Saturday, July 19, 2008
A Palestinian lawyer contemplates his vivisected country
Saturday, July 12, 2008
A Palestinian lawyer contemplates his vivisected country
2008 Orwell Prize winner 'Palestinian Walks' takes the reader beyond the 'betrayal' of Oslo
By Daniel Phillips Special to The Daily Star
BEIRUT: At one point in his poem "I Come from There," celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes, "I walked this land before swords turned bodies into banquets." The poem's complex expression of yearning, anger and lament has now found a prose echo of sorts in "Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape," a simple but powerful new memoir by Raja Shehadeh.
The central theme of "Palestinian Walks" is the disruption of the organic continuity (and contiguity) that once defined life and landscape in the hills of Palestine. Shehadeh is a lawyer by trade. He founded Al-Haq human-rights organization and authored several books about international law, human-rights and the Middle East. His memoir thus projects an eloquent and informed voice into the bloody debate over the ownership of Palestinian land.
As cease-fires collapse and Israeli settlements on Palestinian land expand, the Palestinian cause is sorely in need of such a voice. The succinct honesty of his account provides a unique insight into Israel's reckless policy of expansion into Palestinian lands. For its natural audience, "Palestinian Walks" will do more damage to the Zionist project's reputation than a whole horizon of rockets.
The memoir unfolds as a series of walks among the rolling valleys of Palestine, ranging from 1978 to close to present day. Shehadeh describes the sahra as a time-honored Palestinian tradition of walking and sometimes camping in the hills, a generations-old means of familiarizing oneself with the hills and with oneself. He calls it a "drug-free high, Palestinian style."
In Shehadeh's experience, though, from the first walk to the last, the rejuvenating qualities of the hills are increasingly distorted and negated by the tightening of the occupation regime and the encroachment of Israeli settlements into the West Bank.
The walks became a way to separate the author from his frustrating professional life as a lawyer in Occupied Palestine - where the Israeli government has proven adept at opportunistically using legal statutes from the Ottoman and British Mandate periods to shore up its land-confiscation agenda.
Shehadeh's depictions of his own perceived failures in the great historical sweep of the conflict are most compelling. With "the law as my weapon," Shehadeh fought the Israeli regime with detailed amicus curiae and unassailable legal arguments concerning who truly owns the land. But loss after loss demonstrated that Israel's suffocating judicial system was in place to do little more than affirm state policies.
Asked how the walled-in Palestinian cities are supposed to expand with a natural population increase, one straight-faced Israeli land-management official replied, "Up." Highly politicized courts repeatedly produced decisions that, though Shehadeh saw them coming long in advance, made a mockery of both the letter and the spirit of the law.
After one particularly appaling verdict, he describes standing in a window of the courthouse watching the snow fall on Ramallah and musing over the contrast of the snow's purity and the court's depravity.
The most pleasing passages of the whole book are the author's descriptions of the Palestinian landscape. "The whispers of the pine trees," he writes, "sound like the conversation of a family gathered in a circle in their garden". The hills and valleys of northern Palestine are "groundswells produced by a storm at sea ... large, frequent and confused."
This juxtaposition of "relaxed" and "natural" hills with "contorted" Israeli settlements that have "butchered the hills" convey the book's most accessible theme.
The occupation has committed some of its worst crimes not against Palestinians, Shehadeh contends, but against their land - establishing itself at the expense of the land's beauty. "The language of conquest was writ large over the hills," he writes, "over the wilderness, in every corner of the land."
Time and again, he describes the cookie-cutter settlements ravaging what was once Palestinian countryside. Arguing with Shehadeh in court or over an impromptu hashish moment alongside a stream, Israelis reveal they consider Palestinian land either ugly or unused and in need of a civilizing touch in the form of settlements and roads - despite their being flagrant violations of international law.
The reader comes to see Shehadeh as a slightly odd gentleman, whose one love is to gambol through Palestine's hills, but is frustrated at every turn by a new Israeli road he can't use or the obstacle posed by settlement sewage flowing freely onto Palestinian land.
Here lies the key to the book's power. The author doesn't steep the Palestinian struggle in some Marxist, Islamist or other ideological discourse. Rather, he persuades readers with the straightforward observations of an educated gentleman denied a simple walk through his own countryside. These brilliant indictments of Israeli power are presented in terms that any casual North American or European reader can understand.
By the end of the book, Shehadeh expresses a grudging acceptance that most of his career has been negated by the Palestinian leadership's signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords - which he deems "an act of surrender." For Shehadeh, the Accords represent the PA's acceptance of "quick and easy gains" in exchange for informally ceding control of vast tracts of the West Bank to a ravenous Israeli state.
He sees the agreement as a betrayal of the legitimate rational-legal argument against Israeli expansion and expropriation he had built for so many years. "When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed," he writes, "I distinctly remember feeling a rupture, the termination of what for years I had called my narrative. My bubble, my illusion, was burst."
He comes to accept this and move on. "A time comes when one has to accept reality," he writes, "difficult as that might be, and find ways to live through it without losing one's self-esteem or principles."
First published in the UK last year, "Palestinian Walks" has since won of the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing. Founded in the 1980s, the George Orwell Memorial Trust launched two annual Orwell Prizes for political writing - one for book-length publications and one for journalism - in 1993. The judges' criteria for awarding the prize is that the writing be accessible to the public, and embody excellence of style and originality of content.
By now, the British media recognize the Orwell Prize as the most "important" and "prestigious" in the country.
In early 2008, "Palestinian Walks" got a second print run for the US and international market. Arguably, America is where this book is most needed. After reading this book, US citizens - whose government affords such unapologetic and unprecedented support to the Israeli state - might think twice upon tolerating the status-quo discourse on the situation in Palestine.
Having a US edition of this book will not come close to solving the manifold problems confronting Shehadeh and his clients, but it is a step in the right direction. There is walking yet to be done.
Raja Shehadeh's "Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape" (2008) is published
by Profile Books.