57. Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape
After so many books on the theory of walking, here’s one about actual walking. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape is essential reading for any descendant of settlers contemplating walking in colonized space. Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist, and writer, and a comparison between his experience, walking in the occupied West Bank between 1978 and 2006 is uncomfortably close to what it might be like for Indigenous people to walk here, in Canada. Certainly there are parallels between the occupation of the West Bank and Canada’s ongoing history. I’ve been asked whether I have the right to walk in Saskatchewan, because it is a colonized space (the numbered treaties, according to Sheldon Krasowski, were cruel tricks in which any discussion of the land surrender clause was omitted from discussion, not completely unlike the legal chicanery used to acquire land for Israeli settlements in the West Bank), and that is a question to which I feel I must respond. Shehadeh’s book is another spur that makes such a response more urgent.
Much of Shehadah’s concern is with the immense changes that have taken place in the Central Highlands of the West Bank, near Ramallah, since the 1970s, due to the construction of Israeli settlements and roads. “When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was traveling through a vanishing landscape,” he states at the beginning of the book’s introduction (xiii). When he was growing up in Ramallah, he thought the hills of the Central Highlands of Palestine were “one of the natural treasures of the world,” and all his life he has lived in houses that overlook those hills: “I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colors during the day and over the seasons, as well as during an unending sequence of wars” (xiii). Shehadeh has always loved hill walking, and he started taking long walks in Palestine in the 1970s: “This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place” (xiii). The hills then were “like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique so such areas” (xiii-xiv). All of that has changed. The book describes six walks, in the hills around Ramallah, the wadis in the Jerusalem wilderness, and ravines by the Dead Sea, made over 26 years. “Although each walk takes its own unique course, they are also travels through time and space,” a journey beginning in 1978 and ending in 2006, and he writes about the changes in his life and surroundings during that time (xiv).
There have been many past visitors to Palestine—pilgrims, travellers, and invaders—but their accounts of their journeys describe a land unfamiliar to Shehadeh, one from their own imaginations (xiv). “Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants,” he writes (xiv). When cartographers made maps or travellers described the landscape, “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. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition” (xiv). Examples of travelers who, for Shehadeh, have misunderstood the landscape include Thackeray and Twain (xiv-xv). “I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century,” he writes (xvi).
That destruction includes the building of Israeli settlements on hilltops, “strategically dominating the valleys in which most Palestinian villages are located” (xvi). These settlements are part of an ongoing effort to erase the Palestinian presence in the West Bank: “It is not unusual to find the names of Arab villages on road signs deleted with black paint by overactive settlers” (xvi). For Shehadeh, the settlements represent a paradox: the supposedly Biblical aspects of the landscape—the olive orchards, stone buildings, and terraces—have been produced by Palestinians, who are excluded from the Israeli imagination, and whose history is obliterated, denied, distorted, twisted (xvi-xvii). “Such an attitude fits perfectly into the long tradition of Western travelers and colonizers who simply would not see the land’s Palestinian population,” he contends (xvii). Shehadeh does not hold back when he describes the effect the settlements have had on the land, and on himself:
Ever since I learned of the plans to transform our hills being prepared by successive Israeli governments, which supported the policy of establishing settlements in the Occupied Territories, I have felt like one who is told that he has contracted a terminal disease. Now when I walk in the hills I cannot but be conscious that the time when I will be able to do so is running out. Perhaps the malignancy that has afflicted the hills has heightened my experience of walking in them and discouraged me from ever taking them for granted. (xviii)
It is now impossible to imagine recreating the 1925 walk of historian Darweesh Mikdadi, who took his students on a walking trip through Palestine, all the way to Syria and Lebanon, inspecting battle sites and staying with villagers. It is even impossible to follow in the footsteps of Palestinian geographer Kamal Abdul Fattah, who took his university students on trips throughout historic Palestine. Since 1991, travel restrictions have made that journey impossible (xviii-xix). Along with the settlements and the roads constructed to serve them, Shehadeh condemns the Separation Wall that circles the “settlement blocs” and annexes them to Israel, “in the process penetrating the lands of the Palestinians like daggers” (xix). (Note the violence of that simile.) “As a consequence of all these developments,” he writes,
even shorter school trips have not become restricted, so students can only repeat forlorn visits to the sites within their own checkpoint zone. The Palestinian enclaves are becoming more and more like ghettos. Many villagers can only pick the olives from their own trees with the protection of sympathetic Israelis and international solidarity groups. (xix)
Meanwhile, he continues, “[a]s our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying forever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land that many Palestinians will never know” (xix-xx). Half a million Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank:
The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate. . . . Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity, I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever. (xx)
Every wadi, spring, hill, and cliff has a name—some names Arabic, others Canaanite or Aramaic, indicating their antiquity—but Shehadeh didn’t know these names until Fattah and his students interviewed old men and women who still remembered them (xx).
For the most part, settlers are omitted from the stories Shehadeh tells. They are the “main villains” of those stories, and despite their omission, they are a constant presence:
I despise the aggressiveness of their intentions and behaviour toward my land and its inhabitants but I rarely confront them directly. They are simplified and lumped together, just as the nineteenth-century travelers generalized about the local “Arabs” as they tried to obliterate them from the land they wished to portray. At various points the settlers are viewed from a distance. I fear what they might do. I wonder what they must be thinking. I ask whether I and my people are at all visible to them. (xxi)
Only on his last journey does he meet and have a length conversation with a settler:
I knew that a large part of his world is based on lies. He must have been brought up on the fundamental untruth that his home was built on land that belonged exclusively to his people, even though it lay in the vicinity of Ramallah. He would not have been told that it was expropriated from those Palestinians living a couple miles away. Yet despite the myths that make up his worldview, how could I claim that my love of these hills cancels out his? And what would this recognition mean to both our future and that of our respective countries? (xxi-xxii)
That meeting, he writes, led to the book’s “troubled conclusion” (xxii). This is not a happy book—given the context, how could it be?—but its descriptions of the land’s beauty are powerful, and Shehadeh’s anger at its destruction is palpable.
Shehadeh’s first journey, “The Pale God of the Hills, Ramallah to Harrasha,” took place in 1978, and he begins with a description of the changes has seen taking place in Palestine:
Cities were being erected in its midst, as were industrial and theme parks, and wide, many-laned highways more suited to the plains of the Midwest of American than the undulating hills of Palestine. In two and a half decades one of the world’s treasures, this biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some parts beyond recognition” (1)
Shehadeh’s pain at the failure to save the land “would in time be shared by Arabs, Jews, and lovers of nature anywhere in the world. All would grieve, as I have, at the continuing destruction of an exquisitely beautiful place” (1).
