Dispatches from Ramallah

Occupation Diaries, by Raja Shehadeh, Profile, RRP£12.99, 256 pages

With his Occupation Diaries, Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh continues a family tradition handed down to him by his mother Widad, who kept a record of her youth in the ancient port city of Jaffa. The contrast between Widad’s carefree existence in the 1940s and Shehadeh’s often desperate account of life in the West Bank in the two years leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood in September 2011 could not be more glaring.

Where Widad wrote about a cheerful drunken marriage, a shopping trip to Tel Aviv and putting on a play at her all-girls boarding school, Shehadeh is busy recording attacks on Palestinian olive pickers, humiliating searches at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and his sense of injustice at having to live in a place where there is one road for Jewish settlers, one for Palestinians and a third for Israeli military vehicles patrolling the West Bank separation wall.

Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer and the eldest son of a well-to-do Palestinian Christian family, first came to prominence in 2002 with his poignant memoir Strangers in the House, about growing up in the occupied territories. He won the Orwell Prize in 2008 for Palestinian Walks, which drew on diaries he kept of journeys in the hills around Ramallah, where he was born and continues to live

Shehadeh, who recently turned 60, uses the diary form not only to vent his frustrations with Israel’s settlements policy but also to celebrate the resilience of ordinary Palestinians. The entries range from short snippets to 10-page meditations, such as one in which he explores the once-bustling Grand Hotel – “the only part of Ramallah that has remained frozen in time”.

This passage, dated July 19 2010, brings together all of Shehadeh’s gifts as a writer. The scene in the hotel’s garden is intricately set, enriched by his deep knowledge of the local flora and wildlife. He recalls the time when Ramallah was under Jordanian rule and the king of Jordan and his entourage would lunch at the hotel while enjoying the music on the bandstand; later he tells of his own “heart-thumping” excitement at being admitted for the first time.

For Shehadeh, one of the greatest tragedies of the occupation that followed the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was that it fostered a more polarised society. Before then Jews, Muslims and Christians often participated in each other’s religious festivals in a climate of mutual appreciation – something he now finds unimaginable.

Shehadeh notes how his own better instincts are also under siege. Several times he chides himself for growing annoyed when he hears someone speaking Hebrew on the other end of the telephone. He rails at his dead father Aziz, himself a lawyer who was memorably brought to life in Strangers in the House. Aziz, who was murdered in 1985 (Shehadeh alleges that it was covered up by Israeli police), spent many years trying to reconcile Jewish and Palestinian interests, particularly over land issues. “You gave up your life to hopeless causes and left mother a widow and your children orphaned,” Shehadeh laments.

The sadness would be all-consuming were it not for Shehadeh’s determination to keep finding reasons for hope. In a remote village in the Judaean Mountains he meets Hafez Hereini, an enterprising 40-year-old activist who leads a community of Palestinian sheep farmers who have managed to extend their holdings in spite of constant harassment. Shehadeh asks Hereini why, with their limited resources, the villagers have not simply given up and moved on. The activist replies: “We have no choice. This is all we have. Where could we go?”

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