Palestinian landscape, photographed by me in 1997
I have been reading Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2008). In his introduction, Shehadeh explains that he began taking long walks in the late seventies. 'This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place. The hills then were like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique to such areas.' He describes walks 'in the hills around Ramallah, in the wadis in the Jerusalem wilderness and through the gorgeous ravines by the Dead Sea.' But as the book progresses, the landscape changes: settlements grow and walking becomes more difficult, particularly after the construction of the separation barrier around and in the West Bank. It made we wonder how much of what I saw on a trip to Israel in 1997 would still look as it did then. I was staying then with an economist working with the Palestinian Authority and in his car, with UN plates, we were able to travel pretty much where we wanted. I can't find my notes for this trip but have included a few snapshots here (you can tell it's the nineties because I'm wearing a SubPop baseball cap!)
In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain said of this 'desolate and unlovely' land: 'Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition - it is a dream-land.' Thackeray wrote of 'parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones - a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate ... There is not a spot at which you look, but some violent deed has been done there.' Raja Shehadeh compares the way these travelers brought with them a Palestine of the mind, where history is more alive than the people around them, to the narratives underpinning the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. Almost despairing at the construction work deforming the hills around Ramellah, Shehadeh takes comfort in the long view: in a land where Crusader castles now lie in ruins he is reminded of Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Carmel Point', in which the rocks endure while the works of humanity eventually dissolve.
Struggling to climb a small boulder in a wadi
(Robert Macfarlane I am not)
Palestinian Walks does provide a sense of the area's beauty, but it is fleeting and there is less nature description than I was expecting. On each walk Shehadeh is reminded of the politics of the landscape and begins reflecting on his career as a lawyer, opposing the growth of the settlements. He describes one walk through sun dappled fields to a wadi, where the path leads up through olive groves, partridges scuttle from the path and through 'an abundance of wild flowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds.' But the earth underfoot begins to feel wet and 'we soon realized that we had walked into the open sewers of the Jewish settlement of Talmon to the north. This settlement might have had a rubbish collection system but it did not have one for treating sewage, which was just disposed of down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers.'
The Dead Sea
Thinking back to my visit in 1997, I was also coming with preconceptions - partly from talking to my (future) wife, who had recently lived in the region whilst working with Palestinian refugees, and partly from books. I remember persuading my traveling companions that we should drive along the shore of The Dead Sea looking for surreal salt landforms, which I vaguely recalled from a Michel Tournier novel, Four Wise Men. I have just dug my old paperback out and found the part I had been remembering. In it, Taor, Prince of Mangalore, and his companions make their way downhill, 'at times so steeply that the elephants' feet dislodged great masses of gray earth. By the end of the day, white granular boulders made their appearance. The travelers examined them. They proved to be blocks of salt. Then came a forest thinly settled with white, leafless bushes that seemed covered in frost. The branches were as brittle as porcelain. They too were salt. Finally the sun sank behind the travelers, and in a gap between two mountains they saw a distant patch of metallic blue: the Dead Sea.' The next day they reach the sea itself and see strange white dots on its surface which turn out to be 'great mushrooms of white salt, rooted in the bottom and emerging at the top like reefs.' The men are disgusted by the water, with its salt, magnesia, bromine and naphtha, stinging the eyes and coating the body in crystals of salt. Only the elephants seem to like it, showering each other with their trunks. But the next day the travelers find to their horror 'two enormous mushrooms of salt, shaped like elephants ... paralyzed, asphyxiated, crushed under their burden of salt, but safe from the ravages of time for several centuries, several millennia.'