Raja Shehadeh is a passionate hill walker. He enjoys nothing more than heading out into the countryside that surrounds his home. But in recent years, his hikes have become less than bucolic and sometimes downright dangerous. That is because his home is Ramallah, on the Palestinian West Bank, and the landscape he traverses is now the site of a tense standoff between his fellow Palestinians and settlers newly arrived from Israel.
In this original and evocative book, we accompany Raja on six walks taken between 1978 and 2006. The earlier forays are peaceful affairs, allowing our guide to meditate at length on the character of his native land, a terrain of olive trees on terraced hillsides, luxuriant valleys carved by sacred springs, carpets of wild iris and hyacinth and ancient monasteries built more than a thousand years ago. Shehadeh's love for this magical place saturates his renderings of its history and topography. But latterly, as seemingly endless concrete is poured to build settlements and their surrounding walls, he finds the old trails are now impassable and the countryside he once traversed freely has become contested ground. He is harassed by Israeli border patrols, watches in terror as a young hiking companion picks up an unexploded missile and even, on one occasion when accompanied by his wife, comes under prolonged gunfire.
Amid the many and varied tragedies of the Middle East, the loss of a simple pleasure such as the ability to roam the countryside at will may seem a minor matter. But in Palestinian Walks, Raja Shehadeh's elegy for his lost footpaths becomes a heartbreaking metaphor for the deprivations of an entire people estranged from their land.
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About the Author
Raja Shehadeh is the author of the highly praised Strangers in the House and When the Birds Stopped Singing. A Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah, he is a founder of the pioneering human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists.
Read an Excerpt
An Imagined Sarha
Much has happened since the walk described in the last chapter. My hope that I would find refuge in my stone house was dispelled in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah, entered my home and broke the sense of sanctuary I had ascribed to it. The ostensible reason given by Israel for invading West Bank cities was to defend the country. Such was the power of ideology that in the eyes of most Israelis, "Israel" had come to mean "the Greater Land of Israel," including most of the settlements. In fact, maps used in Israeli schoolbooks had done away with the pre-1967 borders between Israel and the Occupied Territories. To defend their "country" also meant to defend the settlements in the Occupied Territories. In its decisions the Israeli High Court confirmed this. The settlers, it ruled, had a basic right to be protected by the state. The fact that they were on illegally acquired land made no difference.
When the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, formulated his ill-fated plan in 2006 to annex the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank to Israel, he called it the Convergence Plan. The old Israel of the pre-1967 borders was to converge with the new Israel in the occupied West Bank to form "Greater Israel." Thirteen years after Israel had committed itself under the Oslo Agreement to negotiating with its Palestinian neighbors the fate of the Jewish settlements during final status talks, the government announced that it was planning to determine their status unilaterally by annexing most of them to Israel and redrawing the borders of the state without further negotiations. After the annexation the Palestinians would be left with scattered, noncontiguous areas of land that could not possibly constitute the basis of a viable state. So powerful had Israel become, and such was the unlimited support it was getting from the United States and its British ally, that it felt it could renege on earlier commitments to the Palestinians with total impunity.
A number of these settlements had been established after commando operations against Israel by Palestinian resistance fighters, with the Israeli government claiming that their establishment was "the proper Zionist response." Over the years the Zionist ideology never evolved to the point of believing that the only policy that would ensure its long-term survival would be to seek peace with its Arab neighbors and integrate in the region, rather than proceed to antagonize further the Palestinians by taking more of their land and planting foreign enclaves within their territory. Just as Israel remained in a state of enmity with the people and states around it, so the settlers were living in total isolation from the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the land. Israeli leaders were fond of repeating that they wanted to "sear into our consciousness" the Jewish presence in our land. In other words, to make us surrender our rights to it.
The invasion of Ramallah was followed by drastic measures that continued long after the army withdrew. Using security as a justification, entrances to all the cities and hundreds of villages were closed. Use of most roads in the West Bank was prohibited to Palestinians, forcing us to use unpaved roads that had to be traveled in secret, mere tracks that went over rocks and took dangerous bends, damaging the cars that traveled them.
