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Obsessed with Time? Applicable to every Palestinian living under Israel occupation

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh has used his pen to delicately trace the contours of Palestinian history and landscapes, bringing readers into the harsh and complicated realities that shape daily life in the West Bank, where some two and a half million Palestinians have remained under an Israeli military occupation for more than half a century.

Jaclynn Ashly, Nov. 20, 2018

Shehadeh, who also practices law, wrote his first book in 1982, titled The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank, which painted a nuanced portrait of life in the occupied territory and created the ideological foundation for his future books.

“[The book] started when I went to the United States for the first time,” the 67-year-old told me at his office in Ramallah city, where shelves of legal books and documents line the white walls.

“I met a close friend of mine, who, although he is Palestinian and follows things here, he really had no idea what life was like here,” he explained.

“When I returned [to the West Bank] I wrote him lengthy letters trying to explain how it is day to day. And it wasn’t a dramatic thing. It was little harassment and difficulties that people outside could not imagine happening at all.” (The daily frequency of these harassment is the main culprit of apartheid practices) 

“I realized there was a need for such writing, and I expanded it into a book,” he said.

The book consists of stories and journal entries written by Shehadeh. Its title is derived from a saying among inmates at the Treblinka extermination camp in Nazi occupied Poland during the Holocaust: “Faced with two alternatives, always choose the third.” (Not applicable for Palestinians in colonial Israel which has endured over 7 decades and worsening)

In Palestine, he uses this saying to explore the options Palestinians have under Israel’s occupation: to either face “exile or submissive capitulation” or “blind, consuming hate.”

The third way is sumud, or steadfastness, a word used by Palestinians to articulate the act of staying on the land, regardless of the difficulties in doing so, in order to resist Israel’s ultimate goal of expelling Palestinians from their lands.

Shehadeh has since written 10 books, his most popular being Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which explores his changing relationship with the landscape of the West Bank owing to Israel’s settler colonial project.

He has a new book set to be released next year, titled Going Home.

Although Shehadeh did not want to speak at length about the focus of the book, he said it explores aging and the changing perceptions of time as “you become closer to the end.”

“I’ve become rather obsessed with time,” Shehadeh said. “Maybe that’s why it bothered me so much that you showed up late.” He smiled and chuckled – the first sign of warmth he showed me since I had agitated him by arriving a half hour late. (I had used the wrong café as a reference point to his office.)

Shehadeh lives a simple life in Ramallah city, gardening, reading, listening to classical music and, of course, writing. Shehadeh has kept a sometimes daily — sometimes weekly – private journal for decades, allowing him to revisit old events, feelings and perspectives, transforming blank pages into literary works that have earned him international acclaim.

“I have a practice of always carrying around a small piece of paper or notebook and jotting things down,” Shehadeh told me. “It’s not a journal that I make myself write. I write when I need to in order to explain things to myself, or when I’m coming to terms with things.” (I take notes when I read books)

From law to literature

Shehadeh, one of the founders of the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq, had always wanted to be a writer. However, after the publication of his first book, “I realized there was a lot of work to be done in the legal aspects and the human aspects [in the occupied West Bank],” he said.

He instead dedicated most of his time to challenging Israel’s occupation and human rights violations through international legal frameworks.

“The biggest asset for Palestinians is the law,” Shehadeh told Mondoweiss. “Because the law is on our side. To some extent [at the time] there was more interest and shame among the international community regarding international law.”

(There are 2 parallel law codes in Israel)

Shehadeh served as the legal adviser for Palestinians during the Madrid peace negotiations in 1991, but left over disagreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s focus and priorities, which the writer said valued political expediency and the return of exiled leaders over issues facing Palestinians on the ground.

“The PLO agreed to terms that, from the beginning, I thought were too restrictive,” Shehadeh said. “It would have taken great effort to bring in issues that are so relevant to us [Palestinians] here, such as [Israeli] settlements and the land.”

