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Raja Shehadeh’s new memoir joins a growing list of literary works on Palestinian life before Israel. But do they tell the whole story?

Daniella Cheslow
December 29, 2010
Almond tree in blossom in Palestine, circa 1920.(Library of Congress)
Almond tree in blossom in Palestine, circa 1920.(Library of Congress)

While many Palestinians feel frustration with Israel, few can capture their vitriol with the panache of Ramallah’s Raja Shehadeh. In his sixth book, A Rift in Time: Travels With My Ottoman Uncle, Shehadeh gazes at Tiberias, in northern Israel, and unleashes his fury over a town that was a mixed city before its Muslims and Christians left in 1948:

The mosque at the centre has gone except for the minaret, which stands forlornly alone, surrounded by ugly cement shopping malls and hotels that look like dormitories devoid of all charm. … The water in the lake is over-pumped to serve extensively heavy water-dependent farming that makes no sense in a country with limited water resources. A number of economically unsuccessful new towns have been established in the area, isolated from the natural continuation of the land to the south by the infamous semi-permeable wall, erected to separate them from the West bank, that prevents Palestinians from crossing over but allows Israelis living on both sides to go back and forth.

Shehadeh, a lawyer by profession, tours the Galilee to retrace the steps his uncle, Najib Nassar, took as he fled arrest at the hands of the Ottomans at the turn of the last century. Armed with Nassar’s diary and a 1933 map of Mandate Palestine, he searches for the villages, roads, mountains, and rivers his uncle visited while on the run across what became Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. But he finds that the last six decades have transformed the land nearly beyond recognition. Israeli historian Benny Morris estimates 400 Palestinian villages were abandoned in 1948 and were later demolished, forested, or converted into Jewish farming towns. Nearly all of the geographical features of the land were renamed from Arabic to Hebrew and subsumed in the urban sprawl typical of a Western country. The combination pushes Shehadeh to mentally excavate the visible landscape, searching for traces of Palestinian villages and people long gone.

Shehadeh is not the first to write a mournful account about the Palestine that was lost in 1948 nor to return to sites in their present-day guises. But by following his uncle’s path, Shehadeh shows how rural Palestinians lived and thought and how intimately they and their urban guest were connected to the land in the early 1900s. Quoted commentary from the celebrated British archaeologist and commander T.E. Lawrence suffuses the old landscape with vivid detail. Shehadeh adds another degree of familiarity by weaving himself into the narrative through frequent comparisons and snippets of his own political life. In his elegy for the peasant life long gone, Shehadeh challenges the view that Israel’s policies have been good for the land. On a broader level, he makes a case for rethinking the welter of borders that make his trip cumbersome and sometimes impossible.

“I have no memory of the way things were,” he said recently by phone from Ramallah. “In writing the book I explored how the land used to look. It made me sad, because it was once a mixed land with much more variety.” Is his book a call for an Ottoman revival? “I have no intent on calling for a return of the Ottoman Empire,” he said. “But I think the Ottoman Empire provides a precedent that is important to consider, when the region was unified.”


A Rift in Time opens with Shehadeh nervously facing arrest by Palestinian security officers in 1996, just after the Oslo Accords were signed. He was implicated in a client’s land deal gone wrong in Jericho. He escapes arrest through the intervention of well-connected friends, but the ordeal reminds him of his uncle, who enjoyed no such respite.

Najib Nassar, born in 1865 in southern Lebanon, moved with his family to Haifa, where he founded and edited the Al-Karmil newspaper. He was a short, outgoing, and generous man who staunchly believed in the Ottoman Empire but decried its decision to fight in World War I with the Axis powers. But the Ottomans feared Nassar had hidden loyalties to the British and put a bounty on his head. Nassar spent three years hiding in villages scattered across the region, often knocking on doors before dawn and with empty pockets. Whether or not his hosts knew him, they nearly always offered him food, a bed, a horse, and even gold coins to send him on his way. Because of this generosity, Nassar was able to evade the Ottomans until he turned himself in to spare his family.

According to Birzeit University sociologist Salim Tamari, the Palestinian memoir tradition goes back at least 100 years, to Jerusalemites who kept diaries. Khalil Sakakini, a Palestinian educator, writer, and poet who lived from 1878 to 1953, called himself the “prince of idleness” but documented both his youthful escapades and his later work in America, his attempts to reform Palestinian education, and his exile. Wasif Jawhariyyeh, who lived from 1897 to 1972, was a similar-minded bon vivant, poet, composer, and musician whose journals show Jerusalem over six decades. Both men’s diaries have been translated in whole or in part into English.

Yet after 1948, what Palestinians term the Nakba, or catastrophe, the intellectual leadership of Palestinian society dispersed, and political writing overtook the personal. The playwright and author Ghassan Kanafani, who worked for the PLO and was assassinated by the Mossad, wrote a 1962 play called Men in the Sun, about Palestinian refugees who suffocate while being smuggled to Kuwait. Mahmoud Darwish, the late Palestinian poet laureate, achieved renown with his highly political “Identity Card,” from 1964:

I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

While there was always a trickle of memoirs, including one by Sakakini’s daughter Hala and another by the renowned Arab translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, the last 20 years have seen a major revival, Tamari said.

“If we can compare the two events, I think it’s similar to the Holocaust experience,” said Tamari, whose parents, like Shehadeh’s, fled Jaffa. “The people who experienced the Holocaust and survived did not speak about it until years later, in the 1960s and ’70s. They were ashamed and embarrassed. In the Palestinian case, they were ashamed they did not resist, that they allowed themselves to be taken like sheep from their homes. My parents did not talk about it until many years later.”

