‘What I gave America and what America gave me’ — an interview with the incredibly charming Reja-e Busailah
|Phil Weiss and Annie Robbins – September 21, 2018
Last spring we urged readers to get Reja-e Busailah’s memoir, “In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood.” Busailah was born in Jerusalem in 1929 and soon distinguished himself as a student despite his blindness.
Then in 1948, he was deprived of his home during the ethnic cleansing of Lydda. His memoir ends with the forced march to the West Bank. Though Busailah went on to lead a highly successful life, pursuing an academic career in the U.S., teaching English literature at the Indiana University/Kokomo, and publishing poetry. Over the summer Phil Weiss had two conversations with Busailah about how he made his way. Annie Robbins edited.
PW: I want to ask about your life after the book. The book takes us up to age 20 years?
Reja-e Busailah: Age 19.
Throughout the book, you have clear, clear visions of your childhood. It’s often surprising how much you can remember, can you explain that?
Many people tell me this. I don’t know. I remember when I came to this country I had a recommendation from one of my English professors at the University of Cairo and he wrote, about me, ”He has an abnormally retentive memory”. This is how he described me… So I don’t know how I remember. But I forget things now, I’m beginning to forget. And as they say, childhood things are more in the memory than later things. But I don’t know how I have this.
When did you go to Cairo and when to the United States?
OK, 1948, they threw us out. And we went to Ramallah finally and I stayed a year in Ramallah doing nothing. And then my father– I kept nagging, and my mother really wanted me to go, to study– until he gave me 100 pounds. And he said “You go,” that was in 1949. “You go to Cairo and then to the university, and make sure you study law”. I didn’t want to study law, even though it just sounded like something good but I went to Cairo in 1949 –
Was anyone expecting you when you went to Cairo?
There was a friend of mine, a blind friend of mine actually, she was in Palestine and then she went to Cairo with her family. I went there and stayed with them 4 or 5 days then I moved to a hotel. I had only 100 pounds remember. I stayed maybe for 2 weeks, I didn’t stay that long because it was expensive. I found a family that was willing, a different family, that was willing to take me in on condition that I agreed to say I that was a relative of theirs, that I lived in ash-Sham [Damascus], Syria or Palestine, and that I’m in Cairo to study. So I lived with them for about two months or so, but then I had to run away because the police were after me.
I entered the country Egypt without a matriculation certificate to prove that I was a student. I think it was in Cyprus or somewhere because the Department of Education was no more in Palestine. I think they gave me 70 days and if I didn’t prove that I was registered at the university, I should go back. So, I myself went to the university immediately and I went into the English class. And the teacher was very very gentle and kind and then after the class he asked me who I was. I told him that I was a Palestinian and I’m waiting for my certificate and all that and so he said to me “You could stay here as long as you want”.
My! What was his name?
I don’t remember his first name. His last name was Professor Madsen, he was Scottish. So he told me to stay but I wasn’t registered, and so one day I went back to the family I lived with and the lady told me “The police came asking about you”. So I knew why. I didn’t tell her, I said OK. I just packed up what little I had. I said I was going to Alexandria. I did not go to Alexandria of course. What I did is that I went to Al-Azhar University and the next day immediately I registered. They took me in, y’know blind and all that.
I told them I want to study at Al-Azhar University, I didn’t mention anything about the University of Cairo. And so they immediately registered me. And two weeks after I left the family the police caught up with me and they said to me “We thought you were in Alexandria,” I said, “yeah I got back.” And he said “Well maybe it’s time for you to leave,” and I said “I am registered in Al Azhar University.” So I beat them. Though I had stopped going to Al-Azhar.
Where were you actually going to school?
I was going to the University of Cairo. Professor Madsen told me that I could come to his class, always. I could attend or learn or whatever, until my certification would come. Then I would be officially registered.
Did it come?
It came at the end of the year.
How good was your English then?
It was good enough. It wasn’t that great of course but actually I was better than most of my fellow students, because the product of British education in English [in Palestine] was superior to those in Egypt. I was doing a little better at the beginning and that was to my advantage because the students then noticed this and they would come and ask me to help them in English and I would, and in return they helped me, they would read to me, and that’s what I needed most. So it was reciprocal.
What did you do for money?
