A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle
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The quest for his great-uncle Najib Nassar, an Ottoman journalist – the details of his life, and the route of his great escape from occupied Palestine – consumed award-winning writer Raja Shehadeh for two years. As he traces Najib’s footsteps, he discovers that today it would be impossible to flee the cage that Palestine has become. A Rift in Time is a family memoir written in luminescent prose, but it is also a reflection on how Palestine – in particular the disputed Jordan Rift Valley – has been transformed. Most of Palestine’s history and that of its people is buried deep in the ground: whole villages have disappeared and names have been erased from the map. Yet by seeing the bigger picture of the landscape and the unending struggle for freedom as Shehadeh does, it is still possible to look towards a better future, free from Israeli or Ottoman oppression.
places such as Petra this often results in bizarre and distressing scenes of alienated young men dressed up and presented in settings that render them an imitation of who they are just for the eyes of the visiting foreign and sometimes local tourists. The disjuncture they surely feel when they return to their natural settings must be difficult to bear. We stopped at the house of a descendant of a sheikh with whom Najib had stayed. We were served a glass of rosemary water, which we were assured
and admired had turned into perpetrators of horrific murders against my compatriots. I had failed to appreciate that civil wars bring out the worst in people and can turn them into monsters. This was only among the first of many massacres that were to follow in which all sides, including the Palestinians, were implicated. How could I go back to Lebanon as a tourist, I argued with myself, seeking pleasure in a place where there was so much gratuitous violence? I might go into a restaurant to
took everything – our country, even our home libraries. It is good we were able to escape with the clothes on our backs.’ Until I found out that Rashid had graduated as a pharmacist from the American University of Beirut I had been trying to imagine how a family from a small, relatively poor Lebanese mountain village that had suffered civil strife for years could have ventured into a strange land where they knew no one. How did they manage? How could they have started their hotel business with
his death that Najib could be buried in the land he worked so hard to save. As I stood by the grave, my thoughts went to another important Palestinian literary figure, Emile Habibi, who managed to remain in Palestine after the Nakba and on whose grave is the epitaph he chose: ‘I stayed in Haifa.’ The past cannot be revived. The suffering that Najib and his descendants have endured cannot be undone. My hope is more modest: that travellers to and inhabitants of the Great Rift Valley, along the
was given a room that was kept closed to everyone except members of the household. He describes Kawar as a descendant of the Ghassanids, one of two Christian Arab tribes living in the Syrian countryside before the Islamic conquest who did not convert to Islam. Perhaps this was why he called the main character of the novelistic account of his escape Mufleh, a good Arab name meaning the successful one, and Al Ghassani, in reference to the Ghassanids. The Ghassanids came from Yemen and for a time