The Evolution of Change
Sari Nusseibeh is president and professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. His books include Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life and What Is a Palestinian State Worth?
September 15, 2011
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: In Israel and the West Bank earlier this year, I ended up longing for voices of wisdom and age — lives with a geography of experience that could address but also transcend the present, contested moment. This week and next, we offer two wise elders who do just that. We begin with the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, the Arab university of Jerusalem. He belongs to one of Jerusalem’s oldest recorded families — dating as far back as the seventh century. And for centuries his family have been Muslim custodians of the keys to the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem. He had an enduring yet ambivalent relationship with Yasir Arafat’s PLO; but across the years, he’s also maintained deep friendships and sometimes controversial dialogue with influential Israelis. To a new moment of Middle Eastern tumult, Sari Nusseibeh brings perspective — a vision of caution and hope, planted in a long view of Arab and Palestinian history, culture, and time.
SARI NUSSEIBEH: What we’re looking at is not a sales agreement. What we’re looking at is something much more fundamental. We’re looking at how human beings evolve. And we’re not looking at how human beings evolve only in this part of the world. I mean, everybody including Americans are part of this very slow process of human maturation.”
MS. TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being in Israel and the West Bank: “The Evolution of Change.”
I sat down with Sari Nusseibeh earlier this year in his office at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. He grew up in East Jerusalem, which some proposals envision as the capital of a future Palestinian state. His mother’s family lost all its property in 1948 when Israel was founded. His father had an illustrious career as a diplomat and statesman, holding such posts as governor of Jerusalem, Jordanian ambassador to England, and Jordanian minister of defense. For before the watershed year of 1967, when the current borders of Israel and Jerusalem were drawn, the West Bank was a territory administered by Jordan, not Israel.
MS. TIPPETT: And I want to just start out a little bit with, you know, who you are which is fascinating. Your story is fascinating. You know, the fact that you are from the oldest — I want to make sure this right — the oldest recognized family in Jerusalem dating back 1400 years. Is that …
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Well, that’s a myth.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a myth, right.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: That’s a myth that the family enjoys spreading out.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I was also fascinated that the Nusseibeh family grew from a female tribal leader, from a woman, right?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Who was among Mohammed’s earliest followers? Is that right?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: That’s right. She was one of the companions, actually, not just a follower. So when Mohammed made the first journey from Mecca to Medina, which is the hijra, which marks the beginning of the era for the Muslims, as you know. He made this trip — you know, the Mecca people drove him out from Mecca and he went to Medina. There in Medina, he was met by a few leaders of tribes in Medina. And among them, I think there were four or three women or two women and one of them was Nusaybah. She later fought with him in various battles. I think even defended him with her body on various occasions and, as a result, lost some of her own limbs. It is said that he asked her, you know, “Just tell me what you want. Because you have a free kind of open door for anything that you may wish for, ask for, from God.” She just asked that she and her children and her people after her would all just have a reasonably decent life, which I am glad to report we are having.
MS. TIPPETT: You are evidence that that may have come true.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: That’s right. But her two children, her two boys, were killed in those battles, one of the major battles, and then a cousin of hers came to Jerusalem with the earliest Muslim entry into Jerusalem and was appointed the first high judge. I think it is from there that we as a family went on dealing from that point on with the key to the Holy Sepulcher.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Became the holders of the — the Muslim family, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is really that Christian center of Jerusalem. Would you say that?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: And it’s the center of life in the world as far as Christianity is concerned and, therefore, a lot of world ideology is concerned, I suppose. I imagine that the judge was given the key to look after the church, this holiest of sites, to protect it, and I imagine this is how we came to have anything to do with the key. But today I must add that today, for the last 400 or 500 years, the responsibility’s been shared between two families and they’re both Muslim: one, the job of opening and closing the gate or door, and the other, the job of actually keeping the key safely during the night.
