on 13 June 2011
Having not long returned from a visit to Israel and the West Bank I decided to read "Palestinian Walks" written by Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian human rights lawyer who has stayed living in the West Bank through all the troubles of the last 60 years. It was a far better book than I had anticipated with the brilliant way that Shehadeh was able to intertwine the experiences, beauty and destruction of the environment witnessed in his walks, with personal reflections and history and incidents of the region.
I agree completely with the quotes from reviews of the Independent on Sunday "Delivering what many activists neglect to mention: the odd, slightly absurd details that really touch people" and the NY Times "Few Palestinians have opened their minds and hearts with such frankness."
The sadness and frustration of Shehadeh come over, without any hatred or bigotedness, and also incredibly not giving the reader an utter sense of despair at the end. Obviously Shehadeh is critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank, but he also expresses his frustration and anger with the former PLO leadership in exile at their insistence on recognition at the expense of an adequate land solution in the Oslo Agreement, as well as corrupt practices when in control.
It was the small details that were so enlightening. In the last two walks encounters and conversations with a young Israeli settler (An Imagined Sarha) and two young, angry Muslim Palestinians (The Masked Shepherds) are recorded which are so sensitively done. The tradegy of how particularly Israeli policy, as well as fear, makes contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs so limited is brilliantly displayed in the conversation which makes up a large part of the chapter "An Imagined Sarha". The book is worth reading for that conversation alone.
Also the chapter "And How Did You Get Over It?" was fascinating, when a Palestinian doctor and politician with whom Raja is friends asks on a walk how Raja overcome his anger at the defeat incurred by the Oslo Agreement. Raja reflects that he has not had to suffer as much as his father had to and that when he could walk and reflect on the geography and think about previous generations and civilisations which the land barely reflects now he comments:
"For a long time my enjoyment of these hills has been impaired by a preoccupation with the changes in land law relating to them. But such man-made constructs can be diminished if looked at in a particular way. Viewed from the perspective of the land they hardly count...Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land, however large and formidable they might once have been.
Thinking in the long term made it possible for me to separate "the present" from the rest of time and thereby realize that what Palestine and Israel are now would not necessarily be for ever. I was here on earth for a relatively short period and after that time passed, life would go on without my points of view, biases and fears." (p170-1)
The author is a Palestinian human rights activist & lawyer specialising in land law. He has been extensively involved in trying to prevent Israeli expropriation of land for settlements for many years. He tells the history of the impact of Israeli settlement development through the medium of a series of walks undertaken in the West Bank over a period of almost thirty years. The book is beautifully written, lyrical, evocative. It is intensely political but not polemical which for me makes it all the more powerful. He describes the changes in the physical landscape over the years - the settlements, the new roads constructed on Palestinian land that Palestinians are not permitted to use, the silence of the hills & valleys now disturbed by the incessant sound of construction, the walls, the pathways destroyed by rubble thrown down from settlement & road building. "Throughout our walk in these hills we had not come across a single soldier or settler and yet we felt their presence all around us as they continued to build new settlements, enlarge existing ones and connect them with roads."
At times I sensed profound disillusionment, loss of self-confidence and sense of purpose. He writes:
"For many years I managed to hold on to the hope that the settlements would not be permanent. I had meticulously documented the illegal process by which they came to be established, every step of the way. I felt that as long as I understood, as long as the process by which all this had come about was not mysterious and the legal tricks used were exposed, I could not be confused and defeated and Israel could not get away with it. Knowledge is power. I had to keep up with the Israeli legal manoeuvres and expose them to the world. I had perceived my life as an ongoing narrative organically linked to the forward march of the Palestinian people towards liberation and freedom from the yoke of occupation. But now I knew this was nothing but a grand delusion."
