Abby Aguirre
The New York Times
August 13, 2008 - 4:28pm

RAMALLAH, West Bank — There is an Arabic word for Raja Shehadeh’s pastime.

“Sarha is to roam freely, at will, without restraint,” he writes in “Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape,” an account of six walks in the West Bank, which won this year’s Orwell Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent award for political writing, and was published by Scribner in the United States in June. “A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place.”

Of course, it is difficult not to be restricted by time and place in the occupied territories, where movement is everyday more limited by a growing number of Israeli-built fences, walls, barriers, checkpoints, settlements and the separate roads constructed to link them. But Mr. Shehadeh — a lawyer and founder of Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, who apart from a sojourn in London for law school has lived his entire life in Ramallah — still tries.

One recent walk began on the side of a road near the village of Ein Sinya, a short drive from the city center. Mr. Shehadeh took measured steps down a trail lined with sage, Syrian thistle, flowering oregano and wild artichoke. On either side rose limestone-buttressed terraces of olive trees.

“We have an exquisite quality of light here,” he said, motioning to the surrounding buttes.

The bucolic landscape is scarcely the West Bank of popular imagination. It was with that prevailing impression in mind that Mr. Shehadeh set out to write the book — to put on paper his experience of the place, mediated neither by historical imagination nor by images in the news, for readers who think of it only in terms of conflict and violence.

In the book, though, one walk is interrupted when Mr. Shehadeh’s 10-year-old nephew picks up an unexploded missile; another when he and his wife come under prolonged gunfire from the Palestinian police. The six walks, from 1978 to 2006, become more fraught over time.

Not far into the valley the trail came to and then ran alongside a tall limestone bluff that resembled a cresting wave. Midway down was a constellation of Arabic words spray-painted on the rock. Mr. Shehadeh stopped and read them aloud: “Ahmad, Aqel, Jojoo, Anas, Nidal, Kamal — Raja!”

Pleased at the sight of Palestinian names grafted on the land, Mr. Shehadeh continued down the trail. After a switchback and past a small cave, he came upon an igloo-shaped stone structure called a qasr — a type of dwelling where farmers once lived, storing their olives inside and sleeping on the roof.

“This one is quite well preserved,” he said, “like that of Abu Ameen.” Mr. Ameen, a cousin of Mr. Shehadeh’s grandfather, was a stonemason who lived in a qasr, the author’s discovery of which makes up the book’s first chapter.

Mr. Shehadeh’s grandfather, Saleem, was a judge in the courts of British Mandate Palestine. His father, Aziz, was a lawyer too. (One of the first Palestinians to advocate a two-state solution publicly, Aziz Shehadeh was stabbed to death in the family’s driveway in 1985. The case was never solved.) Mr. Ameen represents the side of the Shehadeh family that did not join the professional class, and a life of ultimate sarha.

Beyond a long rock ledge was another hill of terraces. Mr. Shehadeh preferred not to tread on the fields, as they were freshly plowed, or scale up the retaining walls, for fear of eroding them. He turned around.

“Natsh,” he said, pointing at a wiry, thorny thistle alongside the trail.

Thought by some to have been the material used for Jesus’ crown of thorns in the Bible, natsh has in recent years been put to a contemporary use. Mr. Shehadeh’s work as a lawyer has primarily involved defending Palestinians in Israel’s military land courts, where, he recounts in the book, natsh is often cited as evidence that a particular plot of land is untilled and thus unoccupied.

As Mr. Shehadeh navigated through the natsh, a herd of goats and a shepherd came wandering over the hilltop and started down the incline, rounding switchbacks single file and then flooding into the fields.

“Peace be with you,” Mr. Shehadeh said in Arabic.

“And on you be peace,” the man responded.

Halfway up the slope, his face pink from the climb, Mr. Shehadeh stopped to survey the westward view: gently overlapping ridges, more terraces, more olive groves and, dotting the hillsides, clusters of flat-roofed stone buildings: Palestinian villages.

“Jefna, Birzeit, Atara,” he said, naming each village, as well as a Palestinian refugee camp — “Jalazon” — in their midst. “See how the light shines on the limestone?”

Spilling around the southernmost ridge in Mr. Shehadeh’s line of view were also orderly rows of red-slanted rooftops, unmistakably those of an Israeli settlement. Asked the name, Mr. Shehadeh’s voice fell.

“Beit El,” he said, adding, after a pause, “On walks, I try not to see those.”

Finding walks in Ramallah on which an Israeli settlement cannot be seen is nearly impossible. There are roughly 130 settlements and outposts in the West Bank and about a dozen in the Ramallah area. They remain one of the most contentious matters of the conflict, and for Palestinians who hike, a source of considerable vexation. Mr. Shehadeh, a Christian, says he cannot count the number of times his hikes have been halted by settlers, some armed, who will not accept as an explanation for his presence in the hills that he is simply on a walk.

But Beit El was far enough in the distance that one could make out neither its bunkers nor its coils of razor wire. Mr. Shehadeh’s attention drifted and became fixed on something in the dirt. He brightened and leaned over to pick it up. It was a shard of brown pottery.

“Probably from Roman times,” he said, placing it back on the ground.

Atop the hill and along its northeastern face stood mounds and walls of limestone blocks, once the towers and vaulted chambers of a 12th-century Crusader castle. Mr. Shehadeh laid down a blanket and ate a breakfast of flatbread, goat cheese, tomatoes and olives. Dessert was cactus fruit cut from hardy, paddle-shaped leaves growing out of rubble nearby.

“Bite slowly,” he instructed. “There are many seeds.”

The site overlooked to the north the old road to Nablus, now impassable. To get to Nablus one must follow a circuitous route that circumnavigates hills to the east, adding hours to what was once a 30-minute drive — if one is Palestinian. Israelis may use newer, more direct roads. Mr. Shehadeh in the book saves his harshest judgments for this spreading web of segregated highways, built after anti-Israel attacks.

“Whether we call it Israel or Palestine, this land will become one big concrete maze,” he writes.

His eye wandered to a hunk of limestone in the dirt. It was a fossil, with lines fanning out from its center. He inspected the grooves.

“From when this was a sea floor,” he said.

The finding was appropriate, Mr. Shehadeh having explained earlier that one of the few comforts available to those living through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just a long view, but a geologic one.

“Eventually nature overpowers all of us,” he said. “The crusaders were here for hundreds of years, and what is left of them is stones. Plants grow, and nature takes over. We are small dots in the continuum of time.”

It was now close to 11 a.m., and the sun was punishing. Mr. Shehadeh prefers in the summer to be off the hills before the heat becomes too wilting, so he made a hard right down the descent.

He encountered the road just south of where it forked in two directions. Splintering to the left was the old way to Nablus, now a dirt path obstructed by concrete blocks. Traffic heading north was thus diverted to the right, through a string of villages, two checkpoints and, finally, to a barrier, where Palestinians may park, cross another checkpoint on foot and, if needed, continue on by bus.

But Mr. Shehadeh was not headed north. He waited a while in the shade for a southbound bus, and was soon flying along the winding road back to Ramallah. His window rolled down, he said nothing. He appeared not to be thinking about the blocked road or of the settlements, more of which were now popping into view.

Nor did he seem to be thinking of the three English words that had appeared next to the Arabic names near the trailhead, the only writing on the rock he had not read aloud. “Time is pain,” it said.


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