I have just read a wonderful narrative by the Palestinian human rights lawyer, activist, and now writer of the first rank, Raja Shehadeh. The author lives in Ramallah, in the West Bank, which has been under occupation by Israeli forces for 51 years and counting. The book, A Rift in Time: Travels With My Ottoman Uncle, is a moving excursion through lands that should by now belong to the Palestinian people but are instead under a harsh military occupation. Shehadeh is too gifted a writer to have offered up his tale in a strident and inflexible manner. Rather, he digs deep within himself to provide a double narrative, as he retraces the steps of his rather alluring yet enigmatic uncle, Najib Nassar. This is much harder than the casual reader might imagine, given the ridiculous, persistent constraints to which stateless Palestinians are subjected. Shehadeh intertwines his historical tale with observations from today’s perspective on the drastically altered landscape he uncertainly advances across. While the mood is often melancholy, we are treated to a vivid and admiring descriptions of what remains of the open landscape that so enchants our author.
Shehadeh is a Christian and I was taken by his description of his forlorn feelings upon coming upon the Jericho-Tiberias Road, one that in the past he had often traversed. In reading the account of Najib Nassar, a journalist, novelist (”bad novelist” according to his great-nephew but revelatory nonetheless), and romantic dreamer of a future Palestine filled with equal, rights-bearing citizens, I was reminded of the tale of Sisyphus in contemplating the exertions of the author. You may remember that in Greek myth he was the wily and unflappable King of Corinth who got in Very Serious Trouble with the Gods over his failure to follow their rules. This led to a drastic punishment indeed. He was left to toil ceaselessly in rolling a boulder up a hill in Tartarus. Once Sisyphus had struggled to the summit, the God of Hades decreed that it would immediately begin a trajectory back down the hill. Shehadeh’ s work as lawyer and founder of the pioneering, nonpartisan human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, appears to have been every bit as frustrating as the labour’s of poor Sisyphus. Shehadeh’s efforts to challenge the illegal expropriations and takings of Palestinian lands, the demolitions of Palestinian homes and other abuses were met with failure time and again. The Israeli military courts were not interested in this indefatigable lawyer’s conceptions of justice.
Having penned several legal texts on law in the Palestinian Territories and on human rights, Shehadeh has clearly recognized that his talents as a writer might thereafter be better put to testifying to the reality of the Palestinian nation and the Palestinian people in the twentieth and twenty first century. The world had famously heard from a former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, that there “are no Palestinian people.” Shehadeh has employed his gifts as historian, memoirist and travel writer to refute that statement. He has done this with poise. Most impressively, he continually seeks out equitable approaches to the problems he describes.
Indeed, the book starts with the startling news that our narrator is himself under arrest. It is none other than the Palestinian Authority (PA) that wants to haul him in for questioning. A Rift in Time recounts his efforts to come to terms with what had been family lore – the stories of his great-uncle Najib’s daring escape from the Ottoman authorities whose empire encompassed the district of Palestine until the Empire’s breakup in the aftermath of World War I. For some years, Najib lived a life on the run, disguised and living in hiding in the homes of friends or acquaintances. Shehadeh is able to draw on a novel penned by his great-uncle, Mufleh Ghassani, at the very time that the British Mandate came into being in 1922. Readers are able to join in a voyage of discovery with our deeply knowledgeable guide. We learn much about the multicultural aspects of the Ottoman world in which Najib had earlier operated. Although he is said to be too much the stoic and therefore lacking in the ability to investigate and reflect upon his inner self as he recounts the various episodes of his life in the largely autobiographical novel, Shehadeh teases out any number of fascinating connections to the momentous times. For instance, he searches for an accurate map of the largely vanished Palestinian landscape that Najib travelled through in his flight from authorities. To do so, he must hunt down a 1933 map from the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. He communicates the grim reality that his great-uncle, albeit an alleged criminal, had greater freedom of movement than any Palestinian in the Occupied Territories does today, given the many borders and border within borders, including innumerable checkpoints manned by stern, sometimes surly soldiers that Israel has created. A mound of directives and laws has been imposed on the subject population, without regard to Israel’s obligations under international law.