He sipped from a cup of coffee an assistant had brought, and then went on: “It was only about creating a self-government for Palestinians. In my mind, [the negotiations] were leading to Israel unilaterally confirming and consolidating what was already happening. I decided it was futile and left.”

Years later, the Oslo agreements were signed in secret between the PLO and the Israeli government, dramatically altering life in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The agreements broke up the land in the occupied West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, leaving more than 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control, while the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) was permitted to govern just 18 percent of the land.

“I was very disappointed [after Oslo],” Shehadeh said calmly, his hands clasped together and resting on his knee. “It made a difference in my whole life, because until then I was giving up everything I could to the legal aspect of the struggle.”

“My life really changed. I felt that my work had amounted to very little in terms of political effectiveness […]

Since Oslo, the Palestinian leadership has been excusing its failures and holding onto this deal, which they are bound to hold onto because they have no power to get out of it. And it has been downhill ever since.”

It was Shehadeh’s frustrations with Oslo that spurred him to leave al-Haq and direct his energy towards writing.

‘My father would feel very disappointed’

While Shehadeh always wrote on the side, even as he did legal work documenting Israel’s violations in the Palestinian territory, the first book he was able to dedicate a significant amount of time to was Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, which he wrote when he was in his late 30s.

The memoir explores Shehadeh’s complicated relationship with his father Aziz, an accomplished lawyer who was stabbed and left to bleed to death near his home in Ramallah in 1985.

Israeli authorities were accused of harboring political motives and not investigating the murder properly, and the case has since remained unsolved.

His father had, and continues to have, a profound influence on Shehadeh, and to this day the book was the most challenging for him to write, he tells Mondoweiss.

“Parents are extremely important and the perceptions and relationships change when one changes in time,” he said. “Whenever I tried to write something else, I would get back to that subject in my mind. So it was important and difficult to write.”

Since then, he has explored his relationship with his father in many of his books.

His father Aziz was one of the first Palestinians to promote a two-state solution and recognition of an Israeli state.

In 1953, his father won a case against Barclays bank that allowed Palestinian refugees to access their accounts after Israel had seized them in 1948, when Israel was established upon the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their lands.

“I think my father would feel very disappointed [by the current state of the Palestinian territory],” Shehadeh said, without hesitation. “He realized early on, before many others, that we have to make a peace deal with Israel.”

However, Aziz was unique in his ability to see the potential positives in making a peace deal, Shehadeh noted.

“His father thought that Israelis and Palestinians working together would bring about a much better people, for both of us,” the writer explained. “We complement each other and we can do great things together.”

Shehadeh says that he has also inherited parts of his father’s vision.

Like Shehadeh, Aziz understood the importance of Palestinians staying on the land. “My father would do everything possible to help Palestinians stay here. Every new person staying here was a gain.”

However, unlike his father, Shehadeh does not support a two-state or one-state solution to the decades-old conflict, noting that these discussions were “irrelevant.”

Instead, the writer says his “dream” is “one region,” reminiscent of a Greater Syria, and believes this will inevitably become the future. (So far, Israel is the existential enemy of the One Syrian people)

“It will come one day. But it’s a dream, just like the one-state solution is a dream,” he said. “It’s futile for us to dream now. I think we should focus on calling for the end of the occupation, and then we can find ways that we can live together. The question is how do we relate these two nations — Palestinians and Israelis together?”

The most pressing issue for Shehadeh is the right of return for Palestinian refugees — upheld by United Nations resolution 194 — who were expelled from their homes and lands during the Zionist takeover of historic Palestine in 1948.

“The right of return is a fundamental matter for Israel, because Israel bases its state mythology on the lack of a presence or existence of a Palestinian nation,” Shehadeh explained.

“So to recognize that there was a Palestinian nation living in what became Israel means Israel has to readjust its identity. And this is essential if there’s ever going to be peace”

‘To dehumanize them, you reduce your own humanity’

His latest book, Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine, published last year, documents Shehadeh’s shifting perspectives and relationships with several Israeli friends throughout Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory.