My father gave me 100 pounds even though he had no money. He thought I would live on half a dollar a day. The Arab league gave me 5 — when I went and applied for financial aid, they gave me 5 pounds a month and 5 pounds a month meant a lot in those days for someone who had to be very frugal. Y’know, so I managed. I left that family and moved to a hostel. Then after the end of the year, two of my friends whom I mention in the memoir came to study also and we lived together. That was great.
You were moving from Palestine, from middle size cities, to one of the biggest city in the world, how did you adjust to that?
I didn’t have to adjust to anything. Believe me, I had no problem at all. I moved about, I walked without a cane, I never carried a cane so I’d walk alone. I would hear, use listening and that’s it. I could tell when the block was ended because before I would reach the fall at the end of the sidewalk, I would feel the openness to my left or my right so I knew it was over. And I stopped and listened to the traffic and moved and then I crossed and often people would cross, I would cross with them. I didn’t need anything.
What about if people said “Sir, can I help you across the road?” what would you say?
I would say “Thank you!” Why not? I mean great. But they seldom knew I was blind. I was telling my wife this little incident. I was walking and I bumped into a guy and I said, “I am sorry”, I said it in English, strangely enough. I continued. I crossed the street, and I could hear him running. He laid his hand on my shoulder and said, “I am sorry”, and I remember this incident very clear. This guy was so gentle and he felt maybe a little bit guilty.
But in Cairo in 1949 two guys were speaking English not Arabic, why?
Why not? The British had been in Egypt since 1882 and they taught them English and they came to Palestine and they forced me to study more English.
The British forced you to learn English. But you made a career out of English and you love English. Explain this complex relationship.
Image of the cover of Reja-e Busailah’s memoir. The author is the tall boy at the back. The photograph is the only one of his childhood that his family was able to save when they were expelled by Zionist militias from their home in Lydda, 1948.
Ok, before English I had already been studying, reading with my father; poetry, Arabic poetry, and I liked poetry. I didn’t know much about style and all that but I loved the music and I loved the style and I loved a poem if I understood it. And so my love for music in general, the music of the word– And poetry was therefore — in the Quran naturally — but the poetry was more interesting for me than the Quran was. I liked it, and then the British came and it was mandatory to study English. So I studied English and frankly I loved it. I would start looking for resemblances and differences between the two languages, Arabic and English, and I would be of course delighted when I thought I discovered something. Then when my English became a little bit stronger, we were exposed to English poetry, and I noticed something different here, this English poetry is different from my Arabic poetry. That caught my interest. From there, I was growing up remember, I was growing up and my consciousness, my understanding were growing up correspondingly.
When did you come to the United States?
I came to the States twice. The first time was in 1953. I got a scholarship after I graduated from the University of Cairo to come to the States to study special education in order to go back and teach the blind. America used to be the paradise of every crazy person. So I came. I came to New York, I went to the Institute for the Education of the Blind, at the time it used to be called, in the Bronx. I went there and they asked me if I would teach in return for the assistance, for room and board and for paying my fees. Of course I said yes, I stayed there, taught there, lived there, and studied at Hunter College. I majored in special education, and I got my Masters. I stayed there 2 years, but it took me a year and a half. Now I had six months, what should I do with them? I took English courses, English literature.
In some ways you have had a very hard life. You were deprived of your vision, you were deprived of your home. In other ways you’ve had a charmed life; it seem to me everywhere you went people were charmed by you, because of your intelligence, your wit, your verbal-ness. You land in New York, and the first thing they want you to do is teach. How did you make your way?
I’m not a magician, I don’t think I charm anybody really, I am a human being like anybody else. I really don’t know, this is a very difficult question – you want me to think about myself.
Have a lot of people told you, you charm people?
Frankly, yes, they say that. Well yes.
So I got you!
Well I don’t want to lie to you. Seriously, I remember when I asked God to give me back my sight and he didn’t or wouldn’t or whatever, I said to myself — well I didn’t say it in these words, but my feeling [was] “There is my challenge, I have got to be diligent, I have got to be determined, I’ve got to be courageous and I have got to be cunning in the positive sense. I’ve got to use my intelligence perhaps to get around people, to make them appreciate something in me.” I really didn’t know what it was.
Ok ok, so did you like America on the first trip?
