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Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, by Raja Shehadeh

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 31.08.2007:

Profile Books, UK, August 2007, 211 pages, £10.99

I could sit on this rock and look at the wide valley of Wadi El ‘qda (‘the knot’) and the open hillside opposite… in between the stones there was a shiny, almost wispy layer of grass embossed with droplets of water that glistened in the sun. The lichen-covered rocks made the trickling water look black. The afternoon sun cast long shadows from the olive trees…

Palestine is a land of biblical beauty – of olive groves, grapevines, stone buildings, rolling hills, wadis and cliffs. It is also a land of violence and war. Human rights lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh has lived on the West Bank since his family fled Jaffa in 1948. A peace activist of independent temper, he has seen at first hand the horrors of occupation – including the siege of Ramallah. For decades Shehadeh has found comfort in walking, following what in Arab culture is called sarha – meaning to roam freely, at will, without restraint: to go where the spirit takes you. In Palestinian Walks he invites the reader to come along for the unique experience of a sarha in Palestine. The six walks that comprise the book span a period of twenty six years evoking the land, its history and some of Palestinian’s political struggles, disappointments and hope.

Palestinian Walks describes a vanishing landscape. Shehadeh takes us to beautiful hills, past rivers and sacred springs, to famous landmarks from A’yn Qenya, the Shukba Caves, from Wadi Qelt to the Dead Sea (now receding by a metre every year thanks to Israel’s diversion of the river Jordan, an environmental catastrophe in the making). We take a walk with Selma Hasan, a PLO functionary from Tunis, who returned after the Oslo Accords (a settlement that undermined decades of Shehadeh’s legal work on land rights). And we experience the everyday humiliations and harassment by Israeli soldiers – including a chance meeting with a settler who lives next to Shehadeh’s hometown.

But there are also moments of extraordinary beauty. “To my left at the perfectly still waters of the [Dead] Sea, transformed by the sun into a luminous platinum sheet, and to my right at the formidable wall of incandescent rock along which we were travelling, towering steeply, challengingly, seemingly an impenetrable line of defence, a mighty gateway into another world.”

Palestinian Walks shows how Shehadeh’s life, and the fate of the landscape are utterly intertwined. It is an intensely personal account of life in one of the world’s most troubled regions, and a poignant story of how a pleasure so many of us take for granted – the freedom to roam through the countryside – is being destroyed. In the course of his encounter with the Israeli settler Shehadeh tells him, “Whether we call it Israel or Palestine this land will become one concrete maze.”

Raja Shehadeh is the author of the highly praised When the Bulbul Stopped Singing and Strangers in the House, described by The Economist as “distinctive and truly impressive” and both published by Profile Books. A Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah, he is a founder of the pioneering human rights organisation, Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights and the Middle East.

(Courtesy of the publisher)


This Week in Palestine

September 2007

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