“I’ve been rather obsessed with the fact that when I go to a place, let’s say a checkpoint or a certain landscape that was changed, I see it both in the way it was and the way it is now,” Shehadeh explained to me.

“These two realities are in my mind all the time […] But it’s only because of my age and experience that I can see it in this way. But anybody who is an adult now, even in their 20s or 30s, will only know about how it is now. They will have no perception or imagining of how it was before.”

These thoughts created the framework for the book, exploring various “crossings” that have changed throughout the occupation.

He said that he explores “how different relationships existed between Palestinians and Israelis at various levels, the relationship and continuity of the land, the way that it was open at one point, and how the crossings into Israel have changed.”

Shehadeh’s book, which in part focused on his relationship with his Israeli friend Henry and included personal letters exchanged between the two friends, examines these relationships in a humanistic, thoughtful and honest way.

In a land where even the most mundane aspects of Palestinian life are shaped by Israel’s occupation, it can be a personal struggle not to become bitter and resentful toward Israelis as a whole.

But Shehadeh has been able to transcend these feelings. “To dehumanize them [Israelis], you reduce your own humanity,” he said.

“I’ve passed through stages,” Shehadeh added. “The first intifada was one, when I would be so angry and so full of hate, and therefore feel myself reduced by the hate. I realized it doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t provide me a service and it doesn’t give my cause a service.”

“It doesn’t help me in my life or my understandings. So I got over it, and I never succumbed to it again.” (And now he is succumbing to what? The laws of the occupiers?)

Continuing Sumud

Much has changed throughout the decades Shehadeh has been writing.

He remembers when it was difficult to get away with even mentioning Palestine in his books. When he did write that controversial 9-letter word, his books were often taken from public library shelves and torn apart.

“I remember going to Barnes and Noble, and noticing that one of my books — When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege — was placed in the military history section,” he said, noting that he believes someone had placed it there so that no one would see it.

However, “now there are many books and intellectuals who are critical of Israel, which was not the case before.”

Meanwhile, he said, Israel has shifted farther to the right, with US President Donald Trump “allowing Israel to do whatever it wants.” Shehadeh believes that this is in fact bad for Israel.

“It is destroying the country,” he told Mondoweiss. “They are becoming fascists.” (They have been acting fascists since they were created and planned their terrorist activities as fascists before their “independence” from mandated Britain)

For the daily life of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Shehadeh believes that it has become more complex. “I think in the past it used to be a lot simpler because we all understood occupation and we all thought it would end soon. But as time went on we realized that’s not the case,” he said. (As he understood Britain mandated occupation?)

“But it was clear where we were moving and the situation wasn’t confusing,”’ he continued. “At the same time, daily life was much more difficult and obstructed.”

However, now in the occupied West Bank, he says, there are more opportunities and possibilities for Palestinians. Particularly in cities like Ramallah, which boomed after 1997 becoming the de-facto capital of the West Bank, Palestinians have more access to economic ventures or other projects than they did before. (An economy that is extension to Israel economy?)

According to Shehadeh, this is all part of the continuing sumud, and represents developments that have made it easier for Palestinians to remain here.

“If you think about Ramallah, as bad as the government [Palestinian Authority] is, they’ve managed to make it possible for people to lead their lives with clean streets and cafes.” (Great, while settlers dump their sewage in Palestinian schools?)

Ramallah’s active cultural scene, consisting of everything from visual arts, poetry and theater to hip hop and underground music, is an important element of sumud. “The assertion of the self is an important part of the resistance,” Shehadeh says.

“People are staying, and that’s very important. There is power in the fact that despite everything Israel has tried to do we are still staying,” he said, highlighting that the population of Palestinians and Israelis within Israel-Palestine is almost equal.

“That’s a great achievement considering how much Israel has tried to prevent it.”

Shehadeh politely glanced at his watch to check the time. We had been speaking for about two hours, and I thought it was best to finally end the interview.

