Thursday, November 30, 2023

Six Walks in a disappearing wilderness

Cross-posted to The Heavy Anglophile Orthodox:

I just finished reading Palestinian Walks—a poignant and tragic memoir by human rights lawyer, author and Palestinian activist Raja Shehadeh about his work in the Holy Land over the course of nearly four decades. Shehadeh, who is an ethnic Palestinian Christian, makes numerous Scriptural references owing to the simple fact that he lives where Scripture was written, and where the events of Scripture took place. But his spirituality is not of an overt, apologist or confessional nature; indeed, his attitude toward organised religion in general is self-avowedly ‘cynical’. Living in a land which is riven by communal factionalism and self-serving zealotry on the part of the settlers, does understandably tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth when it comes to theological questions. But rather, we can see that spirituality most clearly in his meditations on the shifting ecological balance and the fragile disappearing landscapes he loves so dearly. He is very much so a lover of the land and its people, a fact which comes through painfully in every chapter. Glimmers and moments of his faith in Christianity do emerge, however—particularly in his visit to the Monastery of St George Choziba in Wadi Qelt.

To get a good grasp of the tenor of the book, it’s necessary to quote Shehadeh at length about the nature of these walks he would take. Here is his description of the sarḥa (سرحة), which is the term he uses for the sort of walk he would do:
It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They 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. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wonders 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.
Shehadeh’s evocation of the sarḥa rather mirrors the false etymology that Henry David Thoreau posits for ‘saunter’ (from ‘sainte-terre’) as a sort of pilgrimage, though one without a fixed aim. I have little doubt that this choice was intentional on Shehadeh’s part, even if it’s left unsaid. Shehadeh demonstrates a firm command of English-language literature regarding his home country, and an enviable degree of appreciation for its artistry—even as he chides figures like WM Thackeray, Herman Melville and Mark Twain for their unappreciative, imperialist’s-eye view of his country and his people.

Shehadeh describes a landscape in which every ridge, crest, rock, dry riverbed and hill-slope has a name—in Arabic, most commonly, but with the occasional Canaanite and Aramaic epithet arising. He describes an austerely exquisite panorama, not to everyone’s tastes, but with life and vibrancy enough to one trained in the ability to look for it. His careful—yet lively—descriptions of the geological features, of the local plant and animal life, and the ways in which his fellow Palestinians (and their goats, their grapevines and their earthen houses) came to a modus vivendi with their near-desert surroundings, all bear witness to the personal stake he has in the well-being of this place.

Yet despite this naturalist, travelogue feel, Palestinian Walks is very much so a memoir, a personal text. He describes the effort his maternal uncle, Abu Ameen, put into constructing a qasr, essentially a cottage, in the wilderness of Harrasha—and the quirky romance he enjoyed with his hardworking bride, Zariefeh, as they spent their honeymoon hauling rocks and setting them into place. We get to see some of the family dynamics, too. Raja Shehadeh belongs to that educated class of Palestinians, who were drawn into the British administration at Jaffa… although they all hailed from Ramallah. He describes the differences in attitude between his two uncles: one who went off to Jaffa to become a ‘successful’ administrator; and the other who stayed behind and lived stubbornly in the desert hills outside of Ramallah, neither knowing or needing any other kind of life.

A personal streak runs throughout each of these sarḥât. Raja describes one of the first land cases that he took up on receiving his law degree, defending the title of a certain Palestinian named François Albina (who was referred to as ‘the Christian’ landowner by his Muslim neighbours in Beit ‘Ur, in contradistinction to another large landowner nearby whom his neighbours called ‘the Jew’). He details much of the history behind this case, including how the Israeli settlers—with the entire machinery of the Israeli legal system and seemingly bottomless foreign pockets behind them—resorted to practically every trick of legal chicanery and sleight-of-hand in order to undercut Albina’s claim to the land… and even essentially blackmail him into abandoning that same claim by demanding compensation for its use. Raja also describes how this served as an almost perfect test case: the defendant was an independent landowner who was not a Muslim. Yet the Israeli judiciary, despite being forced at every turn by Raja’s argument to acknowledge that Albina had an incontestable and continuous presence on and claim to his own land, ultimately decided on an expansive interpretation of an Israeli military order that gave the go-ahead for settlers to take it and build on it anyway.

Raja’s description of the wall that went up, straight through Albina’s property, is heart-wrenching. Instead of a gentle hillside shaded by pine trees, there was a garish, sixteen-foot concrete wall separating a nestle of villas in a gated community for Israeli high-tech IT employees, with a highway running to the coast, all lit by electric floodlights, overshadowing what remained of the Palestinian community in Beit ‘Ur. He describes both the intrusion of the built space, and all of the architectural choices which accompanied it, as perfectly keyed to stir up animosity and hatred between the two sides, assuring that violence would become an issue later. This point is driven home as, later, in the same vicinity, Raja and his wife Penny end up being shot at by Palestinian militants (Raja doesn’t say Ḥamâs specifically) even after calling to them in Arabic to stop.

Raja Shehadeh makes no bones about the fact that he refuses to consider violence as a legitimate tool. His weapon of choice is the law. His reasons for this are not religious at all, but primarily secular and practical: he knows full well that the Palestinians will not be able to outgun or outkill the Israelis; and he also understands that no peace arrived at through bloodshed is capable of being permanent. He also takes a long-term, generational view of the conflict… though to what extent this view is the product of hindsight in view of the Oslo Accords (which undermined practically all of his legal work defending Palestinian land claims) is unclear.