The large number of checkpoints and obstacles placed by the Israeli army on West Bank roads complicated our lives immeasurably. Even after the bombing in Israel had stopped, they increased in number from 376 in August 2005 to 528 by October 2006. We now moved in our own country surreptitiously, like unwanted strangers, constantly harassed, never feeling safe. We had become temporary residents of Greater Israel, living on Israel's sufferance, subject to the most abusive treatment at the hands of its young male and female soldiers controlling the checkpoints, who decided on a whim whether to keep us waiting for hours or to allow us passage. But worse than all this was that nagging feeling that our days in Palestine were numbered and one day we were going to be victims of another mass expulsion.
The residents of Ramallah, the center of the Palestinian Authority, did not escape the constraints of the ghetto life experienced in other West Bank cities. All entrances to the city were controlled by the Israeli army. At the Beitunia exit, southwest of Ramallah on the road leading to Beit 'Ur, where Albina's land is situated, a prison that began as a temporary tent facility for incarcerating juvenile offenders had now become a permanent, ever-expanding fortress, with watchtowers and high walls topped by barbed wire where the Israeli military court was convened. A highway cut through the low hills going from east to west, restricting Ramallah's expansion in that direction. It was reserved for the use of Jewish settlers traveling from Jerusalem and the settlements around its northwestern borders to Tel Aviv and the coastal plain. Passage through this exit was prohibited to Palestinians.
Those settlements around Ramallah that existed at the time of the Oslo Accords had been enlarged and more than ten new ones added, some on land that even the discriminatory Israeli legal system recognized as Palestinian. One of these, in the northwest of Ramallah, bore a similar sounding name to Abu Ameen's summer farm, Harrasha. When I look at night from the roof of my house at the horizon I can see the yellow lights of these illegal outposts creating an illuminated noose around the city.
But the most destructive development, which boded only misery and spelled continued conflict for the future, was the wall being constructed by Israel. This stretched in a jagged course that was determined not only by Israeli military considerations but also by the special interests of settlers and land mafia lords, slicing through the hills, destroying their natural shape, gulping large swaths of Palestinian areas. Only in part did it follow the 1967 armistice's internationally recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which has now been deleted from official Israeli maps. The "settlement blocs" Israel planned to annex, which thrust like daggers into the Palestinian land, were now sheathed by the wall.
Still, I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements. Weather-wise that spring of 2006 was one of the best for many years. The rain had been plentiful but also well distributed. It even continued to rain through April, giving vital sustenance to the wildflowers that by the end of the month usually begin to shrivel and die. I could not let this season pass without a walk.
A slight damper on my audacity was my desire not to repeat a terrifying experience I had a few months earlier when, driving back from the Jordan valley, I got lost. I must have taken a wrong turn and found myself in the midst of new settlements and industrial zones, vast open spaces that made me wonder what country I was in. I told myself not to panic and that if I continued driving westward I must eventually emerge in an area I would recognize. But the farther I drove the more lost I became. All the signposts pointed to Jewish settlements. I could find none of the features that used to guide me on my way: that beautiful cluster of boulders, those cliffs just after the bend that dips into the valley and up again onto the road with the attractive village to the right. "Where am I?" I kept asking myself. At first I tried to pretend that it was just a game. I had enough gas in my car and eventually I would surely be able to find my way out of this maze. But as time passed and I was not seeing anywhere I recognized, panic struck. As a child I had a recurring nightmare in which I found myself in a strange place unable to find my way home. I would try to shout for help only to realize that I had no voice. This felt like a similar situation. I began to sweat. Where was I? How would I ever get out of this? It began to get dark and with the twilight the land became even more unfamiliar. My driving was getting reckless. I was not stopping at crossroads. Circling around without any notion of where I was going had induced a mental trance. There were no other cars on these roads. I seemed to be the sole traveler in this never-never land, experiencing a waking nightmare entirely alone. "Perhaps I should stop and try to calm down," I told myself. But how would this help? Penny always advises me to take a deep breath when I'm caught in such situations. But this was different. I did not know where to begin to extricate myself from the mess I had got myself in. I felt I had finally been ensnared in the labyrinth of settlements I had long been pursuing in court and would never be allowed to escape. After my gas ran out I would have to remain here until someone came to save me. But who other than armed settlers roamed this new world in the midst of my old familiar surroundings? I was utterly exhausted when, in the end, I finally managed to find a way out. How I did so, I will never know.
I suspected that with the construction of all the new settlements and the roads connecting them, I might easily get lost again. I decided to be extra cautious and choose my path with the utmost care.