Then he introduces a key term in the book, the Arabic word sarha:
To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. (2)
This book is a series of six sarhat, sometimes alone, sometimes with others: “Each sarha is in the form of a walk I invite the reader to take with me. I hope, by describing what can be seen, heard and smelled in the hills, to allow the reader to enjoy the unique experience of a sarha in Palestine” (2).
Shehadeh notes that the land he knows changed before he began walking on it. “There was a time, I’m told, when the hills around Ramallah were one large cultivated garden with a house by every spring,” but in the 1970s, when he returned from studying law in London, “[t]hey had become an extensive nature reserve, with springs and little ponds where frogs hopped undisturbed and deer leaped up and down terrace walls, where it was possible to walk unimpeded” (3). When he was growing up, his family did not own an olive grove, and so their experience of the hills was limited to picnicking in spring. “Otherwise the hills, so close to the house where we lived, were remote and foreign,” he recalls, “little more than a derided buffer that separated us from the horizon where usurped Jaffa lay and at which we looked longingly in the evenings, when the faraway Mediterranean coast blazed with light” (3-4). He only came to know the hills after his return from London. But even then, the hills he would come to love were under threat. The occupation of the West Bank was in its eleventh year and “[i]nsidious but significant changes in the law provided strong indications of Israel’s long-term policies toward the Occupied Territories, my home” (5). He was worried, and “[t]he hills began to be my refuge against the practices of the occupation, both manifest and surreptitious, and the restrictions traditional Palestinian society imposed on our life. I walked in them for escape and rejuvenation” (5). Much of the long first chapter is a meditation on the experiences of his grandfather’s cousin, Abu Ameen, who would often go on sarhat when he was a young man; Abu Ameen also walked in the hills “for escape and rejuvenation.” “To go on a sarha, which was expansive, open-ended and uncontrolled, allowing the soul to roam freely, must have been liberating for the inhabitants of Ramallah, confined as they were within the raggedy hills that offered no view of open territory or wide fertile fields,” Shehadeh writes (4).
When Shehadeh began walking in the hills, it took time for him to learn how to spot the ancient tracks that crossed the terrace walls and the newer ones made by sheep and goats looking for food and water:
Some of these were marked on Ordnance maps, others not. I found myself to be a good pathfinder even though I easily got lost in cities. As time passed I began to venture farther and farther into these hills and discovered new terrain, hills with different rock formations, where flowers bloomed earlier because the ground was lower and closer to the sea. (5)
One spring day in 1978, he stumbled on “the legendary Harrasha of Abu Ameen, deep in the hills of Palestine” (7). He found the path he wanted to walk just outside of Ramallah, and “a certain peace and tranquility descended on me. Now I could go on with no need to worry, just walk and enjoy the beauty of the nature around me” (7). Because it was spring, the earth was carpeted by wildflowers: miniature blue irises, low pink flax, Maltese Cross, pyramid orchids (7). He stopped at a wadi where there was a spring. The brown cliff across the wadi were “studded with cyclamens that grew out of every nook and cranny” (8). Then he discovered “a well-preserved qasr,” a round stone structure where farmers kept their produce and slept on the open roof (8):
Before visiting the qasr, I took a moment to look around. It was as though the earth was exploding with beauty and color and had thrown from its bosom wonderful gifts without any human intervention. I wanted to cry out in celebration of this splendor. As I shouted ’S-A-R-H-A!’ I felt I was breaking the silence of the past, a silence that had enveloped this place for a long time. (9)
He sat beside the qasr and surveyed the scene. The ponds along the wadi filled with frogs and spearmint (11). A rock rosebush was growing along the terrace wall, “green against the gray as if someone had carefully chosen it to decorate this ancient wall,” with more cyclamens between the stones of the wall (9). He stepped from one terrace to the next, and beside them, he saw “a yellow broom with its spiky green leaves,” its “sweet scent” filling the air, and lower down, “some tall asphodels and lower still bunches of blue sage,” and grasses (9). On the next terrace, there was another beautiful garden, with an olive tree many centuries old, and above that garden, two more olive trees in another terrace, “surrounded by a carpet of color that spread all the way to the wall that led to yet another garden above, one garden hanging on top of another and another, going up as far as the eye could see. I felt I could sit all day next to this qasr and feast my eyes on this wonderful creation” (10).
Shehadeh begins climbing the hill to the north, thinking about what it would have taken to terrace these hills (11). He hears a rustle, but instead of wild dogs, he sees six grey gazelles running up the hill (11-12). An owl flies directly at him, as he climbed, thinking and “smelling the sharp brittle scent of thyme,” and he falls (12). He espies another qasr, surrounded by pines and oregano, nearby:
On this walk I had passed at least a dozen abandoned qasrs. Those who had once inhabited them were gone, that way of life was no more. Their owners had moved on to other places. At a certain point the land ceased to be capable of sustaining those cultivating it and other more lucrative opportunities for making a living opened up in the petroleum-rich Gulf and the New World. (12-13)
That exodus has caused a problem, because under Israeli law, if a Palestinian leaves his property, it “‘reverts back’ to those whom the Israeli system considers the original, rightful owners of ‘Judea and Samaria,’ the Jewish people, wherever they might be. Abandonment, which began as an economic imperative in some instances and a choice in others, had acquired legal and political implications with terrifying consequences” (13). The land can end up being expropriated as “public land” and used to build settlements.
