“How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do.” (Raja Shehadah, 40)
This entry is a postscript to my previous entry on hiking in Palestine. Today I started reading Raja Shehadah’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape. He writes not only about his own experiences walking in the hills near Ramallah, but also of what previous Western travelers have written about the region. He writes:
“Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travelers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travelers’ imaginations. Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps or travelers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were, but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition.
Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the West’s historical and biblical imagination. The landscape is thus cut to match the grim events recorded there. Here is how Thackeray describes the hills I have so loved:
Parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones—a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate, meet the eye wherever you wander round about the city. The place seems quite adapted to the events which are recorded in the Hebrew histories. It and they, as it seems to me, can never be regarded without terror. . . ” (11)
Shehadah quotes other writers as well, such as Mark Twain, who describe the region as “desolate and unlovely.” I was surprised to read this. Were they writing about the same place I visited? Granted, I visited in spring, the best time of the year, but still, the difference in perspective is striking and surely has as much to do with imagination and ideology as it does with observation.
Shehadah’s book serves as a refreshing antidote to these earlier travelers’ descriptions. He writes in a loving, elegiac tone about a landscape and a way of life that endured for centuries but is now rapidly disappearing under Israeli expansion and apartheid policies.