This Way Up

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Excerpt: Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh

Author Raja ShehadehRaja Shehadeh

I had studied the Oslo Agreement well enough to realize it would lead to chaos. So I tried to take measures against what I was sure would be coming. I built my house within the borders of Ramallah, where I considered it would be safe from Israeli expropriation, and proceeded to cultivate my garden and write a book of memoirs, Strangers in the House, that I had long thought about. I was digging my heels in, taking refuge in a stone house and waiting for the tide to change, an honorable tradition in the Holy Land, where over the centuries so many missions, monks, and pockets of religious and ethnic groups founded monasteries, schools or institutions, and confined themselves within their walls, or stood on pillars as they waited out the bad times. In the one dunum of Ramallah land on which Penny and I had built our house, we had an open courtyard in the center where we also reserved for ourselves a piece of sky. Finding such refuge during bleak times was maybe the only way to preserve one's integrity and way of life. It was no surprise, perhaps a premonition, that when I was a child The Spanish Gardener, a story about a boy whose father wanted him to grow up protected within the confines of a beautiful walled garden and never to be exposed to the ills of the world, was my favorite tale.

Mustafa Barghouti and I had been friends for many years despite our being fundamentally different. He was a doctor and a politician. I, a lawyer and author. We were fond of taking walks in the hills and talking about current events and sharing our political analysis of how things were going. We had started our professional lives at almost the same time, in 1978. He founded the Medical Relief Organization and I the human rights organization Al Haq. For many years we were neighbors and had many opportunities for long talks, as we walked in the hills behind where we lived. We would discuss the role of civil society in resisting the occupation and the establishment of non-governmental organizations such as the ones we had started in the late seventies. Both were pioneering organizations that had played significant roles in their respective fields and had promoted alternative forms of civil struggle against the occupation, especially during the first Intifada, which had broken out at the end of 1987. But since the return of the PLO, and the start of what the Oslo Accords called the Interim Phase, much had changed.

Civil affairs were now largely in the hands of the Palestinians themselves and the Israeli military authorities had redeployed, assuming a new role that reduced direct interaction with Palestinian society. Massive international funding poured in, and the rising materialism of a new elite was much in evidence. The spirit of voluntarism was in short supply. The ideals of liberation, both personal and political, seemed further off than ever. But what could be done to stop the erosion of values, Mustafa wondered? And what political role was suitable for someone like him during times as turbulent and unstable as these? We had much to talk about on our walk.

We decided not to start from Ramallah. We got a ride to A'yn Qenya. From the village we were going to walk to Deir Ammar, passing through Janiya and the high village of Ras Karkar. With the exception of the last, which was built on the top of the hill as its name implied (the word ras meaning 'head'), Palestinians built their villages to embrace the hills not to ride them. This policy gave them protection from strong winds and severe weather conditions. The Israelis, with an eye on security and military advantage, took the hilltops. This is why the settlements stand out. One can tell, by looking at the hills, a Jewish settlement from a Palestinian village. The houses in the hastily constructed settlements are like a honeycomb, with the buildings marshaled next to each other in a rigid plan, while the unplanned Palestinian villages have developed slowly over a long period of time and blend organically into the land. I knew all this. Still, I was in for a surprise. Over the years I had extensively read and written about the Israeli master plans for the settlements. I knew that Israeli planners worked on strangling our inhabited areas and separating them from each other. Sometimes as I read I felt a shudder of fear about the future: What if these plans were fulfilled right here next to where I lived? What would become of us? But reading is not like seeing. From the distance of Ramallah I could not begin to imagine the extent of the upheaval and havoc that the widespread and accelerated building of settlements now taking place around Ramallah was causing in our hills.

For many years I had been monitoring the orders issued by the Israeli military government declaring parts of the West Bank nature reserves. The first order, number 554, was issued on 16 July 1974. Since then it had been amended at least twenty times. Wadi Qelt was one of the first such reserves. At first I was pleased that legislation was being introduced to protect these spectacular spots, even if it was coming from the occupier. At last the military were doing something beneficial for the land. It was comforting to know that construction and road building would not be allowed and that the natural flora and fauna would be protected. But my hope that the order was made for our benefit was dashed when another related order was passed in 1996 forbidding entry into the so-called area C by non-Israeli nationals without permission from the military governor. All nature reserves were in area C and so, legally, were now out of reach for us Palestinians.

I was aware before we began that the route Mustafa and I were planning to take was prohibited to us. We did not have permission from the military governor to walk there and if we came upon soldiers we could be arrested. A Jewish settler also has the power to make a citizen's arrest. We had to be careful of both. I was certain that Mustafa, like most Palestinians, was unaware of this prohibition. Before we started our walk I considered telling him but in the end decided against it. One anxious person on this lovely walk was enough.

Birds-eye view of Dolev Bird's-eye view of Dolev settlement. Courtesy of Google Maps.

