I have spent many years of my professional life as a lawyer and human rights activist struggling to save Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank from being used to establish illegal Israeli settlements. But as the years passed more settlements were built and the landscape in the region where I lived was vanishing. Even after it was affirmed in a 2005 report sponsored by the Israeli government that 40 per cent of the settlements were established on land that Israel acknowledges as privately owned by Palestinians, nothing was done to remove them. To my great dismay, law and legality did not prove to be decisive weapons in our battle against Israeli colonialism. In 2008 I published Palestinian Walks, a book that described the vanishing landscape of Palestine through a series of six walks I took from 1979 to 2007.
I then decided to walk into the past. A great- great-uncle of mine had also been a writer at odds with the powers of the day. Najib Nassar was a journalist and romantic living in Haifa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. When he voiced his opposition to Ottoman participation in the First World War, a death sentence was put on his head. So he fled, living on the run and off the land for nearly three years. The quest for Najib — the details of his life and the route of his great escape — that consumed me for many years was not an easy one. Most of Palestine’s history, together with that of its people, is buried deep in the ground. To reconstruct the journey of my great-great-uncle I could not visit any of the houses where he and his family had lived in Haifa, his point of departure. He died before the 1948 Nakba but when his family were forced to leave they did not realise that they would never be allowed to return to their homes and so did not take their personal belongings with them. Furniture, books, manuscripts, memorabilia, family photographs, heirlooms and even personal effects were left behind and never returned. A further difficulty was that many of the villages and encampments in which Najib found refuge had also been reduced to rubble, as I discovered when I went in search of them in the hills of the Galilee. I had to scan the terrain with an archeologist’s eye to determine where they had once stood. It was therefore a strange and yet typical Palestinian quest. Strange because I had to rely heavily on my imagination and train myself to see what was not readily visible. Typical because the process I had to follow to uncover the history of a member of my family is similar to that followed by many Palestinians who had family in that part of Mandatory Palestine that became Israel.
As I began my travels along Najib’s escape route, I soon discovered that I could well empathise with my relative in his ordeal of escaping an arrest order. I, too, felt no less relaxed travelling along the route of his escape. Every time I was allowed through another of the five checkpoints along the way from Ramallah to the Galilee, I felt great relief. As always when travelling during these turbulent times the persistent question was whether I would be allowed to get through or whether I would be detained at one of these numerous roadblocks and prevented from proceeding with my plans. At some of the army barriers I could see that Israeli soldiers had stopped passengers on a whim, interrogating families because of nothing more than the look of the driver. These days this is called ‘ethnic profiling’. As I made my way down between the central hills of the West Bank to the Rift Valley, a depression of 846 feet below sea level, I felt like an outlaw, and this profoundly distressed me. One hundred years after Najib escaped the controlling authorities of this land we, the Arab inhabitants, Christian and Muslim alike, have not stopped running. We are haunted and hunted, still made to feel and act like fugitives in our own land.
And so I decided to take comfort in the land. To stop and look and try to see the land as Najib had, without the present day fragmentation into roadblocks and political borders.
Early on in the course of researching this book I was on my way to the Jordan Valley and on to the Galilee hills. Just after the sign which announcing sea level (where a man and his camel have stood for as long as I can remember to give tourists a ride) and before the turning to Jericho, where the Great Rift Valley opens up, I stopped. The hills of the Jerusalem wilderness stand high to the west, the Moab mountains rise in the east and in between there is a big drop, a fault in the earth that stretches in a wide valley to the north and south as far as the eye can see. In the deeper recesses of this huge trough, water has collected over the ages giving rise to a number of lakes. At this point I stopped the car and looked. And realised that the best antidote to the claustrophobia we Palestinians feel while attempting to cross the many borders Israel has created is to focus our attention on the physical expanse of the land.
The Israeli state is attempting to define the terrain, to claim and fragment it with wire fences, signposts, gates and roadblocks staffed by armed soldiers backed up by tanks. The tiny area of the West Bank where I live, a mere 5,900 square kilometers, has been divided into 227 geographical areas. I am but one of the millions of travellers who have passed through this region over the ages. In my attempt to free myself from the new map of the Middle East I lifted my eyes and beheld the magnificent valley created aeons ago as it stretched far and long, north to the Lebanon and south to the Red Sea and into Africa, utterly oblivious of the man-made borders that come and go.
The Dead Sea shimmered peacefully in the morning sun. I felt a strong desire to follow the great fault, travelling through the Rift Valley starting north in the Syrian plains, through Lake Qaraoun in Lebanon and down to the Dead Sea and Lake Tiberias, examining how it grew out of geological pressures on the tectonic plates far below the surface of the earth. Regardless of Palestine and Israel, British colonialism and the geopolitical realities, I still want to travel through this valley, imagining it as it had once been, all one unit, undivided by present-day borders.
Leaving the Dead Sea, my wife and I made a left turn and began our trip on the road north to the Galilee, with the scanty waters of the river trickling down some distance to the right. Presently we came upon the secondary road that turns eastward to the Allenby Bridge, the main crossing point for Palestinians into Jordan. My heart began to beat faster at the sight of a long line of unmoving cars and buses waiting to cross the border, full of anxious, sweating Palestinians baking under the hot sun. On a raised piece of ground on the hillside near the entrance to the bridge terminal, Israeli officials had used small stones to mark out the Star of David and nearby the insignia of the Israeli police, attempting to claim the land by adorning it with the symbols of their state. Like the seal stamped on our documents, this was just another way of indicating that the area was no longer considered occupied territory. Driving from Ramallah, we had passed numerous other borders, borders within borders within borders. Everywhere I looked I could see borders, barbed wire and watch towers.
But the Jordan River is no more a border than the great fault that has formed the Great Rift Valley. The only borders are in people’s minds, artificial creations that come to be acknowledged and recognised by us, the people living here, because we have no choice. By creating this surfeit of borders, Israel has made a mockery of them and finally brought home the point that the only real borders are those which we come to accept.
Almost a hundred years have passed since the time of Najib’s escape and my travels along the same region following the same path. As I traced his footsteps, I travelled through the Great Rift Valley, along the Lebanese mountains and Bekaa, the Jordan Valley, the Galilee and Jordanian wilderness. The region was then united under the Ottoman Empire. The diverse groups that inhabited it whether Christians, Jews or Moslems did not identify themselves as Israelis, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrian or Turkish. They were all Ottoman.
This is not to say that we should call for a revival of that Empire, corrupt and inefficient as it was, but by visiting that past we are reminded that a precedent exists for an entirely new reality in the region. Never have relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East been worse than during the past hundred years. By taking readers on the journey that my Ottoman uncle took a hundred years ago through the Great Rift Valley, my hope is that whether they come from the Occupied West Bank, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey or further afield, next time they visit this Valley they will lift up their eyes and try, as I did, to imagine it as one, a land without borders where everyone is free to travel and enjoy the pleasures it has to offer.
Writers are neither prophets nor politicians. But by daring to envisage the impossible they can enthuse new generations. The blighted Middle East of today is surely in need of illumination by such imagination.
Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah. He is the founder of the pioneering, non-partisan human rights organisation Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights and the Middle East. His book, Palestinian Walks won the Orwell Prize in 2008. A Rift In Time, Travels with my Ottoman Uncle, will be published by Profile Books in August.