A group of friends, Palestinian and foreign, go to picnic at a wadi between Jerusalem and Jericho. They are wearing bright, casual summer clothes. On a nearby rock sits another party of picnickers, only they are dressed in veils, long skirts and black coats. For a while no one says anything. Then, suddenly, over a gesture of defiance, a row erupts between these secular liberals and the devout Islamicists.
Once upon a time, writes Raja Shehadeh in Occupation Diaries, the two groups would have exchanged friendly greetings. Today there is only suspicion and antagonism; the people of Palestine, who not so long ago lived peacefully together, are now driven apart by deep rifts. Even ‘the veneer of civilisation and decency’ is not just getting thinner in general: it has vanished altogether.
Shehadeh, a lawyer and founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, lives in Ramallah. His exceptional first memoir, Strangers in the House, traced the story of his parents, forced from their comfortable home in Jaffa in 1948 to a life of meagreness in Ramallah, and of his father’s murder by an unknown assailant. Shehadeh has been keeping a diary since 1967, and this new book, part journal, part soliloquy on the nature of modern Palestine, covers the two years leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood in September 2011. His account of the coralling of the Palestinians into poverty and loss, the building of the wall and the growth of the Israeli settlements makes for troubling and depressing reading.
But Occupation Diaries is also a book about memory, about the Ramallah of Shehadeh’s childhood, when his grandmother and her circle of strong and eccentric women took tea in the splendid gardens of the Grand Hotel, and where as a small boy he saw his first trapeze show, first belly dancer and first magician. The Grand Hotel today is shuttered and crumbling. Moving between his own garden and the flowers he grows, and the streets of the West Bank, Shehadeh contrasts and remembers.
Most changed in the landscape is the presence of the extremist settlers, whose attacks on their neighbouring Palestinians rose 140 per cent between 2010 and 2011. Describing these gated communities, where ample water turns the desert green, Shehadeh warns of the way that, having taken the land of the Palestinian farmers, the extremists are now casting covetous glances at the cities, particularly Jaffa, where they are preparing to take on the secular Jewish inhabitants. The atmosphere, he writes, is now one of ‘greed, bitterness and spite’, much exacerbated by the overwhelming wall.
The scenes described by Shehadeh are the stuff of anger. What makes his writing so remarkable, and his observations so chilling, is his tone: quiet, sober, the prose elegant and the details small. Quiet, but not resigned. He reports that he has come to hate the sound of Hebrew, the language he associates with interrogations, summonses, encounters with rude and arrogant soldiers, and he refuses to lose the sense of rage he feels against all that Israeli occupation has brought. It is not in his daily life, but when he returns from a journey abroad, that he feels most acutely that the Israelis are invaders who have stolen the country and closed it to its original inhabitants. And he dreads the day when the Palestinians, by adopting their ways and manners, could become the mirror image of their oppressors.
Half way through this gently paced two-year chronicle comes the revolution in Egypt, greeted with cautious pleasure by Shehadeh. Watching on his television as events unfold throughout the Middle East, he is determined to savour and enjoy the good things in his own life — his happiness with his wife, his terrace and garden, his work — while remaining alert to what the future may bring. ‘Everything’, he writes, ‘is possible in our volatile region.’