Inside that qasr, Shehadeh looks out of the window at the fields:
The ground was carefully terraced in an almost perfect crescent; the olive trees were evenly spaced and the field between them was cleared fo stones. The surrounding area was wild and chaotic, the terracing was half completed and many of the fields were covered with wild shrubs and thickets. I wondered who the owner of this qasr was and marveled at his industry. (14)
He imagines the lives of those who had lived in that qasr: “It was as though in this qasr time was petrified into an eternal present, making it possible for me to reconnect with my dead ancestor through this architectural wonder. Would this turn into the sarha I had long yearned to take?” (15). Then he discovers a dirt-covered rock that turns out to be a high carved seat (16-17). That seat was an a’rsh, a throne: “I remembered hearing as a child that Abu Ameen, my grandfather’s cousin, had in Harrasha an a’rsh next to his qasr. Could this be it? Could this be the Harrasha where Abu Ameen and my grandfather Saleem used to go for their sarha?” (17). Shehadeh listens to the sound of the wind in the pines and remembers Abu Ameen (17). He worked as a stonemason, saved money to build a qasr, and wanted to get married and have children (19). Abu Ameen’s desires were much different than Shehadeh’s grandfather’s ambitions; he became a lawyer and ended up working for the English occupiers during the Mandate. In fact, Abu Ameen became the the only one of his family who stayed in Ramallah; the others (like Shehadeh’s grandfather) pursued education in the United States, and did not return to the hills (21). “They deserted Ramallah as if it were not their town, their home, the place where they should strike roots, get married and bring up children as their fathers and forefathers had done,” Shehadeh writes (21). He recalls the story he heard as a child about Abu Ameen building his qasr with his wife on their honeymoon (23):
I suspect that the description of the occasion as a honeymoon came later. When the couple was married I don’t believe this concept existed. Couples had no leisure time at all. They were hard-nosed people who had little to survive on. What I marvel at is that in the midst of all this drudgery, Abu Ameen found the time to indulge himself and, using the skills he had learned, carve out of stone his own a’rsh, a monument that has survived for some seventy-five years. (24)
After 1948, Abu Ameen had worked building houses in Ramallah for refugees from coastal towns, but in 1955, a stroke left him lame, unable to farm (25-26). Meanwhile, the other landowners were absent, working in the Gulf or the United States (26). Without them, neglect, the land seemed abandoned; the terrace walls fell, erosion became a problem, the paths were obliterated and the springs clogged (26). The hills became covered in thistles and weeds:
But in spring they were once again transformed with swaths of purple flax that could be glimpsed from afar, crisscrossed by different patterns of blue from the bugloss, clover and miniature iris like wafts of color painted with a wide brush. In the early morning, as the droplets of dew clung to the delicate petals of the wildflowers catching the sunlight, the valleys seemed to glitter in a kaleidoscope of color. (27)
None of Abu Ameen’s children took up farming—they didn’t even want to visit Harrasha (27). No wonder: life in the qasr was hard; the house was crowded and fuggy from the fumes of charcoal brazier they used to try to keep warm (27). But Abu Ameen preferred it to living in Ramallah. He lived for the spring, when he could leave to live at his qasr (28).
Abu Ameen “could not have been aware how fortunate he was to have had the security and comfort of seeing the same unaltered view of the hills,” Shehadeh writes. “I was born among hills that looked more or less as they did during the last years of Abu Ameen’s life. But throughout my adult life I had the misfortune of witnessing their constant transformation” (32)—a transformation caused by the constant influx of settlers. “The hills that had provided the setting for tranquil walks where I felt more freedom than I did anywhere else in the world would eventually become confining, endangered areas and a source of constant anxiety” (32):
One hilltop after another was claimed as more and more Jewish settlements were established. Then the settlements were joined with one another to form ‘settlement blocs.’ Roads were built between these clusters and ever-expanding areas of land around them were reserved for their future growth, depriving more villages of the agricultural land they depended on for their livelihood. (32-33)
When Shehadeh looked at the hills at night, he saw “a continuous stretch of settlements and roads that were creating a noose around Ramallah” (33). Then came the Separation Wall, which “would further divide Ramallah from the villages surrounding it, complicating our life immeasurably and causing yet greater damage to our beautiful landscape” (33). “How I envy Abu Ameen his confidence and security in the hills where he was born and died, which he believed would remain unchanged forever,” Shehadeh writes:
Could Abu Ameen have ever dreamed that one day the open hills to which he escaped the confinement of life in the village would be out of reach for his descendants? How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do. (33)
It would be easy to dismiss Shehadeh as a romantic, a term he accepts (64), and to critique his nostalgia, but his love of the land is sincere, as is his grief at its transformation.
In 2003, Shehadeh took his nephew Aziz to show him his ancestor’s qasr and have him sit on the a’rsh (36). This was during the expansion of Ramallah after Second Intifada begins—growth caused, in part, because life in other West Bank cities was becoming unbearable because of Israeli policies—and “[t]he wild and beautiful hills surrounding it began to be invaded, not only by the Jewish settlements, which were being established all around its wide periphery, but also by the insatiable appetite of the city’s inhabitants for expansion and growth” (37). When Shehadeh and Aziz got to the qasr, it was intact, but a stone thief had damaged the a’rsh, knocking it over on its side (37-38). Then, on their return walk, they visited a Palestinian police station destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, where his nephew picked up a long thick metal tube, asking “What is this?” Shehadeh froze: it was part of an unexploded missile. He took the bomb from the boy and told him to run, then set it down on the ground, whispering a quiet prayer (38-39). “I have often wondered about Abu Ameen as I stand in the early morning looking over the countryside,” Shehadeh concludes. “What would he have said had he seen the state it now was in? Would his spirit be brimming with anger at all of us for allowing it to be destroyed or usurped, or would he just be enjoying one extended sarha as his spirit roamed freely over the land, without borders as it had once been?” (39-40).
Shehadeh’s second journey, “The Albina Case, Ramallah to A’yn Qenya,” takes place a year later. It shifts back and forth between the walk and Shehadeh’s preoccupations at the time of the walk. “For the first two decades of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank I was still able to walk in the hills unhampered,” he writes, despite the creation of a large number of settlements. “We still believed that it was possible for the occupation to end one day and for peace to be established on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank alongside Israel”—but changes to the laws regarding land were a concern (41). Since 1979, for example, Palestinians have been denied access to land ownership records (41-42). The day he was first refused access, Shehadeh returned home and realized he had locked himself out of his house. He decided to walk “to the enormous pine tree midway down the hill and read” (42-44). Instead of reading, though, he looked at the hills, the mixture of pines and olive trees; the pines were evidence of the abandonment of the land, since farmers would prefer the olive trees (45). The sight of the hills and the blooming wildflowers made him decide to walk down into the valley (46).
