Gazelles, white asphodel, and dinosaur footprints are not sights most people usually associate with Ramallah, Palestine. But as our book columnist, Don George, notes in our latest Trip Lit column, his view of Ramallah and the surrounding hillsides were forever changed after reading Palestinian Walks, June’s featured Traveler Book of the Month. The book presents six walks which weave through the hills around Ramallah, the nearby wadis of the Jerusalem wilderness, and the ravines by the Dead Sea. Author Raja Shehadeh’s trekked these paths from 1978 to 2006, and while his early walks feature landscapes that a contemporary of Christ might find familiar, as the years go by, the hills become increasingly hemmed in by Jewish settlements. “Where old roads amble along the contours of the land, new highways are blasted straight through,” Don George writes in his review, “once wide open spaces are covered with concrete buildings.” I chatted with Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer and human-rights activist who has lived in Ramallah his whole life.
What inspired you to write this book?
I yearned to write something about the land because I feel strongly about it. The idea came to me to do it through walks. The funny thing is I couldn’t find a good word in Arabic for "walks." A walk has a particular meaning in English, a particular resonance. The closest I could get was a word in Arabic that sort of translates as “picnics”—but readers would probably think something was wrong with that [laughing]…
In the book you end up using the word sarhat for walks. Could you explain the sarhat?
Sarhat is walking aimlessly and solitarily into the hills, going just to lose yourself and be at one with the land. In a sense the book is my attempt at taking sarhat and getting to that state. I had very good walks as a young man but as you get older you tend to become more self-conscious about what you’re doing. And since it’s become harder for me to extract myself out of the current conditions and let go, the sarhat has become impossible. I have to worry about so many things, and you can never go as far as you want to go on the walk because there’s always a block somehow. In a sense, the sarhat has become an ideal that I’m still seeking and haven’t achieved.
But you still do go on walks?
My favorite way of walking is to walk alone or with one other person. But in recent times when I’ve walked alone, I’ve really had bad experiences and so I stopped doing that. Now we have a walking group, a sort of ramblers club. The website is called Shat-ha.org. We walk every Friday. And sometimes on Wednesdays in the afternoon. On Fridays, we start very early. The thing is, we cannot any longer walk in the vicinity of Ramallah because it’s become too full of settlements and it’s not very safe, so we take a car—a shared taxi—and go farther out and start a walk in other parts [of Palestine]. And in this way I’ve explored other areas that I haven’t been to before.
Are you surprised to discover that wild places still exist in the Palestinian hills?
Yes, I am surprised. But the race to build more roads and infrastructure is actually speeding up. And it’s not just settlers, it’s also that Ramallah is growing and destroying a lot of surroundings. All this money that is pouring in for development is causing further destruction. So one should not be blasé, but it’s always a balance between being too paranoid and too laid-back.
Is it still possible to do all the walks you describe in the book?
Some of the walks are not possible, because the land is lost. And as I write in the book, I wanted to preserve in words the things from those early walks that are now gone: some beautiful cliffs, rocks, wadis. But other walks are still possible. Of course, to encourage people to walk is sometimes counterproductive because walkers can also destroy the paths and so on, but if more and more people realize that that is a beautiful part of the world they would help to preserve it.
So more tourists could potentially be a good thing.
It depends on how it’s done. Bethlehem and Jerusalem and other cities are very touristed places, but nature tourism has not caught on. There are now the beginnings of a movement to renovate houses in the Palestinian villages so tourists can stay and enjoy the spirit of that kind of life and then take walks in the hills. There’s plenty to see, like crusader castles and the terraced hillsides. The place is just so beautiful. So if it’s the kind of tourism that is more sensitive and appreciative of the land, that would certainly be good—good for the economy and to break through the attempt to isolate Palestinians from the rest of the world.
Photo: John Barnett/iStockphoto.com