Strangers in the House is a personal memoir in which the primary conflict is between father and son. Nevertheless, it’s suffused with the tumultuous politics of the Middle East and the Palestinian issue forms much of the fabric of the author’s relationships. This contributes to the multiple meanings of the title, which echoes the author’s feelings about his family as well as the situation in Palestine in general. Raja Shehadeh was born in the West Bank into a family of two strong, very different wills—his stately, aristocratic grandmother, always looking to the past, and his father, Aziz, full of nervous energy and barreling toward the future. In their immediate world, British misgovernance of the areas of the Middle East under its purview had quickly lead toward violence between Jews and Arabs. Thus, Raja’s first breath was taken in a personal and political world already brimming with contention. But while his father is fighting to realize a realistic solution for Palestinian sovereignty and dignity—efforts for which he is branded a traitor to the Arabs—Raja grows from being a sickly boy to a promising, intellectually vigorous man. Despite Aziz’s brilliance, however, he is perhaps the last man to acknowledge his son’s potential. Raja instead seeks out wisdom in his school experiences as a student of English literature in Beirut and London, an abortive trip to India, and a love affair with an American woman. The father’s world of politics and law seems the last place Raja is headed. Eventually, however, that’s exactly where he ends up, working as a lawyer side by side with Aziz in Ramallah while the city is under Israeli occupation. Raja becomes a leader in developing legal means to assert Palestinian rights, even as the fire that once burned in his father’s belly grows noticeably colder. Raja earns international kudos for trying to stop the disintegration of Palestinian law as an author and for his human rights work. But an increasingly depressed Aziz has no encouraging words for his son. Where others see Raja as making strides in ending the excesses of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Aziz feels he is stirring up trouble. When the Israelis begin harassing the law firm and its employees, Aziz interprets it as evidence that he’s been right all along. In the end, it’s nearly too much for Raja, who temporarily leaves the law firm. He eventually returns, but his relationship with his father isn’t mended in time. While Raja is abroad on a speaking tour, Aziz is murdered. The public embraces the idea that he was assassinated as a traitor by a Palestinian extremist. However, Raja is convinced that Aziz’s death is unrelated to politics. Transforming himself from an international human rights lawyer into a criminal prosecutor, he investigates the murder while goading the Israeli police into doing more about his father’s case. After several setbacks and false victories, he is given a tantalizing glimpse of the truth: An Israeli police officer claims that one of Aziz’s opponents in a land dispute killed him. Raja’s oath to lay his father’s spirit to rest with justice looks as if it’s about to be fulfilled. But his optimism is short-lived, when he realizes that the murderer is being protected by the Israeli administration because he’s an informant for the occupiers. Politics in Palestine, it seems, is inextricable from the personal.
Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah. He is a founder of the pioneering, nonpartisan human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights, and the Middle East.
For the longest time my father represented to me the outside world. That world claimed him and deprived me of him. My mother and grandmother were the world of the house and of the two it was my grandmother, Julia, who was the stronger presence. She represented stability and generated a sense of physical well-being that was not apparent in others. To a sickly child this was a source of attraction and comfort. At the beginning of the book I was trying to show that “my sense of place”(p. 4) was not mine. How better to show this than by describing the figure who determined for me my sense of place, Julia? At the same time Julia represented Jaffa. She also represented one pole of my character, the more sensual, aristocratic, and elitist. What I was attempting to do in this first chapter was to develop the narrative through the sensory perceptions of the child. It was Julia who had the strongest impact on me as a child.
At one point you wonder whether not being able to drink tea from her own teacups was worse for your grandmother than the eviction from Jaffa (p. 20). Have you come to a conclusion about your own question yet, and, if so, what do you think your answer says about your grandmother?
Eviction from Jaffa meant parting with one kind of life, it meant being degraded, humiliated, and turned into a refugee. By insisting on her ways (on finding the best cups in which to drink tea) my grandmother was resisting all these attempts at putting her down and breaking her will. My grandmother was not a nationalist or a political person. She was an obdurate elitist trying to preserve a way of life. Defeat meant succumbing and my grandmother was not one to give in. If she could no longer be in Jaffa then she would at least try and preserve as much of her way of life as possible and will keep on looking for the best bone china cups in which to serve afternoon tea.
The memoir is primarily meant as a personal account, yet your prefacing chronology is meticulously devoid of personal references. How did you decide on what went in the chronology when your book is largely about how the politics of the larger world and the drama of the personal world are inextricably intertwined?
I’ve always thought that the book should be able to stand on its own. Yet I could appreciate that many readers would need to have the political/historical context to better appreciate the personal story. This I attempted to provide through the chronology in which I tried to present major events as objectively as possible. My choice of what to include was determined both by the salient historical events and more specifically those mentioned in the book. It’s absolutely true that my personal story is suffused with the politics around me but the book is not about politics. The chronology is simply a readers’ aid. To have included personal references in the chronology would have contradicted the spirit of the book which works entirely through the personal.
On page 28, you describe your father as having a “vague ethos” that bade him to remain free, exercise his own will, and, when confronted with a choice, to never choose to inflict evil on others. How did this imperative play out in his dealings with you?
I do not believe that my father was particularly calculating in his dealings with me. He had traditional notions of what were a father’s duties towards his son and he tried to fulfill these as conscientiously as possible. By living out his personal ethos he must have hoped that I would learn from his example. Ultimately I did. But not without suffering the exercise of his strong will over me which at times threatened to stifle me forever.
