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on 22 April 2008
Sari Nusseibeh is one of the most prominent Palestinians alive today, an eminent academic, a man of reason and compassion, and the scion of an old and illustrious Jerusalem family. His life story is a microcosm of the events that have unfolded in the Middle East during the 20th and 21st centuries, which have blighted the existence of so many and had such a profound effect on the world as a whole.

Once Upon A Country starts and ends with a fairy tale of extraordinary power and pathos, and sets a lyrical tone that is maintained throughout, even when the events being described are of the grimmest kind. Nusseibeh has had a turbulent life - not of his own choosing - but he has emerged from it with his human values in tact. His love of his family, his strong sense of tradition and loyalty to others, his pragmatism and distaste for extremism, his devotion to his people and the cause of Palestinian nationalism are evident, as is his acceptance of the existence of the State of Israel and the need for a comprehensive peace between all the elements in the region.

Sari Nusseibeh mentions another lyrical memoir of Palestinian life, albeit from a Jewish perspective, Amos Oz' A Tale of Love and Darkness. I defy anyone who has read the latter not to see in Once Upon A Country its Palestinian equivalent. Both are essential reading for anyone who wishes to gain a balanced perspective of the history of the Israel-Palestine problem, and especially for those who want to achieve a balanced insight into the impact that the State of Israel has had on the Palestinian people.
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on 20 October 2007
I used to teach a course on the politics of the Middle East. If I was doing so again I would make two books compulsory reading, Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness and Sari Nusseibeh's Once Upon a Country. Both show individuals who are deeply rooted in their respective cultures caught up in the maelstrom which saw the birth of modern Israel. Nusseibeh's family have been connected to Jerusalem for some 1,300 years and much of this memoir is an account of how his heritage has been fragmented by Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. Yet whatever the pressures on him from Israelis and radical Palestinians he has tried to keep a dialogue open centred not just on his own humanity but on the assumption that both sides stand to benefit from a fair peace. Philosophical (in both the academic and emotional sense), quirky at times, a real one-off he shows how it was and is possible to survive with ideals intact, despite everything that the croneyism of Arafat and the aggressive settlement policy of Sharon did to undermine them.
Both Judaism and Islam have made immense contributions to cultural and intellectual life over the centuries and perhaps the low point of the book comes with Sharon's attempt to drive his notorious concrete wall through the middle of the Palestinian university of which Nusseibeh was President. To her credit Condoleezza Rice finally put pressure on her Israeli allies to build the wall elsewhere (it was a pity she did not go further and stop it altogether). I hope she and the fellow members of her government have time to read this book, not only to understand how an ancient culture has been crushed but to absorb its central message that both sides will gain from a fair peace. It needs the courage of a Nusseibeh to keep the flame alive.
Anyone reading this book will want to pay tribute to Nusseibeh's English-born wife Lucy who kept the family together at times of tension and danger and who has made her own contributions to the search for non-violent solutions of the conflict.
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on 8 January 2008
One of the most interesting books that I have read recently. Highly recommended.

Nusseibeh has spent his life moving in and out of Palestinian political life. His commentary on the development of Palestinian politics (and Israeli and Jerusalemite) comes from perspective that is probably unique to himself - as a Palestinian, an academic, a pacifist, a member of one of Jerusalem's traditional ruling families, and also an (albeit reluctantly) influential member of the PLO.

Personally, I found my interest and enjoyment of the book increased in direct correlation with his involvement with the PLO and Palestinian politics in general. His account of the first intifada was probably the highlight of the book for me, but the sections on the peace process in its various incarnations are also very rewarding. Outside politics (if anything really is), I also thoroughly enjoyed the chapter on the reform of Al-Quds University.
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on 21 May 2007
This is a tragic tale, wonderfully narrated. It is the story of how a Western-oriented, liberal, secular-minded visionary had his hopes for peace frustrated at every turn by men who lacked his vision and empathy.

This account clearly illustrated how the Israeli government constantly undermined those forces within the Palestinians (such as the author) who were willing to negotiate. Israel ignored them, sidelined them and humiliated them; She is now reaping the whirlwind - Hamas has profited from the decline in support for moderates like Nusseibeh.

