On Monday night I went to the South Bank Centre, not to hear Stephen Fry who was launching his new book in front of a packed Festival Hall, his event streamed to several cinemas around London, but to listen to Raja Shehadeh. The Palestinian human rights lawyer, author of the much acclaimed Palestinian Walks, was presenting his new book, A Rift in Time, in which he retraces the footsteps of his great uncle Najib, a journalist and political activist who had to go in hiding from the Ottoman authorities. His research took him into the Rift Valley as much as into the rift imposed on the landscape and its inhabitants by history. He was interviewed by his publisher Andrew Franklin, former chair of the JCC.
This was a fascinating talk, particularly in the light of David Grossman’s recent event on To the End of the Land. Both men are passionate about the land and love to walk across it. But Raja’s progress is continually interrupted. He talked of the distortions imposed on geography by borders and checkpoints, forcing him to make detours after detours, lengthening a trip which would have taken a few hours in his uncle’s time into days now. This intimate sense of time and space means that he is acutely aware of the transience of borders in the Middle East. Borders that exist today and weren’t there only 40 or 60 years ago, could very well be gone tomorrow. He talked beautifully and movingly about trying to reconstruct bygone landscapes from just a single almond tree surrounded by a few stones left from destroyed Palestinian villages, erased from the landscape and from maps. He is also acutely aware of the damage done to the land, the dwindling water resources, particularly the severely depleted Jordan and the urgent need for ecological awareness.
It was very interesting to hear him talk about Ottoman times. His uncle was persecuted for criticising the Empire for entering World War 1. He avoided arrest by fleeing Haifa where he lived to Nazareth and the Galilee, staying on the run for 3 years, relying on the rules of hospitality and the generosity of strangers. Even though there are a lot of negative memories associated with the Ottomans, Raja said this was a time when the land was one and people of all religions lived together, something he would long to see happen again in the region. Asked about his faith in the present peace negotiations, he had very little hope and said there was now a need for a new vision, not just a new state. He felt Israel was destroying itself and that the US were not helping it save itself.
For him, writing is essential, his way of life and a political act. His role is to explain and give hope and he has put his faith in writing rather than in the law or politics. Raja’s books are translated in Hebrew and at a time when Israelis are not allowed to go into the West Bank, they provide an essential window on life on the other side of the fence.
Raja is a brilliant speaker. I believe that, whether we agree with all his positions on the future of the region or not, we have to listen to what he tells us. It was heartrending to hear two intelligent passionate men talk at just a few days interval about the same land, the same love of peace and justice, the same despair in politicians and think that today so much keeps them apart. As those of you who follow this blog will know by now, I’m an incurable idealist and an ardent rambler, so I caught myself dreaming of walking across the land with both David Grossman and Raja Shehadeh, in a peaceful region where one would be free to follow footpaths through the great Rift Valley, across Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, on the way down to Mozambique….
I am delighted that Raja Shehadeh has accepted our invitation to speak at Jewish Book Week 2011 and I hope you will all come and listen to him.