This Way Up

PBS Premiere: Aug. 25, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Interview with Raja Shehadeh

POV: This Way Up, the film that POV aired last week on national television, dealt with a group of elderly people living in a nursing home being isolated by the building of the Israeli separation wall. We watch the residents of the nursing home go through their daily lives in the shadow of this new barrier. George Lazarevski, the filmmaker, hopes that the documentary shows people who resist confinement on a political level, and also resist confinement -- as a result of old age and mortality -- on a personal level. Essentially, the film interrogates the effects of all walls that divide communities, families and psyches for the sake of security. What are your thoughts about the barrier and the confinement that it represents, both physically and intellectually, to those on both sides of the wall?

Author Raja ShehadehRaja Shehadeh

Raja Shehadeh: For me the most telling thing about the wall is its two-sidedness. On the Israeli side, to make the presence of the Wall more palatable to Israelis, it is painted with scenes of landscape, images of what they would have seen if it were not there. The wall never blocks Israeli roads. It only creates a new border alongside the highways. However, Palestinians are prohibited from coming close to most segments of the wall. The sight of the stark concrete evokes confinement, desolation, fragmentation and land theft.

It took me many months after the wall began to be constructed to bring myself to look at it. I was afraid of the emotions that the confrontation would evoke in me. Now when I pass those segments of the wall that separate Palestinian communities from one another, I despair. I can only think that our Israeli neighbors have lost their wits, or worse, gone mad. You stand before a formidable wall, five meters high, topped by barbed wire and cameras, and imagine that a vicious enemy lives on the other side, when it is only other Palestinians who have relatives and neighbors on the side you're standing on.

Another emotion the wall evokes is sadness. Palestinians and Israelis are in Palestine/Israel to stay. Neither is going to eradicate the other. For the Israelis to assume they can separate themselves from their Palestinian neighbors by war, and in this way, achieve security and peace, can only mean that they're giving up on integration in the region and have resolved to survive as a military garrison that will manage to be there as long as it has superior military power. But as we know, empires come and go. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently reminded Israel on a visit to the country: the South African whites have realized it was not military power that ultimately brought them security, it was peace and justice.

POV: The filmmaker goes on to say that "the real Palestinian resistance happens on a daily level; it happens when people say, 'We are not going anywhere. This is our home and we will continue to lead a normal life.'" What are your thoughts on this statement? Do you feel like continuing to go about your life as you wish -- particularly in walking where you want, when you want -- is a form of resistance? Is it enough?

Shehadeh: I have long thought that the only way one can understand the Israeli policies in the territories Israel occupied in 1967 is by recognizing that they are based on exclusion. As far as I can tell, over the past 42 years of military occupation, Israel has never devised a strategy for peace with its Palestinian neighbors. Otherwise they would have used their extensive powers over every aspect of Palestinian life during the years of occupation to bring the two societies closer together. One important indication of this is that they never cared to make the teaching of Hebrew a requirement in Palestinian schools when education was run by the military government prior to the Oslo Accords in 1993. Nor is it compulsory in Israeli schools for Jewish students to study Arabic, the language of the region in which they live. Had Israel pursued a strategy of peace, the Palestinians could have been the bridgehead for Israel's acceptance and integration in the region. Instead, everything was done to stifle Palestinian development and make life as difficult as possible through a restrictive system of permits so that the Palestinians would tire and leave. The Palestinian response followed exactly what George Lazervski described. We have a name for this: Sumoud, which means persevering, staying put. My first book, published in 1982, The Third Way, on daily life in the West Bank, was about the various ways in which Palestinians practice Sumoud and what it means to them. Little has changed since then except that the challenge of remaining put, staying on the land, enduring Israeli oppression and seeking to live normally has become that much more difficult with the over five hundred road barriers and the wall.

It has always been important for me to take off and walk in the hills around my house in Ramallah. For many years I was able to ramble on the nearby hills without feeling worried about getting shot at or arrested. It is different now. Most of the hills around Ramallah have been designated as Area C under the Oslo Accords, which means a Palestinian cannot walk in them without a permit from the Israeli military. Twelve settlements have been established just north of Ramallah a few miles away from my home. But my friends and I continue to take walks, risking arrest. It is our small rebellion against the occupation.

POV: Your first book, Strangers in the House, is to be re-released in America next month. In that book, you intertwine the story of your relationship with your father and the political conflict in such a way that a reader might conclude that in the Middle East, the political and the personal is truly inextricable. Would you agree with that conclusion? What else do you hope that Americans learn about the conflict and take away from reading your books?

Shehadeh: With the long-standing conflict in Palestine, it is easier for one to appreciate how political and personal are inextricable. This happens to be true elsewhere though it might be less obvious and easier to deny.

I am often asked who I write for. The answer is necessarily that I write first and foremost for myself. For me writing is a way of life. Yates once said that writing is the social act of a solitary being. I fully agree with this. Writing is also a form of communicating. I hope that my writing communicates that despite the particularities of the conflict and life in Palestine, all human beings are ultimately the same. They have conflicts with their parents, experience growing pains, and like all other human beings on earth, they have to struggle with and come to terms with emotional dilemmas. I also hope that by writing about the conflict I bring hope to my readers that it is not, as is often claimed, intractable. And perhaps more importantly that it must be understood not in terms of broad religious or ideological positions, but through the effect it is having on the individuals who live there, who feel and act, have hopes and aspirations not any different to those shared by human beings everywhere.

POV: Earlier this summer, you wrote an op-ed in the UK Guardian about some of the destruction that you have seen inflicted on the natural landscape surrounding Ramallah by the Israeli settlements. You called for the removal of all settlements in order for peace to move forward. Do you think that an evacuation is likely to happen anytime soon? What do you hope the Obama administration will do or say in the coming months after their recent declaration that Israel must impose a complete freeze on settlements?

Shehadeh: The settlements Israel has built in the territories it occupied in 1967 are illegal under international law. No bargaining should take place on whether or not they should stay. They were not placed there with a view of furthering peace. They exist under laws that prevent non-Jews from living in them. I believe that ultimately true peace will only come to the region when the entire Middle East is re-organized along lines similar to those of the European Union. Otherwise with the scarce resources, the individual countries now dependent on foreign aid will not survive. But before we can get to this stage, what has been done contrary to law must be put right.

In the Guardian article, I answered those who believe that removing the settlements is not feasible by giving the example of Algeria. In the early sixties, who would have thought that it would be possible to send a million French citizens -- many of whom had been living in Algeria for almost a century -- back to France? And yet for peace to prevail, it had to be happen.

POV: Palestinian Walks chronicles six walks over a period of almost thirty years. The subtitle of the book, Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, points to the changes and perhaps future of these walks and the landscape. Can you talk a little about how these walks -- the landscape, your safety and well-being, and the obstructions to them -- have changed over the years? From your vantage point on the ground, through your walks, is the landscape around Ramallah already disappeared? Or is there still hope of a certain kind of preservation for this space?

Shehadeh: When I was writing the book, I was so overwhelmed by the sense of loss of the vanishing landscape that I started to believe there was nothing left. My wife had to remind me that this was not the case. I am not a photographer, and so I tried to preserve in words some of the beautiful cliffs, valleys and terraces that are gone forever.

Some of my favorite areas for walking have become closed off by the Israeli military or are within the local councils of the Jewish settlements and so out of reach. Yet within the labyrinth of settlements and closed military zones, it is still possible to find areas where it remains possible to ramble. Often when hiking in these hills, it is not advisable to look too far ahead for fear of encountering the ugly sight of the speedily constructed Jewish settlements that cause terrible destruction to the landscape. It is best to confine one's gaze to the immediate surroundings and hold on to the illusion that something remains. The Palestinian landscape, over the years, has paid a heavy price, burdened as it is with too much meaning.

POV: What are you working on right now?

Shehadeh: I'm now working on a book which chronicles the escape of a great, great uncle of mine during the First World War from Ottoman Forces. He was accused of having British sympathies, and if apprehended, would have ended up being hanged, as happened to many of his compatriots. I follow the route of his adventurous escape visiting the Galilee hills and the hills east of the Jordan River, in what is now Jordan, writing of the land as it was a hundred years ago and as it is today.

I'm also working on an article for Granta with Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places. The article is on two walks: one that takes place from my house in Ramallah and another from his in Cambridge.