The Orndnance Maps Shehadeh sometimes relies on trace their roots to the 1880s, when the Palestine Exploration Fund mapped and surveyed these hills, a process he describes as prerequisite for conquest (47). Europe, and later Zionism, was searching for its cultural roots in the Holy Land, and in the process they have “silenced Palestinian history and relegated it to prehistory, paving the way for the modern state of Israel to take control not only of the land but also of Palestinian time and space” (47). It is lucky Ramallah not mentioned in the Bible, otherwise it would be experiencing “the terror of fanatic fundamentalists squatting inside our town claiming that it belongs to their ancestors on biblical grounds” (47-48). Those first maps became the basis for land registration, which began during the British Mandate, but the 1967 war interrupted the process of registering land deeds and it was not completed. In the Albina case, Shehadeh was representing a Palestinian landowner who was caught up in this situation, a landowner with no Certificate of Registration: “This formality was the loophole the settlers used to question my client’s ownership of his land” (48).
The grasses, shrubs, flowers, were all damp from the rain:
There were blue hyacinth squills between the rocks. When I slid down and stood again on the path I noticed the crocuses that had sprung out after the rain, filling the little patch around the rock I was sitting on like a pink haze. I didn’t want to crush their delicate petals so close to the ground but this was unavoidable for they were everywhere. (49)
The growth suggests freedom for Shehadeh. “Living as I did in a stifling community, these hills were my only escape, as they had been to Abu Ameen,” he writes (49):
The other day I had to plead with a soldier to be allowed to return home. I was getting back from our winter house in Jericho, where I had spent a relaxing day. I had to implore the Israeli soldier. I told him that I really did not know a curfew had been imposed on Ramallah. I was away all day and hadn’t listened to the news. . . . Oh, the humiliation of pleading with a stranger for something so basic. (50)
Nevertheless, leaving the West Bank was not an option for Shehadeh—then the land would be taken (50). So, as he walked, he pretended there were no settlements nearby, and that he had the hills to himself (50). It was hard to keep up the pretence, though. The hills were covered in natsh, a common thistle; its presence in a field was used by Israeli courts to argue that the land was abandoned and could be taken by Israeli settlers (52-53). Those settlements, Shehadeh argues, were destructive: “By creating new human settlements where none existed, connecting them with roads and isolating existing ones, it would not only strangle our communities but also destroy this beautiful land, and in a matter of a few years change what had been preserved for centuries” (55-56).
At this point, somewhat confusingly, Shehadeh jumps ahead to another walk taken in 1981 with his friend and colleague Jonathan Kuttab, during which they discussed their intention to challenge the Israeli settlement plans in court (55-60). The Israeli argument was that non-registered land was public land, the Palestinians living there were squatters, and the Jews were the only rightful owners: “Legally this position was not sustainable. And yet it was not being challenged. Most Palestinians boycotted Israeli courts, where these challenges could be presented. The settlers could comfort themselves that they were not taking anyone’s private land to establish their settlements” (57). During the walk they came up with a plan, and eventually they found a Palestinian farmer willing to fight the government in court, Sabri Gharib. Despite threats and harassment—the nearby settlers shooting at him, threatening to demolish his house, and repeated night arrests by the military—Gharib stood his ground until his death in 2012: “The resilience of Sabri, whose name itself means patience, was legendary,” Shehadeh writes, noting that his client’s motivation was not nationalism but the land: “Not to fight in every way possible to hold on to his land was a sacrilege” (58-59). Shehadeh and Kuttab were confident when they came up with their plan; 25 years later, Shehadeh mourns their inability to achieve results: “How complicated and dismal the future has turned out, with the land now settled by close to half a million Israeli Jews, living in hundreds of settlements scattered throughout our hills and connected by wide roads crossing through the wadis,” and more recently surrounded by the Separation Wall, a process which has destroyed “the beauty of our hills, separating our villages and towns from one another and annexing yet more of our land to Israel, demolishing the prospect for a viable peace” (60).
Shehadeh reached the village of A’yn Qenya, which he had first visited as a Boy Scout in 1969. He and his friends tried to walk there from their campsite at night: “We were eight young and uncertain men in the dark and for the first time I understood how it was possible to feel comfort in numbers” (62-63). They get lost, sleep on some rocks, wake up in the morning to the sounds of the village (63). When he got to the village, he encountered gazelles again, and they give him the idea of running up the hill to see the sun setting over the Mediterranean (65): “The air was dry and fresh. Lower hills spread below me like a crumpled sheet of blue velvet with the hamlets huddled in its folds. . . . The farther away the hills the smaller they looked. The most distant was a dark blue, like a little pond” (65). However, he continues, “I was unaware that this would be the last time I would be able to stand here on an empty hill. Shortly afterward the Israeli authorities expropriated the land and used it to build the settlement of Dolev” (66). Compared to 2006, when he was writing this book, the 1980s were a time when Shehadeh could walk without restraint:
I feel gratified to have used that freedom and taken all those walks and got to know the hills. There was one walk that I had always planned which to my great regret I never got around to taking. It would start from the west of Ramallah, passing through Beitunia to Wadi El Mahkwm, passing north of Beit ’Ur. (66)
“I had planned this walk so carefully,” he continues. “Now with the settlements and the Separation Wall it was impossible” (66).
Here Shehadeh begins thinking about the Albina case, one of the first land cases he had handled (66). Settlers were claiming Albina’s land, suggesting he was an absentee, but he was living in East Jerusalem; their second argument was that if he wasn’t an absentee, then his land must be public, although it was registered (69). If those arguments were unsuccessful, they had one more: Albina’s land had been expropriated by the Jordanian government, despite lack of evidence (69-70). Shehadeh describes this case as a “swindle” (70), and notes that by the time he got involved, construction of the settlement had already begun (71). No injunction to stop work was granted, because that would involve a financial loss to the agency promoting the settlement; instead, the work continued as the court heard the case (72). The president of the court tried to get him to convince his client to sell the land (73)—because it was already lost (73). Shehadeh made a visit to Albina’s land. He expected the settlers to be “devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired, who were forcing us to a confrontation and to many years of bloodshed,” and he worried about his safety (76). That turned out not to be the case:
We were met by earnest-looking men, with no women. They served us tea in Styrofoam cups. We sat around a long table. I felt myself a witness to what it must have been like for the old Zionist settlers. I expect their latterday counterparts were living out an old dream. They were in their thirties and were wearing jeans. Many were bearded. They seemed amiable. They were not starry-eyed, they were hardheaded men who were fully committed to what they were doing and had no conception of how Albina, the victim of their actions, would see them. Nor did they seem to care. (76)
“Their enthusiasm was contagious,” Shehadeh continues. “They were literally camping on the land, pushing out their enemies and expanding the area of their state, perhaps carried away by a sarha of their own. What were a few legal objections against the elevated nobility of their purpose?” (76-77). But they were also, Shehadeh contends, “efficient and calculating businessmen who wanted to get over this legal hurdle” (77). They were without any sense of guilt; they didn’t care about the residents of the nearby village of Beit ’Ur, “[n]or did they have any qualms, as I discovered later, about using any sort of trickery or deceit to get their way. To them the end seemed to justify the use of any means. This was how those who believed they were serving a higher purpose behaved” (77).