I surveyed my prospects. I could not go to A'yn Qenya through the Abu Ameen track because much of it had been destroyed by new buildings in the course of Ramallah's expansion to the northwest. Added to this was the fact that the Jewish settlers from Dolev and Beit Eil had raised money to build a bypass road through our hills and valleys, going over private Palestinian lands to connect their two settlements. This badly designed private road caused much damage to the hills and obstructed the passage of water through the wadi. It also destroyed a number of the springs and many unique rock formations, among them a beautiful cliff studded with cyclamens that I often stopped to admire.
As to the valley to the south where I found the dinosaur footprints, it was now used for target practice by members of the Palestinian security forces. At night one could hear the staccato dribble of their guns. Its access to A'yn Qenya was also blocked by the army post on the hillock owned by the Rabah family about 550 yards down from the Yad Yair military outpost.
So I decided to consult a map of the hills. I had to. It was not a practice I would have chosen, for it implied submission to others, the makers of the maps, with their ideological biases. I would much rather have exercised the freedom of going by the map inside my head, signposted by historical memories and references: this area where Abu Ameen has his qasr, that rock where Jonathan and I stopped and had a long talk. That hill over which Penny and I had a memorable walk. But I had no choice. To find a track I could take that was without settlers or practice shooters or army posts or settler bypass roads had become a real challenge.
I was finally able to work out a route. I would take a taxi and travel north toward Birzeit through area B, which Palestinians could still enter without a permit from the Israeli army. Just before reaching the university campus I would ask the taxi to take a left turn and travel east to the village of Mizra'a Qibliya. There he would drop me. I still had to risk going into area C but I had found a path that avoided army posts, bypasses and Jewish settlements. I would walk down in a southwesterly direction to avoid the settlement of Talmon and its new daughter settlements: Harasha, Horesh Yaron, Nahlei Tal and Zayit Ra'anan. Then down to the A'yn Qenya spring. Walk in a northerly direction in the valley, then circle back to Ramallah avoiding Yad Yair and the other army post on Jabal Kwa'a.
When the taxi reached Mizra'a I asked the driver to take me up the hill.
"To Harasha?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, my heart pounding at hearing the name. I was driven up a steep incline to where there was a copse of pine trees.
"Here it is," the driver said. "Is this where you want to be dropped?" I could tell he was wondering what business I could possibly have there.
I found myself all alone in a land that might have once resembled Abu Ameen's. A green pine stood with a spring nearby high up on the hill next to a cultivated orchard. My spirits revived. I felt empowered by the memory of Abu Ameen and his much different times. I did not care what happened to me, I was going to enjoy my walk in the hills. I continued along the track, which I easily found, going south and climbing still higher until I got to 'raq El Khanouq, the escarpment overlooking Wadi Dalb. It was too high and vertiginous for me to descend. Instead I continued walking northward until I got to the gully and found a track that was steep but made gorgeous by the view it offered of the valley below with its wide swath of green and the water flowing in its midst shimmering in the mid-morning light. I could not get over how unusual it was to see a green valley with a brook in these dry hills. My heart leaped. I almost ran down the path but thought better of it and, out of kindness to my knees, I slowed down. I felt secure enough on this track and intended to continue on it until I got to the cultivated fields southeast of A'yn Qenya.
Just as I reached the water I realized that someone else was already there. I noticed him from the corner of my eye. I did not look directly at him. I did not want to allow him to disturb my peace. But I knew he was there and that he was an Israeli settler.
It was then that I noticed a strong, unusual smell. I realized it was that of hashish mixed with another more potent substance that I could not identify. When I arrived, the settler was busy preparing his nergila (water pipe or hubble-bubble), on a flat rock right next to the stream. He was surprised by my unexpected entry into his private little enclave and stopped what he was doing. He must have realized that I was aware of his illicit activity. He could not be immediately certain who I was: perhaps an Israeli, a man of the law, someone who could arrest him for smoking the forbidden weed. But of course he had the authority: he was the law. He also had a gun. And a settler can shoot at a Palestinian with impunity.
I took a careful look at his face. It was narrow with a prominent nose and kind intelligent eyes. He had long straight brown hair that reached down to his shoulders falling on both sides of his head like a scarf. He was clearly an Israeli settler, as I had assumed from the start. But I didn't want to judge him. I wanted to be on my way. Without uttering a word I concentrated on choosing the best stepping stones to ford the brook. I almost got to the other side when I heard him call, in Hebrew:
"Your hat. You've dropped your hat."