Shehadeh does not spare the Palestinian leadership from criticism. Throughout the book he shares his anger at the Palestinian leadership's failings in the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Oslo accords, which excluded the settlement issue. He attributes this to the desire of the PLO to be the recognised representative of the Palestinian people, internal political expediency taking precedence over ensuring a just and viable agreement. He believes that part of the problem was that the PLO factions guiding the Palestinian negotiators had been living in Tunis and before that in Beirut, and had little real experience of the lives of Palestinians living in Palestine, many never having lived in or visited Palestine until after the signing of the agreement. In one telling story he heads to the Dead Sea for a walk with a woman of Palestinian origin recently arrived in the country after growing up in Beirut and later, when the PLO were ejected from there, Tunis. She is surprised that the settlements look so permanent and that Israeli soldiers can stop cars on the roads in the Territories. She has no idea that the agreement allows this even though she worked for the chief Palestinian negotiator in the Oslo talks. "Like Selma the PLO negotiators did not have a real sense of what the settlements were about."
The epilogue to the book describes a walk Shehadeh attempted to make with an Englishwoman who came to Palestine as a volunteer. They are stopped on their way by two young Palestinians. They are suspicious of the woman because she is English and they associate the British with both the creation of the state of Israel and with killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They seemed to define themselves more in terms of Islam than as Palestinian nationalists." Somewhat shaken, the pair are allowed to walk on. As they reach the end of this truncated walk, he looks back down the hillside: "As I stood in the ruins of one of my favourite places in the valley, this valley near where I was born and have always lived, I felt the hills were not mine any more. I am no longer free to come and walk." You feel his sense of loss, the unbearable sadness as he realises that he will not walk this way for many years to come.
This immensely moving, desperately sad book speaks volumes.
...what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of the land as it lay this way and that."
So said Annie Dillard, at the beginning of her autobiography, An American Childhood Others have felt the same way, from Cezanne's obsession with Mont St. Victoire, to even myself, and the light on a certain mountain in Vietnam's Binh Dinh province, which I hoped to be able to recall clearly, 25 years after my first encounter with it. Shehadeh's sentiments are strongly similar; he has a deep attachment to the land of his birth, how it lays this way and that. In his first of six stories in this book, he introduces the concept of "sarha," an Arabic word that means to roam freely, at will, without restraint. Throughout his life he has enjoyed taking long hikes in his native hills; his prose reflects this profoundly moving and therapeutic pleasure. Unlike Pittsburgh, or Provence, or even south central Vietnam, the topography that has given Shehadeh so much pleasure is rapidly changing, the result of individuals who believe they have a higher priority right to the land, and reinforce their belief with endless concrete, leveling hilltops for their settlements, and paving roads straight through them, instead of following the contours. At the same time they are building walls, more walls, more barriers that restrict Shehadeh, and his fellow Palestinians' access to the land of their birth. Though he does not literally say it, the entire book echoes, with a slight paraphrase, the words of Ronald Reagan: "Mr. Netanyahu, tear down these walls."
Each of the six stories is solid, and well-written, but my favorite is the second one, "The Albina Case." Shehadeh is a lawyer, and he has been at the forefront in the losing battle of attempting to use the law, Israeli law, to prevent the seizure of Palestinian land for settlement by Israeli colonists. Albina was one of the first cases, one of the strongest in the sense that much paperwork existed, including maps, that showed Albina was the rightful owner. But what can be done in the face of the law which might be dubbed "even if we are wrong, we are still really right." Article 5 of Military Order 58 says: "Any transaction carried out in good faith between the Custodian of Absentee Property and any other person, concerning property which the Custodian believed when he entered into the transaction to be abandoned property, will not be void and will continue to be valid even if it were proved that the property was not at that time abandoned property." (p. 81-82) Shehadeh even documents the case of the land of an individual Jew, living on the West Bank prior to 1967, being seized, for the Jewish people in general. Such is the logic, and inconsistencies of Zionism. The author provides convincing evidence that the actions of the Israeli government are all part of an overall plan for the settlement of the West Bank, reducing the Palestinians to isolated and easily managed enclaves. Bantustans? Shehadeh says: "Religious practice in the Land of the Bible tends to encourage exclusivity and discrimination rather than love and magnanimity. There is no place like the Holy Land to make one cynical about religion." (p 140). And thus it is ironically fortunate that his home town, Ramallah, was NOT mentioned in the Bible, "Unlike Jerusalem, Jericho, Nablus and Hebron...", and thus they are spared a "settlement" in their town.
