Tag Archives: occupation

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.



Down at the Occupation of Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate

The occupation down at the Loughborough Park Estate has already been covered by the Buzz over the last few days, both management’s attempts to smash up the occupied flat to make it unliveable, and the ongoing protests every morning at 9am.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

While much has been won, and the occupation is at an end, the struggle continues to win secure tenancies in Brixton for the tenants.

There were a handful of people in the evening as I joined them, half of them residents, the room dominated by the chatter of kids colouring and playing. A table full of food was in the other corner, and there are now lights and warmth and a working toilet.

This was a space of protest and a place for residents to meet together and get support from the wider community. Since they moved in — up to ten to eleven years ago now — the Guinness Trust has denied all use of the Loughborough Park Estate community hall to shorthold tenants.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

I talked to Helen, an assured shorthold tenant (an AST) and one of around forty long-term tenants with shorthold status being displaced by Guinness Trust’s redevelopment plans. A musician with Yaaba Funk and other groups and a capoeira teacher (don’t know about capoeira? You need to find out more about this awesome Brazilian dance/martial arts mix invented by slaves), a filmmaker and artist, it isn’t hard to see she is one of the people that have made Brixton what it is.

We sat in the smaller room and talked briefly about what is happening at the occupation and the goals of the campaign from her point of view:

Q: So if you could just tell me a little about yourself and how you are connected to the occupation

H: I’ve been here– I didn’t take this place over but I am a supporter—and they’re supporting me. I live just over the road and I’ve lived here for eleven years, so I might be one of the longest ones. I’ve been to the meetings, the radical housing activist meetings, so I knew it was a thought, I knew it was going to happen and it’s good, it’s a good little office.

They’ve done this because there are so many people out on a limb, like ourselves who are literally going to be homeless, you know, we are literally going to be living on the streets, we’ve got no where to go. It’s a very difficult time. A very difficult time.

Q: So can you give me just a little back ground on what is happening here, and with Guinness Trust?

Helen: It’s been a long struggle, it’s been going on for a while, and we’ve been fighting for a while with people like the filmmaker Rashid Nix who used to live here.

We’ve kind of known since 2011 or 2012, they started demolishing back about 3 years now– but bit by bit they’ve knocked down bits of the estate and then built it up and people have been, what’s the word? Decanted.

With some people, you know, you’ve got your golden ticket, you’re a tenant and you get into one of the new flats. I’ve been into one of them and they’re really nice. But they’re selling some of them off as well, we know that now.

Some tenants are still chatty and nice, they’ve got a completely different aura. They’re getting somewhere better to live. Our places are a bit knackered really, they need doing up. My boyfriend was asthmatic and it’s nasty with all the green on your walls unless you’re really handy and you’ve got to do it yourself, because they never came in once in 11 years.

Lots of things have gone by the wayside because you know, let’s demolish it, let’s redo it. And there’s all sorts of classes here, it’s a complete class system. You know, you’ve got your tenants, who will be able to stay here, you’ve got your ASTs who are going to get a little pay off, you’ve got your Camelot who are groups of young people who get cheaper rent than what we’ve got and they’ll get a month or two weeks notice and then they’ll get put into another place to oversee and look after.

Q: They’re the company that puts tenants in empty buildings aren’t they.

H: They’re to keep people from squatting, to keep things like this from going on.

Q: So you’re a shorthold tenant?

H: Myself and Betiel, that’s what we are. Didn’t really have any way to change the tenancy, to get a full tenancy, to see a way to do it.

Q: So basically Guinness Trust has been taking your rent for eleven years, without giving you the same status as other tenants?

H: Yes. You know, a funny thing happened the day before yesterday, we were picketing and protesting and I saw this woman that I’ve known, she’s a tenant, and she came over and I suddenly realised she has been here less time than I have, and I thought oh my god! How did that happen then? So there’s not, there’s something wrong going on. She’s got a tenancy, she’s got a flat.

Q: And what about the other tenants?

H: Some of them are supportive, some embarrassed, some just don’t want to know.

Q: What would it look like if you won?

H: One of the flats [laughs]. But I don’t know, so many of my friends are gone now, they were ASTs and they’ve gone.