When Shehadeh and Kuttab made their plans, they didn’t realize that the legal aspects of the issue “were only one small, ultimately insignificant, component,” or that the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories was a state project that “was not going to be hampered by questions of law. . . . Higher national objectives overrode legal niceties” (77-78). During the hearing on the Albina case, a masked witness (there was no reason for the mask, but court allowed it) baldly lied about the Jordanian army’s use of the land, and Shehadeh wondered whether it was worth continuing “with this farce”: “Was it good for Palestine for us to continue to the end or were we only lending legitimacy to an illegal court?” (79). In the end, he went through “the charade” (80), and while the court found that Albina was the owner of the land, it also decreed that the lease for settlement was legal and binding (81)—a contradictory ruling that made no sense. The court also found that Albina deserved no compensation (82).
Shehadeh jumps ahead in time again, to November 2006, when he went to visit writer Adel Samara in Beit ’Ur. It was a long drive because of the Separation Wall. The new highway’s exit to Beit ’Ur was blocked with a concrete barrier (83-84). The settlement that was built on Albina’s land was separated from the village with a wall, as if the settlers
belonged to another world, that of a modern consumer society which subsidizes luxury homes built on land that came to it free of charge, with breathtaking views and clean air, connected to the center of the country by a fast four-lane highway built on their neighbors’ land and to which their neighbors had no access. No part of the settlers’ dwellings, not even the roofs of their villas, could be seen from the village, only the high streetlights that were lit all day and night to provide further protection in case one of the village youths decided to put a ladder up and climb the wall and attack the settlement. (85)
Shehadeh considered asking about relations between the settlement and the village, but the wall showed there was no point in asking (85). “Standing before the wall I could see in concrete terms the consequence of the policy of building Jewish settlements pursued by successive Israeli governments over the past thirty-nine years,” he writes:
For an occupier to take through legal chicanery the lands of the occupied, and in stark violation of international law settle its own people in the midst of the towns and villages of the hostile occupied population can only lead to violence and bloodshed. There is no way that such usurpation of land could be accepted. A bloody struggle was inevitable. (85)
He looked at the wadi to the north and asked whether there were good walking tracks. Yes, ge was told, there were. “I realized this was the wadi I had long wanted to take to fulfill my ambition of walking from the Ramallah hills to the coastal plain and the sea,” he states. “Now it was too late” (87). The Separation Wall, and the settlements, block the way: “This is one walk I will never be able to take” (87).
But there are other hazards involved in walking in the country. Shehadeh jumps in time again, to 1999, and a walk he and his wife, Penny, made in the hills near Ramallah. It was a period of hope that the settlement question would be answered in Palestinians’ favour, because of the negotiation of the Oslo Accords; it was also a time of investment and construction in Ramallah, expansion (88). Shehadeh and Penny were walking to Abu Ameen’s qasr when they heard shots. Someone was shooting at them: “I held her hand and we ran to take shelter against a rock that formed the wall of one of the terraces down the side of the hill. The shots were coming from behind us, from above. We hoped that by flattening our bodies against the rock no part of us would be exposed to the fire” (89). The shooting intensified—but who was shooting? Shehadeh shouted in Arabic, asking them to stop, thinking it’s the Palestinian police, mistaking them for settlers (89). “The shooting continued mercilessly, giving us no respite, no time to take a breath, to think calmly of our next step, to manage, somehow, to escape,” he continues. “A hail of bullets whizzed overhead, struck the rock right in front of where we took shelter, sending splinters up in the air. It seemed likely that some of the bullets would ricochet and hit us” (90). There was a lull in the firing and he stood up and saw two young Palestinian men with guns; he thought they would stop, but they didn’t—they kept firing (90). After 20 minutes, it was over; Shehadeh and Penny walked to a checkpoint on the road to report what had happened, but the police there wouldn’t take a report (90-91). Later, Shehadeh was told later that the valley was dangerous; the young men engaged in target practice there, and there was nothing the government or police could do (92-93).
Six years later—another shift in time—Shehadeh went to the same valley with poet Ramsey Nasr. They saw new buildings and roads. The paths were covered with rubble dumped from higher terraces, but eventually they found a path and begin following it (93). They heard a pack of wild, possibly rabid, dogs barking (94). On the hill above them, soldiers were pointing their guns at them. They didn’t shoot; they asked for identification, because they suspected the poet, a foreigner, was being kidnapped (95-96). Shehadeh was told that one of the soldiers had been there in 1999, shooting at him and his wife (96). Another soldier said, “The hills are dangerous, we have found many corpses here” (97). “I never thought I’d ever meet one of the men who shot at Penny and me and almost killed us,” Shehadeh concludes. “He didn’t seem particularly sorry, and certainly did not apologize, though I was not expecting him to after all those years. Still I was grateful to be reminded that to every story there is an ending” (97). “An ending”—not a happy ending; that is too much to expect in Palestine, it seems.
Shehadeh’s third journey is entitled “Illusory Portals: Qomran, the Dead Sea and Wadi El Daraj.” He writes that he continued fighting against acquisitions of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, even though outright victories were impossible (98). He was also concerned about land use planning, which seemed to be solely for the benefit of Israelis, and aimed to “designate most empty land for their future use, isolate Palestinian population centers and fragment their territorial continuity by encircling the with settlements” (99). Such planning was intended to confine Palestinian urban development, but the plans for Jewish settlements were prepared with the opposite objective; they had lots of room to expand, “a highly discriminatory, segregated town-planning reality” (99). These developments made him rethink his strategies; it was clear that legal challenges ineffective at curbing or even slowing the settlements (99-100). When the Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords, it had no power to change village or town zoning or repudiate Israeli claims to land acquired for settlements (100). As a result, Shehadeh rejected the Oslo Accords (101).