At one point in the book he meets "settlers" in their "settlement." They were not the "devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired..." that he had expected, but as he concludes: "I doubt, if I had articulated to them my deeply held convictions and argument against the settlement project, that they would have even heard me, so full were they of their own sense of purpose." And so, as he says in the Introduction, "Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed by those who claim a superior love of the land."
My only quibble with Shehadeh is that as a writer, who should know that words matter, he adopts the language of the occupier, and uses the word "settler," which connotes occupying vacant land, as was purportedly done in the American West. The French use "colon," the same word they used for their own people who once occupied Indochina and Africa, and which properly translates as colonist, and so should not Shehadeh use the same, since that is his message?
Overall though, a moving, evocative, and painful book; a paean to a landscape, people and way of life which are rapidly vanishing. He finishes strong, with the story, "An Imaged Sarha," recounting a meeting with a young "settler" on a walk, who espouses the "party line" justifying the colonies, and Shehadeh blurts out: "Can't you think for yourself"? I only wish that Shehadeh could have walked with a Jew who did, who also walked the land, and eventually understood the reality behind the stones he was stepping over, the destroyed villages, that belied the official propaganda, and wrote an excellent account of this transformation. He is Goran Rosenberg, who wrote L'utopie perdue(Israël, une histoire personnelle) Kudos to both for their courageous books.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on October 19, 2009)
Winner of the Orwell Prize 2008. Raja Shehadeh's twenty seven years going on sarha's, wandering the hills of Ramallah and beyond, form the warp and the weft of a life rich with observations. The purpose of a sarha is to wander freely and aimlessly, to nourish the soul and rejuvenate. Each walk combines poignant, lyrical, reflections of a vanishing landscape with an ancient history. Along with that, eloquent stories of the people who cultivated the land with terraces of olive trees and grapevines. Poetic, political, and spiritual, this second edition has seven unique walks, each one embracing real people, past and present.
The hills are alive with the music of shepherds and their flocks, vibrant spring flowers, arid sunburnt wadis, transforming light, winter rain and snow, and Jewish settlers who claim a divine right to the land. One of the most captivating stories in the book is that of Abu Ameen, a poor stone mason. For all its poignancy, this is also an elevating story of human endurance, tested to extremes, in the harshness of a land with many restrictions.
Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer and writer living in Ramallah, a city in the Palestinian West Bank. He is also the author of the highly praised When the Bulbul Stopped Singing and Strangers in the House.
on 17 November 2013
This book traces the walks of the author through the turbulent space and time of the last few decades in one of the central conflicts in the Middle East. It's quite a short, but nonetheless profound, read. There is as you would expect a clear political angle to his accounts. Whatever your views on that, the core thread of the book is rooted very firmly in the beauty of nature and the exhilirating sense of well-being to be gained from the freedom to walk through that beauty without spoiling it. The author's encounter with an Israeli on his very last walk gives plenty of food for thought, and is an appropriately uncertain end to a book whose story is still being written.
on 5 February 2013
In describing walks around Ramallah as a young man and now in middle age, Mr Shehadeh shows in a very moving way how restrictions have remorselessly impacted on Palestinians living in the West Bank as a result of Jewish settlements and the loss of land.
on 24 January 2010
I felt when reading this book I had walked on the hills so beloved by the author. I was lucky enough to hear him read extracts at the Edinburgh Book Festival and warmed at once to this quietly spoken, unassuming, truly decent man. We forget in the heated debates about rights and wrongs of certain situations that at the heart of them there are decent people watching their country and dreams being destroyed. This one book makes a better case for justice for Palestinians than a hundred hot headed warriors. It moved me to tears and I would recommend it as a very good read.
on 13 July 2012
Palestinian Walks: the book describes walks of the author 'Raja Shehadeh' in the West Bank, before and after Oslo. The book is not like other books that talk about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, it is different. It only describes the landscape and how it has been changing over the years of occupation. It makes you love the country, love the land, love the stones, the hills and mountains of Palestine. However, it makes you sad, because you feel it is almost impossible to get the landscape back as it was before settlements destroyed it and destroyed the country.
