I saw Raja Shehadeh

I’ve seen Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks, twice. The first time was a lecture. It was only by fluke that I was able to go. A few days before I flew to Palestine a friend’s comedy debut was cancelled due to a sore throat, and I found out that Raja happened to be speaking at LSE, around the corner from the office I worked at.

His work encompasses the legal, political, and philosophical, but the most characteristic aspect of it is a sense of place. This preserving of Palestine, which has been changed by war and occupation, is a great gift to the people who miss their country. The way language can be used to preserve, or to distort, was integral to Raja’s talk at LSE on his most recent book, Language of War, Language of Peace.

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. (Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks)

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We’d spent our first week together as a whole group, whether we were trying to squeeze through a market or sit through our security training. One week in we were finally brave enough to splinter off, and a trio of us, myself, Ellen and Abdul, decided to spend Easter Sunday hiking out of Ramallah, going west along Al-Teereh Street, into the first century A.D. countryside Raja describes.

When our group travels now, by service or by foot, we find ourselves trying to pick out settlements from the landscape. As we got further from the city I thought about the language of occupation, the innocuousness of the term ‘settlement’, and how the word ‘peace’ is weighted for both Israelis and Palestinians.DSCN0192

At Raja Shehadeh’s talk, one of the last questions from the audience was posed by an Israeli woman. She understood the Palestinian situation but in the end, she said, she just wanted peace. A similar exchange takes place at the end of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, when a bright and relatively liberal Israeli complains to him that she just wants to live her life.

At the same time we were baking in the hills outside Ramallah, another splinter group was in a tour of the tunnels under the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Israeli tour guide warned them that they would have to exit through the Muslim Quarter, and urged them not to spend a shekel there – because Palestine had refused Israeli peace terms.

It’s instinctive to hear “I want peace” as a reasonable, admirable thing to say. But when the person saying it holds the majority of legal power and the physical force to back it up, we have to ask why, if they want it so much, it hasn’t happened yet.

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Right2Education, the group I’ve started volunteering with here in Palestine, make a point of supporting other marginalised groups, including the Ferguson protesters. There’s a common bond between the two; both are seen as troublemakers by a privileged establishment. In Ferguson last year, white locals complained against the protests, saying it disrupted their work and their plans. A common plea was “I just want to live my life”. A similar plea was being made by the protesters, in between the words don’t shoot and am I next on their placards: “I just want to live my life – and not to die like Michael Brown”.

At the first crossroads we came to, 7 kilometres from town, we stopped indecisively. A man and a woman got out of a car, hiking poles in hand. Abdul said to us – isn’t that Raja Shehadeh? We ran after him, asking if he was indeed Mr Shehadeh, the two of us that knew him grinning ear to ear when he and his wife stopped and spoke to us for a while. It was a little like being in a lecture theatre again, as the two of us who recognised him were too starstruck to say anything. I couldn’t even manage to take in directions as he mapped out a route for us. His knowledge of the terrain was equal to his love for it.

Completely giddy, we walked along the path he’d told us about (luckily Ellen had actually listened to his directions), through olive trees and pines, half-rubble houses and yellow sunlight to A’yn Qenya.

So, I saw Raja Shehadeh twice; both times by fluke. The first was in LSE; the second time was on a walk in Area C.

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We arrived at the spring of A‘yn El Lwza (Spring of the Almond Tree), the abandoned qasr a little distance away. Across from us was the beautiful rock that early in the year is studded with cyclamens. The spring itself still provided much-needed water for the flocks of goats and sheep that grazed in these hills. The water had made a small, murky-green pond in which we heard frogs and saw thick growths of spearmint and the common reed. But the meandering path nearby was almost totally obliterated, blocked by the large boulders that had fallen from the terrace above when this illegal road had been built in 1992. A beautiful spot that had remained unchanged for centuries had been destroyed with no one raising a storm. I sat down on the dislocated rocks trying to recall how it used to be, silently lamenting the destruction of our once-beautiful valley. (Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks)