I don’t do politics….perhaps a lifetime in Northern Ireland has been partly responsible for that! My faint knowledge of the Middle East conflict is restricted to vague images of Yasser Arafat and the 80s trend of wearing that little tassled scarf – oh and I can also recognise the Palestinian and Israeli flags as they are frequently flown in Nationalist and Loyalist areas, dare I say, in order to wind each other up…
So, it was with slight trepidation that I picked up A Rift in Time, Raj Shehadeh’s memoir of his great-uncle Najib Nassar. Raj is a prominent Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist. He lives in Ramallah on the West Bank, currently under military occupation by Israel. In this book, he retraces his uncle’s footsteps during his time on the run from the Ottoman authorities between 1915 and 1918. Najib came under suspicion of espionage and treasonable activities as he voiced opposition to the Ottoman participation in World War I and spent three years in hiding in different locations, depending on the generosity of friends and foes alike.
Raj’s present day journey, following in his uncle’s footsteps, lacks the fluidity of Najib’s adventures, given that he is faced with border restrictions, army checkpoints and other physical obstructions. He finds the landscape ravaged by the intensive farming favoured by the Israeli settlers. Villages which welcomed and sheltered Najib back in the 1900s are now wiped off the map, having been razed to the ground in 1948.
I found it useful to have a map of the area at my side especially when Shehadeh was moving through different areas, Haifa, Ramallah, Jericho, Tyre, Beirut, the Jordan Valley as it made it easier to follow his journey and that of Najib. As a result I had a better understanding of the shifting borders and how the political landscape has changed although I remain bewildered as to how around 750,000 Palestinians became refugees and were not allowed to return to their homes. Admittedly, Shehadeh’s account has a habit of jumping from one century to another, from one country to another and it can be difficult to keep track of things but then we are dealing with a very complicated situation.
Here is a man who yearns for political agreement achieved by peaceful means and he recognises that the past is important and we can draw lessons from it, but we must also put the past behind us and strive for an egalitarian society.