He had a soft, kind voice. Still, I was surprised to be accosted by the settler. I had somehow not expected it, and was hoping to just slip by, unseen, unseeing, each to his own. But this was not to be. Not any more, not in the Palestinian hills in the spring of 2006.
My hat was going downstream, quickly. I crouched to get it but couldn't. I saw it floating and bobbing over the rocks. The Israeli rushed after it. He was younger and more nimble than I. He caught it. He stood there holding it toward me. My gaze wandered from him to the rock where he had balanced his nergila and where his gun also rested. His eyes followed mine and I saw him stiffen, evidently trying to decide between running to the gun and giving me my hat. I didn't move. I was curious which way he would go. He could not be sure whether I was Palestinian or Israeli. Now using English I said:
"Your gun is out of place, leaning against that rock. Don't you think?"
He didn't speak. Perhaps he didn't understand my English. I rephrased what I said:
"This beautiful day and the gun don't go together."
After a brief silence he spoke. He was almost apologetic, which is most untypical of an Israeli. He said:
"I know but I have to."
"Where did you come from?"
"You live there?"
Looking at the nergila I asked rather pointedly: "Do you come here frequently?" I was wondering whether he often ran away from home to smoke his dope in private, whether our hills now served as refuge for young Israeli settlers indulging in illicit practices.
"It's my favorite spot," he answered.
Of course, I thought. A perfect hideout. I could tell the young man wanted me gone so that he could get on with his preparations for the smoke.
"Aren't you afraid of being here alone?"
"Afraid? Why should I be? I've done no evil to anyone."
Done no evil, I thought, after all the land he and his people have stolen, after destroying our life for so long.
"Why then carry a gun?"
"I'm supposed to."
"How convenient for you to live so close to this valley. You just walk down the hill and you're here."
"I come here to be alone," the settler said pointedly.
I caught the innuendo but I was not going to go away and leave him now without trying to find out a few things about this unwelcome neighbor of mine.
"Were you born in Dolev?"
"No, but my parents moved here when I was five."
"When was that?"
"You're still doing army duty?"
"I finished. I'm a fireman."
"You can't have too many fires in Dolev. It's a small community."
"I work at the Lod Industrial Park. What about you? Where do you come from?"
I thought of giving him the nondescript answer Rema gave the settlers in Wadi Qelt: "From here," but decided to tell him the truth. "Ramallah," I answered.
"I suspected you were an Arab but was not sure. Arabs don't walk."
"How do you know that? Are you acquainted with many Arabs?"
"No. None at all."
"Then how did you come upon that conclusion?"
"Just from watching the village people nearby. I never see them taking walks or sitting by the water."
"Perhaps because they're afraid?"
"Why should they be afraid?"
"Because of you."
"Yes. Aren't you carrying a gun?"
"I wish I wasn't. It's heavy and it's a burden. But as I said, I have to."
I couldn't help saying: "I suppose you do" in a heavily sarcastic voice though I regretted doing so almost immediately. I was inviting a fight when I had no stomach or inclination to get into one.
"What do you mean?" the settler snapped.
"To protect the land you've taken from us," I said in a matter-of-fact way, resigned to what was coming.
"We didn't take anyone's land. Dolev is built entirely on public land."
"Assuming it is, why should you be the only beneficiaries?"
"Because it was promised to us. All of Eretz Israel is ours."
"And where do you propose we live?"
"You have your place; we have ours."
"But you're constantly expanding and taking more land. There's hardly any left to build our state."
"Why do you need another state? You already have twenty-one Arab states. We've only got one."
I found myself wanting to go. Run away. Get on with my walk. I didn't want to hear more. What had I got myself into? This young man had internalized the official propaganda and was just parroting it. Why should I spoil my walk by listening to such annoying nonsense?
"Can't you think for yourself?" I blurted, reprimanding this youngster despite my earlier resolution not to get into a fight with him. "Can you only repeat what you've been told?"
He looked at me with an expression of shock and defiance. He was not going to take this. Good, I thought, perhaps now I will get some real emotions and honest thought.
"Did you know that this land you're on has been declared a nature reserve? We are protecting this spot. Except for us it would have been ruined. As a walker you should appreciate this."