Q: But were they able to stay in the area?

H: Not all of them, some have gone to Hackney, some to Earl’s Court– It’s really expensive in Brixton, it’s very expensive here, there’s a complete – let’s call it gentrification, regeneration.

As a person who has lived here eleven years I’ve watched it really change. I’ve watched the shops that were vegetable shops change to champagne bars and, you know, the whole sort of different feel of the place.

Places where people lived for thirty years and have now been gutted, they’ve been thrown out, done up, and now you’ve got people who look like Prince Harry’s girlfriend who live there, to be honest [laughs]. Its not even Shoreditch, it’s like Chelsea, it’s very high end, I don’t know what’s happened, I mean, I’m living in it. I’m looking around trying to move and the rents are really high, I’m not sure what to do, I’m a part time worker, I’m an artist and a musician who works with kids. I don’t always earn that much money, so it’s hard.

Q: So what can people do to support you?

H: We’re just hoping to get people together in support, and it would be fantastic if we can actually change things. I just think it’s really wrong the way they’ve treated people.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

 First posted on the Brixton Buzz, 20 February, 2015



Occupying Lambeth Town Hall

Occupying Lambeth Town Hall to hold a People’s Assembly is what we did on the 23rd, and extraordinary it was too! The crowd outside was so impressive, and the noise was like nothing, absolutely nothing I have ever heard before, as the cars, trucks and buses passing all slowed down, cheering and honking to show their support.

It was tricky even getting in. And so we got fed up and took democracy into our own hands. This is what it felt like as we forced our way up the stairs and into the main council chamber after they refused to even let us into the overflow room to hear our people testifying to the council:

I’m usually the one with the camera, so it is magic to have someone else catch my face (and Ali’s!) at such a moment of happiness (photo by Guy Smallman, he’s got some great pics!). I found my face featuring heavily in the Socialist Worker article, which was ironic, but I loved that so many groups were able to come together to pull off such an incredible night.

I’m late writing this up due to exhaustion and another day of protest yesterday, and you can read the full coverage from the Guardian here. We heard this article some time after midnight, sitting in the Brixton Bar and Grill and clustered around Andy as he read it off of his phone. The victory was particularly sweet as a section of Lambeth’s Labour Council was also in the Brixton Bar and Grill, we spotted them in their suits as soon as we entered the door. Celebrating one would guess. Some words were exchanged, some hilarious dancing, but no blows. I twittered that their hangover was going to be far worse than mine, and doubtless I was right. Especially since it’s a cocktail of liquor, guilt and responsibility for carrying out this unprecedented attack on the welfare state.

Not us of course, we were celebrating a victory in the good fight, and the Guardian article was just icing. What got the most cheers upon reading was this: “Demonstrators ranging from trade unionists to pensioners occupied the chamber for more than an hour, taking their seats in what they called a ‘People’s Assembly'” because Lambeth SOS is both big and diverse and it’s a shame that the council tries to brand us otherwise. My favourite though, was “Alex Bigham, a Labour councillor, said that the meeting had been moved to an assembly room after it was disrupted by ‘quite organised protesters'”. Damn straight we are ‘quite organised’. The cuts affect up to a thousand jobs, not just people’s quality of life, but their ability to live itself. This budget will devastate both workers and those who need and deserve the services that they provide.

So a brief rundown on the assembly! Ruth presided over the voting as Mayor of Lambeth, as we voted down a budget that will destroy everything we have fought to build since World War II.

We had a number of great speakers, I can’t do them justice, and am still a bit too tired to try! But these were my favourites, demanding we save adventure playgrounds (pic also by Guy Smallman):

The People’s Assembly support them unequivocally. As we did libraries, park rangers, teachers, school crossing patrols, nurses and the NHS, the RMT (who were brilliant by the way, though we could have used their heft getting up the stairs!), students who joined us from the UCL occupation, and everyone else who makes Lambeth a great place to live.  This is just one more step forward, for more info on what’s coming up or how to support, go to http://lambethsaveourservices.org/.

For more written on the events, look at the Urban75 blog, London Indymedia, and the Coalition of Resistance webpage.