The Oslo Accords loom large in Shehadeh’s narrative as a kind of classical nemesis. In his view, the Palestinians who came to Oslo were essentially lulled into a false sense of security by the theatrics of hospitality put on by their Norwegian hosts, while the Israelis essentially walked away with the legal rights to the proverbial lock, stock and barrel. Although Shehadeh clearly, and for very good personal reasons, shuns and deplores the violence of the militants, still he views the political opportunism and low cunning of Fataḥ and the PLO more generally in still-bleaker terms: having sold out the patrimony of their people in exchange for aid money and pats on the head from Western governments. (In this, he echoes a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly in Antiochian and Palestinian Christian circles, particularly with regard to Mahmoud Abbas.) One sees a lot of this frustration in his third sarḥa down to the Dead Sea, which he takes in the company of a young PLO member who talks about the Oslo Accords with a nigh-intolerable rose-tinted naïveté. Here he also describes with alarm the disappearing biome and impending ecological catastrophe which can be observed in the lowering line of the Dead Sea, as Israeli interests divert the fresh water of the Jordan.

In another rare flash of religiosity, Raja Shehadeh describes his pilgrimage to the Monastery of Saint George Choziba in the chapter which follows. He is more comfortable, it seems, referring to figures of the Old Testament (like King David and the Prophet Isaiah) than to the figures of the New—but given where he lives and what his context is, perhaps this is not so strange. Again: his attitude toward religion in general is a negative one. Given what he has described of the overt religiosity of the Israeli settlers, which somehow coexists with callous disregard for neighbour, with casual violence and with absolute comfort in the one-sided and prejudicial use of the machinery of law… this is understandable. And yet he approaches the monastery, sixteen centuries old, with its fortified walls, its dark incensed cloistered interior, its candle-lit icons, with an attitude of deep respect and admiration, if only in the sense of inspiration for the ordering of one’s own life, or the attitude which a people under siege need to adopt.

Raja Shehadeh’s cloister of choice was a modest home with a courtyard in Ramallah… though even this was not inviolate of Israeli brutality, as he learned the hard way when his town came under siege and later occupation. More to the point, perhaps, is that writing became the discipline through which he could manage the defeats, the insults, the violence and the hopelessness which had become the common lot of his people. He discusses, in the context of a sarḥa which the two of them took together, the long friendship he has with Dr Mustafa Barghouti of the PNI Party, and the differences which their lives took. Raja Shehadeh began as a lawyer and ended up as a writer; Mustafa Barghouti began as a medical doctor and ended up as a politician. Yet the two men share a conviction that the Palestinian struggle must be waged in civil society and in terms of generations rather than intifadas.

The final chapter is a harrowing one, but it’s one which I think Shehadeh relates masterfully, simply from a literary standpoint. He describes getting lost right around Dolev, where he grew up—not because of his failing memory, but because the landscape itself had changed so much as to be unrecognisable to him. He ends up finding his way back to Ramallah by process of elimination: all the places which are blocked off to him by Israeli settlements, border walls or checkpoints. He describes a tense encounter with a young, armed Israeli settler who has snuck out of Dolev in order to smoke hashish. The conversation between the two is narrated excellently: a confrontation between two views of the same place that have been shaped by different values and different realms of knowledge. Placing this conversation at the end of the book, after we have been given this personal history of legal struggle and attempts to conserve some semblance of legal consideration for both the landscape and its original inhabitants, was a shrewd choice on Shehadeh’s part: we can see the clear delineation between his view and the ‘settler’ view. Shehadeh is a conservationist and a believer in the rule of law; the settler he encounters is a believer in material progress and victors’ justice. Yet in the end the two of them come, if not to an understanding, then at least to an uneasy truce over the nargileh (punctuated poignantly by the sounds of distant gunfire—whose ‘side’ it is, neither can tell).

Palestinian Walks is a book that I would strongly recommend as a means of understanding the (both literal, figurative and historical) lay of the land in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the common experience that shapes the convictions of the Palestinian side of that conflict. The author—a nominal Christian and a functional pacifist—is nonetheless an authoritative voice for a people who are predominantly Muslim and who are committed to a resistance which can turn, as we have seen, violent. It’s also valuable as an English-language travelogue. However he might chide and wag his finger at the likes of Melville and Thackeray and Twain, what Shehadeh has given us could easily be placed alongside them as a companion-piece, painting in intimate colours the intricate but endangered desert ecology and human communities of the West Bank.

One last note. My own view is that it’s a grim necessity, in these days, to engage in such intentional book-reading as a counterpoint to the prevailing media narratives over the recent conflict. You are not going to get the truth about this or any conflict abroad from CNN, from Fox News, from the New York Times or from the Wall Street Journal, which are all mouthpieces for the State Department and committed to a singular liberal ideology and historical myopia which colours their entire editorial perspective. The benefit of reading books like Shehadeh’s, is that such reading can help someone who is distant and removed from the conflict gain a sense of context, a sense of historical grounding, which is not otherwise available in our information landscape. Although Shehadeh is somewhat self-deprecating about his chosen means of coping with political defeat and the disaster befalling his people, his writing does serve this very needful and, dare I say, God-pleasing purpose.

Raja Shehadeh