I couldn't believe it. I said: "You're protecting our land? After all the damage your bulldozers have done digging highways in these hills, pouring concrete to build settlements, you claim to be preserving this land?"
"No one is allowed to build here anymore. Or destroy the paths or pick wildflowers. Without these regulations this beautiful spot would be ruined."
"Let me tell you how things looked when this was truly a nature park. Before you came and spoiled it all. You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years."
"Nothing can remain untouched for hundreds of years. Progress is inevitable. You would have done the same as we are doing. Only you lacked the material and technical resources to connect these distant areas to power and service them with water and electricity. Look at the villagers here, your fellow Arabs. They still have to fetch their water from the spring. I see them trudging every morning with their heavy buckets. It must be a hell of a life without running water. And look at the areas where your people come for picnics farther upstream. They are rubbish dumps full of plastic bags and disposable plates and cups and chicken bones left from their barbecues. You lack the know-how and the discipline. Leave planning and law enforcement to us. We have built many towns and cities out of wild empty areas. Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes and look how vibrant it is today. The same will happen here."
"I love these hills no less than you. I was raised here. The sights and smells of this land are a sacred part of me. I am not happy anywhere else. Every time I leave I cannot wait to get back. This is my home."
"What do you call this wadi?"
"And the spring?"
"After the plane tree. You pronounce it Dolev, we say Dalb."
"Isn't it glorious in spring?"
"This one in particular."
"Yes. There was more water this year than ever."
"So unusual for this part of the country."
"It's very peaceful here."
"This too is unusual."
"Where're you heading?"
"No particular place. I came to see what is happening to the valley. It's been awhile since I walked."
"I too love walking. I do a lot of it around these hills."
I held my breath. I wanted to blurt out all the curses I had ever learned: You...you...who've taken my land and now walk it as master, leaving me to walk as a criminal on a few restricted paths. But this time I held my tongue.
"Would you put out a fire in Ramallah?" I asked.
"You have your own firemen, I suppose."
"What if they couldn't cope and they called you?"
"Could you guarantee I would not be lynched?"
"We're not exactly savages, as you could find out if you visited. Have you ever been to Ramallah? It's just a few minutes away by car."
"No, not as an adult."
"As a child?"
"Yes. We used to pass through the city to get to our school in Beit Eil. But I don't remember a thing. The only memory I have is of when we were stoned and the fierce, awful face of that Arab who threw the rock at us. All wrapped up except for the eyes. He flung that stone with such anger and hatred. I felt all this in its impact on the glass. Nothing broke. None of us were injured but it destroyed something inside me, perhaps forever. This was much worse than if we had been physically injured by broken glass. Then I would have healed. I was so afraid. I cried all the way to school. Not because of what my teachers thought, not because of the rock, but because I could not understand why the Arabs hate us so much. When we got to school I asked the teacher why."
"And what did she answer?"
"Because they are bad people," she said, "and they hate Jews. This is why we have to be strong to defend ourselves."
"And you still think this?"
"I have very little to do with Arabs. Now we have our own roads."
"The valley road?"
"No. We stopped using that one."
"You dug our hills for nothing."
"Building roads is progress, not destruction."
If only he knew what the presence of that road now used by the army has meant to me. But I wasn't going to tell him. I didn't think he would understand.
"You are aware, I hope, that your presence here means perpetual war."
"Because you've taken our land and refuse to even recognize the fact."
"Let's say we give it back: What guarantee would we have that you won't ask to get back Jaffa and Haifa?"
"What about international law?"
"It's for the weak."
"It's a marker of a better, more civilized world."
"I went to the army for three years. I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will just have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence."
"Independence from whom?"
"But they came to take our country from us and give it to you. Haven't you read the terms of the Mandate?"
"They restricted us. They wouldn't allow the immigrants to come. They wanted us to have only a tiny piece of the country. Israel would not have been a viable state. We had to get rid of them to run our own affairs, to be able to welcome here any Jew from anywhere in the world without anyone telling us not to."
"Will you pay compensation for the properties you took in '48?"
"If you pay for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen."
"What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen? Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I'm concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases."
"They're Arab, aren't they?"
"You're just repeating what you've been told. If you just think about what you're saying you'd realize how ludicrous it is. Let's say we accept that you keep your settlements, would you be willing to be confined to the built up areas?"
