Seeing the land as one: Raja Shehadeh interviewed

Raja Shehadeh leading a tour through the hills of the occupied West Bank. (PalFest)

Ramallah-based writer and co-founder of the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, Raja Shehadeh launched his latest book, A Rift in Time, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14 August. Like earlier works, Shehadeh’s latest title addresses the dispossession of the Palestinian people, the failure of the international community and their own leadership to deliver justice, and the abuse of Palestinian rights by the Israeli military and civil authorities. These themes are all presented through the lens of his family’s history and his own experiences and passionate love of his land. But where Palestinian Walks, Strangers in the House and When the Bulbul Stopped Singing told the stories of Shehadeh and members of his close family, A Rift in Time takes readers back to the life of his great-uncle Najib Nassar, who edited the Haifa-based newspaper al-Karmil in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, before the First World War.

Accused of spying for the British against Ottoman Turkey and its German allies, Nassar went on the run for three years, living with Bedouin goat herders in the hills of what is now the Israeli Galilee, West Bank and northern Jordan. In uncovering his great-uncle’s past, Shehadeh explores his beloved Palestinian landscape and the damage wreaked on it by decades of Israeli occupation and exploitation, and holds up a much-vilified period in history as an inspiration for future visions of the Middle East. Sarah Irving spoke to him in Edinburgh for The Electronic Intifada.

Sarah Irving: One of the themes that runs through A Rift in Time is the idea that Turkish nationalism and the fragmentation of the Middle East into small states was “detrimental to the entire region.” That is a perspective which runs counter to the usual negative portrayal of the Ottoman regime. Is it a viewpoint you have held for a long time or something you have discovered through researching your family’s past?

Raja Shehadeh: I was brought up, as we were all brought up, with very negative views of the Ottomans, but I think it is something that is beginning to change. I started off with quite a lot of prejudice and ignorance about the facts — that it was a time of no development, that they starved the people, and so on. And then I realized that, naturally, most of what we heard about the Ottoman period was from the survivors. My paternal grandmother was alive during the First World War, at the end of the Ottoman period, and she almost starved to death. She was from Jaffa and the Ottomans asked everyone to leave the city [because they believed it would be easier to defend from the British without a civilian population] and she and everyone had to leave. It colored her life, her attitude to material things and so on.

So most of us grew up with the memories of the last period of the Ottomans, the period of the First World War. On the political level, the Hashemites, who were responsible for the West Bank until 1967, glorified the work of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, who fought against the Ottomans. So I started with this very perverted and prejudiced view. But then when I read and looked at things for myself, and read about [my great-uncle] Najib — for example, he has an article in his newspaper al-Karmil entitled “I am an Ottoman” — he wanted more independence within the Ottoman framework, but the Ottoman framework is a very good precedent to emulate. Certainly one great thing was that the whole region was one, which makes perfect sense. There are no natural borders, and I think the whole region will return to be one. When that will be God knows, but it will return to be one.

SI: Does the Ottoman framework present itself to you as an ideal of a Middle Eastern future?

RS: I think it is good to have a precedent for how the Middle East can be. It is also important to recognize that there were many negative things about Ottoman rule and not to glorify it as such. But the more I went into the book and the more I traveled around these areas and started looking at the land with different eyes, I realized that it is rather ridiculous, these borders within borders within borders. Of course the West Bank has hundreds of small fragments within all these walls, and the Jordan River, which is hardly a river, is made into a border.

When I started looking at the land with a different view I realized that borders can only work if you internalize them, if you accept them. Obviously they stop you so you have no choice, but you have to internalize them for them to mean anything, and one of the things I hope to do in the book is to help the reader begin to see the land as I started to see it — as one. The book is set in the Rift Valley and has the Rift Valley as a feature, because all the events happen around the Rift Valley, so through the writing of the book I felt liberated from the borders and fragmentation and enclosure within these small areas. I do not offer a political solution, it is not that kind of book, but if I can inspire people to think differently about the land then something might come of it, because you first need to be inspired to start working on it.

It is getting harder and harder to move around and more and more ridiculous and more and more searches; it is stifling. But when I started working on this book I was at a point south of Jerusalem where you approach the Jordan Valley and I simply looked north and looked south, then you see that it is part of the Rift Valley. There are high mountains on both sides like walls, and then you have the Dead Sea in the south and the Jordan Valley and then Lake Tiberias and Lake Huleh and the lakes in Lebanon. Obviously you cannot see all of that at once but you can see part of it and then you think, ah, this is the real thing, it is not the border near Bisan or the Lebanese border and so on.

The enduring thing is this valley and we are all part of it. It is a great agricultural area which could do marvels, but it is not properly cultivated and the Dead Sea is in danger of being lost altogether. We are doing very badly — we being all of us. We have such a paradisal area, but we are so concentrated on how we will deal with this border and that bridge and that checkpoint, we are so distressed and put upon that we cannot look up, but once I started doing that it felt so good that it became one of my aims in the book to help the reader see it in that way, to inspire and re-imagine the place.

SI: One of the more positive aspects of the Ottoman Empire was its level of tolerance for other communities — Jewish and Christian — under Muslim rule, at a time when most European countries were extremely bigoted and oppressive towards non-Christians. Is that part of why you see the Ottomans as an interesting precedent?