Ultimately, who do you think are the greatest enemies of and obstacles to Palestinan freedom? The Israelis, other Arabs, members of the Palestinian diaspora, the Palestinians themselves? In what ways do the shortcomings of all of these groups interact?
By refusing to withdraw and end its occupation of Palestine, Israel undoubtedly presents the greatest physical obstacle to Palestinian freedom. But freedom will not be achieved only through the liberation of the land from the occupier. The Palestinians have not been blessed with good leaders. Despite the enormous resistance and resilience of Palestinian society, we are often at the mercy of the manipulation and self-interest of Israel, Arab leaders, and sometimes our own miscalculations.
Why do you wait until late in the book (p. 180) to reveal that your family was Christian in a religiously charged conflict that many on the outside erroneously see as purely Jewish versus Muslim? You also allude to the ambiguous position of Palestinian Christians as a subculture during your murder investigation, yet you don’t go into detail. Why is this?
When I was growing up I never felt that my Christian identity was under threat. Nor did I feel in any way that I was a member of a religious minority. When my father used to point out that in addition to coming from a small family he was also disadvantaged in being Christian, I used to take issue with him. After all, ours was a national struggle that aimed at developing a modern secular state where there would be no manifestation of religious differences or discrimination. It was only when I came to realize that we might not be successful in achieving this objective that I was able to understand his fears. The point was also driven home when I had to go alone through my difficult ordeal after he was murdered. The Israeli Palestinian struggle is not a religious struggle; it is national. The fact of my being Christian has never been a defining aspect of my personality. Only at those times when law and order were on the wane and traditional sources of power on the ascendancy, did I feel at a disadvantage because of my religious affiliation.
You compare yourself to the Good Soldier Schweik, “coming into a charged battlefield, a highly politicized situation, and refusing to recognize it for what is was” (p. 181). In that never-finished tale, Schweik always comes out on top almost because of his ignorance, while you often suffered while trying to attain wisdom. Do you think the parallel holds as far as Schweik’s effortlessly happy endings? Or do you think that in gaining wisdom you forfeited happiness?
I think that I have remained to this day like the Good Soldier Schweik in my refusal to submit to politics while living all my life in a highly politicized situation. Like him this must be accredited to some extent to ignorance about politics. Whether or not this was willful I cannot decide. I don’t know if I have gained wisdom or forfeited happiness. I still seek both. What I would like to believe is that like the Good Soldier, I have insisted on my own way of seeing things. Where the analogy definitely fails is that in my case the process has been arduous and far from effortless.
At one point, you describe your visit to Martello Tower, “from where Joyce’s hero, Stephen Dedalus, began his famous day” (p.95). Conventional wisdom names Ulysses’s primary protagonist as not the young man Dedalus but his father figure in the novel, Leopold Bloom. The date is even celebrated in Dublin every year by Joyce fans as Bloomsday. How do you think your own relationship with your father is reflected in your interpretation of Joyce’s novel? How do you think it’s reflected later in your book, where you cast yourself as the “protagonist of a mysterious tragedy” (p. 202), when it’s arguable that the central figure in the murder is your father?
When reading Joyce my identification was always with the son, not the father, with Dedalus, not Bloom. In Chapter Ten where I describe my visit to the Martello Tower, I was describing an extremely self-involved young man who took courage from the details of the life of Joyce, his single-mindedness, his rebelliousness, and his dedication to art. It was this identification with Joyce that brought me to the Tower from whence I wanted to launch my new life in the world. Clearly at this point in my life I was more interested in the son and his experience in the world than in the father. In the course of writing Strangers in the House my relationship with my father developed. Still my self-description later on in the book as the “protagonist of a mysterious tragedy” is not made with any sense of irony. I was expressing what I felt at the time: that my father had died and left me with a great calamity, a greater challenge than I felt I could handle. I saw myself, not him, as the protagonist of this particular tragedy. My interpretation of Joyce’s novel at that point in the book clearly reveals my bias and unresolved relationship with my father.
What do you believe motivated your father to nearly take his own life? Do you understand his point of view?
When the 1967 War ended and Ramallah was occupied by Israel, my father must have felt once again that his world was utterly destroyed. He was not expecting this crushing defeat of the Arabs. He was not prepared psychologically for it. The defeat brought to mind the nakbeh of 1948 when his loss was total. Now as a middle-aged man he must have felt skeptical whether he would be able to pick up the ruins of his shattered life as he had done the first time and start again. Knowing my father, as I believe I do, he must have blamed himself for leaving himself and his family so vulnerable and exposed. He saw no point in living. The first time I felt I understood my father’s experience of utter gloom was after the Oslo Accords were signed. When I read the text, I believed that our long struggle for ending the occupation had been forfeited by our leadership and the strong legal case that I had worked on for so long was destroyed. Like my father I was eventually able to overcome my depression and forge ahead.
Events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have changed swiftly even since your 2001 Afterword. Are you optimistic that any sort of peace can be achieved, and do you think it will ever resemble the plan your father tried to realize?
The events that have occurred since the book was finished have only rent the two sides further apart. The physical changes on the ground, with the tremendous expansion in the number and size of Israeli settlements and the extensive road construction that have taken place to connect them to each other and to Israel, make it seem unlikely that there can be a return to how things stood when my father made his peace proposals. Yet peace will not come if it is not based on a genuine and full recognition by the two sides of each other and an equitable resolution of all the outstanding issues. Among these there must be a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the areas they occupied in 1967. Arrangements for peace that fall short of this will simply not endure.