The acclaimed writer walked me out. “Thank you for your time,” I said, and his reply was brief. “Yes, thank you. Good bye.” His eyes lowered to the ground as he gently closed the door in front of him.

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TEDxRamallah Event in Beirut, part 3

In the previous two articles, I talked of the speakers Fadi Ghandour, Huwaida Arraf, Steve Sosebee, Julia Basha, Sheerin Al Araj, Laila Atshan, Alice Walker, and Wael Attili of the Kharabeesh enterprise.  The third part will discuss many of the remaining speakers.

The first session hosted Raja Shehadeh, Gisel Kordestani, Mohammad Khatib, Fadi Ghandour, and Huwaida Arraf.

Mohammad Khatib is a young entrepreneur that was hired by Google to join the team in Silicon Valley after developing Bazinga! a start-up catalyst and a tech hub in Ramallah. The application records and plays back the freedom slogans during the Egyptian peaceful revolution. Mohammad Khatib doesn’t tell us what his mother told him for him to advise the younger generation: “Don’t listen to your mom“.  Maybe his mom was urging him not to leave to the USA?

Raja Shehadeh is founder of Al Haq (law in the service of human rights) in the West Bank. Al Haq is an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists that monitors, documents, and issue reports on human rights violations in Israel and Palestine. Raja Shehadeh wrote “The Third Way: A Journal of life in the West Bank and occupiers’ laws. Strangers in the house” and “Palestinian Walks (2008)“.  His latest book is “A Rift in time, travels with my Ottoman Uncle”

The second session hosted Amal Shehabi. Sam Bahour, Steve Sosebee, Mohammad al Dahshan, the Palestinian singer Rim Al Banna, Julia Basha (Director of the award winning movie Budrus), and Munir Fasheh.

Amal Shehabi had a harsh life in the Palestinian camp of Ain Helweh in Saida (Lebanon).  When the Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1982, she was taken prisoner at the age of 15 and experienced the brutality and confinement of prison: She was denied to see the sun light…She received a health-care diploma from the UNRWA Siblin training center and worked as supervisor to Palestinian woman’s organization from 1985 to 2008.

The son of Amal Shehabi suffered severe bullet head injuries and was handicapped; Amal care for him everyday and encouraged her son to become an Olympic champion in wide jump. Amal Shehabi has told her detaintion story in the documentary “Kingdom of Women” of Danah Abu Rahmeh.

The speaker Muneer Fasheh is a mathematician born in Jerusalem in 1941.  His family was expelled to Ramallah in 1948 by the nascent Israeli State.  Muneer said that we have to respect other kinds of knowledge not based on official institutions diplomas.  For example, his illiterate mother, who could not even handle numbers, was an excellent seamstress for years:  No PhD degree in any disciplines may position you to sew even a shirt.

(Apparently, institutional education is mostly politically motivated to limit the better job opportunities to the most fortunate citizens in any obvious or latent apartheid system).  Lack of schooling institutions for all is a major handicap for acceding to equal job opportunity rights.

In 1997, Muneer established the Arab Education Forum within Harvard University Center for Middle-Eastern Studies.  His fresh idea is to institute a college “Home of wisdom” in one of the Palestinian universities.

The third session welcomed Abdelrahman Katanany (the zinko artworks), the Lebanese-based Palestinian rap group Katibe 5, Alessandro Petti, Saleh Jawad, Sheerin Al Araj, and the blind psychologist Laila Atshan.

Suad Amiry is a funny architect and the founder of RIWAQ: The Center for Architectural Conservation dedicated to restoring and preserving Palestinian buildings. Her parents had to leave Jaffa in 1948 as refugees in Amman.  On her first hour at the university in Lebanon, professor Khoury let a sand clock finish the hour before saying: “Is this hour too long for you? Consider that you will spend one million of such an hour during your career.  If you are pressured to engage in architecture against your will, now is the time to decide.”  Many students never returned.