RS: What the Ottomans had, which survives in many countries in the Middle East, including Israel, is the millet system — it’s an Arabic word for a sect — with every religion having a right to administer its personal laws and so on. There was a great sense of tolerance which applied to Jews and Christians, so although they were under a Muslim Caliphate they had the right to religious freedom, and I think if we are to have a new Middle East we have to have tolerance and the right to express differences. At the same time, it enriches everybody. The extent to which people felt close has been ruined by recent developments, with the emphasis on religion in a very negative way.

SI: In both this book and in Palestinian Walks, you are ambivalent and sometimes very negative about the role of religion in the Middle East — as a propaganda tool, as a way of claiming land and identity. You must find the rise of political Islam and Christian Zionism disturbing.

RS: I find it difficult to take these people seriously. I am not religious and that is fine, that is my choice, but I think that it should be a personal thing. This idea that your religion can justify political positions and political claims and to use the Bible as a geographical thing, it is rather weird. There was a monk in Gaza in the third century, at a time when everybody was making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and people said to him, “Aren’t you going to visit Jerusalem?” He said, “God is everywhere, why do I need to go to the very stone where it happened?” I think he was the only one who had sense. We seem to have gone berserk with religion; it is almost like a race to see who has more claims and more rights.

There can be something very nice about religion — I never lived in a Jerusalem or a Ramallah which had Jews because I was born after ‘48 [the creation of the State of Israel], but I experienced Christians and Muslims together. During Ramadan you have new food and during the Christian festivals they have their own rituals, everybody benefits if there is that kind of interaction, and likewise with the Jews as well, so there was a time when you had three occasions to celebrate and enjoy and that is very nice. It is not as though it has to be either/or or one or the other, but now it has become more and more like that, it is a very negative thing.

SI: The book challenges borders in both time and space — you go beyond the political borders that exist now, but you also move between different times, beyond divisions into Oslo period of the mid-1990s, 1967, 1948, the British Mandate and so on — but you go up and over these, to look at a different way of living in a different era.

RS: Yes. It really came after Palestinian Walks. I was so confined to the West Bank, I wanted to expand and go into more time and space, and that was very liberating. It also made me feel that I’m dealing with the real thing. It is very fortunate for me and the book and the region that things are changing. So in 1922 there was positive writing in my grandfather’s newspaper about Kamal Ataturk and then all of this was forgotten. More recently Turkey is coming back to the area [because of Turkish support for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the Turkish criticism of Israel] and Turkish flags are being flown in Ramallah. Hopefully something will come out of this, because the Islam in Turkey is a good model: if people want to be observant, fine, but it should be a secular state, and this is something we can learn from.

SI: By the end of Palestinian Walks you seemed very despondent and cynical, you refer to a “cursed land,” and you say “since I had redirected my energies from activism to writing I found I was more in my element.” Is this part of that process of liberation you mention in relation to this book?

RS: Yes. I think activism is very important, but I was encouraged by the fact that I have been active on legal rights and the land for so long, but I never got feedback as positive as when Palestinian Walks came out. People said, “Now we understand.” When you are helped to empathize you understand things much better than if it is a tract of numbers and legal arguments. So I hope that this book will be even more helpful for people to have a new understanding and a new perspective. It is not a history book, but to encourage them to read more on the subject.

SI: Having said that, you do begin the book with an incident where you are almost arrested by the Palestinian Authority. You are pretty negative in all your books about the Oslo process, about the Palestinian Authority. What is your perspective on the situation now?

RS: I do not have any faith that negotiations as they are now will lead anywhere. The effects of Oslo have been negative; it is very difficult to get out of that. At best it is going to be another Palestinian state and I no longer believe in more states. We need a new vision. At the same time, I think [Former Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser] Arafat was the height of the confusion, I think he left the situation very confused and very problematic on a day-to-day level. The new people in the PA are putting in place better organization, but I do worry about the security services and problems arising from that. At the same time, I have always thought that the most important thing for the Palestinians is for them to be able to stay on the land, and now with the improvement in security it is more possible to invest, the laws have been developed to allow the everyday necessities of a legal system. The signs we are getting from Israel indicate how difficult it will be to fundamentally change the situation. But I have learned that you must not judge the future only from the present — things can happen suddenly that make a big change. But the place can explode — that is very dangerous.

SI: The overriding feeling I get from your books is that you are incredibly affectionate about the land. The shape of the land, the streams, the flowers — that is the main character in your books. To see the current level of settlement building must be like a bereavement.

RS: Yes, and the way that people are treating the land. I always wanted to write about the land and I didn’t know how, so I was very happy to found out a way that works — commercially and in every way. It has been a wonderful marriage between my interests and the possibility of surviving! I started writing with the [1967] occupation. I really felt the need to write and I started a diary, and I was trying to find ways out of the confusion by putting things down and using metaphor and so on. I have kept up the diary; it is a very important discipline for me, and a lot of the material comes out of the diaries. Many of the events [in A Rift in Time] were put down in diary form. For Palestinian Walks I went back to diaries of walks which at the time I had no idea I would ever use, from the 1980s and ’90s.

SI: Do you see the process of bringing a book like this out and then speaking to audiences as political acts?

RS: I used to feel very conflicted whenever I had a book and the opportunity to talk. I used to feel that I had to use every opportunity to speak to the maximum about suffering and human rights violations and if I did not, I felt I was not doing my duty. That is gone now, because there is so much more being written and so much more being said, so I feel I have a different role. There are a lot of politics here but it is not through numbers or speaking about the worst. I think I should take a breath, it is better, I have ranted a lot in my life.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.

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