Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks

Palestinian Walks - Raja ShehadehThey 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…a man [my only sadness that this was mostly men] 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 (2).

Palestinian Walks is wonderful. Heartbreaking. Some of the same themes, of course, as the talk Raja Shehadeh gave some months ago, but the writing voice was a little unexpected somehow.

We share desert, though not the same one, loss and struggle, though not to the same degree, a refuge and retreat from struggle in writing, though mine mostly unproved. So many thoughts in this book echoed so exactly with mine, but born of out such a different reality. I love this invitation to walk with him, wish I could have known these hills before their fencing and their destruction.

I find the Arizona desert impossibly beautiful, full of life even if harsh. You know what bites scratches stings. Always what has scared me more are people, they are never this simple in their stinging. I understand Shehadeh’s incomprehension when people from outside call his land barren and violent and ugly, and know his anger when they ascribe these perceptions of the land to the people who live in it. This is what I hate most about Westerns and this particular gaze–it is not my land that created the terrifying levels of brutality, but the conquest of it. The genocide of Native Americans that took place there. The conquest of Palestine is clothed in a different language of manifest destiny, but that is still where the violence comes from.

It is also carried out through a different form of land occupation — occupation by luxury villa, though still defended by guns. Routes through the landscape go from this:

Built many years ago by the owners of the land, the path was a few metres wide and bordered by stone walls. It sloped gently along the side of the hill then turned down and headed downhill. It had been carefully designed. Had it followed a straight line down it would be washed out in winter, unusable, more a canal for water than a footpath (44).

To mazes of concrete, straight roads blasted across hill tops, their refuse filling the wadis and causing flooding and erosion. Developments destroying the hills. I watch this in my desert and there too it breaks my heart. Why can’t people sit easily on the land? Instead they conquer it. It was the same in L.A. It is the same here in London where investors build skyscrapers of luxury apartments to sit empty as investments at immense environmental and social cost while people sleep in the streets. I was at the Bishopsgate Institute this evening listening to the inaugural C.R. Ashbee  lecture on the Seven Dark Arts of Developers (a play on Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture) given by Oliver Wainwright — it was very good so I am still quite furious.

On the hillside outside my old house, there was always time and space to think and always my capacity for thought was deeper there, the superficial more easily stilled:

The further down I went the deeper the silence became. As always the distance and quiet made me attentive to those troublesome thoughts that had been buried deep in my mind. As I walked, many of them were surfacing. I sifted through them. The mind only admits what it can handle and here on these hills the threshold was higher.

The other day I had to plead with a soldier to be allowed to return home (50).

In my desert it is immigration, it is unmanned planes flying overhead seeking families fleeing to a better life, it is checkpoints and motion detectors, prowling four by fours. They churn up the roads, destroy the fragile plants, ensure you never feel secure, never feel safe. There is no space for thinking, they close down the horizons. When I was little we did not need to own the land to feel safe there, to open yourself to the world there, but now in so many hills you do. You have to have a reason to be there. Papers. There is almost as much loss in losing this as there is in losing home and land. We would not need to own things or have borders at all if justice and this need for space and freedom could be respected.

This does not compare to an occupied Palestine, the suffering of their people being steadily forced further and further from the lands they love, their old and sustainable forms of farming made impossible, water and the peace simply to exist both stolen, treasured generosity to strangers unable to survive. The cynicism of Israeli property development is also far ahead of our borderlands, for all that we now have the same horror of a wall. This book illuminates the lived experience of the development and planning strategies so well laid out by Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land. 

I realized that the beautiful Dome of the Rock, for many centuries the symbol of ancient Jerusalem, was no longer visible. It was concealed by new construction. This was by design. Not only had Israeli city planners obstructed the view of this familiar landmark — they had also constructed a wide highway along the western periphery of Arab East Jerusalem, restricting its growth and separating it from the rest of the highway. Highways are more effective geographic barriers than walls in keeping neighbourhoods apart. Walls can always be demolished. But once built, roads become a cruel reality that it is more difficult to change. No visitor would now sigh, let alone fall to their knees as many a conqueror and pilgrim in the past had done… (105)

God I hate highways. Huge roads impassable to pedestrians. Los Angeles pioneered this and Los Angeles broke my heart too. Every American city drove highways right through African American and Latino neighbourhoods, destroying communities and cutting off those that were left from white people and the resources they kept. To add insult to injury freeways allow commuters to fly right over the inner cities as though they don’t even exist. Seems that Israelis have perfected the system, creating massive roads that Palestinians aren’t allowed to use, blocking entrances to villages, destroying more of the mountains. A symbol of power.

Roads have so much to answer for. I too like them best when they are humble, two lanes, and wind along the curve of the hills.

I don’t understand how this is the world we have inherited.

And so there must be struggle — I learned a whole lot here about the particularities of Israels expansion into the West Bank and just what the Oslo Accords meant. I didn’t learn nothing about how law facilitates the rich and powerful taking what they want, know too much this feeling that what you are up against is just too big, this questioning of why it is you fight.

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 defeated and confused and Israel could not get away with it. Knowledge is power….I had perceived my life as an ongoing narrative organically linked to the forward march of the Palestinian people towards liberation and freedom…But now I knew this was nothing but a grand delusion. ..It was only my way of feeling I was part of the rest of struggling society, a way of enduring hardships by claiming and holding on to the belief that there was a higher meaning to the suffering–that it wasn’t in vain…

But the Oslo Agreements buried my truth… (123)

Writing saves me too.

There is so much more in Palestinian Walks, natural and archeological history, stories of family and friends, walks through country I have heard so much of. This is a deeply personal meditation of little romanticisation, aware of its flaws, with no hiding of discomfort or conflicted feelings and ideas. No hiding at all. This is absolutely the book I would give someone who wanted to understand why in the face of all news propaganda I hate the occupation, why I think it has to end, why I support the Palestinian cause. Maybe even if they didn’t want to understand.

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