I loved America. Because there was learning, and I was seeing new things, I was meeting new people, I was noticing, I was more than noticing — life was different! And of course remember I was emerging from what happened in Palestine already and this was just awful and here I am in a country where people are, they were so helpful here, really. They offered me a job, school and I met people of my age. It was just so fine that I stayed two years right? After the first year, I brought one of my sisters to study in the United States! She came, and she went to Iowa.
How did you pull that off?
We were able to get her a scholarship. I don’t remember as I grow older, but there was a woman, God rest her soul, she was very pro-Palestinian. She was American, a Mrs. Marshall whom I met once. And I mentioned my sister [to Marshall]… and she, I think she came from Duluth, Minnesota — she was rich I think — and she helped quite a few Arabs, Palestinians especially.
I want to ask a sensitive question, when did you first get a girlfriend because you obviously like girls in this book.
Before I answer this question, when this book was launched in Jerusalem one of the people who spoke, I don’t need mention names, asked me, sent me a few questions. One of them is “How come there is no sexuality mentioned in the book?”
He didn’t read the book!
Can you believe it?… Well, girlfriends in America– it depends on what we mean by friends. Friend as friend, yes. I had many girlfriends because, well, maybe I am a charmer as you say. But more seriously they would come and read to me, then we would digress and we would talk. Then some kind of friendship would grow up. But a serious girlfriend in the serious sense, no I didn’t, I really didn’t. I was busy studying. I was too poor. I didn’t have money. You have a girlfriend you have to take her out in the first place. I didn’t have that much money to take them out.
What about in Cairo?
Again there wasn’t much serious relationship really. I loved them. Look, to me the female voice alone is so attractive. It makes — I don’t see them; you see them. When you look at her eyes and her hair, that takes something away from your attention. But all my concentration is on her voice. So all her attraction, all her power of attraction is concentrated in her voice. For a person who depends on voices, like me, blind and all that. In Egypt there were beautiful girls from their voices but I really never had any girlfriend. Somebody interviewed me before, and do you know what the question was? The first question. Did you have any sex in the Arab world?
Why did they do that? It’s insulting.
I don’t know.
What was your political understanding of Palestine at that age? Today you have a deep understanding about empire, about Zionism, about the west, about the treatment of Arabs. How sophisticated were you then, politically?
I loved America. Frankly I still love it now, in spite of so much. At the same time, I was carrying a chip on my shoulder when I came here. Palestine, it was heaven. I don’t know why but it was heaven. And we were aware before coming to this country, we were aware of America’s support for the Israelis and the Zionists and the destruction of Palestine. We were all aware of that. So I came here with this in mind. And The Institute for the Education of the Blind, they gave me a roommate. The roommate was Jewish, Burt Levitt. And you know, I couldn’t believe myself nor could he that we had the best relationship while rooming together. He never brought up the subject of Palestine. And I believe the school did this on purpose, to see how this would work and it worked perfectly.
Remember, I was a teacher. And we were having dinner, at the table, who sat at our table but the principal of the whole institute, the director, and they brought up the name of Churchill and I quickly intervened and dashed Mr. Churchill. I said “Mr Churchill was not fair, he did awful things to the Palestinians.” I didn’t know everything at that time about Churchill except that he was anti-Palestinian. And I said “You are an imperialist” and I was about to start comparing him to Hitler…
Then he, the principal, started banging on the table. And I remember when we came to eating the dessert, he said, “Here’s peaches, and I assure you the peaches are not poisoned you can eat them.” Ah, I didn’t like that.
That’s not very nice.
I ate them. of course.
But what does that tell you, that story?
It tells me that this guy did not understand what had happened to me, he didn’t get it. And because he heard so much about how bad the Palestinians are and here’s a Palestinian who doesn’t like Churchill! And Churchill is worshipped in America! They worshipped him! Now here’s the proof of what I’m saying. I couldn’t believe my ears: one day, when I was listening either to radio station WQXR or WNYC, I heard the phrase “Give a dollar and kill an Arab”. I heard it only once. I couldn’t believe my ears. It still rings in them now.
What if I were to say to you, “Well there’s no recording of that; maybe you misheard it”?