MS. TIPPETT: I think for an American what’s so astonishing about that story is not that it happened, but that the tradition has been maintained for century after century. So tell me also about your Muslim identity. What was the Muslim sensibility that you grow up in your family?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Let me tell you, I mean, it’s a bit — it’s a bit complicated — special, maybe, is the word to us here because my father is a very open-minded person, you know, liberal, educated in the West, and so on. My mother, on the other hand, comes from a very conservative Muslim family, and indeed some of her ancestors are supposed to have been Sufis, so she is more religious. I mean, she comes from a more religious kind of background, and so, different from my father. Although my father was also religious, but he wasn’t a kind of mystical religious person. My mother was more inclined to be a mystical religious person. So I grew up in between them.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s something quite beautiful you wrote about your mother. You said: Whatever the source, the Islam she inculcated in us was a religion with minimal miracles … in a cornucopia of rock-solid humanistic values. For her, Islam taught dignity, honesty, self-worth, simplicity, kindness and, of course, love, endless love.”
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Endless love. Well, I think she’s down to earth as a person, as a human being, and that’s where her belief and the mystical aspect of religion, I suppose, connects. Yeah, my father was more of an intellectual.
MS. TIPPETT: He was very passionate about pan-Arabic causes, right? He had a vision for that?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: I wouldn’t say he was very passionate, but he was more of an intellectual. I mean, he was he looked at life in — with intellectual spectacles and analyzed what was happening in those terms. Certainly, he had a great deal of pride in his Arabness, I think, you know, and in a way that didn’t, in fact, reveal itself to anyone who knew him at first. People didn’t realize that he was such a proud Arab. He new a lot of poetry, pre-Islamic poetry, and he had a lot of the status, very clever visionary, imaginative.
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me from your writing that your father’s pan-Arabic vision also is very deeply humanistic and pluralistic, that he saw it as drawing out not just the best of Muslim virtues, but also those of the other traditions? Would that be right?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: That’s right. His Arabness was, as you say, pluralistic. I mean, you know, when one thinks of Arab culture in it’s heyday, one thinks of the fact that it is a culture that admitted of pluralism, a plurality of ideas and so on. But it’s not always been idyllic, of course. And very often, we must always recall or remember that it’s had times and periods and, especially now, for instance, where this is not at all true of it.
But whenever you find that an Arab is or does feel proud of that culture, it is on account of that particular era, real or imagined, which in fact held all this variety in which, you know, people who would be religious as well as people who would be anti-religious would be tolerated. People who are Armenian or Cossack or whatever would be very much part of it — in which Jews, for instance, constituted a major component of it.
And, you know, right up to, I think, even ’67, my father still held out hope for bringing this back again, this kind of hope and vision of an open Arab society in which Jews and others would be very much a part of the world that he imagined the Arab world really in its true nature reflected.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, your account of how you experienced 1967 is quite different from, I don’t know, the telling that I think comes down. I mean, you describe — there’s a new freedom in your telling of that personal experience.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: What happened was this. I grew up our house was right on the edge of “No Man’s Land.” Right across, you know, on the end of the garden, we had something called Mandelbaum Gate. And Mandelbaum Gate was a gate through which either visitors, diplomats, or sometimes on occasion, Christians would be allowed to pass from Israel to Jordan especially during religious occasions. Now in that kind of situation, I would look across towards the West, and right there in front of me, I saw the edge of what was Israel. And the edge of what was Israel at the time was what is now known as Mea Shearim, or the Israeli-Jewish religious quarter. I could see them across the No Man’s Land, which was totally empty, and I’d see them also looking at me as I grew up.
When I went inside the house, you know, you can bet that all the talk was about the war and Israel and how it was before 1948 and 1949 and, you know, all about the life that they had, you know, behind that line which I could see outside. There I imagined a paradise, but what I could see was the edge of those evil people that had stolen it, stolen paradise, and stolen the moment of paradise from my parents. This was sort of a contradiction that was there in my mind between the surface and the inside. So in 1967, now I wasn’t here, I was abroad and I asked to come back and I did come back and it was Jewish …
MS. TIPPETT: You were at college.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: I was in England. I still hadn’t yet got into Oxford, but I did later. I took a plane and came back and it was the first time for me to come into the country, you know, on an Israeli airplane and coming due east, so to speak, and landing in the airport which was the paradise and on land which I assumed and was told, was, you know, belonged to me by right. I don’t mean to me as a Palestinian, but even to me as a person who has inherited bits of property in that area as well. It was for me a very peculiar kind of experience.