Our London-trained lawyer offers a number of forceful insights into his attempts at rebellion against an alien authority through legal channels are thwarted every bit as much as were his great-uncles attempts at offering principled alternatives to autocratic rule through his journalism, nearly a century before. The way Israel has used its military orders to give a veneer of legality and respectability to its actions to fragment the landscape and isolate the long-time inhabitants is captured in graceful prose. Shehadeh took on a number of cases involving challenges to the settlement project, losing again and again but refusing to acquiesce to the new “facts on the ground.” In A Rift in Time, he cites a government report that 40 % of the Jewish settlements were established on land proven to be owned by Palestinians and yet nothing would be done to remove them. In his considered view, law and legality did not prove to be decisive weapons in his people’s battle against what he, together with many others, describes as colonialism. His faith in the power and righteousness of international law and the foundational concepts of fairness and equality dashed, he describes his shift to engaging in the act of writing as a form of resistance by a “noncombatant.”
The book, A Rift in Time: Travels With My Ottoman Uncle, is a moving excursion through lands that should by now belong to the Palestinian people but are instead under a harsh military occupation. The book also offers descriptions of the fate of others Shehadeh meets. These include a poignant lament by his driver, Abu Ahmad. The events that occurred after the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe” of 1948) have severed close family bonds. He was forced to emigrate to seek work as a driver in Jordan. His brother in Nablus in the West Bank is not allowed to leave his enclosed territory by virtue of Israeli military rule. Abu Ahmad’s nephews, he laments, have become strangers to him, against his will. Another brother lives a remote existence in exile, in Venezuela. And so it goes.
It is important to note that in my view Shehadeh endeavours to provide a fair and complete account of the situation in the Palestinian Territories. For instance, he is certainly willing to criticize the Palestinian leadership. Indeed, the book starts with the startling news that our narrator is himself under arrest. It is none other than the Palestinian Authority (PA) that wants to haul him in for questioning. Fortunately Shehadeh is not charged with anything but he give us details of the alienation he has experienced in his recent dealings with the strange quasi- government that is the PA. The scene also serves to establish kinship between himself and his great-uncle. We will eventually get to hear of the interesting trial that Najib is put through in Damascus, having been arrested in Nazareth in 1917. The alert reader will be able to make various connections between this trial and the many trials Palestinians continue to face in the West Bank.
Shehadeh is a Christian and I was taken by his description of his forlorn feelings upon coming upon the Jericho- Tiberias Road, one that in the past he had often traversed. Now, all he can do is stare at the different world preserved for Israeli settlers and visitors. “A land that from here appeared truly like a paradise had been usurped and could not even be visited.” As a Christian myself, I think of the stories in the New Testament of Jesus and his disciples travelling the Jericho Road, one that presented grave dangers to many travelers. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in relation to that danger zone. One can only ponder in futile despair the fact that there are few Good Samaritans willing to help Shehadeh’ s people today.
In A Rift in Time, he cites a government report that 40 % of the Jewish settlements were established on land proven to be owned by Palestinians and yet nothing would be done to remove them. In his considered view, law and legality did not prove to be decisive weapons in his people’s battle against what he, together with many others, describes as colonialismOn a personal note, I thought often of my sole trip through the West Bank in the 1980s, after spending time in Israel. I will never forget my time in Nablus, and the great generosity of Hassan, and the other Palestinians who welcomed me there and offered me their kind hospitality. I have tried to imagine what life has had in store for them in the years since.
It may be that every effort that Raja Shehadeh makes, whether through the military courts or, now, through his memorable accounts of the Palestinian century, will be no more successful than Sisyphus’s efforts in rolling his boulder up the hill. Still, I recall that Albert Camus made Sisyphus the ultimate hero of the absurd universe that we now live in. There must be a reason that Camus ends “The Myth of Sisyphus” with the words: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Perhaps Camus knew something that the original tale omitted. Perhaps Sisyphus had conceived a way to smuggle a message out to the free world, or perhaps to the Goddess of Liberty, Eleutheria, and, sooner or later, would be relieved of his massive burden. Perhaps, too, Shehadeh’s message will penetrate the Iron Wall of indifference and inspire a meaningful and compassionate response from the community of nations.
I note that Shehadeh has a new book out, Where the Line is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine. One of the significant relationships he explores is with Henry, an idealist Jewish Canadian who emigrated to Israel many years ago and who has been a tireless advocate for peace. Speaking of this friendship, Shehadeh states: “In our small way, our friendship exposed the lie peddled by Netanyahu and his followers to Israeli people and the world – that the Arab is the fundamental and eternal enemy of the Jew, that the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews cannot be resolved diplomatically and that the Israeli people have to live forever by the sword.” I look forward to reading this latest installment from our modern Sisyphus.