Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reading While the Bombs Still Drop

Gaza's still happening. You can find it all over the news.

This post, though, I want to step back from the horrors of what's going on there (I'm lucky enough to be able to do that) and look at the more general issue of Palestine.

In between work and keeping an eye on the news in Gaza, I've been reading a book by Raja Shehadeh, called Palestinian Walks. The book documents seven walks that the author took in the hills of Palestine over the last few decades. Shehadeh describes the land he's spent his whole life living in, which serves as a bridge into his memory and his Palestinian identity.

It takes very little to trigger the shift in Shehadeh's thoughts. On one walk, he comes across a qasr, a traditional stone dwelling of Palestinian farmers. This takes him back to memories of his grandfather's cousin, Abu Ameen. On another, Shehadeh is looking for a tree under which he can read, and a whiff of pine tree odour gets him started on a mental conversation about the emergence of modern colonialism in Palestine.

I think what I like most about Shehadeh's book is how he tries to show us Palestine for what it is, not as some imagined place that he read or heard about. He describes this idea better than I could hope to. I leave you with excerpts of Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks (pp. xii-xiv) below:

Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travellers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travellers' imaginations. Palestine has been constantly re-invented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps or the travellers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were but the confirmation of the viewer's or reader's religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition ...

I like to think of my relationship to the land, where I have always lived, as immediate and not experienced through the veil of words written about it, often replete with distortions.

And yet it is in the unavoidable context of such literature that I write my own account of the land and of the contemporary culture of 'fear and blood, crime and punishment' that blot its beauty. Perhaps many will also read this book against the background of the grim images on their television screens. They might experience a dissonant moment as they read about the beautiful countryside in which the seven walks in this book take place: could the land of such perpetual strife and bloodshed have such peaceful, precious hills? Still, I hope the reader of this book will put all this aside and approach it with an open mind. I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century.