‘such a beautiful, spoiled country’
I’ve only just got round to reading Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, even though it’s been in the house for three or four years. I was reminded of Raja Shehadeh’s book while reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, in which MacFarlane writes of joining Shehadeh, an old friend and walking companion, for the first time on a walk near Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.
Shehadeh’s book was first published in the UK in 2007, and I should have read it much sooner. It’s a brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country. Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer, novelist and political activist who has lived on the West Bank since his family fled Jaffa in 1948. He is a founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, and in 2008 was awarded the Orwell prize for political writing for Palestinian Walks.
For decades, as a temporary escape from the stress and disappointments of legal appeals against Israeli orders expropriating Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, Raja has found comfort in walking, following what in Arab culture is called sarha – meaning to roam freely, at will, without restraint: to go where the spirit takes you. In Palestinian Walks he invites the reader to accompany him on six walks that span a period of twenty six years. Walking through the undulating hills and wadis of the West Bank, Shehadeh evocatively describes the natural beauty of his homeland: valleys where, after spring rains, wildflowers bloom in profusion with cyclamen, thyme, poppies and asphodels. As he wanders, Shehadeh passes olive groves and fruit trees, encounters gazelles and goats.
As he walks, Shehadeh meditates on Palestine’s history and political struggles, and his growing sense of disappointment and disillusionment with the Palestinian leadership after the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, which he sees in legal terms as a key strategic error that opened the way to the process which has transformed the landscape he loves – and the fate of his people, as one West Bank hilltop after another is claimed by the Israeli authorities and yet more settlements are established, the familiar view changes beyond recognition.
So Palestinian Walks is an elegy for a vanishing landscape. The beautiful hills, rivers and sacred springs, and the landmarks familiar to him from childhood are being concreted over, torn apart by new highways that connect the settlements that rise on the hilltops. The Dead Sea recedes a metre every year as a consequence of Israel’s diversion of the river Jordan. Along with his compatriots, Shehadeh experiences everyday humiliations and harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers – and, for him much worse, many of the paths through the wadis can no longer be walked, out of bounds to a Palestinian.
This is how Raja Shehadeh introduces his account:
As a child I used to hear how my grandfather, Judge Saleem, liked nothing more than coming to Ramallah in the hot summer and going on a sarha with his cousin, Abu Ameen, leaving behind the humid coastal city of Jaffa and the stultifying colonial administration which he served and whose politics he detested. It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn’t have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha.
Going on a sarha implies letting go. It is a drug-free high, Palestinian-style.
His book concludes on a shared high – a drug-induced one – in an account of a walk entitled ‘An Imagined Sarha‘. You wonder, as you read, whether this walk actually happened, or whether his narrative is a metaphor for Shehadeh’s mixture of hope and despair for the future. On this last journey he encounters a young Jewish settler – a man with ‘kind, intelligent eyes’ and a ‘soft, kind voice …almost apologetic, most untypical of an Israeli’ – a man who, like Shehadeh, had grown up and spent his life in the very same hills. The man performs a small act of kindness, and, unwillingly at first, Shehadeh falls into conversation with him.
“You are aware, I hope, that your presence here means perpetual war.”
“Because you’ve taken our land and refuse to even recognize the fact.”
“Let’s say we give it back: What guarantee would we have that you won’t ask to get back Jaffa and Haifa?”
“What about international law?”
“It’s for the weak.”
“It’s a marker of a better, more civilized world.”
“I went to the army for three years. I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will just have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence.”
“Independence from whom?”
“But they came to take our country from us and give it to you. Haven’t you read the terms of the Mandate?”
“They restricted us. They wouldn’t allow the immigrants to come. They wanted us to have only a tiny piece of the country. Israel would not have been a viable state. We had to get rid of them to run our own affairs, to be able to welcome here any Jew from anywhere in the world without anyone telling us not to.”
“Will you pay compensation for the properties you took in ’48?”
“If you pay for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen.”
“What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen? Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases.”
“They’re Arab, aren’t they?”
“You’re just repeating what you’ve been told. If you just think about what you’re saying you’d realize how ludicrous it is. Let’s say we accept that you keep your settlements, would you be willing to be confined to the built up areas?”
“You want to turn us into ghettos in our own land. We’ve been through that in Europe. Never again.”
“Then if you want to expand over the entire land will you allow us to buy or rent in your settlements?”
“No. These are areas for Jews.”
“Let us assume that your settlements are built on what you call public not private land. What people would agree to have areas of their country carved out and given to members of another nation and not even be allowed to share the land?”
“But you’re not a nation. You never had your own government.”
“Are you going to repeat the famous position of Golda Meir, that we Palestinians do not exist?”
“No. I didn’t say that. I know you exist. I can see you standing before me. And I know you are not Israeli. You exist, sure enough. But you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel.”
“And you did?”
“Yes, we had a kingdom right here in Judea.”
“That was more than three thousand years ago.”
“So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?”
“It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?”
“You want the whole of the land to yourself and you’re not even ready to share it. Don’t you think this is discriminatory?”
“What’s discriminatory about it? What’s wrong with what we’re doing? You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas.”
