatigable which is what makes this at times harrowing read so compelling. Most of us would have given up long ago or turned to violence as so many on both sides have done and continue to do, but this studious man refuses to give in and in trying repeatedly to see the view from the other side he unwittingly becomes an opponent of Israel's leadership and a traitor to certain members of his own community. Even as Israeli and Palestinian grass-roots activists work tirelessly to bring about a resolution of the conflict, in the end their efforts are undermined and it is hard not to come away with the sense that for all the philosopher writer's efforts at a non-violent, two-state solution, Palestine continues to shrink daily and in the end his efforts have come to naught. His optimism sustains him through to the end of the book, less noble characters will not find it so easy.
Yemen - Dancing on the Heads of Snakes by Victoria Clark Yale University Press, 2010
The title of the book comes from a comment made by Yemen's embattled president Ali Abdullah Saleh, during an interview in 2009 when he compared ruling Yemen to dancing on the heads of snakes. Beginning with the conquest by the Ottomans in the 16th century the writer does an excellent job of unraveling and explaining the bafflingly complex history of the country and why Yemen is not a country to be trifled with or dismissed. The Yemenis exhausted the Turks and they left in 1625 having never subdued the highlands, and even when they were invited back in 1849 by the Zaidi Imam in the north to counter the pesky Wahabis from Saudi Arabia, their control was only ever nominal outside of the coastal Tihama strip. The southern part of the country was controlled somewhat by the British who managed to secure the port of Aden in 1839 by nefarious means, initially as a coaling station for their ships between Suez and India. Having educated the locals who then decided they could run their own affairs, the British threw in the towel in 1967 after a protracted guerilla war. The south became a fully-fledged Marxist state, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, supported by China and especially the Soviet Union.
Yemen's situation is as much due to external events as it is internal; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the initial stab at union of north and south and its swift demise, the support and interference of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the fallout from the First Gulf war, Yemen's fierce individualism versus its reliance on outside financial support, the consequences of the jihadis' journey to Afghanistan and back, perennial land disputes, tribal politics and law versus a weak central state - add to this rampant population growth, high unemployment and under-employment, corruption, a lack of opportunity, total reliance on oil and gas exports not to mention a serious lack of water much of which goes to grow qat - and one is left wondering how the country functions. But the writer manages to explain the inherent contradictions without writing the country off and suggests that no matter how things may appear on the surface of this impenetrable land, one should look at the picture with a healthy skepticism as much of what is important is happening below the surface.
I read this book before the current wave of protests began. The dancing master who has ruled this beautiful if convoluted country for 32 years is now facing the most serious challenge of his long rule. With a variety of disparate groups ranged against him, it remains to be seen how much longer he can charm his snakes.