The valley where we walked was relatively wide, a swathe of green cutting through the dry hills. It stretched all the way to Ramallah... Nearby was an excellent path going north, connecting A'yn Qenya with the villages of Birzeit, Kober and Mizr'a Qiblieh. They lay beyond the two escarpments of 'raq El Khafs and 'raq El Khanouq which were visible to us as we walked. To the south stood Dolev and beyond it the smaller hamlets that were scattered between the hills all the way to the coastal plain and eventually the Mediterranean Sea. The field to our right as we strolled by the stream was cultivated with olives. It was partially shaded by the hill on which Dolev stood. The newly ploughed ground between the olive trees was dappled with spots of shade and light where the sun shone through the branches.

The settlers in Dolev must be unused to seeing walkers strolling down the wadi (valley). Village people do not take walks for pleasure, just as leisure swimming was not common in poor communities living by the sea, simply because there was no time for leisure. I knew there were armed guards around the settlement and wondered who they'd think we were if they happened to look down. I hoped they would not shoot at us or come down and arrest us. Now our path crossed the wadi. We were able to ford the stream by stepping on wet rocks, catching up with the path on the other side of the narrow valley. The path continued in a north-westerly easy climb beyond the ploughed field into other fields planted with olives that had not been pruned, forcing us to stoop and push our way through their woody branches. Perhaps it was safer to be in this field, concealed by the trees from the watchful eyes of the settlement guards. The unploughed earth here had an abundance of wild flowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds. We stepped back when we saw a number of partridges scurrying away from us on their short legs, until they found a way of flying out of the intertwined branches to feed on seeds in other fields.

Not far from where we walked we saw two young men on horseback riding through the hills. It was a beautiful sight. We followed them with our eyes and saw that they stopped just below the hill where Dolev stood, at a stable belonging to the settlement. The track we were following diverged from the wadi that circled the Dolev hill and led to what appeared to be a country club where Israelis and tourists could come to enjoy our lovely hills.

As we neared the top of the hill the clods of soil began to feel wet even though there was no spring nearby and it hadn't rained. We soon realized that we had walked into the open sewers of the Jewish settlement of Talmon to the north. This settlement might have had a rubbish collection system but it did not have one for treating sewage, which was just disposed of down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers. We tried to step lightly so as not to drown our shoes in the settlers' shit. As we trudged through the soggy ground we met two boys who showed us the way out of the bog. We noticed they were taking us away from the paved road and told them that was where we were headed.

'It's too dangerous,' they said.

We asked them why.

'The settlers,' they said. 'If you're walking and they drive by they swerve and hit you. They ran over Mazen. And if an army jeep comes they shoot. No one uses the road.'

We insisted and they reluctantly came along. I thought they might be exaggerating the danger as boys are wont to do, but I could tell by the way they behaved that using the road leading to their village was to them an adventure. I noticed that they made sure they were flanked by us and stayed on the side of the road, pricking their ears to hear if a settler car or an army jeep was approaching, presumably so that they could run back to the hills. All along the way they rambled nervously, going from one terrifying tale to another about what the settlers had done.

'Abu Nabeel has been unable to get to his olives over there,' the younger one said, pointing to a field which we had just crossed. 'He has been unable to plough. Every time he tried the settlers shot at him and drove him and his sons away.'

I did not notice any Palestinian cars passing by. I thought this was curious.

'Do the people in Janiya ever drive along this road?' I asked.

'They can't,' the older boy told me. 'The entrance to the village is blocked.'

When we got to the road leading to the village we could see the concrete blocks the army had placed across the entrance, a barrier which no one was allowed to remove. I wondered whether the villagers would be allowed to ride a mule or a horse on the road, if they happened to own one. I suspected not.

It was curious that we did not find any villagers working on their land here. Traditionally these were agricultural villages. Within a few decades the inhabitants have been intimidated, their life made unsafe and many of their fields expropriated, and they have been turned into construction workers building the settlements which stood on land that once had belonged to them. These were the beginnings of new times, a new relationship to the land and the destruction of the hills as I knew them.

When we got to the wadi our path turned northward and we were now too low to be able to see the construction work taking place above us on the hills to the east. We were walking on a lush green swell cultivated with chickpeas when we came upon an adobe structure. It was freshly painted in white and stood out starkly from the sea of green. It was the maqam of Nabi Aneer. The maqamat (plural) are tombs of revered sheikhs (elders) or local saints. Usually a small domed structure would be built around the tomb, where locals could go to pray and meditate. Mustafa and I spoke in hushed voices as we approached. When we reached the door, we looked in but it was dark inside. When our eyes adjusted we could see a bearded man sitting in total silence. We quickly pulled ourselves away for we did not want to disturb him. He had left his shoes outside and was squatting beneath the dome, meditating.

Area where Shehadeh walks
The view around Ras Karkar along the route that Shehadeh takes on his walk.