“I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came. I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete.”
“And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for every thing, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here.”
There was little to say after this. But I made one last effort to alert him to what was being done to the land by those who claimed to love it. I said:
“The way it’s going we’ll end up with a land that is crisscrossed with roads. I have a vision of all of us going around and around in circles. Whether we call it Israel or Palestine, this land will become one big concrete maze.”
All the tension of the times, the worry about going through area C, the likely prospect of encountering soldiers or settlers, or getting shot at or lost, was evaporating. With every new draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it.
This young man was an artist at preparing a good nergila, I thought. He had talent.
“What’s in this?” I asked.
“It’s hashish that has been opiated.”
I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land. Shots could be heard in the distance, which made us both shiver. “Yours or ours?” I asked. But how could we tell? We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks.
When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was travelling through a vanishing landscape. For centuries the central highland hills of Palestine, which slope on one side towards the sea and on the other towards the desert, had remained relatively unchanged. As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ. Those hills were, I believe, one of the natural treasures of the world.
All my life I have lived in houses that overlook the Ramallah hills. I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colours during the day and over the seasons as well as during an unending sequence of wars. I have always loved hill walking, whether in Palestine, the Swiss Alps or the Highlands and outlying islands of Scotland, where it was a particular joy to ramble without fear of harassment and the distracting awareness of imminent political and physical disasters.
I began taking long walks in Palestine in the late 1970s. This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place. The hills then were like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique to such areas.
As our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying for ever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land which many Palestinians will never know.
In the course of a mere three decades close to half a million Jewish people were settled within an area of only 5,900 square kilometres. The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate.
I witnessed this complete transformation near where I grew up and I write about it here. Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed, by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever.
Shehadeh’s narrative is peppered with the moving stories of those whose rights to their land he tries to defend as a lawyer. For example, he tells of Ayoub, an old distant relative, ‘as strong and as nimble as a goat’, who built a qasr (a farmer’s house on the hills) with his new wife during their honeymoon. The building of a qasr is usually a communal business, but being an only child and having cousins who had emigrated to America to study and were, in his terms, ‘useless’, Ayoub decides to tackle the work by himself. He goes to the hill property and, with his wife Zariefeh, starts clearing ground and carrying large blocks of stone. In the evening, they light a fire to keep warm and keep the jackals off, and they spend the night in the open air. For a week, they work together until Ayoub has built a perfect qasr entirely out of stone, with no cement. For Ayub this is paradise: on his beloved hills in God’s open country.
For Shehadeh, too, walking allows him briefly to forget the situation on the ground. He experiences the pleasure of being out beyond checkpoints, walls and barriers, of feeling ‘giddy with joy’ under a wide-open sky. But walking also provides the means for journeying inwards, his traverses through the landscape being both a deeply private and intensely political experience. As the landscape changes around him, he writes of profound shifts in his own spirit, yet to hold on to a determination to resist:
But the most destructive development, which boded only misery and spelled continued conflict for the future, was the wall being constructed by Israel. This stretched in a jagged course that was determined not only by Israeli military considerations but also by the special interests of settlers and land mafia lords, slicing through the hills, destroying their natural shape, gulping large swaths of Palestinian areas. Only in part did it follow the 1967 armistice’s internationally recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which has now been deleted from official Israeli maps. The ‘settlement blocs’ Israel planned to annex, which thrust like daggers into the Palestinian land, were now sheathed by the wall.
Still, I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements.
The more I read Shehadeh’s accounts of his walks, increasingly affected by the construction of new highways and concrete settlements on the hilltops, the more I began to wonder whether what he was describing would have occurred whatever the nature of the administration that ruled this land. Whether, indeed, he is describing a process that has overtaken treasured landscapes in almost every part of the world. And then, curiously, it seemed that Shehadeh began to arrive at a similar conclusion.
He becomes conscious of the evidence in the landscape of the vast span of geological history: the knowledge that he is walking on limestone which had formed as the bed of an ancestral sea. As he begins to view his frustrations at the Palestinian predicament in this broader context his anger begins to dissipate:
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.
Though the Palestine he knew, the land he thought of as his, was rapidly being transformed before his eyes, ‘viewed from the perspective of the land’ these changes hardly count:
A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated. Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land, however large and formidable they may have been. … Empires and conquerors come and go but the land remains.
To illustrate this perspective Shehadeh quotes from the poem ‘Carmel Point’ by Robinson Jeffers:
Those left alive among you
Will let me live another year,
A year to walk together,
To fling a river on our backs
To break the remnants of the structure down
To bring our tired soul away from its long exile….
- Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Another Year Only’
- from Mahmoud Darwish, ‘To a Young Poet’
- Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape: Orwell Prize page
- The blue velvet hills of my youth have been destroyed: Raja Shehadeh writing in The Guardian in 2009
- ‘Every aspect of Palestinian life is affected by the occupation’: in this Guardian video Raja Shehadeh talks about his experience of growing up in the West Bank, discusses the day-to-day hardships of living under Israeli occupation and reflects on episodes from his journal Occupation Diaries