During the 40-day curfew and 10-month siege of Ramallah by Ariel Sharon, Suad Amiry had to take in her demanding mother-in-law.  As Suad is writing her diary at 4 am her mother-in-law would bug her to come out and prepare breakfast.  Thus, “Sharon and my mother-in-law: Ramallah Diary ” was born.  At the age of 55, Suad started a new career of writer.

The fourth session hosted Wael Attili (the Kharabeesh enterprise based in Amman), Khaled Seb3awi, the Mexican/US rap singer Mark Gonzales, Alice Walker, Suad Amiry, and the group of bagpipe players of Guirab. The session ended with the Fayha group of 40 young singers singing three beautiful songs and led by maestro Barkev Taslakian.

Khaled Seb3awi is a Canadian/Palestinian Computer Engineer and the first certified Geothermal Engineer in the Middle-East. He installed the first geothermal system in the West Bank and is the founder of MENA Geothermal.  This system takes advantage of the steady temperature on the ground at 17 degrees and infuse water in underground canalization to heat the homes in winter and cool them in summertime, thus, saving 70% on the energy bill.

Khaled Seb3awi invention cut down the return on investment geothermal systems from 12 to 6 years.

He had hard time with the Jordanian government before he secured the project of the 1.6MW for the University of Madaba:  He had to deal with a dozen ministries for the review and approval process.

Session One: TEDx Ramallah in Beirut (Sunflower theater)

TEDxRamallah was held in Betlehem (Beit Lahm) in the Palestinian occupied West Bank and many participated live from Beirut (Sunflower theater) and Amman (Jordan).  Many speakers were refused visa entry by the Israeli authorities, and most of the speakers had hard time reaching destination, traveling to many airports and cities, waiting in many Israeli check points before reaching Bethlehem.  For example, the US author Alice Walker (The Color Purple) had hard time crossing the Allenby Bridge.

The Israelis submitted her to four hours of silly questioning, just one of Israel harassment tactics.  The Israeli soldier had never heard of Alice or read any of her books or seen the Color Purple.  By the by, the computer search revealed information on Alice; Alice was confronted with one of her pronouncement that she will never visit Israel as long as Palestinians are under occupation.  Alice retorted: “Am I in Israel?  I am invited to Bethlehem among Palestinians.”  Alice recollected that in 1967 she asked one American politician: “Obviously, Israel will withdraw from the recent occupied lands in Sinai and the Golan Heights.” The answer was: “Israel needs all these lands”.  Alice knows that all these check points, barriers, Wall of Shame separating the West Bank from Israel proper, and apartheid policies are not sustainable and will be removed by force of the indignant Palestinians.

I attended the event in Beirut that officially started at 10 am to the end at around 8pm.  In addition to speakers, we watched performances by singles and group singers and musicians.  A large panel was exhibiting constant streams of comments arriving from over 40 cities around the world.  Food were served during the two breaks and at lunchtime around 2pm and the quantities were generous:  The event was well managed and the organizers were dedicated young entrepreneurs.

All the talks are in video on the internet.  My contribution is to extending essential summaries of the speeches so that readers may have opportunity to selecting whom and which video they want to listen to.

The Palestinian organizers are Ramzi Jaber (25 years old) and Jamil Abu Wardeh…; in Lebanon we have Joumana Jabiri and Zena Tahhan…Huwaida Arraf gave a talk and was one of the presenters.

Huwaida Arraf was under great emotional pressures because one of her best friend and activist colleague, the Italian Vittorion Arrigoni, was kidnapped and shot in Gaza the day before.  Vittorio Arrigoni refused to leave the occupied Palestinian lands since 2002 and participated in the demonstrations and peaceful activities everywhere villages needed his presence.  He was ill lately and suffered from kidney stone and was about ready to leave to Italy for health treatments. Huwaida had lost another friend activist a month ago, the assassinated young movie director Juliano Khamis.

