“All my life I have lived in houses that overlook the Ramallah hills,” writes the Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh. This simple statement speaks volumes. It suggests the difficult achievement, for any Palestinian, of finding a fixed and livable position within the occupied territories. The verb “overlook” also encapsulates Shehadeh’s own role as witness and guardian. He is determined to keep his eyes wide open, trained on the horizon, looking for future openings and alternatives.
Shehadeh’s effort to find an opening with his Israeli neighbors is the subject of his latest book, Where the Line Is Drawn. As a pioneering human-rights lawyer, a writer, and an avid walker, Shehadeh has dedicated his life to exploring and exposing the landscape of the Israeli occupation. He has struggled to stay put, but also to be free—free of bitterness and delusion, of family expectations and the burdens of history, of hopelessness in the face of the settlements that today ring Ramallah like a “noose.” All of Shehadeh’s writing concerns how to find one’s footing on this splintered terrain, how to make one’s home in a world of loss.
Shehadeh’s family hails from Ramallah, but they had relocated to the more sophisticated seaside town of Jaffa, where his father, Aziz, worked as a lawyer and his mother’s family owned a hotel. In 1948, the Shehadehs, fearing the violence that would follow the UN-mandated partition of Palestine, closed up their apartment and returned to Ramallah. They expected to be there for only a few weeks, but they wound up joining the 30,000 refugees who were stranded in the city in the wake of the 1948 war. Raja Shehadeh was born there in 1951. For decades, his family remained focused on the life they had left behind. At night, Shehadeh recalled in his 2002 memoir, Strangers in the House, “the glittering lights of Jaffa sparkled in the short but unreachable distance.”
After the 1967 war, Israel annexed the West Bank, and Palestinians were allowed to visit the towns they had fled 20 years before. In an act of great literary conjuring—and one of the most memorable passages in Strangers in the House—Shehadeh reconstructs his father’s return to Jaffa. In a car with an Israeli friend, Aziz traveled down to the coastal plain: “As it opened up my father felt his heart open with it.” Aziz recognized the turns in the road, the views, the eucalyptus trees planted by the British, the citrus orchards surrounding the city. But once in Jaffa, he discovered how much the city had changed. The courthouse had been demolished and the cinema closed; the Ottoman clock in the center of the square had stopped running. “His house, his office, his favourite haunts, the shop where he had sandwiches for lunch, the newspaper stand, the little public garden…were all lost to memory,” Shehadeh writes.