Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer born in Ramallah and living there all his life, takes a walk around his city in the West Bank on the fiftieth anniversary of Israeli occupation.
His humane recollections and reflections are tender and poignant. He acknowledges failure and disillusionment but the wounded spirit that pervades his writing and his situation has not been crushed.
“Going home” possesses a gentle lyricism but not one that disguises the truth. The first page records how, looking into his shaving mirror and seeing an unmistakeably aging face, he wishes he had been closer to his father so that he might have been better prepared for the bodily changes that come with growing old. His relationship with his father is a cause for deep regret that he returns to throughout the day’s permabulations.
Shehadeh was 16 when the Israelis pre-empted war with Egypt and Syria by striking first and destroying their air force.
Within days, Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank (including east Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip were under occupation. All but the Gaza Strip still are and Shedadeh’s entire adult life has been spent in the shadow of a foreign country’s military presence.
Ramalleh itself is changing. He remembers male-only coffee shops where old men in dark suits sat smoking on wicker stools and playing backgammon.
Now, being woken at 3am by calls to prayer from a nearby mosque, he ruefully notes the way religion offers comfort at a time when so much is uncertain and insecure. Before the 1967 war, his family would enjoy weekend afternoons at the Grand Hotel, listening to an Italian pop group. “We had no doubt and felt strongly that the city was ours”.
Now, Quranic readings fill the air between calls to prayer and, gazing skywards, he sees Israeli surveillance planes overhead.
The psychic wounds of a lifetime of living under an unjust and cruel occupation find expression in his writing.
During his walk, a particular building, a person or a family memory bring painful remembrances of a time when an end to Israeli occupation could be actively expected.
That tantalizing hope has receded and he is haunted by what has been lost; melancholy has become a political condition.
Shehadeh carries the burden of remembering the first and second intifada and feels its weight when he passes places in the city where Palestinians died in the struggle.
But now his anger at the occupation has mellowed into a calm, stoic resistance.
Palestine has time on its side and Shehadeh feels sure that the license currently given to the Israeli military and settler movement will ultimately lead to disaster.
Looking back, he realises that the occupation has presented him with immense challenges ‘not only in how to resist but in how to live under its ruthless matrix of control as a free man refusing to be denied the joys of life.’.
“Going home: a walk through fifty years of occupation”, by Raja Shehadeh, is published by Profile Books.