"You want to turn us into ghettoes in our own land. We've been through that in Europe. Never again."
"Then if you want to expand over the entire land will you allow us to buy or rent in your settlements?"
"No. These are areas for Jews."
"Let us assume that your settlements are built on what you call public not private land. What people would agree to have areas of their country carved out and given to members of another nation and not even be allowed to share the land?"
"But you're not a nation. You never had your own government."
"Are you going to repeat the famous position of Golda Meir, that we Palestinians do not exist?"
"No. I didn't say that. I know you exist. I can see you standing before me. And I know you are not Israeli. You exist, sure enough. But you don't have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel."
"And you did?"
"Yes, we had a kingdom right here in Judea."
"That was more than three thousand years ago."
"So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?"
"It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It's the only country we've got. And you want us to give it up?"
"You want the whole of the land to yourself and you're not even ready to share it. Don't you think this is discriminatory?"
"What's discriminatory about it? What's wrong with what we're doing? You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas."
"I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came. I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete."
"And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for every thing, don't you? But it doesn't matter. We've learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We've long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here."
There was little to say after this. But I made one last effort to alert him to what was being done to the land by those who claimed to love it. I said:
"The way it's going we'll end up with a land that is crisscrossed with roads. I have a vision of all of us going around and around in circles. Whether we call it Israel or Palestine, this land will become one big concrete maze."
He said nothing. He was still holding my wet hat. We were both standing up.
"Would you let me have my hat?" I asked. "I want to continue with my walk."
He stepped forward. I reached out and took the hat, turned my back and began walking. I could feel the settler's presence with his gun behind me. Then I heard him calling after me to stop. It felt more like an order which the law, his law, gave him the power to enforce. I feared for the worse. But when I turned around I realized he was not threatening me. Instead, he gestured at his nergila.
"Would you like to smoke with me?" he asked.
I was taken aback by his offer. But I knew from experience that often the first impulse is the best one to follow and my intuition on this occasion was not to refuse.
I found myself a comfortable stone, and stretched my legs toward the water next to this settler on the bank of the little stream we each call by the same name, after the same tree, pronounced in our different ways, and accepted the nergila.
As the strong stuff began to take effect, the memory of another sarha in these same hills came flooding back to me. That time I was with my friend Bishara in Wadi El Wrda at dusk. We sat on rocks by A'yn El Lwza below the cyclamen rock, not far from here. We had taken a long and satisfying walk and were resting before turning back. The sun was setting, the shadows cast by boulders were growing longer and denser. The colors were changing, transforming the hills we knew so well into a more muted world that we felt we had all to ourselves. Crossing our field of vision, like a phantom of the approaching doom, came a short man who was walking with long deliberate strides as though he was taking measurements. In the clarity of the moment I suspected the worst, tidings of a terrible future for our beautiful hills. A short time after this, work began on the settler road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, which passed along the exact path this man had traversed. He must have been working for the Arab contractor who executed the work on behalf of the settlers. The hills were never the same after that.
We passed the mouthpiece between us and the smoke gurgled through the water. I inhaled and listened to the soft murmur of the stream as it slipped through the rocks and the birds singing and all the sounds and sights that I had blocked out. I began to feel guilty at what I was doing, willingly, sharing these hills with this settler. But then I thought: these are still my hills despite how things are turning out. But they also belong to whoever can appreciate them. If I postpone my enjoyment of them I might never achieve the sarha that I have sought for so long. As the Arab poet who was berated for drinking wine after the murder of his father said: Al Yawm khamr wa ghadan imr ("Today the wine; tomorrow is another day").
All the tension of the times, the worry about going through area C, the likely prospect of encountering soldiers or settlers, or getting shot at or lost, was evaporating. With every new draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it.
This young man was an artist at preparing a good nergila, I thought. He had talent.
"What's in this?" I asked.
"It's hashish that has been opiated."
I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land. Shots could be heard in the distance, which made us both shiver. "Yours or ours?" I asked. But how could we tell? We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks.
Copyright © 2007 by Raja Shehadeh
Table of Contents
WALK 1: The Pale God of the Hills
WALK 2: The Albina Case
WALK 3: Illusory Portals
WALK 4: Monasteries in the Desert
WALK 5: And How Did You Get Over It?
WALK 6: An Imagined Sarha
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