You can say anything you like, I’m telling you what I heard — on the radio. I heard it only once. Maybe it was withdrawn after that once, I don’t know. We Arabs, Palestinians, were– and still are, fair game here. They can say anything about us, they can do anything to us and they get away with it.
Was the director of the institute Jewish?
No, he wasn’t.
OK, but how much does what you say about QXR, how much does that involve the fact that New York is one of the biggest Jewish cities in the world? So there we’re a lot of Zionists listening.
It’s a station I admire. I still listen to it now. I like it so much.
How come you love this country?
Look, a human being, not only I, is made up of many elements, not only one element. I am not only here to talk about Palestine to you. I have lived in this country for some 60 years. I talk about Palestine but I talk about lots of other things. I am made up of many parts. Ok? I was taught by many Jewish professors when I went to NYU. I loved some of them. I didn’t like some of them. Not because of their politics. Now, WQXR is a station, it’s not a human, a person, it is not an individual. Now, if there had been a person who said “Give a dollar and kill an Arab” I might hate him and I might still hate him now even though he may be in his grave. But Edward Said lived here, they wanted to kill him! They burned his office, they went after him not only after his politics — but he loved New York. He said “I love New York more than I loved Jerusalem!” [laughter] Honestly! I said, “Edward!” He said, “Yes, that’s the truth.”
Once you become one emotion, one idea, one this, one that, then you are finished.
Ok, let’s go to NYU.
Oh that’s a long story. After I was done for two years, the Kuwaiti government offered me a job immediately. They paid for my ticket from New York to Kuwait, to go there, and I and an Egyptian, we founded a school for the blind and there we worked, for two years. But my love for literature was an undying thing. It was growing actually, and so after two years I was able to save up a little money so I came back and I applied to NYU and to University of Michigan. And I got acceptances from both, but I had already fallen in love with New York so I stayed at NYU.
Reja-e Busailah, speaking in April at Indiana University.
How did it go at NYU?
Oh it was rough. I had nothing. They gave me an adviser, and he gave me five courses, registered me. I had no idea what I was getting into. I found out there was a course in American literature! The British wouldn’t let me study anything in American! I had never heard of Emily Dickinson, of Whitman, of Henry James. Even though Henry James became a British citizen, I have nothing at all! And I tell you that was really discouraging.
Why? Because I was unable to keep up. Those students were studying Whitman and Emily Dickinson when they were in elementary school and here I’m doing graduate work in Whitman! So the teachers thought I was dumb, and half of what they would say I wouldn’t even understand. Let alone symbolically or figuratively, I didn’t get it, I didn’t know what they were talking about. Here I was supposed to read a novel every week. How on earth, who would read it to me? And so it was tough the first year.
Did you get readers?
The readers I got through the Lighthouse [services for the blind] on 58th or 57th street. But no matter how much they read to me you could never finish and I didn’t understand. This is new to me, instead of starting with A, I had to start with Z.
When did it get better?
Gradually. But I didn’t feel it until the second year studying at NYU. I remember one of my professors, I asked a question after a class. He said, “You are getting smarter”. [laughs] I said “Professor Rosenthal. I am not dumb, I didn’t know your language. Just give me time to learn more English.” Then slowly but finally I caught up, then I had no problems. What did I major in? Not American Literature, not Modern American Literature, not Modern English, but Anglo Saxon Literature, Old English Literature. And I wrote my doctoral dissertation in Anglo Saxon Literature. And most universities stopped teaching Anglo Saxon because they say “Eh, its too difficult — oh this and that.” It’s a different language but I was able to do it.
Did you still love New York culturally then?
I love NY and four years ago I took my wife on her birthday, I took her to New York. We stayed 12 days and I swear I took her to the Waldorf Hotel, and I took her to NYU, took her to Washington Square, took her to the village where I lived, took her to Bleecker Street, and we even took the ferry to Staten Island. It was great. I loved New York and if you’d give me enough money I’d leave my house and go right now. You got any? Send it. Send it. I will live there.
What did America give you?
What did America give me? America gave me two things. It gave me a blessing to live and be able to support myself and support my family. And of course it bothered me with its wars — y’know keep talking to me everyday, criticizing me; “Muslims and Arabs and terrorist” and that kind of thing. I don’t like that. But as I said, I am not limited to one track. American gave me and took away, if you like. But this is life. Life is made up of more than one gift.
