Palestinian Walks – Notes on a Vanishing Landscape

Raja Shehadeh – Profile Books, Ltd. (2nd edition – 2008)

The author is about my age, a land use lawyer (like me) and loves to walk (as I do). So I had a hunch I might enjoy this book, but “enjoy” doesn’t begin to express my feelings.

This is not a travel guide (in the ordinary sense) although his words carry the reader along with him through the hills in the West Bank. This is not an autobiography, although he shares the history of the Nakba (the 1948 Catastrophe) from a very personal perspective, describing how it impacted his family.

Nakba 2

With his book, one of many he has written about Palestine, Mr. Shehadeh has connected me to the history, politics, and the reality of the Occupation on the West Bank in a way that no other writing has, for which he won the Orwell Prize in 2008.

I’m ashamed to admit that Palestinian Walks is my very late introduction to this man.  I hope I will have the opportunity to meet him in person. InshaAllah!

In 2007, Ian Black reviewed the book for The Guardian and wrote:

In 1978, when the Palestinian lawyer Rajah Shehadeh returned to his native Ramallah in the West Bank after studying in London, he found solace in walking the hills, admiring the stone walls and wild flowers – and trying not to think about the Israeli settlements sprouting like mushrooms after spring rain. It was not easy to ignore them, especially as his professional life centred on fighting land expropriation orders issued by the occupation authorities.

Back then, the 1967 war – when Israeli forces conquered the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (as well as the Egyptian Sinai and Syria’s Golan Heights) – was still a fairly recent memory. Now, 40 years on, Shehadeh has written a book about Palestinian walks that is a poignant reminder of what has happened. Its subtitle – Notes on a Vanishing Landscape – succinctly captures the essence of his story.

This is a personal take on a depressingly familiar theme. The wadis are choked with wild cyclamen, thyme and asphodels. As he wanders, Shehadeh passes olive groves and fruit trees, encounters gazelles and goats as well as bare rock and its evidence of dramatic geological change over millennia. But, as one West Bank hilltop after another is claimed by the Israelis (Palestinians built their villages along the contours of the hills), and yet more settlements are established, the familiar view changes beyond recognition.

“It was as though the tectonic movements that had occurred over thousands of years were now happening in a matter of months, entirely redrawing the map,” Shehadeh writes. “The Palestine I knew, the land I thought of as mine, was quickly being transformed before my eyes.”

Author, Raja Shehadeh

Author, Raja Shehadeh

The book springs from seven walks through the hills of the West Bank the author took over 27 years — he calls them sarha — and so it covers both geography of space and time. He says the eighth walk was the act of writing this book. Raja Shehadeh writes:

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.

The review in the New York Times noted the obvious:

Of course, it is difficult not to be restricted by time and place in the occupied territories, where movement is everyday more limited by a growing number of Israeli-built fences, walls, barriers, checkpoints, settlements and the separate roads constructed to link them. But Mr. Shehadeh — a lawyer and founder of Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, who apart from a sojourn in London for law school has lived his entire life in Ramallah — still tries.

Through his walks, the author has documented the impacts of the Israeli Occupation on the Palestinian land and on the psyche of the Palestinians themselves. The relentless growth of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which international law clearly condemns, is a central cast member of this tragedy.

I don’t think any reader, from any side of the chasm in the Holy Land, can read Palestinian Walks and be unmoved. Raja Shehadeh might have written this book to save himself from the inevitable depression that grips Palestinians who understand what they have lost (are losing), but Palestinian Walks is an important window into that world which every American should read. Our foreign policy, along with our tax dollars, have been instrumental in changing the landscape in the hills of the West Bank. We (Americans) must come to grip with that fact.






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