This is essential reading for all those seeking to understand how things have taken a turn for the worse in the past two decades. It also inspires hope, for with men like Nusseibeh around, there is always a chance for peace.
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on 24 August 2013
A fascinating book which covers a vast swathe of history from a personal point of view. For readers with no interest in philosophy, hang in there through the more "wandering" chapters. The learning from a unique point of view of what always seems an impenetrable conflict to westerners is well worth it.
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Sari Nusseibeh's account of his life, interwoven with more general reflections on the history and politics of Israel/Palestine, is utterly absorbing from beginning to end. Even though the subject matter is often traumatic - or simply dispiriting - it's also a very exhilarating book, and Nusseibeh never seems to lose hope or humanity.

Nusseibeh's father is the focus for the first part of the book - and the part he played in the decades leading up to the creation of Israel in 1948. Naturally events are told from a Palestinian perspective, yet Nusseibeh tries to offer a balanced picture, and one in which the British, as much as either of the `sides', seem culpable.

He offers fascinating insights into the complexity and variety of Palestinian politics - the various factions and the subtly shifting dynamics over the decades. We read of the growth of religious extremism, and about the gradual rise of Hamas, from a small and unobtrusive grouping, to a major player. Nusseibeh writes particularly engagingly about the cat and mouse games he had to play in order to produce dissident leaflets during the first Intifada.

Although politics looms large in the book, Nusseibeh also talks about his interests in philosophy and literature - as well as more popular culture. I loved his account of how he got obsessed with the cult 1980s treasure hunt book, Kit Williams's `Masquerade', and became convinced (quite wrongly) that he had found the key to the mystery - the secret location of a jewelled hare buried somewhere in the English countryside.

Nusseibeh isn't (and couldn't be) a dispassionate writer, and he communicates a strong sense of loss, injustice and displacement. It could be argued that there are gaps and biases within his account. But this is going to be true of any account of this topic, even one not written by an interested party, and Nusseibeh is always receptive to overtures of peace from Israelis. For example, when he is arrested he describes his fear that he has been left alone with his Jewish cell mates in order that they might murder him. `They looked like assassins and drug addicts conjured up by some malevolent spirit to haunt the place. One man had a tattoo on his neck. Another was scar faced.' Then his fears are overturned when he finds out the prisoners are amused to hear that he is thought to be a spy - and bring him tea and biscuits.

He emerges as a liberal, open-minded, whimsical figure, who tries to hold on to his values in the face of huge obstacles from more extreme figures on both sides, persevering in his search for a just peace which seems as elusive as that jewelled hare. As a moderate, he is in some ways seen as a more dangerous and unwelcome figure by the Israeli right than zealous extremists - and some, supposedly on his own side, consider him a traitor. I thoroughly recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in the region.
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on 7 January 2013
I have tried all my life to understand the Israeli Palestinian problem and I have read diverse histories as well as more recent fiction. I remember my grandma showing me on television the 'poor Palestinian refugees'. However I now feel as though I have a better understanding of the history, the reality of people's daily lives and the politics of the region. I admire Dr Nusseibeh enormously. He writes in a way which shows his humanity, his love of peace and his trust in finding and dealing with the best in people. He is an inspiration, not only for me and my students, I am also a teacher, but for a whole generation of young Palestinians and in fact Israelis too. I would recommend this book to anyone attempting or wanting to truly understand the issues involved in the region. Thank you Dr Nusseibeh for sharing your story and the story of your people.
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on 20 August 2013
This was generally a well written book, written from a personal perspective but nonetheless scholarly. I liked the historical aspects, and having read the book felt I had a better understanding of the Palestinian perspective of the conflict.
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on 14 January 2013
Good insight into this troubled region. Does hope for peace stiil exist though, given the drift to the right in Israel?
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on 16 June 2014
I am still reading this book; I'm nearly finished. It is an amazing book, because you find yourself learning a great deal about the palestinian problem and why peace is so difficult in Israel. The author writes with clarity and truth about his life in Jerusalém and the efforts he has been making to bring peace between the two peoples, which he considers are probably "allies".
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