Lives on the Ground
A memoir is not just a record of what is remembered; it is also an account of what is seen. Nusseibeh was struck not by the fact that Oz had excised Palestinian Arabs from his childhood memories but that he'd hardly noticed their presence in the first place. As two other new memoirs make clear, such seeing (all seeing?) is a matter of choice. Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks (forthcoming in the United States from Scribner) and David Shulman's Dark Hope have received much less press than the aforementioned volumes, yet both deserve serious attention. Each is a vivid and quietly devastating testament to the necessity of looking hard--and owning up to whatever one sees.
On the gradually expanding shelf of Palestinian memoirs, Shehadeh's books deserve a special place. Since his first collection of diary entries, The Third Way, was published in 1982, he has been charting his people's plight more steadily and honestly than almost anyone. Taken together, that first collection, along with The Sealed Room, Strangers in the House, When the Birds Stopped Singing and the volume at hand are almost like chapters in the same, ongoing saga. For Shehadeh's frank, persistent and deeply grounded writing is part and parcel of a basic philosophy of staying put and bearing nonviolent witness to the difficult dailiness of Palestinian existence on the occupied West Bank. The notion of being samid, or steadfast, and remaining on the land no matter what hardships that entails is one that runs throughout all his books, becoming ever more fraught with time, as the political horizons narrow and the wall closes in. Like Nusseibeh, Shehadeh--a lawyer and human rights activist who writes in English and has both a Western degree and a foreign wife--could enjoy a much simpler life elsewhere, and many of his Palestinian colleagues, friends and relatives have made the choice to leave. But Shehadeh is a man of real principle, one who clearly believes he does the most good by enduring with dignity in the land of his birth.
Such dogged holding-on isn't a given, and part of the sober force of Shehadeh's approach comes from his willingness to admit his own uncertainty and even weakness. "In the uneasy first years of the millennium," his new book begins, "I felt that my days in Palestine were numbered. But whether Palestine or myself would slip away first was an open question." Palestinian Walks is a modest, often raw, book, conceived around a series of six rambles on which the writer, a lifelong hiker, set out over the course of several decades. Each leads him into a landscape at once tangible and imaginative. "A man going on a sarha," he explains, using the Palestinian term for the sort of walks he likes to take, "wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself."
That may sound like, well, a walk in the park--but as quickly becomes clear, a modern-day stroll through the Ramallah hills is hardly a form of escape, and Shehadeh is no mincing flâneur. While he writes in loving detail about the rock rose, the iris and the cyclamen, and lets his mind and prose meander over the stories of family and friends who have passed through these wadis and ridges over the years, his book is in large part the chronicle of a demolition job: the settlements and the wall are gobbling up his beloved land at a frightening pace. Even the thistle has been politicized. As he explains in one typically startling passage, the fact that Palestinian peasants use the poterium thorn, or natsh, for all sorts of practical purposes--as a broom or a mattress--matters little to the Israeli authorities, who have taken to using its prickly ubiquity on certain tracts of land as evidence that these plots are "uncultivated" and may therefore be appropriated for settlements. The book is full of such microcosmic atrocities, and though the small patches of flower and green that do remain seem still to lift Shehadeh's spirits, his walks also force him to contemplate the near-hopelessness brought about by the infamous "facts on the ground" that lie at the heart of the Middle East conflict. Readers more accustomed to grayish newspaper generalities about the "situation" would do well to reckon with the painful particulars of Shehadeh's account, which is at once gentle and angry, resolute and realistic.
The same could be said for Shulman's brave and often searing book, which tells another, parallel story of sumud, steadfastness. The Iowa-born Israeli Jewish professor--a world-renowned Sanskrit scholar, translator from Tamil and Telugu, husband, father, grandfather, former medic in the Israeli army and 1987 MacArthur fellow--is not, by his own account, a natural activist. He is someone who made the choice as a young man to live in Israel because he had "fallen in love with the Hebrew language." Yet after the 1977 electoral victory of Menachem Begin's Likud Party, he found himself watching "in horror as Israel rapidly transformed itself into a paranoid, smug, and rather violent ghetto." Things have gotten much worse since, and at a certain stage, Shulman felt he could no longer stand off to the side--for the sake of the Palestinians and for that of Israel, Judaism and maybe even humanity itself. ("Hell is realizing that one did not help when one could have," reads the book's epigraph.)
Dark Hope is a diary of his work, from 2002 to 2006, with Ta'ayush, the Palestinian-Israeli group that has taken up the most difficult and dangerous hands-on work of peacemaking: it brings convoys of medicine and food into the West Bank and helps Palestinian farmers harvest their wheat and olives, its members often placing themselves physically between groups of wild-eyed gun-toting settlers and Palestinian peasants simply trying to sow their fields. Like Shehadeh's book, Shulman's offers the record of a thousand piercing particulars, indignities too "small" to make the headlines but when taken together point directly to a systematic policy of injustice of the largest and most appalling dimensions. It is, indeed, this sense of skewed scale--the activists' humble gestures pitted against a huge military-ideological machine--that makes the book so wrenching. (Reading Nusseibeh's and Shulman's books back to back, one is left with little doubt that the Israeli government and army consider nonviolent activists much more threatening than terrorists.)
In patient and often heartbreaking detail, Shulman charts the brutal police assault that the activists must endure on the cold winter day when they commit the high crime of attempting to deliver blankets to the Palestinian cave dwellers south of Hebron; the grotesquely symbolic morning they spend trying to gather up the vast quantities of rat poison pellets that settlers have deliberately spread throughout Palestinian fields (sheep and deer have begun to die, and the poison may already be present in the milk the peasants drink); a vicious physical attack by settlers on a Ta'ayush group that has come to the village of Twaneh to help the peasants plow. In this instance, an enraged settler wearing a skullcap and ritual fringe hurls Shulman to the ground and punches him "before moving on to his next target." Shulman writes:
I feel pain, surprise, fear, rage. What is worse, I have seen their faces up close, and it is perhaps the most unsettling vision I have ever taken in, one I will later try to blot out, for these are not the faces of the usual human mix of good and evil, of confusion and clarity, of love and hate; the eyes are mad, killers' eyes--it is like looking at something utterly demonic, something from the world of myth. We are staring not into an abyss--for all is here on the surface, present, evident, and horrible--but into a volatile vortex of pure hate. I have no doubt they will kill us if they can. They seem to hate us, the leftist traitors, even more than they hate their Palestinian victims.
This is vintage Shulman: at once focused keenly on the situation (dramatic, moral, sensory) in which he finds himself yet also attuned with a kind of fierce precision to his inner shifts and starts. And the author is just as likely to question himself and his own motivation as he is to doubt the wisdom of the Israeli High Court.
Beautifully written and emphatic in its calm insistence on the need to take both responsibility and action, Dark Hope is notable not just for the bleak picture it paints of the nightmare that the settlers and their sponsors, the Israeli government, have brought to millions of Palestinians but also, as its title suggests, for the faith it places in a basic human decency and in the belief that there must be another way. It is essential reading for anyone who wants--or hopes, however darkly--to grasp the lay of this punished land.