Roaming West Bank Hills --Then and Now
By Alexandra Stanisic
(Al Jadid Staff Writer)
“Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape,” is not about the half-century old Arab-Israeli conflict, or about the Hammas-Fatah conflict, or even about suicide bombers. It is about “sarha,”an Arabic word that refers to going on freely, roaming, and wandering without restraint. In his new book, Raja Shehadeh examines the tradition and evolution of sarha in the occupied territories of the West Bank.
Earning Shehadeh this year’s Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for political writing, “Palestinian Walks,” focuses on the interplay between landscape and identity, the impenetrability of nature, and, perhaps, the cruelty of time.
Sarha is an activity with ancient roots that involves leaving things behind. It is said that, prior to becoming the prophet, Mohammed used to go on sarha in the hills, where he would sometimes meditate for days at a time.
A quest for the wild, Shehadeh’s walks began in 1978 and continued until 2006, in spite of messy regional politics. During that time, he traveled through many villages, following trails lined with olives, wild artichokes, oregano, and plains made of limestone. (The New York Times coverage of Raja Shehadeh’s book provides a video link of a walk narrated by Shehadeh that includes an audio slide show featuring photographs that were taken by walkers.)
Spanning nearly 30 years, Shehadeh’s sarha presents a landscape full of contradictory images and relentless beauty. Non-political in nature, his journey through the West Bank leads him to explore and follow geological signs, just as his grandfather did prior to the occupation.
However, the land he explores is not the one his grandfather knew, and the ever-growing number of barriers, check points, fences, settlements, walls, and private roads have made roaming almost unpleasant. Sarha has been darkened by the hammering on of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has spawned, among many things, a “web of segregated highways built after anti-Israeli attacks,” Shehadeh told the New York Times. Such restriction almost defeats the purpose of sarha.
Today the area is littered with Israeli settlements, whose presence “remains one of the most contentious matters of the conflict,” Shehadeh further commented. He can’t count the number of times his hikes have been halted by settlers.
Nevertheless, Shehadeh’s book insists on the virtue of roaming freely despite the myriad restraints. He also notes the supremacy of nature, saying that it “eventually overpowers all of us.” This odd tribute gives perspective to the seemingly interminable conflict.
A writer and lawyer born in the West bank, Shehadeh became a forerunner in the legal promotion of Palestinian rights. Upon returning from London, he began working in his father’s law firm. He founded Al Haq, a human rights organization and an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, when he realized that Israel’s claim of “conforming to the law and observing human rights was simply not true,” he said in a web interview with a group called Peacework.
Though known for his human rights work, he transitioned from being an international human rights lawyer to being a criminal prosecutor following the 1985 assassination of his father, Aziz Shehadeh, and the failure of Israeli authorities to bring his killers to justice.