Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land.They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on.
I see this as a book about land and the felt relationship to land. Raja Shehadeh spent much of his professional life fighting legal battles for Palestinian landowners, strongly motivated by patriotism. But the folks on the other side, Israeli settlers, not only have the legal upper hand, but the same passionate motivation: deep belief in their entitlement to the land. Shehadeh is reminded again and again, by everything: the attitudes of settlers he encounters, the orientation of settlements, the walls built to segregate them from neighbouring Palestinian villages, that the project of settling the occupied west bank is ideologically invested in erasing the Palestinians and their history.
Shehadeh feels the same way. He would love to forget the occupation and just enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the hills. But over the 39 years this book spans, his ideal of sarha, which means most precisely walkabout, wandering without constraint, becomes ever more distant around Ramallah as the landscapes of lush spring-watered valleys, arid hilltops ’embraced’ by villages is fragmented by big, busy roads that cut through the landscape to make journeys as swift and convenient as possible for settlers, as areas of open and supposedly public land become illegal for Palestinians to enter, and as the fear of being arrested or shot increasingly haunt the walker’s mind.
Much of his purpose in writing, I feel, is to counter the Israeli narrative that Palestine was ugly, neglected and unappreciated by its inhabitants before they took possession of it and began to develop it. He quotes the orientalist writings of famous western visitors and contrasts their dismal assessments of the landscape with his own loving impressions. He repeats that he was at first happy when Israel designated areas of the Palestinian territories as nature reserves, only to be dismayed to see them being built on and Palestinians legally shut out. He turns a popular mantra cynically on its head; the settlement project makes ‘the desert bloom with neon signs and concrete’.
Israeli architects Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman perceptively uncover ‘a cruel paradox’: ‘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’
This is a book of love, anger and despair. It is an ode shading into a requiem. Both Israeli settlers who can shoot Palestinians with impugnity and Palestinian militias and bullies threaten and thwart Shehadeh and his walking companions at different times. This memoir elucidated to me more clearly than anything I have ever read the psychological toll taken by living under occupation. Shehadeh, a relatively privileged middle class man records the loss of something he senses, as I sense, is a human right. As a lover of walks myself and an itchy-footed introvert, the fantasy and reality of sarha sustains me; great swathes of the country I live in are open, public and free to wander; I walk in them fearlessly carrying no documents to validate my right to do so. But this privilege is raced; the document I carry is the whiteness of my skin. The logic and violence of settler colonialism is at work all over the world, only in the occupied territories of the West Bank it proceeds with especially murderous urgency.
When Mick Dundee says ‘the Aborigines don’t own the land, they belong to it’ I see this as an invitation to rethink the relationship to land outside of the logic of colonial capitalism. If ‘the Aborigines do not own the land’, settler logic allows it to be claimed by them. If indigenous people are to remain free to use and live on the land where they are, they are forced to accept the colonial position that land can be owned, and take ownership of it. To me, the colonial view is a kind of madness. Shehadeh began to write to restore his sanity after being crushed by despair, rage and defeat. Though the settlers see the world through lies, he recognises and relates to their love for the land. The challenge his words shape for Israelis is to enact this love while rejecting the colonial logic of the genocide of the natives. He writes calmly, honestly, critically, towards sanity and towards peace.