“Take a walk” is pretty much my answer to everything life throws in front of me. Walking can heal you, change your perspective, give space to new ideas, put your mind to rest, it can connect you with nature, landscapes, buildings, other people, yourself.
It is no wonder I really liked the idea of Raja Shehadeh’s book Palestinian Walks: Notes On a Vanishing Landscape (first edition published as Palestinian Walks: Forays Into A Vanishing Landscape). I’ve had it on my to-read list for couple of years and I finally managed to get it and start reading it just this last week. I actually bought it in a bookstore at the American University of Beirut campus, where Shehadeh studied forty years ago.
Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and author, and a passionate hill walker. He is also a founder of the human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists. He has written several books on international law, human rights and the Middle East. Some of his books include Strangers In The House, Occupation Diaries and A Rift in Time: Travels With My Ottoman Uncle.
In Palestinian Walks, he captures the changes his beloved landscape endures under Israeli occupation. He started hill walking in 1970s, not aware of the fact that he was travelling through a vanishing landscape. Shehadeh writes: “As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ. Those hills were, I believe, one of the natural treasures of the world.”
But the landscape he traverses decades later is the site of a tense standoff between his fellow Palestinians and settlers newly arrived from Israel. Seven walks captured in this book span a period of twenty-seven years, in the hills around Ramallah, in the Jerusalem wilderness and through ravines by the Dead Sea. Each walk takes place at a different stage of Palestinian history.
On the changing idea of Palestine, Shehadeh writes: “Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travellers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travellers’ imaginations. Palestine has been constantly re-invented , with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps of travellers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs.”
As decades pass, it becomes harder and harder for Shehadeh to enjoy his walks. He is often harassed by Israeli border patrols, during one walk he is horrified when his young nephew picks up an unexploded missile and on one other occasion, when accompanied by his wife, they come under prolonged gunfire.
He also describes intense legal battles he fights for Palestinian landowners, and the way it also became harder with time. It so happens that even when the client’s ownership of land is proved, it gets taken by some overarching new directive. Legal battles have worn him out, and that’s when his writing saved him from total desperation.
He feels the need to capture his experiences, to describe the land the way it used to be and how it changed, to show the effect it had on people, for there is a fear it will totally disappear and nobody will ever know, nobody will ever remember – no justice, just long and empty silence. The loss of such a simple pleasure as walking around freely is much more important than it might seem, for it exists within a much greater loss – deprivations of an entire people estranged from their land.
Take this walk with Shehadeh, it’s one of the rare chances to still walk around Palestine, to travel back in time and witness the changes of the land and its people.
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