Neil Berry
Arab News
August 18, 2010 - 12:00am

“Lawrence of Arabia” was typical of the British imperial class in expecting that they would “make the desert bloom”. He was typical of it, too, for all his romanticizing of the Arab world, in nursing no such expectation of Palestine’s “existing inhabitants”.

The Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh believes that far from being a nurturing force, Zionism resulted in the rape of Palestine — and not just because the creation of Israel entailed the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 native Palestinians. In his quietly furious new book “A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle”, he has much to say about the ravaging at Israeli hands of the very physical environment of Palestine. A lifelong resident of Ramallah, Shehadeh records how in draining Galilee’s Huleh marsh in the early 1950s Israel destroyed an “ecological treasure chest” that had boasted the greatest concentration of aquatic plants in the Middle East, not to mention 18 species of fish and scores of migratory birds. Today all that survives of the marsh is a small lake that is overpumped to serve heavily water-dependent Israeli farming that makes no sense in a country with scarce water resources.

Such reflections punctuate a narrative that retraces the wanderings through Ottoman Palestine of his great uncle, the maverick journalist Najib Nassar, who because of his opposition to Turkish backing of Germany during World War I was forced to flee his home in Haifa and lead a fugitive existence. Evoking a figure of extraordinary moral and intellectual independence, Shehadeh also evokes a vanished landscape, a Palestine whose ancient villages were largely obliterated by the Israeli state after 1948, along with many others of its distinctive features. His book is an exercise in imaginative reconstruction that is also an act of political resistance by a Palestinian who is bitterly mindful of the daily indignity of inhabiting an occupied country.

As he follows in Najib’s footsteps, journeying along the Lebanese mountains and through the Jordan Valley and the Galilee, Shehadeh, now 59, strives to visualize Palestine as it looked at the time of the Ottoman Empire when it was an integral whole. His writing is a calculated riposte to the brutal lesson that Israel has sought to teach him about his place in an ancient land following its fragmentation and drastic reshaping by the Jewish state. In words all the more telling for being understated, he conveys the harsh realities of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — the barbed wire, the settlers hitchhiking on roads forbidden to Palestinians, the military training areas, the endless checkpoints, the ever-present uncertainty of whether as a Palestinian you will be permitted to pass from one area to another — that deepen Palestinians’ sense of dispossession, causing them not just to abandon hope but to despise life itself. Shehadeh believes it is vital for Palestinians not to give in but to stop and appreciate the “beauty of our land and what it has to offer”. Therein, for him, lies the “best antidote to the Israeli campaign of despair and alienation”.

Shehadeh’s fascination with his great uncle’s career is bound up with the nostalgia it arouses in him for Ottoman Palestine, for a time when, notwithstanding that its people were under foreign domination, they did not feel that they had been condemned to interminable servitude. Najib, he points out, was a Christian Palestinian and an Ottoman who experienced no conflict between his two identities. After all, unlike Israel, his Ottoman world was quintessentially multiethnic — the kind of entity in fact that many Palestinians, not least Shehadeh himself, long for today.

As it happened, his great uncle was among the first to voice grave misgivings about what the Zionist project would mean for the people of Palestine. In 1911, he published a book, “Zionism: Its History, Aims and Importance”, stressing the Zionist objective of “gaining mastery over our country and the sources of our livelihood”. For Najib (who was treated leniently when, after wearying of his fugitive existence, he gave himself up to the Ottoman authorities), the point about Ottoman rule was that it had never been especially onerous. “The hand clutching our throats”, he observed, “might be coarse but it is not an iron grip....if we should be gripped by a European hand it will surely be bronze even if it wore a silk glove”.

The prescient Najib would hardly be surprised at the ruthless way Israel has sought to achieve perpetual dominance of Palestine by placing the land itself in the exclusive ownership of the Jewish people, with 93 percent of all territory on which the country was established in 1948 and 60 percent of the West Bank occupied in 1967 registered inalienably in the name of the Israel Land Authority and the Jewish National Fund, both of which are forbidden by law from selling it to non-Jews. What consoles his great nephew is his conviction that Israel’s hegemony can only be sustained at ruinous cost. Taking the long view, Shehadeh reflects that by refusing to integrate into the region and opting to be in a permanent state of military preparedness in order to hold onto the gains it has made, Israel has imposed a burden on its people that will ultimately prove intolerable.

Shehadeh yearns for the day when his people no longer feel like strangers in their own land. To those who accuse him of dreaming an impossible dream, he might reply that exactly the same could have been said of Zionists a century ago; in many ways, Israel was a literary creation, the work of writers with a vision. “A Rift in Time” embodies its author’s fervent faith that change comes only to those who imagine a different world.


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