That changed after the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Dozens of formerly exiled Palestinians were allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “They had a very idealistic view of Palestine, and they found it not mundane, but a country lacking in sovereignty, and looking very much like a third-world formation,” Tamari said. “Since many came from urban, metropolitan centers like Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, and Damascus, they were shocked at how shabby the country looked.”


One of the landmarks of the evolving genre is Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, published in Arabic in 1997 and translated into English three years later. The book won Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. In it, Barghouti returns to his childhood home near Ramallah in 1996 after a 30-year exile and finds his village ringed with Jewish settlements. The Ramallah vegetable market is as dingy as it was when he was a child, and the Palestinian Authority has brought a class of officials who flaunt their income but do little to advance the common good. Yet Barghouti’s memoir mainly focuses on his own family’s experience. It does not have the same breadth as Shehadeh’s Rift, which encompasses the entire region.

Likewise, Edward Said’s 1999 memoir Out of Place details his childhood and adolescence in Cairo.

Unlike Said or Barghouti, Shehadeh remained in the Palestinian territories his entire life. As founder and former head of the Al-Haq legal aid organization, Shehadeh initially published technical works on Israeli law and human rights. He first tackled personal writing in 1982 with The Third Way, a collection of stories from Ramallah. The book was hailed in the Journal of Palestine Studies as “the first such book on life for the Palestinians under occupation.” Shehadeh’s full story emerged in Strangers in the House, a tour de force that encompassed his strained relationship with his father, exacerbated by Israeli rule that emasculated the head of the house.

In his last two books, Shehadeh departs from his family and daily life to give words to the Palestinian landscape. An avid hiker, he published Palestinian Walks in 2008, showing the growing difficulty of walking the West Bank without encountering Israeli settlements, soldiers, or roadblocks. It won him Britain’s Orwell Prize.

Rift features those difficulties as a side story to the odyssey of Najib Nassar, whose trail markers are now deeply buried. In resurrecting the world of a century ago, Shehadeh shows what he sees as the price of Israel’s independence. Nassar hid in tents with Bedouin and spent his happiest days herding sheep while scratching the lice off himself. Farms were small and smelled of dung-fired ovens where today they are large and silent stretches of green plowed by tractors. For Shehadeh, despite the grinding poverty, exploitation, and constant water shortage, Palestinian peasant life was a state of grace.

“Gone is the mix of people that existed in Najib’s time,” he writes. “In their place a large variety of Jews from Arab countries, Eastern Europe and from the West, along with those Palestinian Arabs who have managed to stay, now share the land unequally. But gone are most of the Bedouin tribes, Palestinian Arabs and Arabs from various parts of North Africa, and the Marsh Arabs who lived in the Huleh region with their water buffaloes that are now extinct here.”

In one instance, Shehadeh is surprised to find expanses of wheat where he had expected to see a handful of the villages Nassar mentioned. Then he notices an almond tree in the middle of a field, which he notes only grows when cultivated. Almond trees are the ruins of the villages he is seeking, as he writes:

When I looked at the open green fields spread on both sides of my path I could see more almond trees that I had failed to notice before I recognized their significance. … There to the west Kufra must have stood and nearby to the south Bira, Dana and Tireh. With the possible location of the Arab villages, the old features of this cemetery of a land began to emerge, illuminated by the white blossoms of the almond trees, marked by the petals that slowly glided down to the ground around them in utter, hushed silence.

That same hallowed sense of loss is in Israeli work as well. As early as 1963, the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua wrote about a deserted Palestinian village hidden by Israeli-planted trees in his novella Facing the Forest. Former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti used 1946 maps to hunt for the disappeared Palestinian rural world in Sacred Landscape. “I would spread the relevant map on the ground, and suddenly the old landscape arose like an apparition,” he wrote. “And each plot and every prominent feature had its Arabic name marked on the map, so poetic and so apt that my heart ached.”


Palestinians, too, have mourned the lost villages, none so exhaustively as Walid Khalidi in his 700-page memoir, All That Remains. But Shehadeh combines the sadness of a Palestinian perspective with the poetry of a lost landscape and the escapades of his strong-willed uncle.

At times, Shehadeh’s lengthy rants can get tiresome, particularly because he pits Palestinian rural life against Israeli modernity. He notes that the goats and sheep that used to graze in the Galilee have given way to “lumbering grain-fed cows,” who pollute the air with their “fabled flatulence.” A look at the shopping malls and subdivisions in today’s Ramallah suggests that the same modernity may have beset the region even if the Palestinian villages had remained.

And while Shehadeh’s books have found an increasingly warm reception, his name is far better known outside the West Bank than it is at home, because his work is written in English, the language in which he was educated. Only two of his literary books have made it into Arabic, according to Omar Hamilton, creative producer of the four-year-old annual Palestine Festival of Literature.

The torrent of books on Palestinian life is hardly close to stopping. Tamari said that since the 1990s, students, researchers, and social clubs have been gathering oral histories of 1948 and its aftermath. Other Palestinians are exploring West Bank life under Jordan in the 1950s and ’60s. Humor is also gradually seeping through the lines, such as Ramallah-based Suad Amiry’s 2010 collection of women’s stories, Menopausal Palestine. For Shehadeh, it’s a welcome development.

“So many people feel so much weight that people try to tell the whole story from the beginning to end, and there is nothing worse for small books than trying to tell the whole story,” Shehadeh said. “Now people are feeling relieved of the whole story because 1948 has been dealt with.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.