We moved away, walking in silence along the path that now began to climb southward towards the high village of Ras Karkar, one of twenty-odd throne villages in Palestine. These were the seats of rural nobility who, with the weakening of the centralized Ottoman authority, collected taxes on its behalf and achieved great political and socio-economic power in their local areas. Those who failed to pay had their land expropriated. The village was originally called Janiet Sheikh Sam'an after the sheikh who governed it. He had built a citadel in the village and lived in it. During the First World War the village head sided with the Ottomans. After they began their rule over Palestine the British punished him by changing the name of the village from Janiet Shiekh Sam'an to its original name of Ras Karkar. The Arabic word ras means head and karkar is a skua. But since these birds are not indigenous to the area it is more likely that the British were thinking of the other meaning of the word, which is to burst out in laughter.

The green grass on both sides of the path was so high it dwarfed us as we walked west, far away from any village or settlement. We were surrounded by open fields in hills that, except for the few narrow roads built long ago, must have remained unchanged since biblical times. For a long time my enjoyment of these hills has been impaired by a preoccupation with the changes in land law relating to them. But such man-made constructs can be diminished if looked at in a particular way. Viewed from the perspective of the land they hardly count. A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated. Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land, however large and formidable they might once have been. Monumental Crusader castles in a dilapidated state dot the land, as do the ruins of other empires that have prevailed in this region. Empires and conquerors come and go but the land remains. As these thoughts crossed my mind, I could not help but wonder whether this long-term perspective was simply another justification for having curtailed my activism, or a reasonable defense against Israel's positing of these changes as permanent and incapable of ever being altered. I realized that the stronger the attempt at impressing me with their permanence, the more my mind sought confirmation of their transience.

Thinking in the long term made it possible for me to separate 'the present' from the rest of time and thereby realize that what Palestine and Israel are now would not necessarily be for ever. I was here on earth for a relatively short period and after that time passed, life would go on without my points of view, biases and fears.

In 'Carmel Point' the poet Robinson Jeffers asks whether nature cares when 'the spoiler has come' and answers:

Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide That swells and in time will ebb, and all Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty Lives in the very grain of the granite, Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff - as for us: We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Mustafa has known me for a long time and must have noticed how this line of thinking had changed me. At one point in the course of our walk he turned to me and asked: 'Tell me, how did you get over your anger?'

I was surprised by the question. I had not realized that I was coming across as a less angry man. At first I did not know how to answer and merely replied: 'By accepting the fact of our surrender and moving on.'

Almost immediately after saying this I was aware that I had left out the most important factor. More than anything else it was writing that was helping me overcome the anger that burns in the heart of most Palestinians. In my memoir, Strangers in the House, I had written about the experience of my parents and grandparents in the Nakbeh of 1948. Through feeling and expressing their pain, as well as my own, over that wrenching past I was able to liberate myself from the yoke of something that had so dominated my imagination that I found it difficult to go beyond it. My own experiences were dwarfed by the enormity of what had happened before I was born. It was also true that since I had redirected my energies from activism to writing I found I was more in my element. I had never been entirely comfortable as a political activist. Conditions had imposed that role on me.

'You think the deal was that bad?' Mustafa asked. 'This is not the first time we have arrived at defeat that was trumpeted by the leadership as a victory,' I replied. 'Our history is rich with similar instances. The price of living a lie is too high for me. I'd rather face facts and take stock. Israel has won this round. It will take many years to undo the harm of Oslo. We might be able to gain valuable time if we face the fact of our defeat.'

'I'm under strong pressure from my party to accept an invitation to join the government. You cannot begin to imagine how insistent they are. They say it is the only game in town. I agree with you in thinking it is doomed but there are huge rewards from joining -- high governmental positions, money, power. It's like holding back the trophy which everyone can see and wants to get at. I've tried. I did everything I could to tell them what I thought of the Agreement and the Authority. It will destroy our future chances if we go after easy gains. I am certain of it. What I'm less sure of is the alternative. What role could we play if we are not in government?'

'The same role you've always played, as opposition.'

'But we did this when the occupation exercised all civilian powers.'

'You don't have to relate to the Palestinian Authority as the enemy. What I'm suggesting is that you see it as a passing phenomenon and prepare for the next stage.'

'And what do you think that would be?'

'The continuation of the struggle. The Agreement was an act of surrender. In its wake there is more heightened settlement activity than before. The Israeli side's understanding is that they have shared the West Bank, giving us areas A and B and leaving C for themselves. This is why they have declared it a closed military zone and are proceeding to fill it up with settlements.'

'Area C is closed? I didn't know this.'

'It's been closed by military order since 1996.'

'Then we are here illegally.'


New York Times: Roaming Freely in a Land of Restraints
The bucolic landscape of the West Bank was the prevailing impression Raja Shehadeh had in mind when he wrote the book "Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape." Read more about the book and watch two multimedia presentations about the landscape around Ramallah.

Palestinian Walks book jacketRaja Shehadeh is the author of the highly praised Strangers in the House and When the Birds Stopped Singing. A Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah, he is a founder of the pioneering human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists.

Palenstinian Walks is excerpted with the permission of Profile Books. Shehadeh's memoir, Strangers in the House, is being re-released this year in the United States by Consortium Books.