The English call it “rambling”, in Australia it’s a “walk-about”, and in Palestine, a leisurely hike in the hills is known as ‘sarha’. In “Palestinian Walks”, Orwell Prize winning Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh keeps a journal of six such ‘sarhat’, or walks, over nearly 30 years from the late 1970s, as “an attempt” he writes, “to preserve, at least in words, the Palestinian natural treasures that many Palestinians will never know.”
Only words remain to safeguard the precious land of Palestine
It’s a rare book that as soon as I put it down, I pick it up and start again from page one. Raja Shehadah’s “Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape” was one such compelling text. Over the 240 pages, the author, also a lawyer and human rights activist, records his observations from his excursions over the rocky slopes of his homeland (Palestine aka Occupied Territories), sometimes with friends, or a young cousin, or his wife, at other times alone with just his thoughts.
Through Shehadeh’s writing, I can feel like I’m there too, sharing the poetry of the hills he scrambles over, as well as hearing his frustration with their demise, and longing for their unspoiled past. Makes me want to go again to Palestine, this time in hiking boots not on a bicycle, so I can really breathe in my surroundings more slowly. (But I’ll have to hurry, because any as-yet untouched hills and their ancient villages are being bulldozed on a daily basis to make way for new settlements, roads to connect these new communities, and the giant barrier which both divides and claims the land on behalf of the younger nation of Israel).
I think the real success of Shehadeh’s travelogue is not only to memorialise his disappearing homeland in his simple, direct, and beautiful language, but also, somehow, his homeland became a part of me as I read. And I clung to hope with every page turned, that things would be alright in the end. That there would be some kind of conclusion to the wreckage, that Shehadeh would share eye-witness testimony to olive trees being planted, not mercilessly uprooted, or that he would offer a story of walls being erected as paddocks for livestock, not people.
Shehadeh’s last recorded “sarha” was in 2007, and though his ardour for the land of his birth will never die, the hopeful image of archaic stone villages surrounded by groves of sapling olive trees as backdrop for wandering shepherds with their flocks seems to grow ever fainter:
As I stood in the ruins of one of my favourite places in the valley, this valley near where I was born and have always lived, I felt the hills were not mine anymore. I am no longer free to come and walk. They have become a dangerous place where I do not feel safe…Before we left the hills I turned around. The sun was setting. The side of the hill we were on was shaded. Across the valley the limestone rocks reflected the muted light.
I bid this valley farewell.
I would not be coming back here for a long time.
Reading “Palestinian Walks” gave me a heart hurt… I have to read it again.
More links and information
- Learn more about Raja Shehadeh on his author profile – The Guardian
- Buy “Palestinian Walks” by Raja Shehadeh on Amazon – I chose the Kindle version
- Read “Book Festival takes a trip to the Middle East” on wow247.co.uk by Tim Cornewell, contributor to Edinburgh Festivals – 12 August 2014 – a programme of literary events which included forums, talks, and readings, curated by Raja Shehadeh. Summer 2014.
- If you want to join a group ‘sarha’ in Palestine, check out Walk Palestine – walking tours depart weekly from around Jerusalem and Ramallah
Reviews of “Palestinian Walks” by Raja Shehadeh
- By Jill Murphy for TheBookBag.co.uk – August 2007 – “Palestinians are watching their land, their homes, their freedoms and their hopes of prosperity vanish before their very eyes… If you would like to have any real conception of what this might mean to the people living there, then you should read this book.”
- Raja Shehadeh “Palestinian Walks” on FiveBooks.com – date unknown – “Raja Shehadeh’s elegy for his lost footpaths becomes a heartbreaking metaphor for the deprivations of an entire people estranged from their land.”
- “Taking you home: Palestinian Walks” by Lora Gordon on Electronic Intifada – 21 July 2008 – “Honest, haunting and heartbreaking, this travelogue hits close to home while transporting us not only into Palestine’s telling geography, but also into our own daily paths, making us question how they, too, shape our lives.”
- “Palestinian Walks: Notes from a Vanishing Landscape” by Raja Shehadeh is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think