Huwaida was born in the US and graduated a lawyer and settled in the West Bank during the first Intifada around 1990 and never left Palestine since then; Huwaida’s mother called her from Ohio asking her to return home.  Huwaidda replied: “But mother I am at home”.  Huwaida’s husband Adam Shapiro is denied entry to Israel and is living in Lebanon.

Huwaida started International Solidarity with the Palestinians and over 4,000 foreign activists have joined her peaceful struggle against Israel ignominies such as building the Wall of Shame, demolishing Palestinian private houses, rooting out ancient olive trees for colony expansions, opening newer highways to circumventing Palestinian villages, and overrunning Palestinian camps in Jenine, Jabaliya…Huwaida Arraf is currently the Chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement and has led 5 successful sea voyages to the Gaza Strip: She was on the flotilla that was savagely attacked by Israeli troops that killed a dozen peaceful Turkish activists.

In the first session we lacked focus on the speakers, but things improved after the first break.  The first session hosted Raja Shehadeh, Gisel Kordestani, Mohammad Khatib, Fadi Ghandour, and Huwaida Arraf.

The second session hosted Amal Shehabi. Sam Bahour, Steve Sosebee, Mohammad al Dahshan, the Palestinian singer Rim Al Banna, Julia Basha (Director of the award winning movie Budrus), and Munir Fasheh.

The third session welcomed  Abdelrahman Katanany (the zinko artworks), the Lebanese-based Palestinian rap group Katibe 5,  Alessandro Petti, Saleh Jawad, Sheerin Al Araj, and the blind psychologist Laila Atshan.

The fourth session hosted Wael Attili (the Kharabeesh enterprise based in Amman), Khaled Sab3awi, the Mexican/US rap singer Mark Gonzales, Alice Walker, Suad Amiry, and the group of bagpipe players of Guirab.  The session ended with the Fayha group of 40 young singers singing three beautiful songs and led by maestro Barkev Taslakian.

Part two of this series will cover in some details the content of the talks.  See you soon.

William and Hanane gave me ride to the event.  We were supposed to leave at 8:15 but we started off at 9:30.  By 9 am I thought that William had forgotten to go.  As I arrived, my name was not listed as my application was approved.  It didn’t matter, the beautiful girl with blue eyes stamped a red X on my right hand.

During the first break, I had no idea the small breakfast buffet was served outside.  I had a small mankoush and a small cup of milk, five minutes before the second session.  At lunch, I used to sneak out one sandwich at a time, while people were waiting in line to fill their plastic plate.  I was very surprised that another buffet was waiting for us at the second break, and we had sweet “maacroun”.

When the official TEDx event was over around 7pm, we had a surprise.  While listening to a speaker, a large bunch of young people sneaked in.  I thought student s from around the corner came in by order of a dedicated teacher.  This group of about 40 began a song while sitting among us; they ended up on stage and sang two other songs.

I waited for William outside, knowing that he had to hurry in order to cover the launching of a CD at a restaurant.  I waited for 20 minutes and wondered whether William left without me.  I returned and looked for William or Hanane and could not locate them anywhere.  I waited another 15 minutes thinking that pretty soon they will miss their silent passenger and make a U turn to retrieve me.  Patricia was going out and she confirmed that William is still here, meeting with someone in a corner downstairs.

We were the last persons leaving the theater and I met Joumana Jabiri and Zeina Tahhane.  Zeina claimed that she ate nothing for the day:  I have to check on Zeina reliable claim on her eating habit. I also met with Joumana parents who are originally from Aleppo.  It was way after 10:30 when we arrived home.  I felt tired even though I didn’t work in the garden today:  Most probably, I missed my nap but I focused pretty well during the entire event.

Note 1:  A TEDx Lebanon is in the planning for this September 2011.  Among the organizers are Patricia Zogheib and William Choukeir…

Note 2:  Palvoices.wordpress.com of DevlnetMedia/Hibr.me worked with a group of 10 Palestinian young media students to covering the event in Beirut.


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