Karl Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces here as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court.
In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh has combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. He wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.
The book, which I’ve just finished, is clearly written and his case is presented in a measured and reasoned manner, always citing sources which are often Jewish and Israeli (for example, the detailed research work of Benny Morris into the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-8).
Sabbagh aims to challenge stereotypes: “I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.”
A previous edition of the book was subtitled ‘History of a Lost Nation’ – which is probably a more accurate description of this account of how Palestine has been subjected to outside interference and control since at least the 18th century, the period at which Sabbagh begins his narrative. There is less ‘Personal History’ of the Sabbaghs woven into the story than the present subtitle might suggest.
Sabbagh writes that “many different ‘peoples’ have lived in Palestine over the centuries. I say ‘peoples’ in quotes because there is no really accurate way to determine from historical texts and excavations the precise connections or ethnicities of the groups who have left traces of their presence.” He presents the Sabbagh family as representative of the vast majority of the Arab population of Palestine – Muslim and Christian, who have lived in Palestine for more than 300 years, alongside their Jewish neighbours.
We are given snapshots of the Sabbaghs at different times, and learn especially about his father, Issa, who was for many years a broadcaster for the BBC Arabic Service during the eventful years of the 1940s and 1950s. But Sabbagh’s repeatedly diverges from his personal narrative to explore the wider political story of machinations by the British and the Zionists in Palestine between the wars. It’s a familiar story of the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, the various inter-war Commissions, and the way in which the tiny Zionist movement mysteriously influenced politicians in Britain and America who were often completely ignorant of the land, its peoples and its history.
The lesson I take from his survey of this history is that no people has a monopoly of virtue. The parallels (and in some instances, the collaboration) between Zionism and Nazism are unnerving – once again highlighting the terrible legacy of European nationalism, here in its most extreme forms: both deeply racist, both seeking an ethnically pure nation-state, through whatever means necessary. Sabbagh quotes Avraham Stern, leader of the terrorist Stern Gang (who approached the Nazis with an offer of an alliance against Britain), as describing the Arabs as ‘beasts of the desert, not a legitimate people…The Arabs are not a nation but a mole that grew in the wilderness of the eternal desert. They are nothing but murderers.’
The Sabbagh family history shows the absurdity of Israel Zangwill’s claim that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Sabbagh’s grandfather was a lawyer in Tulkarm. His relatives were businessmen and traders, part of an intricate web of societal links that reached across Palestine and the Levant. Palestinian Arab society was highly developed, especially in the towns and cities, with a sophisticated cultural and political life. Sabbagh is good on what might be called the second “lost history of Palestine”(if the first is that of the Palestinians themselves): the good relations between many Jews and Arabs before 1948. When Sabbagh’s uncle had a car accident outside the Jewish town of Nahariya, local people took him and his passengers in, gave them tea and cakes and tended to their injuries. A man called Azmi Audeh recalled the local Jewish fishmonger who served his father: “The Jew looked exactly like us; had the same skin colour, spoke the same Arabic language, dressed exactly like us, and even had the same nose. He seemed to be a very nice man, eager to please. So why was this man a problem?” The problem was, of course, not piscine but political: the Yishuv, the Zionist state in waiting, claimed Palestine for itself.
The Palestinians were no match for the determination of the Jews. Riven by factionalism and incessant feuding, their leadership had no strategic plan to capture Palestine once the fighting started and no united military command. Sabbagh skilfully uses material extracted by Israeli historians from Israeli archives to show the dark reality of the 1948 war, which makes uncomfortable reading for those raised on the myth that the Palestinians simply ran away. But Sabbagh does not mention the pledges of Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, who promised “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre” of the Jews, which would “drive them into the sea”.
When Sabbagh returned to Safad in 2004, to seek relatives who stayed after 1948, he found houses occupied by Jewish immigrants, the Arabic inscriptions above the doors scratched out. But his guide was a Jewish Israeli called David, whose family had also lived in the town for 11 generations and well knew the Sabbaghs’ lineage. The two men, the Israeli local historian and the Palestinian-British writer, had much to talk about. And talking is better than fighting, as this poignant, often moving work shows.