Claire Kohda Hazelton

Haunted by the ghosts of Ramallah

Walking the streets of the city, Raja Shehadeh questions how people can preserve their sense of identity when their homes have been destroyed

Haunted by the ghosts of Ramallah
Text settings

Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation

Raja Shehadeh

Profile, pp. 197, £

On a rainy day in 1955, four-year-old Raja Shehadeh left school without putting his coat on. ‘I will soon be home, I thought, trailing the coat as it became heavy with rain.’ The walk was longer than he expected, or the rain heavier. He arrived back soaked through and fell ill with pneumonia. The journey home, without protection from the weather, could have killed him.

Throughout his life in Palestine, Shehadeh has been buffeted by events that have seemed as uncontrollable as the weather. He was a very young child when his family were forced out of Jaffa by Israeli soldiers and moved to Ramallah, and 16 during the Israeli invasion of the city.

For nearly 30 years, Shehadeh — a lawyer, activist and writer — has taken a walk every year on the anniversary of the 1967 war and occupation of Palestine by Israel. The year of this book is 2017 —the 50th anniversary — and Shehadeh is 66, plagued by a recurring dream in which he is lost and can’t find his home.

The hills are now out of bounds, so Shehadeh takes a walk through the city instead. Along the way, he seeks out his old homes, those of his family and friends as well as sites of significance to his life and to the Palestinian resistance. The buildings he passes are occupied by ghosts of his former selves: the 16-year-old Shehadeh waits with his anxious mother inside the old house they lived in during the invasion of Ramallah, his grandmother’s white underwear ‘billowing on the clothes line of her kitchen balcony’ as though a flag of surrender. Shehadeh’s father, a lawyer and one of the earliest supporters of the two-state solution, pulls up on the road outside another house with a gift of baraziq (thin, crisp, salty sesame cakes), not long before his murder.

Going Home is about searching for the meaning of ‘home’ when living in a city under occupation, where more than half the population are refugees. For a long time, the author and his wife Penny didn’t build their own home and rented instead, ‘for fear of getting too attached to it and then losing it in this unsettled land of ours’. Shehadeh has spent his life looking for homes in different places. He holds on to old clothes — his wardrobe is ‘a museum spanning decades’; ‘clothes are like houses, objects we cover ourselves with,’ he writes. Home lies in his memories of his mother, dressed as Santa Claus at Christmas; in his relationship with Penny; in his memories of Ramallah and its people; and in his identity as an activist and now a writer.

He laments the systematic destruction of Ramallah, and questions how people can hold on to their sense of identity and history when their homes are being destroyed. The still-Palestinian parts of Ramallah are marked with a sense of fragility. Twice, Shehadeh describes the plants that grow in the gardens of Palestinians as standing guard like ‘sentinels’: but they are easy to overcome, delicate and impermanent. He watches the movements of two older men, who wander around the streets looking lost — one who sits on the curb-side, ‘directing his gaze to the horizon in a long vacant stare’, another a hoarder, rummaging through bins for old furniture and rubbish — and considers them warnings of what he could become were he to submit to anger and despondency, and lose touch with his own identity as well as his city’s.

As the founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, Shehadeh has felt the city’s losses and injuries as his own. His journey through life has been marked by developments in the conflict between Palestine and Israel: he has seen the green spaces in Ramallah shrink and disappear, Palestinian family houses demolished and soldiers storm his and others’ homes.

Similarly, Ramallah is forever changed by the paths Shehadeh has taken in life: the homes he has made in houses, buildings he has transformed into offices as a lawyer and activist, and the clients’ houses he has prevented from being illegally destroyed. In this book, the bonds that bind Palestinians to the land are exposed. Personal and political, human and geographical histories are beautifully intertwined and preserved.

Shehadeh does eventually seem to find a resting place. He suggests that a sort of peace, and therefore a home, can be constructed in the mind and carried around, safe and protected in the self. In a beautiful passage, on his way back to the house he shares with his wife, which they did eventually build together, he quotes Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’:

…thy mind

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies.