It is a conflicting memoir, so Raja Shehadeh’s latest book “Where the line is drawn: Crossing the boundaries in occupied Palestine” (Profile Books, 2017) must be read with an instilled acceptance of understanding on various levels. From the very first pages, Shehadeh imbues the reader with varying contrasts. Palestine’s history is well represented and intertwined with his own remembrance of events. Of greater impact are the psychological and emotional revelations which enable the reader to sense a personal awareness; a journey in which rights and humanity embrace each other while leaving a lot of space for pondering over situations, politics and friendship.
The earliest recollection presented in this memoir is an Israeli stamp in an album belonging to the author’s uncle; it bears the inscription “the conquest of the desert”. Shehadeh is quick to point out the assimilation of the Israeli colonial narrative regarding the barren land perpetuated by one of his cousins who, pointing to the hills, said, “In Israel they would all be green.”
In the first pages of the book, though, the reader is presented mostly with narrated observations, leaving the analysis for later. For anyone acquainted with, or knowledgeable about, Palestinian history, his cousin’s statement immediately conjures images of Israel’s appropriation of the land and resources. Shehadeh provokes, yet invites the reader to delve further into his narrative of complexities that go beyond the usual representations.
In 1977, when in Tel Aviv to listen to Anwar Sadat’s speech which urged recognition of Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian right of return, Shehadeh met a Canadian Jew by the name of Henry Abramovitch. The two struck up a lasting friendship that is nevertheless fraught with questioning, anger and a continuous struggle of trying to place it within a context which, given Israel’s colonial presence in Palestine, cannot exist. Through this friendship, both individuals cross boundaries which would otherwise have been closed off to them, particularly venturing into forbidden territory.
Throughout the book, the author’s friendship with Abramovitch undergoes several cycles of questioning and doubt. One of the reasons given by Shehadeh is his friend’s reluctance to discuss politics, which is one of the first indications of a prevailing dissociation between the friendship bond and the oppression experienced by Palestinians, including Shehadeh himself. However, the same cannot be said of the author who, as time passed — with Israel “turning into a colonial regime that deprived us of our land and gave our natural resources, our land and water, to their own people” — could not dissociate the friendship from the oppression.
Yet, in Shehadeh’s narrations of encounters with Israelis, it is easy to see how the avoidance of confrontation resulted in personal misgivings which led to increased questioning. There is both anger and a semblance of acquiescence, such as the occasion when, upon returning home from Jaffa, Shehadeh stopped at a nursery run by another Canadian Jewish settler on stolen land. “How could she watch the sunset with an easy conscience when such a tragedy had taken place on the land she now exploits?” he asked himself. Yet no confrontation took place and, in the ensuing act of oblivion, Shehadeh bought plants from the nursery and the woman “smiled at me and gave me a seedling for free.” There is an element of giving the colonisers the benefit of the doubt demonstrated by Shehadeh which is equally repudiated in cycles of philosophical questioning. Yet the avenue for a proper expression is missing or else obliterated.
Shehadeh chooses writing as his means to “fight the occupation”, although his efforts are not limited to this expression. Founding human rights NGO Al-Haq, which in its earlier years also relied upon Israel for justice, provided another avenue of expression for the author, in particular after Israeli soldiers wounded a Palestinian man outside the organisations premises in 1988. The Palestinian asked Al-Haq members who rushed to his aid: “If soldiers can beat a man in your stairwell and you can do nothing about it, why are you here at all?” Gradually, Shehadeh shifted from being an unwitting spectator of the abusive cycle through relying on Israel to follow up on reports of human rights violations, into a defender of human rights. Within that timeframe, Shehadeh received a letter from his friend Abramovitch in the form of a poem which included, “To bring the change we need to share Palestinian fate, to be brutalised, checked, jailed and more.” By 1989, Henry Abramovitch had become involved in anti-occupation groups, although Shehadeh remarks that it was a belated action.
Politically, the memoir is also an exercise in recognising how Israeli violations were understood later than should have been the case, which led to taking action for various reasons. Learning Hebrew, for example, was “defensive, practical and accommodating”. In some instances, such as overcoming the language barrier, the garnered knowledge would ultimately provide awareness that could be used as protection against, inter alia, settler violence. Other violations encouraged by colonial policies proved far more difficult to resist. The appropriation of land and settlement expansion is one example. Oslo provided yet another political failure. Internationally, Shehadeh recalls, “There was so much talk of peace and celebrations even as the gulf between rhetoric and reality grew so wide.”
In terms of the author’s friendship with Henry Abramovitch, a similar dynamic can be observed to the end of the book. It is not the friendship that is questioned, but rather the political landscape that impacted the friendship, estrangement and subsequent reunion. “Memory,” says Shehadeh, “is political in Israel and Palestine.” This is an apt closing observation which summarises how, despite the friendship, Shehadeh still feels that Abramovitch has managed to exonerate himself of being a participant in the colonial process; how the Nakba was marginalised as solely a Palestinian responsibility instead of a premeditated ethnic cleansing. Psychologically, the book is provoking and soul searching. Politically, there is no doubt as to where one’s loyalties lie.