Monday, 6 July 2009

Palestinian walks – notes on a vanishing landscape

I was thoroughly depressed last Friday to read Garth Hewitt’s account of the ongoing Israeli settlement programme and the annexation of Palestinian land (Church Times 3rd July). Particularly upsetting was the news of the changes occurring on Shepherds' Fields. I had the privilege of visiting Shepherds' Fields last Advent but it looks like any future visit will be a very different experience.Palestinian Walks

Since my visit to the Holy Land I’ve been dipping into a book by Raja Shehadeh called Palestinian Walks; Notes on a Vanishing Landscape which won the Orwell Prize in 2008. Raja is a Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah. He is founder of the non-partisan human rights organistion Al-Haq, an affiliate of the international Commission of Jurists and the author of books about international law, human rights and the Middle East. In the book Raja recounts seven walks taken in Palestine spanning a period of twenty seven years. Each walk is placed in a particular stage of modern Palestinian history, linking his walks with particular characters and reflecting on the wider social, political and economic situation.

Palestinian Walks is beautifully written as a love story between a man and the land of his birth; packed with incisive observations and haunting descriptions of a rapidly changing or disappearing landscape and people. I was rather suspicious when I was lent the book that it would be little more than propaganda; I’d had enough of that on my visit last year and the subsequent reporting of the conflict in the Gaza strip. However, there is a balance in Raja’s writing which displays a generosity at times towards those Israelis who could be regarded as the enemy and criticism of fellow Palestinians when it is deserved. In his introduction Raja writes:

The penultimate journey led to a confrontation with a young Jewish settler who had grown up and spent his twenty-five years of life in the very same hills. I knew that a large part of his life 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 few kilometres away. Yet, despite the myths that make up his world-view, 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?

One chastening reminder in the book is the way in which Western visitors to Palestine have helped shape a view of the place that gives the impression of an uncivilised wasteland before the British Mandate and subsequent establishment of the State of Israel. For example Thackeray described the hills Raja loves as:

Parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones – a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate, meet the eye wherever you wander round about the city. The place seems quite adapted to the events which are recorded in the Hebrew histories. It and they, as it seems to me, can never be regarded without terror.

Notes of a journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo

Raja observes that it is as though visitors were disappointed not to find the Palestine of their imagination and took a strong dislike to what they encountered. Here are some of Mark Twain’s comments:

Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes

Palestine is desolate and unlovely

Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is a dream-land

The Innocents Abroad

A cruel paradox is highlighted in this quote from Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, two Israeli architects:

the very thing that renders the landscape ‘biblical’, its traditional inhabitation and cultivation in terraces, olive orchards, stone building and the presence of livestock, is produced by the Palestinians, whom the Jewish settlers came to replace.And yet the very people who cultivate the ‘green olive orchards’ and render the landscape biblical are themselves excluded from the panorama. The Palestinians are there to produce the scenery and then disappear.

A Civilian Occupation, The Politics of Israeli Architecture

Shepherds Fields In the first chapter of Palestinian Walks, The Pale God of the Hills, Raja describes how his grandfather’s cousin Abu Ameen built a qasr, a stone structure where farmers keep their produce and sleep on the roof, and cultivated olive tree terraces. Raja discovered the long abandoned plot on a walk between Ramallah to Harrasha and reflected on the effort put in by so many Palestinians to create these plots and landscapes. Raja marvels at what was created:

I felt I could sit all day next to this qasr and feast my eyes on this wonderful creation. What fortunate people once lived in this veritable paradise.

His delight in the landscape contrasts with the description of Herman Melville:

Whitish mildew pervading whole tracts of landscape – bleached-leprosy-encrustations of curse-old cheese-bones of rocks, – crunched, knawed, and mumbled – mere refuse and rubbish of creation – like that laying outside of Jaffa Gate – all Judea seems to have been accumulations of this rubbish.

Journals of a Visit to Europe and the Levant

Raja has devoted his legal practice to defending Palestinians whose land has been taken by the Israeli authorities or settlers. He movingly records the way in which much loved land has been deemed abandoned and forfeit by the state. The Kafkaesque system that covers land law in the Holy Land and the implications and impact of its application are carefully explained. Raja’s patience, discipline and dedication are remarkable as is his passion for justice. He represents both Palestinian Muslims and Christians who face the loss of land to the settlers and this is a stark reminder that many Palestinian Arabs are Christians, though their numbers have fallen drastically in recent years.

The ever expanding Separation Wall or Barrier is a recurring presence in the narrative and Raja describes the impact of the wall on Palestinian towns, farms and businesses. In one short but powerful passage he reflects on the impact of the wall/barrier on Palestinian school children.

The mighty wall stretched from the top of the hill down to the road, leaving the southern slope, outside its borders, where some villagers had their homes. The government school serving several villages, including the two Beit ‘Urs, stood at the bottom of the hill – sandwiched between the wall and the new highway. The school and houses were reached by a steep, narrow, asphalted road bordering the wall. We could see some twelve-year-old boys returning from school, carrying their heavy bags up the hill. Adel pointed out that twice a day they pass along this ugly, prohibitive structure when in the past they had a panoramic view of the entire valley to the east. ‘What will they grow up thinking?’ he wondered aloud.

There is one very powerful image from the book that sticks in my mind and seems to encapsulate the tragedy of the Holy Land. There is a common thistle called natsch (Poterium Thorn) and tradition suggests it may have been used to make the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Natsch is plentiful and tenacious with strong roots. However, in Israeli military courts the presence of natsch is often cited as evidence that the land is uncultivated and therefore public land that the Israeli settlers could use as their own. The thistle is used as evidence against Palestinian claims to land ownership and an indication that the land has been abandoned. It is as if this humble thorn is being used to humiliate and punish inhabitants of the land.

If you want to discover more about the Holy Land, the beauty of its landscape, the nobility of its people and the terrible price being paid by its inhabitants in the present turmoil, I can’t think of a better place to start than Palestinian Walks.

Blog posts on my trip to the Holy Land can be found in my archive entries for November and December 2008.


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Phil, many thanks for the book reference, which is now on my reading list for the summer. A few of us are hoping to put together a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land next year, and the perspective you've given has greatly encouraged me to do a bit of fresh reading first. It's now 26 years since I last went (summer at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem), but the big issues over land and settlements remain depressingly the same. I also remember meeting young Israelis desperate to find a different, peaceful way to coexist, and also to recapture some young idealism...

(PS sorry about having to remove and revise typos out of original comment!)

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comment +Alan. Another book I would recommend is Peter Walker & Graham Tomlin's Walking in His Steps . It is a book to read before going, as a way of preparing for the trip and I found it very helpful in exploring pilgrim/tourist issues. I posted on the book at

The other book I'd recommend if you want a paperback for the beach is Richard North-Patterson's Exile. Explores different viewpoints on the situation with a good if at times predicatble narrative. I posted about that book at

One of the opportunities afforded by my trip was to meet some ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, to chat and hear something of their stories. There was one young woman in the Jewish quater, recently married and moved to Jerusalem, who was so full of excitement and hope. I just wonder when does she ever get the chance to chat with Palestinian young women her own age away from the conflict narrative?

Anyway, I hope preparations for the trip next year go well and I look forward to reading your posts on it.

modern landscapes said...
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