Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer, a Palestinian activist who has legally contested land seizures. He is also one of the founders of Al Haq, a non-governmental organisation that works to protect human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.
More importantly, for the purposes of this blog, he is a walker and a writer. These two qualities combined have allowed him to produce an engaging, original, and humane book in Palestinian Walks. Notes on a vanishing landscape .
It is a deeply political work, without following any particular party-political line. Shehadeh is concerned with the plight of his people, but also with the plight of the land. In an extraordinary scene Shehadeh speaks with a young Israeli settler during one of his walks:
Looking at the nergilla I asked rather pointedly: ‘ Do you come here frequently?’ I was wondering whether he often ran away from home to smoke his dope in private, whether our hills now served as refuge for young Israelis settlers indulging in illicit practices.
‘It’s my favourite spot,’ he answered.
Of course, I thought. A perfect hideout. I could tell the young man wanted me gone so that he could get on with his preparations for the smoke.
‘Arent you afraid of being here alone?’
‘Afraid? Why should I be? I’ve done no evil to anyone.’
Done no evil, I thought, after all the land he and his people have stolen, after destroying our life for so long.
‘Why then carry a gun?’
‘I’m supposed to.’
‘How convenient for you to live so close to this valley. You just walk down the hill and you’re here.’
‘I come here to be alone,’ the settler said pointedly.
I caught the innuendo but I was not going to go away and leave him now without trying to find out a few things about this unwelcome neighbour of mine.
‘Were you born in Dolev?’
‘No, but my parents moved here when I was five.’
‘When was that?’
‘You’re still doing army duty?’
‘I finished. I’m a fireman.’
‘You can’t have too many fires in Dolev. It’s a small community.’
‘I work at the Lod industrial park. What about you? Where do you come from?’
I thought of giving him the nondescript answer Rema gave the settlers in Wadi Qelt: ‘from here,’ but decided to tell him the truth. ‘Ramallah,’ I answered.
‘I supsected you were an Arab but was not sure. Arabs don’t walk.’
‘How do you know that? Are you acquainted with many Arabs?’
‘No. None at all.’
‘Then how did you come upon that conclusion?’
‘Just from watching the village people nearby. I never see them taking walks or sitting by the water.’
‘Perhaps because they’re afraid?’
‘Why should they be afraid?’
‘Because of you.’
‘Yes. Aren’t you carrying a gun?’
‘I wish I wasn’t. It’s heavy and it’s a burden. But as I said, I have to.’
He looked at me with an expression of shock and defiance. He was not going to take this. Good, I thought, perhaps now I will get some real emotions and honest thought.
‘Did you know that this land you’re on has been declared a nature reserve? We are protecting this spot. Except for us it would have been ruined. As a walker you should appreciate this.’
I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘You’re protecting our land? After all the damage your bulldozers have done digging highways in these hills, pouring concrete to build settlements, you claim to be preserving this land?’
‘No one is allowed to build here any more. Or destroy the paths or pick wild flowers. Without these regulations this beautiful spot would be ruined.’
‘Let me tell you how things looked when this was truly a nature park. Before you came and spoiled it all. You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years.’
‘Nothing can remain untouched for hundreds of years. Progress is inevitable. you would have done the same as we are doing. Only you lacked the material and technical resources to connect these distant areas to power and service them with water and electricity. Look at the villagers here, your fellow Arabs. They still have to fetch their water from the spring. I see them trudging every morning with their heavy buckest. It must be a hell of a life without running water. And look at the areas where your people come for picnics further upstream. They are rubbish dumps full of plastic bags and disposable plates and cups and chicken bones left from their barbecues. You lack the know-how and the discipline. Leave planning and law-enforcement to us. We have built many towns and cities out of wild empty areas. Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes and look how vibrant it is today. The same will happen here.’
‘I love these hills no less than you. I was raised here. The sights and smells of this land are a sacred part of me. I am not happy anywhere else. Every time I leave I cannot wait to get back. This is my home.’
‘What do you call this wadi?’
‘And the spring?’
‘After the plane tree. You pronounce it Dolev. We say Dalb.’
‘Isn’t it glorious in spring?’
‘This one in particular.’
‘Yes. There was more water this year than ever.’
‘So unusual for this part of the country.’
‘It’s very peaceful here.’
‘This too is unusual.’
An important book that rightfully won the Orwell Prize in 2008.