Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape

Don George in National Geographic:

Palestinian_walks_coverWhat comes to mind when you hear the word “Ramallah”? Probably not gazelles, white asphodel, and a dinosaur footprint—but those are among the attributes we first meet in this illuminating new book.

Palestinian Walks presents six sarhat—aimless wanderings designed to nourish the soul and rejuvenate the self—taken in the hills around Ramallah and the nearby wadis of the Jerusalem wilderness and the ravines by the Dead Sea from 1978 to 2006. Author and human-rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh has lived in Ramallah his entire life, and his account is imbued with a quiet passion to preserve—in memory if not in fact —this wild landscape that has been increasingly demarcated and developed before his eyes.

The book begins with a transporting walk to his family’s palatial country qasr (stone structure). The scenery in the surrounding hills is wild, unkempt, free. In subsequent chapter-walks, as the years go by, the hills become increasingly hemmed in by Jewish settlements. Where old roads amble along the contours of the land, new highways are blasted straight through; once wide open spaces are covered with concrete buildings. Still, Shehadeh continues to pursue pilgrimages of solace and serenity in the wild hills.

As the natural landscape changes, the contours of Israel–Palestine relations changes as well, and Shehadeh records this evolution too. Initially an idealistic lawyer battling to save what he feels are legitimate Palestinian claims to land, he becomes embittered as case after case is decided against his clients. Honest people disagree profoundly over the history, legitimacies, and injustices in this region. What I love about this book is that it reveals a side of the region that we never hear about; it builds natural and human connections to Ramallah that will forever change what I imagine when I hear the word on TV or read about it in the news.

The other gift of this book is how it illuminates the way landscapes become part of people and help define them. I grew up taking my own New England sarhat in the woods behind my Connecticut home, and now I feel like the rocks, bare fall branches, and green spring buds are a part of me wherever I am.

The sense of love and loss that permeates this poignant book transcends the brambly politics of the region, and Shehadeh’s deeply felt accounts become lessons for us all on the fundamental value of unbridled nature in the landscape of our lives.