Monday, September 28, 2009
raja shehadeh and kamila shamsie at the tabernacle in london
The Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh leapt to fame in Britain when his book “Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape” won the 2008 Orwell Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent award for political writing.
In his prizewinning book Shehadeh recounts a series of walks he made over 27 years in the hills of the West Bank, where he lives in the town of Ramallah. His walks reveal the devastation visited on the landscape treasures of Palestine by Israeli occupation and settlement building.
And yet when Shehadeh appeared onstage at the Tabernacle cultural center in West London last Wednesday evening, in conversation with the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie [pictured], he began by reading an account of hillwalking not in the West Bank but in the Scottish Highlands.
Shehadeh first walked in the Highlands of Scotland in 1992. His essay on that walk, entitled “Echoing Lands”, starts: “I come from a land of hills full of stories that the lingering ghosts of those who once lived there want to tell. I did not know the same was true of the Scottish Highlands.”
Shehadeh has done much walking in the Scottish Highlands in the nearly two decades since that first walk. “I welcomed the opportunity to write about that part of the world and found that there are so many echoes with Palestine. Palestine is not an isolated issue: it’s important to see it in wider context.”
“Echoing Lands” appears in the anthology “In a Wilder Vein”, newly published by Two Ravens Press, which focuses on the relationship between people and the wild places of Britain and Ireland.
The evening at the Tabernacle was organized on behalf of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). It gave the audience a chance to interact with a spellbinding writer who combines a passion for justice with sharp perceptions and gentle humor. His writing goes far beyond mere reportage and is permeated by a deep humanity.
In 1979 Shehadeh co-founded the human rights group Al Haq to defend human rights in the occupied territories. Although he is no longer working directly with Al Haq, he considers that through his writing he continues to serve the cause of human rights. Books, whether fiction or non-fiction, are able to touch readers and enable them to understand a situation through experiencing emotion in a way that reports, information or statistics alone cannot do.
Two of Shehadeh’s books, both published by Profile Books of London, were on display for sale and signing at the event. One of the books was the recently-published paperback edition of his 2002 family memoir “Strangers in the House”. The new edition has an afterword by Shehadeh entitled: “A Palestinian Son’s Search for Justice”.
Raja’s prominent lawyer father Aziz Shehadeh was murdered in 1985, and it took Raja years to reach at least the partial truth, with the Israelis laying false trails thereby causing the family much anguish. In his afterword he explains how only in 2006 was he finally able to piece together the story and identify the culprit, by then dead, who had enjoyed Israeli protection as a collaborator.
The other book on display was the 2008 paperback edition of “Palestinian Walks”. The first edition of the book included six walks, but for the paperback edition Shehadeh has added a seventh. During this walk, in August 2007, he and a woman volunteer he had first met in Scotland were menaced by two teenage Palestinians carrying clubs, their faces masked by kufiehs. Shehadeh feared that the situation would turn ugly at any moment. The incident left him feeling “the hills were not mine any more. I am no longer free to come and walk.”
Kamila Shamsie said she had read “Palestinian Walks” and “Strangers in the House” separately, and then together. “The way they interweave with each other is really very moving. They are both books which go right to the heart of how the personal and political are indivisible, and how the land and the people of the land are indivisible.”
When Shehadeh returned to Ramallah from his law studies in London, he was the first Western-educated lawyer to return to the West Bank since 1948. He was determined not only to practice law but to become a writer. His books draw on his own experiences to illuminate the wider human predicament of the Palestinians. His first book, “The Third Way: Journal of the Life in the West Bank”, was published in 1982. “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Dairy of Ramallah Under Siege”, was published by Profile in 2003.
Shehade recently finished writing his latest book. It is based on his great great uncle Najib Nassar, originally from a Lebanese village, who lived in Haifa where he was the editor of Al Karmil newspaper. In 1908 he wrote a book on the dangers of Zionism to Palestine and Palestinian life.
During the First World War Nassar thought that it was a mistake for the Ottomans to enter the war, and to do so on the German side. The Germans and Ottomans tried to use him as a propagandist for their cause; when he refused to comply, a warrant was issued for his arrest. So as to avoid the risk of being hanged (as many others were) in what became Martyrs Square in Beirut, Nassar went on the run for the three years 1915-18. He first hid with Bedouin, travelling with them in Galilee, and then crossed the River Jordan to take refuge in the wilderness of the East Bank.
Nassar wrote in detail about his travels, and in his latest book Shehadeh traces his route, as well as visiting Nassar’s Lebanese village of origin. “I have tried to write about how things are today – all the borders, the fragmentation, and the difficulties – and the change that has occurred in the land from the way it was 100 years ago. And then I end the book by going into the future 50 years from today to see how things might look: so it’s the past, the present and the future.”
Shehadeh does not thinks that in 50 years the situation will be as it is now, with an ideological Israeli state believing it can survive through military power in a region that does not accept it. “They will have to make peace with the region, and peace must mean breaking the walls that they have put in place – ideological walls, and walls built by fear and insecurity.” He stressed the interdependence of states in the area. In 50 years there will be “either utter destruction, or peace built on more rational reasoning.”