Now, you know, the following day after I arrived, or two days later, I went back again to the garden and again looked across at the other side and then decided to do what I’d always been dreaming of doing, which was to just make a crossing, to cross that distance by foot. So I jumped over to No Man’s Land and then, you know, I took several steps and then I’d stop and then look back. I just wanted to see what I looked like from the other side.
You know, to me, it was a very important journey, this crossing of No Man’s Land. And I use it also — very often to explain this journey that I feel that we all need to cross. I mean, OK, not all us meaning Palestinians or Israelis, but all of us in general, the journey that one always has to cross from being oneself to being the other and to try and see oneself through the eyes of the other in order to bridge the distance between people. I mean, I think this is a journey that has had a major impact on me.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So, you know, we’ve been here four or five days and we did a couple of programs a few years ago, which we called “Two Narratives”. We had these Palestinian and Israeli voices. And, I think, as soon as we’d been here about two days, we realized that there are so many more than two narratives. There are multiple Israeli narratives, multiple Palestinian narratives, multiple Christian, Jewish, and Muslim narratives. And I think that what I also got out of your writing, out of your family’s history is this — in all those layers, there’s also a layer of legend. There’s the imagined, which also affects the reality.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Much of reality maybe is imagined. I mean, when you speak about the narratives that you speak about and the fact that there are so many of them, you’re basically saying, I think, that reality is very complex and it’s not just one thing. And it is constituted by the different ways that it is seen or perceived or experienced. And different people see and perceive and experience it in different ways. I think one has always to be aware of that. So there’s no one thing which is out there which is reality and another thing which is the subject — us looking at reality.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Evolution of Change” — my conversation in East Jerusalem with Palestinian philosopher and president of Al-Quds University Sari Nusseibeh.
MS. TIPPETT: So I want to ask you what Palestinian stories are not being told? What qualities of the Palestinian people get lost in the headlines that make their way out of this part of the world?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: The gentleness of Palestinians, the kindness and gentleness of pastoral Palestinian life, which is actually getting lost not only in stories and headlines, but in reality. I mean, I think that even during the past 30 years that I’ve been here working. I mean, you know, I came back and started working. And right at the beginning when I came back, I could still sense what I called just now the pastoral kindness and openness of the Palestinian character. And I think over time, over these 30 years, this has totally disappeared.
You know, I do not see that the Palestinian has qualities that somehow differentiate him or her from being an Israeli or an Egyptian or anything else. Pluralistic by nature, I mean, to go back to my own upbringing and the openness of my being both a Muslim and having Christianity right in the middle of my own house at more than one level, my having been brought up in a Christian school, a missionary school that my parents who are Muslims — very Muslim — would send me to, was a reflection of a kind of openness of society that does no longer exist, I’m afraid, at the moment.
MS. TIPPETT: And has that, do you feel — has that been beaten out of people by the conflict?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: By the conflict, yes, by the conditions of conflict, by the challenges they’ve had to put up with, you know, political, economic, social, demographic. Everything has changed, transformed, revolutionized in their lives in ways, some of them positive. But on the whole, making them lose that quality, you know, that I associate always with, you know, olive trees and countryside solidarity and evening gatherings people used to have where people would tell stories, you know, the old would tell the young stories that came from 100 and 200 and 300 years ago. This was very much a part of a peaceful culture we had that I grew up with, that I was aware of, that has now totally disappeared and, you know, has become replaced by politics, Hamas, Fata, PLO, Israel, Netanyahu, Arafat.