What did you give America?
Once I had an argument with one of the administrators here at the university. He was silly. “Oh, we gave you a job.” I told him immediately, “You gave me a job? My blood, my thinking, runs through the veins of your people in America.” I taught hundreds maybe thousands of students and believe me, I still see them. I can’t walk in this town without running into this and that, and “Thank you for what you did” and “I remember you of course”. There was a guy who when he saw me — he began reciting, in Middle English Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which I had taught him I think 40 years ago! [laughs] — So that’s what I gave America and I’m proud of it and I’m grateful to America, and at the same time I’m willing to criticize it and I’m glad I am allowed to criticize it. I couldn’t do it if I lived in any Arab country. I don’t think they would let me do that.
Look at my Facebook, the way I criticize that poor Trump for instance.
When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote poetry in Arabic according to my memoir when I was maybe 10 or 11.
Do you still write it in Arabic?
No, I don’t write in Arabic now. I don’t write in Arabic, because one thing I don’t have anyone to read Arabic to me, and two, I don’t follow the movement, I don’t know what is going on with Arabic poetry today.
And I think my ability, my language ability is weakening because I don’t use it. They are editing an issue of Majallat Al Dirassat Al Falastiniya, the Journal of Palestine Studies in Lebanon, and they asked me to contribute, so I had to write in English and now they are translating it into Arabic, which is sad in a way.
But that happens to people who spend a lot of time in another country.
Yes, but that’s no consolation. Anyway that’s how it is. It took me a long time to write in English. It took me a long long time because they taught me English when we were students, but the formal language. The British, you know– and that was no language for poetry of course. It was only when I came to America really and became familiar with the spontaneous language, the language of the emotion and children’s speech and colloquial and slang, ’twas then that I began to express myself in this language.
Can you suggest what the meaning of your life is? It seems to me, rough outline, you were a gifted intellectual boy raised in Palestine, you are now a mature intellectual living in America .. that’s a tremendous journey you’ve made. What should people take away from the fact you’ve made this great journey, what is the human lesson learned?
That is a very difficult question. In spite of what you say, and what you say is true, I’m still really attached to both, roots and bough. I am attached to my beginnings and I am also attached to where I am. You may call me complex, I don’t know, but that’s how I am. Now of course I’m divorcing what I’m saying from the external and abnormal circumstances, y’know politics. But my life and my work — my wife makes fun of me sometimes. When she wants to be humorous, she tells me, “Well you used to live among those kids in chicken droppings”. Which is true, if you remember the memoir, the chickens were all over us and their droppings were there, and we would roll over it and go home and my mom would yell at me and see that stuff on my clothes. My wife reminds me of this. “And now you think you are modern and you think you want to fly”.
She is saying you think you’ve gotten away from that?
The joke is that no matter what you think you are, you are still what you were when you are six or five years old. I’m saying I am attached to those days when I was two years and three years old, to where I am now, almost 90. So my life is not divorced completely today, from yesterday.
We haven’t had a very political conversation and that’s fine. But you’ve observed a lot of politics in 60 years, so how has the Palestinian situation changed, and is there any progress?
Ok, now I am not in politics believe me, even though I talk about it. But I believe that the Palestinian people have fallen victim to colonialism really. Colonialism, it was maybe a little bit anachronistic when it reached us, but it was colonialistic. Ah– what happened to your Indians here and what’s happened to the Blacks in Australia, is what has happened, what is happening still, to the Palestinian people.
For me, the situation has been deteriorating ever since I became conscious of what was going on. They used to say “Oh the Jews and the British are going to take away your country” when we were little. We used to hear this and sometimes we would be defiant as children and sometimes I would be afraid and apprehensive, especially when the English killed some or the Jews killed some. We called them Jews, and we made no distinction between Jew and Zionist and all that stuff, they’re all Jews, that’s it– Yehud. So they would throw a bomb and they would kill some people and it would scare me. But then that wasn’t only me scared, because this scare was — I didn’t know for sure at the time, but I didn’t know that it was real, and it was to bear fruit, and it did bear fruit, and then came the end.
