Ramallah as it is, and as it was

In his new book, Raja Shehadeh laments a breakdown of solidarity in Palestine. But, writes Kieron Monks, there are glimmers of hope.

The Grand Hotel was once a focal point of social life in Ramallah.

Families would take leisurely lunches in the gardens. An Italian band would play during summer afternoons. Visitors would travel from across the Middle East to experience it.

When the Israeli army occupied the city in 1967, they made the Grand their headquarters. ‘Soldiers slept in the rooms that had welcomed tourists and honeymooning couples,’ Raja Shehadeh recounts. The soldiers moved on eventually but the hotel, stripped of its grandeur and mystique, closed shortly after.

In his latest book, Going Home, Raja Shehadeh takes a long walk around Ramallah on the 50th anniversary of the Occupation. Along the way he considers the myriad ways that half a century of occupation, of thwarted ambitions and crushing defeats, have left their mark on him and his home city.

Ramallah, remade

The Orwell Prize-winning author, lawyer, founder of human rights group Al-Haq, and former advisor to the PLO on peace negotiations, has lived the vast majority of his life in Ramallah. Shehadeh’s previous books such as Palestinian Walks, on his rambles through diminishing landscapes, and Strangers in the House, on his troubled relationship with father Aziz, a high-profile lawyer, won international acclaim. Despite his success, Shehadeh rejected the opportunity to emigrate as many of his well-off peers did.

Now 68, the author has come to know the city intimately, down to every barbershop and ice cream stand. He can recount the history, from the clans who founded Ramallah in the 16th century to its reinvention as a melting pot for refugees after the Nakba – ‘catastrophe’ – of 1948. He knows the inhabitants too, and they know him – from the pavement cleaners to the owner of the Heliopolis Fashion store.

Shehadeh sees the city as it is, and as it was. The office blocks that were once stately homes. The bank that replaced a fruit and vegetable market. Landmarks that tell the history of the conflict; the police station bombed by an Israeli helicopter, the house where Aziz Shehadeh drafted a proposal for a two-state solution, the bunker where Yasser Arafat spent his last days.

The absence of space is a recurrent feature. As the countryside is lost to settlements and closed military zones, the pressure builds on space in Ramallah. Developers pile floors upon high-rise buildings that block out the views, and no room is left for parks.

Counting the cost

Shehadeh is not given to hopelessness. Much of his life and career has been defined by following his father’s lead in rejecting what he called the ‘shadow life... of dreams and anticipation and memory’ that he felt had trapped many Palestinian refugees. Aziz Shehadeh chose a relentless focus on the present through legal and political advocacy for the rights of Palestinians. He concentrated on what could be achieved rather than lamenting what could not, and his son took the same course.

But the story of Going Home is unavoidably marked by loss. The loss of land and homes. The loss of lives such as that of 17-year-old Nadeem Nowara, shot dead at a demonstration in 2014. The loss of dignity when citizens are forced to rely on the mercy of the hated Civil Administration for their most basic travel needs. Even the pine trees that lined the streets have been destroyed on security grounds, so ‘one can no longer hear birds in the trees’.

Shehadeh also feels a loss of community. ‘During the first intifada we all acted in solidarity,’ he recalls, noting the formation of neighbourhood watch groups to protect local businesses and the role civilians would play in smuggling messages from prisons.

That solidarity has broken down now, he believes: ‘The city is no longer involved in a collective struggle against the occupation. Each of us in on our own.’ Much of what is new about Ramallah leaves him cold. The rise of conspicuous consumption through Western chain stores and flashy new bars hosting late-night parties. ‘Perhaps the noise is necessary to drown the fear and guilt,’ Shehadeh writes.

The author is disturbed by the proliferation of financial institutions offering loans that have ensnared much of the population in debt. He laments the growing power of religion, which he views as a replacement for the secular struggle. Few women wore the headscarf until the late 1980s, he notes, and supermarkets played Fayrouz instead of the Quran.

There are wistful passages that consider what might have been. ‘Our dream... was that we would help create an egalitarian society where everyone would get the opportunity to shine,’ Shehadeh writes. A taxi driver yearns to escape the checkpoints and ‘speed along a highway that stretches to eternity’.

The movement’s failures

Shehadeh is critical of the failures of the national movement. He chides his people for worshipping figureheads such as Arafat rather than taking a more collectivist approach, and he attacks the PLO for failing to institute democratic structures. He cites the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s as a fatal misstep that permanently enshrined Israeli control of Palestinian land and lives.

The author is just as harsh on himself. Much of Going Home is a meditation on aging, full of mockery of his cocksure younger self. ‘I used to have a smirk on my face, a triumphant look,’ Shehadeh recalls. ‘Then it dissipated.’ He addresses the guilt he feels toward his father, murdered during a period of estrangement in a crime that was never solved, and over the failure of his work to achieve tangible gains for his people. ‘The legal strategies we employed to resist the occupation, believing they would bring it to an end, have dismally failed,’ he concludes.

Shehadeh does, at least, look back with satisfaction on his refusal to leave his homeland. In this simple act of defiance he honours the steadfastness of his grandmother who ‘never cried or grumbled’, and his father who stayed despite death threats. The author’s irritation with those that left arises when an expat asks for help in protecting an old family home from destruction: ‘If she really cared about this house why did she want to sell it in the first place?’

The nature of resistance has changed and downsized in Shehadeh’s telling. Now it takes the form of village mosques playing the call to prayer loud enough to annoy nearby settlers, campaigning to save a beautiful garden slated for destruction, and waving flags in gestures of empty symbolism.

Despite the frank reckoning with reduced circumstances, the author does still strike a few notes of optimism. He has faith in a new generation of tech-savvy youth to forge international coalitions that might succeed where his generation failed. ‘It’s time we recognize our defeat, step aside, hand over the reins to the young and place our hope in them,’ Shehadeh writes.

There is a note of relief in this idea. Shehadeh is proud to have preserved some interior happiness in the private joys of his garden, books, and loved ones, rather than succumbing to bitterness and despair at the cruelty of the Palestinian experience and his failure to change it. Even if the question of whether the next generation can do any better appears to be a matter of faith as much as reason.

Going Home is published by Profile Books.