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Raja Shehadeh: We weren’t close in life, but in researching my father I finally understand him

In 1967 Aziz Shehadeh was the first Palestinian to argue, controversially, for a two-state solution to the conflict in his homeland. It took years for his son Raja to truly admire him.

When the time came for finalising the cover for my book We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I, the designer chose a picture which showed my father with his arm affectionately over a young teenage boy. When I pointed out that the young man in the picture wasn’t me but my cousin, the designer asked for a similar picture with me intimately hugging my father. I searched the family photos; no such picture could be found. Sadly, I reflected on what I had lost in not drawing nearer to my father, who was a loving man.  

Although my book has a lot to say about my father, Aziz Shehadeh, and his political and legal work, the book I wrote is not just a biography of him. It is an investigation of why we were not friends and why we could have been. During my father’s final year in 1985 I could see how busy he was putting his papers in order. I wondered whether he was preparing to write his memoirs, but it seems he didn’t have any intention of doing so. For many years all of those files remained in his house until I eventually moved them to my place.

It was during the Covid lockdown that I decided to open that cabinet. And when I did, I discovered a treasure trove. There I found documents and articles of his major legal cases and examples of his courage. File after file of neat, well-organised topics on his various political engagements and important cases were in there. During his lifetime my father endured many setbacks and accusations of treason for the bold political positions he took which often went against the prevailing trend.

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Himself a refugee from the coastal city of Jaffa and living in Jordan, he worked diligently from 1949 to 1952 to implement UN General Assembly Security resolution 194 for the return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they were forced out of during the Nakba of 1948. In 1954 he won a breakthrough case against the British Barclays Bank, forcing it to transfer to the Palestinian refugees funds in the bank’s branches in the cities that came under Israeli jurisdiction.

During his stay in London he was courageous enough to write a memo to British members of Parliament complaining about the torture of prisoners by the British head of the Jordanian army, John Bagot Glubb.

A few years later he was incarcerated in a Jordanian desert prison during the intolerable hot summer months for his political work in trying to advance democracy in Jordan. And yet for all his trailblazing legal and political work I could not admire him. Even though I later used law, just as he had done, against Israeli violations of human rights under occupation, we both failed to see the similarity between our two struggles. 

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History has vindicated my father and proved how prescient Aziz was on many fronts. He was right on the folly of depending on Arab states for gaining our rights. He was also right and his timing was courageous when, after the 1967 war, he went against the prevailing trend and its call for armed struggle against Israel and proposed the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Now, 55 years later, the PLO is seeking the same goal, though now it looks desperate and unattainable.

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The more I read of his papers and became aware of his achievements, the more intrigued I became as to why I did not truly admire my father during his lifetime. The writing of this book brought me closer to him. As I sent my manuscript last year in Ramallah I feared my father got it wrong. With the almost daily attacks by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank supported by the Israeli army, and the near silence of most Israelis against the brutality of their fellow citizens, I put it to him that he was too idealistic. Our enemy has won, I tell him. In the imaginary dialogue with which I end the book I say: “Father, you underestimated Israel’s power, resourcefulness and long-term planning.”

We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir by Raja Shehadeh is out on August 4 (Profile, £14.99)

His response is reproachful: “You say they’ve won and you cite the fact that they deny the Palestinians have any rights over the land, and have dropped you out of their consciousness. This only means that they’ve succeeded in deceiving you as well. You think that because they’ve made you invisible they’ve won? That’s only a recipe for perpetual war. Don’t you realise that the only victory is the achievement of peace between our two peoples? How it saddens me to see that the only relations between you are those of master and slave, one of exploitation, hatred, seizing every opportunity to destroy each other. And yet you call their denial of Palestinians their ‘victory’.” 

He ends with his ultimate challenge: “The only real victory is when we’ve both won.” 

You can buy We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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