Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh is reading between the lines

In advance of his visit to Ireland, Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh tells Ellie O’Byrne why he still has hope for his homeland

Raja Shehadeh reads during the Palestine Festival of Literature in Ramallah. Picture Rob Stothard/Getty

"CULTURE is part of the struggle; it’s very important not to suspend culture and suspend one’s life, because it’s also part of the resistance.”

Raja Shehadeh, writer and human rights lawyer, is speaking from his home in Ramallah in the West Bank in advance of his trip to Ireland. The weather is, he says, wonderful, and a five-day international contemporary dance festival has been afoot. At the same time, 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols continue with their hunger strike, and mass protests have been taking place in their support.

This sense of everyday life unfolding against a backdrop of violence and strictures is a constant in the Palestinian territories, Shehadeh says: “There’s a lot of misunderstanding of life in Palestine. It’s not well reported, so people don’t realise that life goes on here; despite everything, Palestinians are very good at enduring and creating culture and living life, even under very difficult circumstances.”

His latest book, Where the Line Is Drawn: Crossing Boundaries in Occupied Palestine, is one of many memoirs, an account of his own relationships and personal evolution in thinking, amidst the political landscape of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination of the past 50 years. Written with a lawyer’s meticulous eye for detail, combined with a mellow introspection, the book describes crossing both physical boundaries in the form of checkpoints and the cultural boundaries between Shehadeh and several of his Israeli Jewish friends.

As with many of his other books, like Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2008, Where the Line is Drawn is peppered with references to landscape and ecology: vanished villages and derelict houses, poorly planned and hastily constructed roads that scar the landscape, and the sea, once accessible, but now a distant sliver of blue when viewed from Ramallah.

A self-professed moderate from a middle-class Christian Arab background, Shehadeh writes with nuance. His is a world more complex than the hate-filled partisan narrative of Israeli Jew versus Palestinian Muslim. He describes his youthful admiration for the newly-formed state of Israel, and his hope that a Palestinian government could emulate the progressive socialism, press freedom and judicial transparency that he saw in Israel.

Woven throughout the book is his relationship with Henry Abramovitch, a Canadian Jewish immigrant to Israel with whom he enjoyed a close friendship when the pair were young, but whose relationship has been periodically tarnished by Shehadeh’s emerging political outrage and Abramovitch’s seeming intractability; Shehadeh couldn’t understand how the gentle and liberal Abramovitch could live in a former Arab house, and saw his lack of political action as a tacit acceptance of Israel’s encroachment on Palestinian land.

Sometimes the inequalities between them — Shehadeh subject to curfews, indignities and fear that Abramovitch is protected from — chafed, but despite periodic and lengthy separations, the pair remain friends to this day.

In the closing chapters of the chronological book, they are reunited during Abramovitch’s battle with cancer. “He loved the book. “He read it more than once, and he cried reading it. We have remained good friends. Literature has this role to play; to illustrate that despite the terrible times that we are in now, it hasn’t always remained terrible on every level.”

A founding member of the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq in the early 1980s, Shehadeh, now 66, spent years writing in a purely functional capacity, documenting cases and writing reports.

His discovery of the tremendous emotive power of literary writing has been a transformative revelation to him. “I realised you can do with literature much, much more than you can do with a human rights report. With literature, you are in a relationship with the reader: you help the reader to live through your experiences if the writing is good and the book is successful. That has a stronger impact than any legal document.”

In that sense, despite his protest that he leaves “the pure political talk to politicians,” Shehadeh’s work is deeply political. “Our strength lay in our ability to dream,” Shehadeh writes, and in this imagining and forging of national identity, there is a strong connection to Ireland’s literary tradition, which he admires. “I read a lot of Joyce,” he says. “As a poet, I like Yeats a lot, but I’m very fond of Banville at the moment and of course Toibín. I always read Irish literature and enjoy it; it speaks to me.”

Hunger strikes, land loss, a sense of colonisation and dispossession, a large diaspora, martyrs, sectarian violence: perhaps it’s not surprising that Irish culture speaks to Shehadeh.

Not all of the parallels are so dark: “There is a lot of commonality in relation to the interest in language and storytelling amongst Irish and Arabs. But, of course, the Irish are so good with language; it’s amazing what comes out in poetry and literature from the Irish.”

Is he familiar with Yeats’ phrase from No Second Troy, “hurling the little streets against the great”? Is that what Palestinians are embarked on? He sighs. “Absolutely. But there’s no option of giving up, because you can’t give up. If you look at the other side of the equation, you see that Palestinians have had some success. The establishment press wouldn’t have printed this book 15 years ago; it’s only recently that we are able to identify ourselves as Palestinian and get that published.”

What brought about that change? “A lot of hard work. And a recognition amongst many establishment presses and newspapers and magazines that there is a problem, and that the problem can only be resolved by the creation of two states side by side: Israel and Palestine.”

Shehadeh’s father, Aziz, was a prominent Palestinian lawyer and one of the first proponents of a two-state solution. He was stabbed to death in Ramallah in 1985.

Shehadeh has always written in English. He praises the fluidity of the English language compared to the formal Arabic; English allows him to invent language, to express himself more freely, he says.

Shehadeh’s various periods of anger, disillusionment and fear in response to developments such as the Oslo Accord, the intifadas and the encroaching Israeli settlements ebb and flow throughout Where The Line Is Drawn.

Yet he considers himself an optimist, and still hopes for a peaceful solution that both sides of the conflict that has dominated his life can agree to.

“I think the time will come, and it might be sooner than we think. Then, change will occur and I hope that my book will help with this because it’s a hopeful book, ultimately.”

  • Raja Shehadeh appears at Smock Alley Theatre on May 23 as part of International Literature Festival Dublin. www.ilfdublin.com 

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