There are 1,001 books on walks and walking, but you don’t need to plough through very many before it becomes evident that there are less than a dozen classics authors reference or quote from time and again, when they have a mind to. Pump a ‘Ten Best…’ enquiry into your search engine and you’ll find a few lurking among the raft of recommended titles that, quite honestly, don’t deserve to sit on the same shelf, but I would like to occasionally draw attention to titles that never make the lists, despite being superb reads.
So imagine one day you set off on your favourite local walk only to find, half way round, your way is blocked. A bunch of foreign nationals are building a whole new village of ugly blockhouses and dumping the crap that generates into what used to be a lovely little valley rich in wildlife. Based on a proclamation made over 3,000 years ago recorded 2,000 years ago in a book that contains as much fantasy as fact, the aliens claim ownership of the land, regardless of the legal rights of the actual owners and your public rights of way, not to mention that they happen to be in your country illegally, according to the highest court on the planet.
As fast as a house is completed, people from their nation are moving in. Their sanitation system has yet to be sorted and raw sewage now flows into another dingly dell you cherished. With only half the village occupied, human waste is already overflowing into the first lovely little valley. In time you realise this is happening all around your town. You are being surrounded by foreign strongholds, your footpaths are disappearing, you can’t get out. Like lawyer-turned-author, Raja Shehadeh, you feel increasingly trapped and time has whittled your anger down to despair and now defeat. But you refuse to lie down and can still make your voice heard. You write Palestinian Walks.
Shehadeh takes us on seven sarhat (plural of sarha, literally meaning ‘aimless stroll’) outside his home of Ramallah and waxes lyrically on the beauty of the barren hills and verdant wadies, the old shepherds’ bothies (qasr) and shambling walls built from fossil-encrusted boulders – the landscape of the Bible that Western authors like Mark Twain and Thackeray found so boringly desolate. That in itself is telling, as are the lives of the people Shehadeh knows who have farmed the hills for generations. But overlaid is the sad and harrowing story of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its seizure of Palestinian land and the despoiling of the highlands with concrete settlements, dead straight military roads, no-go areas and The Wall.
It is a fascinating, humbling read that induces anger and astonishment at the audacity of the international crime while making you deeply appreciative of your own freedom to walk and breathe in the British countryside. Shehadeh is a human rights lawyer who tried to fight Israel’s land grab using their own marshal laws in defence of his Arab clients. Time and again he lost in their courts, and he was always going to, but the loser Shehadeh most expresses fears for is his cherished Palestinian landscape.
Ironically, the Zionists who claim the land is theirs by divine right are turning the Holy Land into a social, political and environmental hellhole that stinks of shit. Meanwhile the international community sits on its hands or, in the case of America, throws billions of bucks at the fundamentalists’ cause.
* Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh (pub: Profile Books)