MS. TIPPETT: So where do you look at that and through that? I mean, where does your hope lie now or how do you try to imagine restoration of that or healing or a new — a new reality?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: I think healing is important. I’m not sure how long it will take. I still feel that hope — I still — not feel — I — I have a gut sort of faith in the fact that things will somehow righten themselves, will eventually come back together. I’m not sure that we will be able to replicate what we had, but I think that with awareness, alertness, to the good things that we lost and the bad things that we’ve acquired and the ability to distinguish between the good and the bad, eventually we’ll be able to create a new future with better, you know, with more things that are good, not necessarily the same.
MS. TIPPETT: What would bring that about? I mean, what — what conditions would need to be in place for that to happen?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Well, I mean, we’d have to somehow — the politics, I think, we’d have to find a way to resolve the politics. You know, resolving the politics is something that’s not impossible.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: And I think it’s something that’s happening anyway. It’s not necessarily happening in the way that people assume it is happening. It’s not happening in the sense of, you know, reading the headlines that there’s a solution and it’s been signed by the two parties, but it’s happening. It seems to me it’s unfolding slowly in the sense that people on both sides are more and more aware of the fact that living in conflict is intolerable and that, you know, there is a way that can be found, which would allow the two sides to live together.
Now, what way is not clear in my mind. For some time, it was two states. Perhaps in the future, it could be a federation of regions or city-states. I’m not sure how it will look, but I think, in general, people are slowly maturing, if you like, to the need to put life and the values of life as human beings above — not in place of — but above perhaps the more limiting aspects of self-identity and identification of themselves as being Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Arab or, you know, from this town or from that and so on and so forth.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, one thing you’re saying, let’s say, to Americans is don’t just — the only barometer of whether change is possible or change is happening is not whether there’s an active peace process or not, right? Or as you say, whether new agreements have been signed. But what do you think of? What comes to your mind and your imagination when you talk about people maturing? I mean, are there examples of individuals or communities or initiatives that are just bubbling along in civil society?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Yes. I mean, look there’s, in general, if you sort of compare between the attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians towards each other, 50 years ago, say, and today, you’ll find we’ve gone through a sea change. Now, it’s not been perceptible on a day-by-day basis, but if you make the comparison between those two periods, you realize that we’ve covered a long, long, long distance.
And if you ask people on the whole today, for instance, about two-state solution, I think even my mother would tell you, you know, I’m happy with a two-state solution, but it would have to be one to which also the other side would agree to. This is my mother’s condition. And I think it’s the condition that’s probably put by most Israelis and most Palestinians. You know, they’re happy to come to solution on the condition that the other side is also willing to come to that particular solution.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: And I think this attitude is new. I mean, it’s open. It’s basically saying we are prepared to live at peace. We do not wish to continue living at war, and that’s, I think, what’s most important.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a different sense of time here.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: Even while people are living their daily lives, they want their children to be healthy and happy and fed and schooled that day, right? But you don’t see this and I’ve had this in conversation with Israelis also. There’s a sense here that history is long. You know, for example, when we were getting our tour of the Old City the other day and we had a Palestinian-Christian tour guide, he was telling us about one of those many places looking out over Jerusalem, which was Christian and then Muslim and maybe it’s Christian again, right? And he said — in one of these places, he said, “And then the Crusaders were there, but they were only there for 200 years, so they couldn’t do much.” [Laugh]
And I mean, I think that also — so, again, when Americans look at this conflict, they feel like we have to resolve it this year or next year. But what you’re describing is a sense that there’s change, but that it may be the work of generations also, I mean?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Oh, absolutely. But I think because what we’re looking at is not an agreement that’s a kind of a sales agreement. You know, it’s not a surface agreement. What we’re looking at is something much more fundamental. We’re looking at how human beings evolve and we’re not looking at how human beings evolve only in this part of the world. This is part of — of, you know, the entire experience. I mean, everybody, including Americans, are part of this very slow process of human maturation. And by this, I mean the process through which or by which people come to see each other in the kind of right proportion they should be seeing each other as opposed to the skewed proportion that they, you know, sometimes are made to see each other.
MS. TIPPETT: Especially when they’re fearful.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Especially when they’re fearful, but also when they are, you know, brought up, engineered socially, educationally, to think in specific ways, thinking that, this is, you know, this is the right thing to do for ourselves. And so I think people are, on the whole, certainly here but elsewhere are evolving, and this maturation process is a necessary condition for resolving our particular conflict between Israelis and Palestinians because it’s long-standing. You know, Jews, Abraham, Isaac, Mecca, I don’t know what, I mean, it’s not something that happened yesterday, so it can’t just be resolved.
You know, speak about legends and myths and you have to somehow grow into them, grow out of them, know how to deal with them, live peaceably at them while at the same time accepting other myths that may conflict with them, but I think it’s happening.
And I think what we need to do while we have not yet signed on a proper sort of legal document making peace between the two sides, what people need to do is just to make life as bearable and tolerable as possible and make sure that we are maturing in the right direction. Make sure, for instance, that we’re educating ourselves in the right way. Make sure that, for instance, our children will not have to deal with the same problems that we’ve dealt with, that they can, in fact, go ahead, move ahead and solve whatever remaining problems there are. But I think the process is there.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ll offer a companion perspective to Sari Nusseibeh next week, that of the Israeli philosopher Rabbi David Hartman. At onbeing.org, find all the shows that have come out of our spring production trip to Israel and the West Bank, including Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi; Mohammad Darawshe, an Arab civic leader of Israel; and voices from the Aida camp, a Palestinian refugee camp and neighborhood in Bethlehem. Together they reveal many faces of Israeli and Palestinian identity — and humanity. Again, that’s at onbeing.org.
Coming up, Sari Nusseibeh on why the Arab Spring matters; also, the difference between peace and social healing.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being in Israel and the West Bank: “The Evolution of Change.” We’re taking a long view of time, and of what it means to be Arab and Palestinian, with philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. He is president of the Arab university of Jerusalem, Al-Quds University. His personal story is steeped in layers of identity and, as he says, living legend, which are shaping history in the making today. His family dates its roots in Jerusalem back to the seventh century. And they have the singular distinction of being Muslim holders of the keys to Jerusalem’s holiest Christian place — the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s interesting to me that, in your writing, you’ve invoked the — as a Muslim, you’ve invoked the image of Christ and the spirit of Christ as one potentially healing image for Palestinians.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Well, for more than one reason. I mean, one reason, of course, is that — and this is not being flippant — but we do look upon him as an ancient Palestinian.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, yes.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: As a forefather, but the other reason is that, in fact, as a Palestinian also, I feel very much that everywhere you look in this country, you sense his presence. You know, the more that you find out about his history and the more that you find out about the different locations and so on and so forth, you cannot but feel, you know, that he is very much there. And finally, the message that he is has, which is, I believe, extremely important, very significant, very important for us as Muslims and Jews in this part of the world, of love, of compassion and really it’s the only pure message of peace that exists for us.
I mean, we can always say that Mohammed also, you know, had the message of peace or he was peaceful and that Jews can probably say this about — but I think, you know, when you look at Christ, Christ was everything — I mean, it was just peace. He was just a message of peace and, in that, I think there’s a unique kind of important significance for us fighting in this particular region.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: And certainly I invoke him I, uh, and it’s I think it’s very important to read stories about him, whether true or not.