Now, during the 30s especially, the resistance of the Palestinians was at its highest, and we used to think that we were beating both English and Jewish, when we were actually losing of course. Later on we found out but in 1939 I thought we won against them, when actually we had lost so much. We still thought, because of numbers, and because of names we would hear names we knew nothing about them, Al-Qawuqji for instance, [leader of the Arab revolt]. You would hear his name and he is a great hero. We thought that definitely when the time came we were going to win and send the Jews who don’t want to live with us, send them out, that’s it. Those who want to live with us, fine.
Then the Jewish extremists or the Zionists finally showed their muscles. I remember when they blew up the wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem . That scared me very very much. And my father said something to me, and it stayed with me until now until I wrote a poem about it. He told me “Son, these are very dangerous dogs, and beware a dog who has rabies,” and “those people who kill Jew, Arab and English without discrimination are very dangerous.”
At that time my consciousness was growing. We began to realize that we may not be their match, the match of the new people. I began to have fears. But still maybe to deceive myself, we’d say “we would lick them yet” or “just wait till the British leave”. And the British did leave. They did not fight as they had in America. They left.
One last point before we come to ’48 itself, I think the Palestinians educationally were pretty backward compared to modern education, especially in politics and military. We were far behind, and yet we perhaps committed a big mistake when we declared our rebellion against both British and Jews. I think we should have concentrated on the immigrant, on the Jews not on the British. Because the British were not colonizing, the British were supporting the colonizers, but they were not colonizing. The British would have said “to hell with you” and they would have left if we had shown results. But I think the leadership did not, I believe now, did not understand it.
And my fears were completely realized in ’48. I remember at the beginning of the year, ’48, they, I don’t know which militia, maybe Irgun, conducted an attack on Ramle, neighbors to Lydda, and they killed quite a few. This was terrorizing the people, scaring us. I began to know that we were in trouble.
But I’m asking you the lessons now 60-70 years later.
Personally, I believe we are much worse off. I’ll tell you why. First, we are scattered, you know. We are all over, I am in Kokomo here talking to you. But we have the Palestinians in Gaza by itself, 2 million of them, you have our Palestinians under Israeli rule and under [Palestinian] Authority rule in what they call the West Bank. We have them in Jordan and you have them in Lebanon and all over. So, we are not together. Now, this alone weakens solidarity, the sense of solidarity is not there any more and we do not negotiate with each other. And this leads to the factions.
And then the external factors are pretty bad. You have the west, which was never our ally, from the beginning was against us. I mean, why would France give the nuclear bomb to the Israelis? Why? France was not even the ruler of that territory — they give them that. Then America has always been supporting. Then you have this general latent sentiment in the west, in the people, I’m not talking about the leaders and extremists. No, about the regular person, really all he knows is negative feeling about those Palestinians because it has always been like this, from biblical times. Even “Palestine” the name itself tells you of the Philistines, and Philistine is in every English dictionary now, Philistine. What I am trying to say is that the sentiment of the public, wherever you go in the west, is negative. And finally, you have now, the colonizer is recognized as a nation, the nation of Israel. And well, that makes it harder for the Palestinians.
I am pessimistic yes, in my analysis, but I don’t surrender. I now believe that the Palestinian task becomes harder, but it is a task and the Palestinian is obligated to bear the task and work. Ok, in the ’30s we wanted the Jews out– the immigrants coming by force, who were supported by the British, we wanted them out, and we failed. Then the western world especially turned against us in the ‘40s, openly. And declared the Jewish state and of course, the Jewish state has been growing ever since. There’s hardly anything left of Palestine. All this is negative.
There are still a lot of us in Palestine, and I don’t know if the Israelis know themselves what to do with us now. There are maybe 4 or 5 million Palestinians. Even though we have no leadership, I think we have learned a lesson because of collectivity as a people, and this lesson is: “You shall not leave, no matter what terrorism, how much terrorism is at large to scare us into leaving as they did in ’48 and ’67. You shall not leave.” And we do not leave. And the Israelis, I think, are realizing this. Ok, now they have the land, the Israelis have all the territory or almost all of it. So, what will you do with the 4 million people?
There’s going to be something like South Africa before it was liberated. There is going to come a time that Netanyahu and the Netanyahu kind of people will not be there forever. Just as the South Africa leaders, the white ones, were not there forever. I don’t know when, but there will be a time coming when those Europeans immigrants or colonists, they will realize that you will have to live with these people.
