In the Palestinian community, the talk here this week is about the seventh conference of the Fatah party, happening this week with 1300+ delegates from the West Bank, Gaza, and around the world in attendance. Many issues are at stake: a succession plan for the inevitable day when Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is no longer in power; the prospect of yet another attempt for Fatah to reconcile with Hamas (which Abu Mazen raised again in his 2.5 hour speech yesterday); attempts to heal divides within Fatah itself; the Palestinian circumstances in a world where the Trump administration begins to show its hand; and the question of the viability of the two-state solution at a time of continued expansion of Israeli settlements. The most significant outcome of the event will be the election of a new 23-person Central Committee. That vote is slated to take place on Saturday, and it will give an indication of how successfully Abu Mazen has shored up his own rather fragile position in the Palestinian political world.
It’s very hard for an outsider to peer into this intricate world of intrigue and alliances. For the last week, I’ve been hearing talk of deals being struck and campaigns being waged, and I’ve seen animated groups of men huddled in Ramallah restaurants, but I have no penetrating insights into what is happening inside the conference and why. It remains true that outside the new hall in the Muqata’a where the conference is taking place there remains a great deal of cynicism and skepticism about Palestinian politics and leadership. Abu Mazen is under attack on a number of different grounds.
On the one hand, he is said to be weak and too friendly to the Israelis; he was criticized roundly for attending the funeral of Shimon Peres, and he was even taken to task for providing assistance to Israel in fighting the devastating fires that whipped through the region this week. (For his troubles, Abbas was termed the “number one enemy of Israel” by one Israeli minister today.) On the other hand, he is seen as increasingly dictatorial, acting impulsively and extra-legally to jail opponents. His most generous critics see him as a tragic figure, a man with the near-impossible task of succeeding Yasser Arafat, who came to power making a promise to achieve a lasting peace, and who has been unable to deliver on that promise.
My students in the American Studies program are not, as far as I know, particularly active in any party politics. They do not seem to have a great deal of faith in the political system within Palestine, and they seem bent on trying to achieve change within their community through structures outside of politics, like business or the media. Even after this election season they are still comparing their own internal politics unfavorably to the U.S. system! I will be curious to hear from them at the end of the week what they think has come out of this conference.
Meanwhile, the winding down of the semester and a bit of travel have given me time to read large swaths of two important new books that I am happy to recommend.
The first is the new book by Sari Nusseibeh, my friend and the former president of Al-Quds University. After writing a number of important books on Palestinian politics and society, including his own striking autobiography (Once Upon a Country), Nusseibeh has returned to his intellectual roots as a philosopher to tell The Story of Reason in Islam (Stanford University Press). The book is an enthusiastic and accessible account of the strong tradition of Islamic thinkers who believed that human beings themselves had much to contribute to the discovery and understanding of truth and the moral life. These thinkers, as Nusseibeh describes them, tilted from the very beginning of Islam against more orthodox thinkers who believed taught that the sole source of truth and enlightenment was the holy scripture, the Qu’ran, and that reliance on human reason could amount to heresy. This is wholly unfamiliar territory to me – but Nusseibeh draws the amateur reader in. His first full chapter is a thrilling description of the place of poetry in the Arab world, and in which he argues that humankind’s imaginative response to the dramatic desert landscape was itself a fundamental source of the place of “reason” in Arab thought. Later, his account mixes complex discussions of such matters as “the language-logic debate” with insightful biographical treatments of some of the important thinkers. The book traces carefully the attempts of scholars to reconcile modes of thought that sprung organically from Arab tradition (and, most importantly, from the glories of the Arabic language itself) and approaches to the world that were imported from Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions. While Nusseibeh stays faithful to his focus on intellectual history, he makes occasional forays into the present to suggest the important consequences of these debates for modern Islam, where the tradition of reason sometimes faces an uphill battle against various forms of fundamentalism. I’m grateful to Sari for introducing me to a whole world of thought that I might otherwise never have traversed.
I also recently finished Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (Penguin). Ehrenreich, an American journalist, spent several years living on and off in the West Bank, talking with and writing about men and women on the front lines of Palestinian resistance. Much of this earnest and readable book takes place in the village of Nabi Saleh, north of Ramallah, which became a flashpoint for local resistance after residents of the adjacent Israeli settlement of Halamish appropriated for their own use a natural spring that had once been a shared resource for the local Palestinian community. The weekly demonstrations at Nabi Saleh eventually garnered national and international attention. Ehrenreich creates vivid portraits of several families involved deeply in local activism. His book describes both the humiliating and dangerous circumstances of these villagers’ lives under occupation, and also their creativity and resilience in the face of their difficult circumstances. Ehrenreich also spends some time in other parts of the West Bank – notably the southern city of Hebron, where the close proximity of Palestinian and Israeli residents creates extraordinary daily pressure. Ehrenreich’s book is frankly partisan, siding with the men, women and children on the front lines – fiercely critical of both the Israeli occupation and of Palestinians in power (especially in Ramallah) who in his view have lost touch with the spirit of resistance. I found it a little hard to keep track of the many people whom Ehrenreich describes (even with the helpful list of individuals), but Ehrenreich’s engaging first-person style pulled me along from chapter to chapter. As someone spending most of my time in the West Bank in an institution (the university) away from village life, I found this book a helpful complement to my own experiences and impressions.