Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Complaint Worth Repeating

Note: This is the review I posted on Amazon about Raja Shehadeh's new book entitled "a Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle" published by Profile Books, London, 2010.

I beg forgiveness for stating my first reaction to Raja Shehadeh's second book of hiking memoirs, this one with the emphasis provided by the desire to retrace the steps of a respected forbearer: We have been through this before. I had attended the author's reading in East Jerusalem and had my autographed copy for keepsake. Especially as a fellow involved Palestinian who reads on daily basis many a pained statement of our loss at the hands of the Zionist colonialist project, I was tempted to put the book aside. Except that the tale of Raja's legendary Ottoman uncle was compelling enough for me to keep on reading. Its setting in Galilee and the adjacent environs of the upper Rift Valley kept me going. After all, my own facination with Galilee and committment to its native residents had launched me as an author with my "A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel" thus, not unlike Raja, switching careers from a physician to a writer.

As I followed Raja and his wife Penny on their meanderings in and out of Galilee, his frequent asides about our loss as Palestinians and about the Zionists' well-planned and mercilessly executed dislodging of our people by diliberate force and geographic fragmentation, the elimination of their cultural and archeological heritage, and the spacial confinement and physical control of those who remained gained in freshness and legitimacy with repetition. It started with the bit of information about Najib Nassar, Raja's Ottoman uncle, being the first Palestinian writer to address the potential threat of the Zionist colonialist project to our people's future and continued clear through to the end of the narrative that I managed to get through by the end of the night of the same day I had started it: 'The best heir of the best forbearer' as we say in Arabic, I had to admit with tears in my eyes as Raja stands at his great great uncle's grave in Nazareth.

I was particularly taken by the artfully intermixed narrative of Raja's own present day nature walks with that of the forced flight of his predecessor into the wilderness: The two accounts are nearly seamlessly interwoven, so much so that I found the repeated assertions of the similarities between the two protagonists in thought and predilictions perhaps unnecessary, even though I found myself equally often thinking how much resemblance I also had to the two. The only part that I was surprized to read when I reached it was about Najib's second wife being the granddaughter of the Grand Bahai, founder of the Bahai faith. I would have baited the reader with a hint about it very early in the book.

And a second artful tactic that Raja Shahadeh uses as if it were the most normal of practices is the mixing of the intimate with the public and the general: Personal and family affairs are brought casually into focus to be transcended at will to historical events and world affairs. Had I not been open to similar villification I would have accused the auther of slight of hand magic. But then again, the focus of the whole account is family centered while it is the entire world, particularly the West, that is Raja's target readership and potentially his accused perpetrators of neglect if not agression against the Palestinian people. Hence it is only natural that Raja zooms in and out of focusing at homes and family life in Ramallah, Haifa, Nazareth and Eyn-Anoub rendering their evident humanity accessible to his world audience.

Also for the non-Palestinian there is much more to savor: the reflective pauses about the human condition at large, about nature, about the geology, the fauna and flora of Galilee, Palestine and the Rift Valley, and particularly about understanding the basic nature of Israel's agressive pursuit of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state west of the Jordan River. And, yes, indeed the repetitive message in the enlightening discourse woven around the record of Raja's and his Ottoman uncle's nature walks, one compelled by his Ottoman and the other by his Israeli persuers, is worthy of repeating to the wider world again and again. We will not be silenced by the world's inattentiveness.

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