And that means some kind of rapprochement. Slowly gradually, yes, but it will have to come. And the Palestinian extremists will finally realize that returning to pre-1948 Palestine is a dream now, it’s impracticable, there’s no way you can do it. At the same time the Jewish extremists will themselves have to realize that no matter what, how much power and how much money, and how much weapons they have these people are in the millions here and you can’t kill them in the millions and you will not terrorize them because they have learned the lessons. I don’t believe they can uproot us again. So there will come the time, in other words, when a reconciliation of sorts is reached.
Does that mean a two state solution?
No! I’m not talking about two state solution at all. There is no way. I don’t believe in it. Look, it’s neither good for the Israelis even, nor for the Palestinians. These so-called Israelis… they are westerners, they’re Americans, they’re British and German and Russian. But they call themselves Jews, and those who are smart among them use it for sentimental reasons, that’s all, to arouse the masses — but these Europeans have so much potential, they have so much power, mental power, and scientific power, they can’t live in a little country. They just can’t, it doesn’t work. The whole of Palestine is 10,000 square miles. It is a country whose natural resources are not that great. The Israelis settle on the land, but they do not settle down for the little there is. They have to have more. Israeli expansion only exacerbates matters and this will go on and on.
And for the Palestinians it is still much worse. What kind of state will they give them? It is completely unviable. Why not then unite the two peoples? Why not make of the two opposed forces one force, one unit? Putting them together I believe would benefit both much more. Then you would be able to have a state made of these two peoples and reconciling the Palestinians would help the Jews very much in that the Arab sentiments, not the governments but the peoples’, which is pro-Palestinian, will change; and then Israel, if you want to call it so, will be able to really benefit from this whole region. But with the Palestinian problem as it is, there will always be the danger of an eruption.
Did you ever have a choice to move back?
No, I never had the chance to go back. I was never given the chance. This is very strange. God, where did you get this question? Elias Khoury, the famous novelist, he is editing that issue of Palestine Studies in which he asks the question about the imagined return, “What would you do? Would you return?” He asks a number of people to write his opinion, and I was one of them.
I said I would return, on the condition that the path I just paved for you, the path to rapprochement and reconciliation, is open more or less, I would go. But I wouldn’t go to join extremism or to oppose extremism, I mean to fight. I’m not going to go and say “OK, I will be subject and I will fight to the death and all this. No.”
But tell me, Netanyahu, “Come back to Palestine and help us — and let us work together to make a new whole society of both Arab and Jew,” I would go.
Wow, that’s beautiful.
A dream is good to start with, but a dream you can’t use for practical purposes.
You said that in a lot of Arab societies you wouldn’t be free to dissent and yet you do that in the US. Yet in your book you recognize that people try to diminish Arab culture all the time, and Palestinian culture. Can you offer me a resolution of these two different ideas?
Culture is a very wide ranging and far reaching thought and practice. Culture is not just expressing your opinion or not. I respect my culture because in it there is a history of people from god knows when and it is expressed in their language. Every word as I have always said– every word is a reservoir of the past and it is a spring of the future you see. Much more than politics and opinion. And today, I’m afraid of expressing my opinion now in America. I’m beginning to fear now, but that doesn’t mean America is finished. No!
I do reconcile myself to my culture because I have much love for its past and I have much hope for its future. Today, things are bad, today we have Saudis, and we have Kuwaitis, and you have Egyptian leaders, they come today and go tomorrow– but the people and their culture remain. If a culture has lived for so many hundreds of years as it did among the Arabs, it is going to continue. And there will come a time, I’m sure, when you will be able to speak against the government and for the government. It almost began to come in 2011 with the so-called Arab spring. We saw some sort of dawn, but if there is a false dawn today there can be a true dawn tomorrow.
So I reconcile this and I don’t hate my culture because America’s culture is better. Nah! I respect both. I learn from both. I dream, you know; and I learn from both, and I use both.
That’s so great.
When I want to joke, when I laugh at myself, I say, “I am the Colossus”– the Colossus with one leg on the east Atlantic, and the other on the west Atlantic. I get both of them together.
Beautiful, Reja-e! Thank you Colossus. Don’t roll too much in the chicken shit.
I love it. Believe me!