Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle

Those first years of the transitional rule of the Palestinian Authority were strange times. It was the rude awakening at the end of a fascinating and hopeful period for me, during which I had devoted all my energies to bringing about change and a conclusion to the Israeli occupation. I had spent years challenging illegal Israeli land acquisitions in the occupied West Bank. Ironically, the unfounded claim that was now being made against my client was that he was selling land to the enemy by going into partnership with an Israeli corporation for the establishment of a gambling casino in Jericho, and I was accused of helping him with this venture. It was a false claim fabricated by some powerful members of the governing Authority who were hoping to intimidate my client into withdrawing from the project so that they could replace him in this lucrative enterprise.

Prompted perhaps by disappointment over the false peace heralded by the signing of the Oslo Accords, and despite all the fanfare on the White House lawn, my thoughts had been turning to the past, to the time when it all began. I had been reading about my great-great-uncle Najib Nassar, who like me was a writer, and like me a man whose hopes had been crushed when the Ottoman authority of his day sent troops to arrest him. But unlike me he did not wait for the knock on the door.
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Najib’s friend Salim al Ahmad Abdulhadi was hanged on the morning of August 21, 1915, after a brief military show trial. The news of his death profoundly shocked Najib and he decided he must leave Nazareth. He asked his friend Sheikh Mahmoud Tabari (so called after Tiberias, which in Arabic is Tabariah) for a horse and was given a sturdy steed.

His plan was to ride first to Tiberias. The route took him through the towns of Ableen and Hittin, passing through ’Ayn Mahel. Hittin, eight kilometers northwest of Tiberias, was a particularly attractive village with breathtaking views. Its houses stood on descending terraces. Built of stone, with roofs made of arched wood, these dwellings were surrounded by orchards. Nearby was the grave of Nabi Shu’ayb, the holy prophet of the Palestinian Druze community, who identify him with Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law. Najib intended to stay in Tiberias for a few days at a friend’s house before moving on. And so began his flight, which lasted for another two years and two months, in the course of which he moved through the Lower Galilee region, crossed the River Jordan and spent time disguised as a shepherd on the eastern bank of the river.

It was this trek that I was determined to reproduce, exploring the route on foot wherever possible. And this is what I was thinking about on the night of September 18, 1996, as I waited for the knock on the door, not knowing that thanks to the intercession of friends—and the promise I subsequently made to appear next day before the Palestinian prosecutor—I would be spared the humiliation of arrest and incarceration.

Raja Shehadeh in Guernica. More Here.

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