The book reveals how Oslo was a turning point in expansion of settlements. What did Oslo get for Palestinians? it legitimized occupation, settlements, destroying all natural resources in the country for the 'safety' of settlers.
on 12 August 2013
The writer loves to walk and remembers his father and grandfather's walks in the hills of Palestine. As he gets older, it becomes more difficult to walk in his own land because of settlements and roads where the apartheid system does not allow him access. The places he can go to are made less accessible because of checkpoints and road blocks. He is a lawyer and tries to defend Palestinians who are made to leave their farms and homes as the occupying power moves it's own people into the West Bank like a mighty, unstoppable machine, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention... while the world watches and lets it happen.
As you read this wonderful book, you see how the once beautiful landscape of Palestine has in many places become ugly. You feel the sadness and humiliation of the Palestinian people. You realise the frustration and loss of Palestinians as they gradually see their land being stolen and systematically ruined while they are helpless to prevent this loss as the state which is perpetrating this violence against them has the support of the worlds richest power.
This is a very readable book. If you did not realise before reading it what was happening in Palestine / Israel, and you really care about freedom and justice for all, then this book will certainly make you sit up and think, if not change your life.
on 28 April 2010
This is an intensely personal and political book by Raja Shehadeh, a human rights activist and a lawyer specialising in land laws. The author is a keen rambler who has walked the Palestinian hills for decades and the book has the surface appearance of a collection of essays about his outings (sarha) over these years.
However, the book is brilliantly multidimensional and intricately interwoven with the political and geographical history of Palestine and Israel. Its central theme is a "vanishing landscape", the subtitle of the book, which is partly environmental (decreasing water table, oversalinisation, etc.) but is mainly political, referring to Israel's aggressive policy of expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank. Shehadeh's long fight as a lawyer against the expropriations of registered Palestinian lands, manipulations of land registers and planning applications and legal procedures is, in the end, powerlessly defeated by Israeli legal system's institutional support for the settlement expansion that is reinforced by the Jewish ideology that lays claim to the Palestinian land whether it is legal or not.
This aspect of the book as a political memoir is interwoven with the contemporary walks Shehadeh undertook in the hills of Palestine, which lovingly describes its beauty little noticed by most Western visitors and, allegedly, by the Jewish settlers who destroys and completely ignores the close relationship between the man and his land. His tranquil progress through the wadi would be blocked abruptly by a newly encroaching settlement with formidable security fences, large houses, green gardens and wide driveways that bear no relation to the contours of the landscape. New roads connecting outpost settlements to the rest of Israel, security walls severing both the continuity of the landscape and human access: these, in the passionate words of the author, are not just geographical developments to be observed. He shows convincingly, and with numerous examples, that they dramatically affect, invariably for the worse, the lives of the people who have lived there for hundreds of years long before the settlers arrived. The author remarks with sadness how many of the walks he has planned before have now become impossible as more settlements are built and more land becomes out of bounds to the Palestinians. We are constantly reminded of security walls, frequent check points, access limits and fear of violence from the settlers.
The overwhelming impression I was left with was not the brutality of the effect of Israeli policies on the Palestinians. Rather, it gave me a poignant impression that we are looking at both a vanished landscape and a vanishing one. While the humanitarian aspect of the Palestinian cause tends to be more widely publicised, the book gives a stark reminder of how deeply human life is embedded in the landscape and how the landscape suffers when the people suffer. When I think about the conflict in Israel and Palestine, my thought will now stretch inevitably to Abu Ameen's neglected qasr and a family that suddenly lost access to their olive trees because of a new road.
I have never read anything on the Israel-Palestine conflict beyond media headlines, but this book has made a major impact on me personally.