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"When everything else has gone from my brain...,
This review is from: Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (Paperback)
...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(IsraŽl, une histoire personnelle) Kudos to both for their courageous books.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on October 19, 2009)