MS. TIPPETT: As a Palestinian.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: As a Palestinian, but also in general. I mean, you can’t just — yes, as a Palestinian, it’s necessary.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, to read about him knowing that he’s Palestinian.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Yes, yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I was with someone I very much admire, a Jewish thinker, an Israeli thinker, and we were at dinner with him and his son. And he’s a Holocaust survivor. His father was a Holocaust survivor and he’s got all that history in him. His son just got back from his service in the army, three years in a tank in Gaza. It’s very interesting, the difference in their reactions to Egypt.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: The father saying too much has happened, not disallowing the possibility that this would lead someday to something positive, but basically saying we’ve experienced too much to just embrace this, right? The son saying this is too amazing not to embrace. He even said, even if this turns out not to flourish, this moment is amazing. He was using English and I think he said we the West and Israelis must hug them. I think he meant embrace, right? And do what we can to turn this, to make all the positives of this be realized.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Yeah, well, this is a generation gap.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I’m wondering about you and your students. You have children.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Well, in my case I have children, but in my case, I’m more — you know, I belong to the younger generation in my attitude.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me about that.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: No. I mean, students and my children grown up are all for what’s happening. You know, like the father and the son even, you know, maybe things will not quite unfold the way we wish them to in ideal terms, but nonetheless, I think we all see eye to eye that this is a magical moment in our history.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Not just the history of the Arab people, in the history of humanity, I think. It’s — it’s a moment — a magical moment in the sense of giving everyone hope that human beings, normal people, are in fact capable of determining their destinies peacefully if they just stand up and say this is what we want.
Now, of course, we see Gaddafi and what he does to them. But nonetheless, and, you know, we may see things not unfolding in the right way afterwards, but it is this moment that has to be embraced. The fact that this is possible. It’s incredible. You know, they’ve used the term “Arab awakening.” I saw an article recently by Richard Haas saying …
MS. TIPPETT: He’s the head of the Council on Foreign Relations.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: That’s right, and he says the Arabs sometimes speak of the Arab awakening as having occurred after, you know, with the Ottomans — with the fall-down of the Ottoman Empire. But this may be a second Arab awakening. And I think, in a sense, it is true, that this is an Arab awakening, a second Arab awakening. I wouldn’t call the first one an Arab awakening.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: The Ottoman thing, but this one is a genuine Arab awakening because it is the people. It’s not just the rulers of governments. It is the ordinary people who’ve come out into the streets. On the whole, you know, you’ll find that the Palestinians are old or young and especially those that are not — that do not have vested interests in authority are very much in favor of it. But, of course, as the father that you mentioned said, you know, we’re not sure what’s going to happen, but it is a moment and I think that it is a moment that tells us that things are possible, that things are possible, that we’re not captives or victims eternally to the powers of evil.
MS. TIPPETT: It is kind of a demonstration of your thesis that there is a process of maturing. That there is a evolutionary healing process.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Definitely, definitely and it is — you know, I was giving some lectures recently. There’s — there’s — you see, something very strange happened. On the Arab intellectual front, so to speak, there’s been debates ever since, you know, for the last 100 years about what theories should the Arab world embrace in order to jump-start it, jump-start the Arab world into modernity.
Should we, you know, go back, stick to the Islamic tradition? Should we become Westernized? People have spent energy, time, money, effort, research into, you know, building up theories. And recently, I think about four or five months ago, a very important thinker — Arab thinker — died, passed away, called Jaberi from Morocco, I think, some North African country. He’s a major Arab thinker and he died — he passed away.
It was important, but then, you know, a few weeks or months later, someone nobody had ever heard of, a guy who had a degree, but couldn’t find a job, who had to go and start selling stuff as a street vendor, also North Africa in Tunisia, by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, and he gets slapped in the face by a police officer and decides, you know, I’m going to go and burn myself. And he burns himself and people forget that this is what actually torched everything and it’s to do with what?
It’s to do with dignity, with freedom, with ideas that actually are very much a part of what human beings are all about. And suddenly, you know, you have this entire major earthquake and, you know, just think of the difference. Jaberi, a great man, thinker, he comes from a long line of great thinkers trying to put theories together and nothing works for the Arab world. But then one man comes up and says dignity, freedom, and he does it by torching himself and the entire world erupts. It’s a powerful message.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, it is.
I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Evolution of Change,” with the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. He had an enduring yet ambivalent relationship with Yasir Arafat’s PLO. He’s also forged unusual partnerships across time with activists on the left and the right of Israeli society; and he’s cultivated deep friendships with Israeli artists and thinkers.
