OF ALL the many outrages that fire Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist and Orwell Prize-winning author Raja Shehadeh’s prose, it’s a small thing, his lack of a postcode, that pulls you up short.
He mentions it only in passing, in a short diary entry for 26 May 2011 – a day on which he has been to the post office, enquiring after a parcel of books posted home from America.
Without a postcode there is so much he cannot do, he writes. His solution for electronic form-filling is to enter four zeros in the zipcode space. With piercing economy, he adds: “Until we become a proper country we are the zero people, four times over.”
Shehadeh’s latest attempt to bring a portrait of his troubled homeland to world attention is as impassioned as his four previous meditations, and just as immediate. It’s a collection of diary entries from his home in Ramallah, starting at the end of 2009 and ending just after the Palestinian bid for UN statehood in September last year. There’s a moving postscript, added this May.
The book opens not with an encounter at an Israeli checkpoint, nor within sight of the wall that is gradually cutting off Palestinian communities from each other – there are other such moments in these pages – but at a picnic in a ravine outside Jerusalem. Shehadeh and his secular companions are on one side of the natural rock pool. On the other side is a family group of Muslims, the women in long black skirts and headscarves and one wearing the niqab face-cover. Wariness on both sides builds to open antagonism, and then a shouting match, leaving Shehadeh to reflect on how a society under siege can be pulled apart from within by mistrust and misunderstanding.
Much of where Shehadeh focuses his gaze will be familiar – the encroachment of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the simmering injustice of 1948’s “Palestinian Catastrophe”, the Nakba, with its legacy in the Wall. But he responds to daily developments in Middle East politics with urgent fluency, penning pithy attacks on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his speech to the US Congress in May 2011, and on Tony Blair’s suitability as Middle East envoy two months later.
A report by al-Jazeera International in June 2010 into the storming of the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza prompts a steely attack on the biased reporting of BBC World. Later that year, when a liberal Israeli theatre group asks to adapt his book When The Bulbul Stopped Singing for the stage so they can tour it to the Jewish settlements to foster understanding, he is fearless in refusing: they won’t use David Greig’s adaptation for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, and he suspects their motives.
But he’s also critical of his own society: the Palestinian middle class’s growing obsession with Botox and facials; the destruction of his beloved countryside by local developers, “mimicking Israeli ways”. He worries about the standoff between Hamas and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority; has poisonous words for the legacy of Yasser Arafat and the “false peace” of the Oslo Accords. His one source of optimism is the course of the Arab Spring – in retrospect, a poignant reminder that you can never tell how history will unfold.
Remarkably, Shehadeh’s prose is shot through with wit and lyricism. Blistering caricatures of petty officials give way to characterful vignettes from the heydays of Jaffa and Ramallah. The seasonal comforts of gardening, listening to music and watching the stars with Penny, his American wife, produce moments of stillness and contentment. He has suppers and conversations with friends, including Israeli Jews. Visits to his hairdresser, the laptop repairman and the local grocery provide openings for reflection. Local farmers struggling to maintain their ancient way of life offer inspiration.
As a record of two years in a land too often misunderstood, this is a vital resource. In the long tradition of literary journal-writing, it’s up there with the best.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, Wednesday, 7pm
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