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PALESTINIAN WALKS Forays into a Vanishing Landscape

Scribner, New York, 2008, 200 pages Reviewed by Joseph Leven

by Joseph Leven

Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh is at once a descriptive travel/nature book and a sharp political commentary. As the former, the author describes six walks that he took over the course of  almost three decades through the hills of Palestine. As the latter, he comments bitterly and extensively about the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank over the same timeframe.

This kind of literary device, juxtaposing a regional tour with the writer’s profound thoughts about  subjects observed on the way, has a long and honourable history. Charles Dickens was one of the earliest writers in the genre with his American Notes.  Recent examples include Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and  Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Shehadeh’s new work is unlikely to attain the fame of any of these authors, but he has written a good book.

Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer from Ramallah who spent many years in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s carefully studying and resisting the legal steps whereby Israel took ownership of parcels of land in the Ramallah area of the West Bank for the establishment of Jewish settlements and for building the roads and other infrastructure to support them. His opposition was rooted both on nationalist grounds and on his love of the natural landscape. He believed that the Israeli government was using tricks and loopholes in the law to take what did not belong to them and his heart ached at the lack of respect for the land that was being shown by the ongoing construction enterprise.

Here’s Shehadeh on the landscape that he loves:

But in spring they were once again transformed with swaths of purple flax that could be glimpsed from afar, crisscrossed by different patterns of blue from the bugloss, clover and miniature iris like wafts of color painted with a wide brush. In the early morning, as the droplets of dew clung to the delicate petals of the wildflowers catching the sunlight, the valleys seemed to glitter in a kaleidoscope of color.

And here’s Shehadeh on the settlements:

How complicated and dismal the future has turned out, with the land now settled by close to half a million Israeli Jews, living in hundreds of settlements scattered throughout our hills, and connected by wide roads through the wadis. And more recently a wall has looped around the “settlement blocs,” destroying the beauty of our hills, separating our villages and towns from one another and annexing yet more of our land to Israel, demolishing the prospect for a viable peace.

When it comes to his love of the land and its natural beauty, one can only enjoy Shehadeh’s knowledgeable descriptions. He peppers his writings with stories of incidents that happened in different places and with bits of local history. He succeeds admirably in making the reader wish that he or she too could walk those hills and share their sights.

As for his exceedingly bitter commentary on the Israelis and the settlements, here we are dealing with the affairs of peoples and nations which are never cut and dried. This is best illustrated in the final chapter of Palestinian Walks titled An Imagined Sarha (sarha means roaming freely through the countryside). On this walk Shehadeh crosses paths with a young Israeli settler and engages him in conversation. Their dialogues on the land and the settlements, the Palestinians and the Israelis, sound like the proverbial “talking to the deaf”. They have totally opposite viewpoints and cannot accept the other’s position at all.

One can only wish that Shehadeh would have presented the other side of the argument more completely and sympathetically, but this is not the book for that. For what it is though, an emotional presentation of  the Palestinian side of the dispute from an unusual perspective, this book succeeds commendably.

 

 

 
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