The campus of Al-Quds University, the Arab university of Jerusalem where he is president, straddles the line dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank. And when the Israeli army announced plans to construct its controversial security wall through a university soccer field in 2003, he and his students resisted nonviolently and successfully. As you may hear in the distance in a moment, the Muslim call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque as my interview with him in his office at Al-Quds drew to a close.
MS. TIPPETT: Something that I think is unusual in your writing, maybe it’s not as unusual as I am presuming, is your relationship with Judaism and with the Israelis. I mean, your friendship with Amos Oz. You tell a story in your book about your sister reading The Diary of Anne Frank and being devastated by that.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Mm-hmm. That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: I sense that you, even with all that happened to your family, you were always very attentive to what you found admirable. I mean, starting with the kibbutzim in the ’60s. Is that unusual, that admiration that you have?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: I’m not sure whether it is unusual or not, but what I mean is this. It’s quite possible that many other Palestinian families have actually entertained or had the same kinds of feelings about Jews and neighbors and so on, but maybe without expressing them. Maybe in my case, you know …
MS. TIPPETT: You write books.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: I just say what I feel. Maybe that’s the difference. I mean, you know, in my case, one of my father’s students, when the British were here, they established a law school later to become part of the Hebrew University, so today’s Hebrew University Law School was established prior to the Hebrew University by the British during the Mandate period.
My father, who at the time had studied law, was actually appointed to give some lectures. One of the students later became a lawyer — an Israeli lawyer and, I don’t know, about 10 or 15 years ago was moving house. Suddenly, I get a note from him saying, you know, I’m copying to you or I’m sending you the notes I took from your father’s lectures when he was doing this.
You know, these are personal, immediate, familial ties, relations, which remind you of the fact that, over and above people being this or that, they’re also students, they’re also friends, they’re also acquaintances. You know, it’s not — you cannot separate between the two. And in our case, we just were kept aware of it. And certainly after ’67, my father introduced us — me and the daughter that you mentioned was reading Anne Frank’s diary — to friends of his and children of friends of his that he had from prior to ’48. And we still have that kind of relationship.
MS. TIPPETT: So there’s that reality and then, you know, here’s something that you wrote that’s very present for me being in Jerusalem this week: “It’s remarkable how sacred sites that can arouse in us” — and we’re saying this as the call to prayer is sounding — “… can arouse in us a sense of the ineffable mystery of life can also spawn a bare-knuckled brawl.” You wrote, “This is a mystery only a metaphysician or psychotherapist can make any sense of. I won’t try.” But would you try? Because it’s very — it’s, you know, it’s so strange and dramatic to experience this, the juxtaposition of these things.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: You know, there’s — I’m not really sure, but there is a kind of, you know, sometimes people use the image of the soul being like a mirror, right? Reflecting the universe, the divine God. And you know, the mirror can sometimes turn this way and sometimes we turn that way. You know, sometimes if it’s turned the wrong way, not the right way, it sort of can create problems. If it’s turned the right way, you can really reflect the divinity of life. This is, by the way, a Sufi image that I am telling. And maybe this is what lies in the call to prayer in the sense of the divine, that it can actually be a real call for appreciation of the universe in all of its manifestations. And it can be, on the other hand, a call for, you know, thinking highly only of yourself, of becoming other people.
I just recently came back from a trip to Angkor in Cambodia, and I went visiting the temples there. And you know, one thing that struck me was the four faces in many of the gates that were on these temples of Buddha. I was asking the guide what they stood for. He said, “Care, compassion, charity, and equality are the four faces of Buddha in those temples.” You know, as he said them, I just felt to me this is God, and I’m not a Buddhist.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You have, if we talk about healing, you’ve said that “political divisions scarring the Holy Land begin in the religious imagination, and it is [here] that they must be combated and overcome.” The peace processes don’t take that into account.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: No, and I’m not sure they can actually.
MS. TIPPETT: No.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: It’s a problem and that’s why I was saying that, you know, there are two processes. There are more than one layer of processes going on at the same time or should be going on at the same time. One of them is the process of negotiations one hears about where people go to hotel rooms or offices and sit down and negotiate bits and pieces of territory. But the other layers are the layers that have to do with bringing the societies, helping the societies mature, if you like, in this process of maturation we talked about.
This is maybe something one should say, which is that unlike, say, a negotiation that takes place over something totally different, like a legal negotiation over property or prices or what have you. Here what you have is a process in which the entire society on one side has to be engaged with the entire society of the other side for the negotiation to in fact proceed. It can’t be only engaged in by a few experts or lawyers or, you know, very clever politicians behind closed doors.
Everyone has to be somehow brought in and they have to be brought in, bite into what is happening, be helped to go along with the process, and this is where maybe addressing peoples’ religious beliefs is important because it’s something that can’t be done overnight. It is something that takes time.
MS. TIPPETT: So there’s been a process — I want to make sure I get this right — that the security wall was coming through playing fields of Al-Quds University? Is that right?
MS. NUSSEIBEH: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And you had a successful nonviolent protest. I mean, that’s an example of the kind of story that you don’t hear. It does seem to be unusual also.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: It was a wonderful story.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about that.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: But it’s something also that you have to take into account here, the fact that the United States interfered and this is very telling. That’s very important. However, in order to get to that point, we spent more than 34 continuous days of sit-in protests on the field. And it was very important to do this peacefully, and it was very important for us as we did this to also address the other side, in this case, Israel, by saying that, you know, OK, regardless of what we think about your idea of setting up a wall, it’s your decision. You want to set it up, fine, but it should not be at our expense. You know, set it up so that we are not made to suffer.
Then we sat there, as I say, for 34 days. We had our classes there, our meetings, our graduation ceremonies. We had horse racing contests, chess, you name it, but it was a constant presence. And the army that was there at the beginning, right from the beginning, when it saw that we were just going there and doing things peacefully, just withdrew.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: They were a bit worried at the beginning.
But, you know, in addition to this kind of political activity that I’ve been engaged in, you know, we’ve established, for example, this thing called IPSO, which is the Israel Palestine Scientific Organization. This is an organization which has, in fact, been able to fund and encourage cooperation between many Israeli and Palestinian scientists in joint projects.
And this is not something that catches the headlines as very important, but it’s there. And actually, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that the many such programs that are going on among Israelis and Palestinians, I mean, that beneath the surface, there’s a lot of activity of cooperation that’s going on, and, you know, even if it’s not significant in itself, it’s significant insofar as it reflects the potential that exists, the readiness, the attitude that I already said was there for a real political process.
So we’re going there, we’re getting there, but we’re doing it slowly. Very often, we make mistakes, unfortunately, as we go along, but it’s part of humanity to make those mistakes.
MS. TIPPETT: I think this was wonderful. I want to thank you so much.
MS. NUSSEIBEH: My pleasure. Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.
Sari Nusseibeh is president and professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. His books include: Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life and What Is a Palestinian State Worth?
At onbeing.org, you can listen to this show again, download it, and share it with others. You can also hear more stories and details about Sari Nusseibeh’s fascinating family history and heritage; watch my unedited interview with him in his office in East Jerusalem. You’ll find this video and audio on our website — and all the other shows from our spring trip to Israel and the Middle East, with a range of voices and titles like: “Thin Places, Thick Realities,” “Pleasure More Than Hope,” and “Children of Both Identities.” That’s all at onbeing.org.
And we’ve had searching and substantive dialogue about the Middle East and our reactions to news from this part of the world on our Facebook page — “like” us there and join in at facebook.com/onbeing. Or follow us on Twitter; our handle, @Beingtweets.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Special thanks this week to Fouad Abu-Ghosh.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.
Next time, a companion voice to Sari Nusseibeh to both address and transcend the present contested moment. I speak with the wise and searching Israeli philosopher Rabbi David Hartman.
Please join us.