Because of the Accords, some Palestinian cadres were allowed to return, and he and Penny took one of them, Selma Hasan, for a walk near the Dead Sea (101). On the drive to the Dead Sea, Shehadeh felt obligated to tell Selma about the various changes he had seen, but at the same time resented being a guide and would rather have pursued his own thoughts (103). The building of settlements and roads had completely changed Jerusalem and the land to the east (105-09), evidence of the planning regime he criticized:
For twenty-five years I had studied the development of the Israeli sovereign legal language in the West Bank. I monitored how the Israeli state was being extended into the Occupied Territories through the acquisition of land and its registration in the Israeli Land Authority. How large areas were being defined as Israeli Regional Councils and included within Israel. How the planning schemes were changed, how one area after another became for all intents and purposes annexed to Israel, and our towns and villages were left as islands within those Israeli extensions. . . . It was all done ostensibly through “legal” maneuvers, using the law in force in the West Bank because formally speaking the West Bank was not annexed to Israel. To understand and fight this was my war. (109-10)
They were stopped by a checkpoint, which surprised Hasan, who didn’t know that under the Oslo Agreement Israel had jurisdiction over roads (110). She also had no idea what the settlements were like. In that, she was like the PLO negotiators in Oslo (111)—they didn’t listen to legal advice about the settlements,“[a]nd so the Accords the PLO signed saddled us with the Israeli legal and administrative arrangements that envisioned an unequal division of the land between Arab and Jew,” Shehadeh writes (111).
During the journey, there was friction between Shehadeh and Hasan: she thought the Oslo Accords meant new times, while he thought the PLO sold out the Palestinians on the issues of land usage and the settlements (112):
Vast areas of my beloved country were being fenced to become off-limits to us. I felt the gravity of what was happening and I was willing to give everything for the struggle to stop it. My weapon was the law. All my time was taken up with it. Nothing was more important. I had no doubt that if we tried hard we would win and justice would prevail. For that glorious day of liberation there was no limit to what I was willing to sacrifice.
Now after Oslo was signed and the struggle as I saw it was betrayed, I was back to real time. (114)
In addition, the agreements had made his work redundant, and he was “unable to make any practical use of my legal knowledge and expertise to stop Israeli violations of the law” (118). After 1967, his father had become despondent, and now he was becoming despondent as well (118-19). He was realizing that his work “was nothing but a grand delusion” (123).
During a brief walk in a wadi, Hasan received a phone call from her husband; he had been given a permit to return to the West Bank, and she took a taxi home to get ready for his arrival. Shehadeh and Penny continued south along the Dead Sea to walk in Wadi El Daraj (124). On the trail, there was a rock that has to be climbed using a rope, and an Israeli soldier guarding a group of students helped him make the ascent: “I couldn’t but be grateful. Without him we would not have been able to proceed with our walk. In the course of this brief encounter the two of us did not exchange a single word. I wondered who he took me to be. Surely not a Palestinian” (126). He experienced vertigo on the trail where it ran between a rock and the cliff edge. He wondered why, and quickly came up with reasons (128):
The emotions were not too difficult to work out. The first was the old and persistent one of wanting a father, or an older brother, to protect me. . . . The second I interpreted as resulting from being at a point when my hold on life was being shaken. In the past I had lived with a strong sense of mission. What had framed my existence and given it a heightened sense of purpose was my resistance to the occupation, my work for justice. I felt called upon to save something, to speak out the truth, warn, resist and win. Now my struggle had been brought to an end. Consequently I lost the confidence that I wouldn’t let myself all to my death. The failures and disappointments I had been going through these past few years had loosened my grip on life and made me almost suicidal. (128-29)
The vertigo was a symptom of his despair. The chapter ends with the Israeli soldier who helped him climb up the cliff firmly closing the door of the bus the students had taken to the trail, clearly symbolizing an ending (129).
Shehadeh’s fourth journey is also near the Dead Sea: “Monasteries in the Desert: Wadi Qelt to Jericho.” It begins ominously:
By the end of the Nineties the future seemed to be moving to only bloodier times. This had been heralded by the increased rate of Israeli settlement and road building, the closing off of parts of the West Bank to Palestinians, settlers’ attacks on Palestinian civilians and the brutal killings of civilians by Palestianian human bombers inside Israel. (130)
However, there was brief respite after the Oslo Accords, and Shehadeh wanted to take advantage of that fragile peace: “It was essential not to hesitate but to venture out and take walks where it was still possible. And though most of upper Wadi Qelt, including the Faraa spring, was already closed to Palestinians, lower Wadi Qelt was still accessible” (130). So, with Penny and a group of friends, he planned to walk part way to Jericho through the hills, although need to get through checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem first (131). At the checkpoint, a soldier wouldn’t let them through, although another did: Shehadeh was angry at himself for not standing up for them, for not doing anything:
Had this taken place before the Oslo Agreement I would have screamed at the soldier, demanded to see his superior, made it clear that he was exceeding his orders and made sure I put an end to my friend’s ordeal. Instead we all stood by meekly, without so much as a whimper of protest, and ended up feeling grateful just to have been allowed to pass. Perhaps it was time for me to leave. (133)
When they reached the hills where they were going to walk, the group was euphoric because of the contrast with Ramallah, a city surrounded by checkpoints: “the experience of open space, with no walls, no barriers and a wide open sky, made us giddy with joy” (137). They found a carob tree, where they sat to have a picnic (139). “Then we heard noises,” Shehadeh writes:
We looked up and, below the escarpment at the opposite end of the stream, saw a number of settlers approaching. . . . They must have seen us as trespassers, potentially dangerous but perhaps, by the way we looked sitting there drinking coffee and eating our salads, not quite on a military mission. One of the girls from the group approached Rema and asked her: “Where are you from?” Rema’s answer was both straightforward and correct. She simply said: “From here.” (139)
They continue walking and meet some Bedouins, living in brick houses by a canal, who treat them generously (142-44). The Bedouins have been evicted from their land, which is going to be turned into a nature reserve (145).
