Raja Shehadeh speaking in person to help launch his latest book Language of Peace, Language of War: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice was wonderful. That a scholar should be brought from Ramallah, that Palestine should be the topic to kick off LSE’s annual literary festival was a nice surprise.
In his description of his personal trajectory as a writer, Shehadeh quoted Sharon as saying that he wanted to sear into the consciousness of the Palestinians a new geography. Everything has new names, villages have disappeared, settlements appear and appear and appear. Roads he once loved and drove he can no longer drive and they are no longer called what they once were. Hills he once loved and walked, he can no longer walk.
To no longer walk the hills….
He wrote Palestinian Walks as a response, to reject this imposition, to cement memory of what was before.
Palestinians have a word, samoud, the idea of persevering, of staying on the land. One word to hold all of this pain and struggle and determination. An idea to permeate all writing, all action. I wonder how many other peoples have a word for the long struggle against dispossession. I wish I had had one. Like him, I reject the idea that this must continue, that the poor, the less powerful must always be stripped of their lands if it happens that someone else wants them.
Clearly all of these books form part of this perservering. This connection between writing and struggle emerged in several ways — and while the questions especially brought out more of his thoughts on the legal and political strategies of fighting the occupation, it is the writing I will share here. There will be a podcast you can watch here when it is ready.
Raja Shehadeh said he once believed that a book can make a big difference, change the world. Not now. It can have a longer term effect, yes. But he no longer feels urgency.
He said writing always begins for himself alone, only later does it become public. He writes anything and everything in his journals, uncensored. Then reviews, revises, rethinks. That through writing he comes to understand things. But I love this sense of writing first for self, and then for public. It puts things round the right way I think.
Still, he writes to communicate. He does not write about the worst things that have happened in this conflict. He writes what people can take. What he can take. Left unsaid were all those things that have happened that no one can bear.
He read a passage about the burning alive of a young man in a forest. The message this was meant to send, the language of this message. Go, or we will burn your children. In strange coincidence I had only a few days before finished watching Shoah, it is not a film that soon leaves you. It is full of burning. So I sat there with these two things sitting together in me — I could not understand them. I have heard people try, but fundamentally these actions reject all words of understanding.
Books unleash the imagination, however. They remind us of the past when things were different, and push us to remember that the future does not have to be this way. It will not be this way. Hope lies in history and an imagination of the future — they teach us how all states were invented in the Middle East, they would not exist without subsidies. They seem natural to us, but they are not, nor are they sustainable.
He describes a world without borders, without fragmentation. The kind of world I too would like to see.
Raja Shehadeh will also be talking at the Mosaic Rooms on 25 February, at 7:00 pm, go see and hear, go buy the book(s).