Shehadeh used to support the creation of parks, but the damage to the environment, and to his father, caused by the construction of settlements had made him change his mind:
They were acting like a sovereign, reshaping the countryside, exploiting empty land for the benefit of their own people and designating other areas as reserves for their future benefit. After 1967, when Israel occupied and then annexed East Jerusalem, my father lost many valuable plots of land when the Israeli municipality designated them green areas. I began to think Israel was going to turn East Jerusalem into a paradise of green parks, only to realize that a few years after the land had been acquired from its Arab ownership through expropriation, its designation was changed. The noble aim of keeping East Jerusalem Green was dropped in favor of using the land to construct neighborhoods for the exclusive benefit of Jewish residents, making the city more cluttered and depressing, and my father more despondent, than ever. (145)
Shehadeh’s friend Saba was upset by the news of the Bedouin’s impending eviction: “I have always known it,” he said. “The Israeli plan is to confine all of us in reservations in preparation for our eventual expulsion. Just as they did in 1948” (146). Shehadeh notices the differences between the area now, and what he remembered from past walks there:
During earlier walks all that I could see was the empty wilderness. Now the area looked like a construction site as the new roads to the settlements of Maaleh Mikhmas, Kfar Adumim, Mishor Adumim and Mitzpe Jericho were dug into the hills and land was leveled in preparation for building yet more houses there. Once these settlements are complete a wedge will divide the West Bank into a northern and a southern enclave and put an end to the dream of a Palestinian state. (149)
Everything he had seen that day made him angry—and more and more that was his default emotion.
The group visited the church at the Monastery of St. George of Koziba. It was a place of tranquility, and Shehadah decided he should draw inspiration from it:
I cannot continue in this state of anger, otherwise it will consume all my energy and I shall waste my life in grumbling and regret. A time comes when one has to accept reality, difficult as that might be, and find ways to live through it without losing one’s self-esteem and principles. Was this not what these hermits and monks had been doing over the centuries, keeping their distance from the world, holding on to what was theirs as they waited for the tide to turn, while around them all they held sacred was violated? (153-54)
“The time had come for me to dedicate myself to a different project, one I could make work, which no one could take from me,” he continues—and that project would be writing (154). “I knew I would be able to find ways of dealing with the trauma of defeat,” he concludes. “Somehow despite the problems and fears I would continue to walk and to write. At my age my father had successfully survived two catastrophic defeats. I was more fortunate. So far, I have had to deal with only one.” (155)
At the beginning of Shehadeh’s fifth journey, “And How Did You Get Over It? Janiya, Ras Karkar and Deir Ammar,” he writes that he knew enough about the Oslo Accords to realize they would lead to chaos, so he protected himself: he built a house within Ramallah, safe from Israeli expropriation, and wrote a memoir (156). “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,” he writes (156). During this period he went for a walk with his friend Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor and the founder of the Medical Relief Organization. They wanted to talk about the changes they were seeing in the West Bank, after the Oslo Accords (157-58). They intend to begin their walk in A’yn Qenya and finish in Deir Ammar:
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. (161)
Shehadeh and Barghouti found their path, crossed the wadi, and walked through an overgrown field of olive trees, where “The unplowed earth . . . had an abundance of wildflowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds” (162-63). They discovered wet ground and realized that they had walked into the open sewers of the Talmon settlement, which disposed of its waste down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers (163). Two boys showed them the way out of the bog and told them walking near the paved road was too dangerous—the settlers would try to run Palestinians down deliberately, and the military would shoot at them (163-64). Settlers had practical immunity from prosecution, Shehadeh notes, and could threaten or shoot at Palestinian neighbours without penalty (165).
Although Shehadeh suggests that the land was owned by farmers, he notes that no one was working it:
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 that stood on land that once 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. (165-66)
Such thoughts threatened his enjoyment of the day, as well as his peace of mind:
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. . . . 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. (167)
As they walked, Barghouti asked how Shehadeh had gotten over his anger. He responds, “By accepting the fact of our surrender and moving on,” but he realized also the way that writing was liberating for him (168-69). The chapter ends, as do the others, with a sense of foreboding:
As Mustafa and I witnessed during out walk in the hills, our land was being transformed before our eyes, and a new map was being drawn. We were not supposed to look, only to blindly believe in the hollow language of peace proclaimed by Israeli leaders, a peace that amounted to mere words, rhetoric that meant nothing. (177)
That make-believe peace could not last for ever, he concludes; another violent intifada was predictable (177).
Shehadeh’s final journey is“An Imagined Sarha: Wadi Dalb.” “Much has happened since the walk described in the last chapter,” he begins. “My hope that I would find refuge in my stone house was dispelled in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah, entered my home and broke the sense of sanctuary I had ascribed to it” (178). The stated reason for the invasion was self-defence; but Shehadeh argues that for Israel, defending settlements on illegally acquired land had become the same as defending the rest of the country (178). The invasion followed by drastic security measures that closed the entrances of all cities and hundreds of villages (180). There were more checkpoints and obstacles on roads (180). Travel was difficult and Palestinians were subjected to constant harassment (180). There was a feeling that Palestinians would be victims of a mass expulsion, and a ghetto life was imposed on West Bank cities (180). The most destructive development, though, was the Separation Wall (181). “Still,” Shehadah writes,
I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements. Weather-wise that spring of 2006 was one of the best for many years. The rain had been plentiful but also well distributed. It continued to rain through April, giving vital sustenance to the wildflowers that by the end of the month usually begin to shrivel and die. I could not let this season pass without a walk. (181-82)
However, Shehadah had gotten lost driving in new settlements and industrial zones a few months earlier and didn’t want to repeat the experience (182). Besides, the changes wrought upon the land meant that he would have to choose a route carefully:
I surveyed my prospects. I could not go to A’yn Qenya through the Abu Ameen track because much of it had been destroyed by new buildings in the course of Ramallah’s expansion to the northwest. Added to this was the fact that the Jewish settlers from Dolev and Beit Eil had raised money to build a bypass road through our hills and valleys, going over private Palestinian lands to connect their two settlements. This badly designed private road caused much damage to the hills and obstructed the passage of water through the wadi. It also destroyed a number of the springs and many unique rock formations, among them a beautiful cliff studded with cyclamens that I often stopped to admire. (183-84)
In addition, the valley to the south was now used for target practice by members of the Palestinian security forces, and access to A’yn Qenya was blocked by an army post (184). Shehadeh decided to look at a map—not something he liked to do, “for it implied submission to others, the makers of the maps, with their ideological biases. I would much rather have exercised the freedom of going by the map inside my head, signposted by historical memories and references” (184). Nevertheless, he continues, “I had no choice. To find a track I could take that without settlers or practices shooters or army posts or settler bypass roads had become a real challenge” (184).
Shehadeh worked out a path, one that avoided army posts, bypasses and settlements (184). He began walking in land that might once have resembled Abu Ameen’s. There was a pine tree, a spring, and a cultivated orchard: “My spirits revived. I felt empowered by the memory of Abu Ameen and his much different times. I did not care what happened to me, I was going to enjoy my walk in the hills” (185). He walked until he found a gully where the track was
made gorgeous by the view it offered of the valley below with its wide swath of green and the water flowing in its midst shimmering in the mid-morning light. I could not get over how unusual it was to see a green valley with a brook in these dry hills. My heart leaped. I almost ran down the path but thought better of it and, out of kindness to my knees, I slowed down, (185)
When he got to the water he realized there was someone there—an armed settler, smoking “hashish mixed with another more potent substance” in a water pipe, a nergila (186). He tried to cross the stream, but he dropped his hat in the water, and the settler retrieved it for him (186-87).
Then begins a conversation—or confrontation—between the two men. Shehadeh told the settler that it was a beautiful day and his gun didn’t belong to it—the settler agrees, but said, “I have to” (187). Shehadeh asked the settler if he was afraid of being there alone. “Why should I be?” he answered. “I’ve done no evil to anyone” (188). Shehadeh thought,“Done no evil . . . after all the land he and his people have stolen, after destroying our life for so long” (188). The settler tells him that Dolev, his settlement, is built on public land, and that “All of Eretz Israel is ours” (189). Palestinians could go and live in another Arab states, the settler continues—there are 21 of them (190). “This young man had internalized the official propaganda and was just parroting it.,” Shehadeh writes. “Why should I spoil my walk by listening to such annoying nonsense?” (190). The settler stated that the land is a nature reserve, preserved by the Israelis; Shehadeh’s response was to ask about the settlements, the bulldozers digging highways, and the damage they have done. He described what the land was like before: “You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years” (190). “Progress is inevitable,” the settler responded. He told Shehadeh that the Arab villagers, without running water, have a difficult life, and that they dump their garbage everywhere: “You lack the know-how and the discipline. Leave planning and law enforcement to us. We have built many towns and cities out of wild empty areas. Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes and look how vibrant it is today. The same will happen here” (191).
Then the settler said something that surprised Shehadeh: “I love these hills no less than you. I was raised here. The sights and smells of this land are a sacred part of me. I am not happy anywhere else. Every time I leave I cannot wait to get back. This is my home” (191). The conversation changed to the land they both love, and Shehadeh asked what the settlers called this wadi and this spring, and the men agreed that they both loved walking. However, this shared passion did not calm Shehadeh: “I held my breath. I wanted to blurt out all the curses I had ever learned: You . . . you . . . who’ve taken my land and now walk it as master, leaving me to walk as a criminal on a few restricted paths. But this time I held my tongue” (191-92).
The settler recalled a childhood memory of passing through Ramallah in a car, having stones thrown at them (192).“[I]t destroyed something inside me, perhaps forever,” he said. “I was so afraid. . . . because I could not understand why the Arabs hate us so much. When we got to school I asked the teacher why” (192). Her answer was, “Because they are bad people . . . and they hate Jews. This is why we have to be strong to defend ourselves” (193). Shehadeh responded that by taking the land and refusing to recognize the fact, the presence of settlers means “perpetual war” (193). The settler was not concerned. Shehadeh asked about international law; the settler said that’s “for the weak” (193). “I went to the army for three years,” he continued. “I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence”—that is, the war for independence from the British (193). Shehadeh was surprised: “But they came to take our country from us and give it to you.” (193). The settler told him that there could be no compensation for properties taken in 1948 unless Palestinians compensated for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen. “What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen?” Shehadeh replied. “Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases” (194). The settler’s response was simple: they’re Arabs (194). He saw no difference between the Palestinians and other Arabs, and argued that Palestinians are not a nation: “You never had your own government. . . . you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel,” but the Jews did, in Judea, three thousand years before (195). “So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?” Shehadeh asked. The settler answered, “It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?” (195).
Shehadeh states that taking all the land without sharing is discriminatory, but the settler disagreed: “You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas” (195). “I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came,” Shehadeh replied. “I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete” (195). The settler scoffed:
And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for everything, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here. (196)
Then Shehadeh retrieved his wet hat and turned to walk away. However, the settler asks if he wants to smoke with him, and he does: “I knew from experience that often the first impulse is the best one to follow and my intuition on this occasion was not to refuse” (196).
“As the strong stuff began to take effect,” Shehadeh recalls, he began to think about another sarha in the same hills, walking with a friend, sitting on rocks near the cyclamen rock, resting at the midway point of their walk. It was sunset and the colours of the hills were changing. A man walked by with long, deliberate strides, as though he was taking measurements:
In the clarity of the moment I suspected the worst, tidings of a terrible future for our beautiful hills. A short time after this, work began on the settler road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, which passed along the exact path this man had traversed. He must have been working for the Arab contractor who executed the work on behalf of the settlers. The hills where never the same after that. (197)
That memory made him feel guilty about sharing the hills with the settler, but then he thought, “these are my hills despite how things are turning out. If I postpone my enjoyment of them I might never achieve the sarha that I have sought for so long” (197). “With every draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it,” he continues. “I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land” (198). The pair began to hear shots in the background but they didn’t know who is firing. “We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks,” Shehadeh concludes (198). It is a rather ominous conclusion, a brief moment of wary peace with gunfire in the background.
Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape left me thinking about the parallels between the West Bank and Saskatchewan. There are many differences, of course, but in both places, settlers have done everything possible to displace the original inhabitants of the land, and in both places the settlers—or at least most of them—are blind (wilfully, perhaps, or through ignorance) to that face. I can imagine the conversation Shehadeh has with the settler taking place between a Cree or Saulteaux man out for a walk and a môniyâw hiker or hunter. More importantly, Shehadeh’s final chapter suggests that a love of the land, or even a sense of its sacredness, cannot make up for a history of colonization and displacement, that it cannot generate a sense of shared purpose or understanding. How could it? In addition, the changes Shehadeh has seen in the hills and wadis he loves since the 1970s are not unlike the ones settlers brought to this land by destroying the grassland ecosystem. Unlike the roads Shehadeh imagines becoming part of the landscape, that destruction is permanent, and ongoing, so that less than 14 percent remains. And all of this reinforces my sense that settlers and their descendants do need to justify their walking in this land, because it does belong to others. The shape such a justification would take eludes me right now, but it’s something I’m going to have to think about—and discuss with Elders.
Shehadeh, Raja. Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, Scribner, 2007.