Where the Line is Drawn
London: Profile Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Timothy Biles Former editor of Bible Lands
Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and the founder of Al Haq, the pioneering Human Rights organization which has recorded the abuse and subjugation of the Palestinian people under occupation. He is also Palestine’s leading writer, the author of ten widely acclaimed books and of a number of research papers.
My expectation of a book written by a human rights lawyer was that there would be a forensic analysis of the many legal issues that arise from the years of occupation, of land forcibly taken by settlers, of the imprisonment of protesters, of the limitation of movement and of the other deprivations suffered by people who face armed military at every turn. Shehadeh lives with that situation but has produced a book of a different order. He chooses two themes which lift the work to a new level, to a story of warm and sensitive relationships across the political lines. There are times when these lines are crossed and there is the hope that humanity will prevail after all, and then there is the realization that crossing those lines comes at a cost so painful that very few will achieve it. There is no forensic analysis here, but the intensity and compassion more akin to an epic poem.
The first of the author’s two themes tells the story of his friendship with Henry, a Canadian Jew who has settled in Israel. The friendship attempts to cross political and social lines and often manages to do so, giving the reader hope that good human relations will overcome the barriers of race, religion, political violence and cruel injustice. But at other times the friendship cannot be sustained as each thinks the other is partly responsible for the evils committed on both sides. Raja wrestles in his mind with the fact that his Jewish friend, who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in many ways, is in fact a settler and therefore partly the cause of the deprivation of the Palestinian people. Henry, on his part, feels Raja’s demands that he protests publicly are unreasonable and that he cannot be expected to put his very comfortable life style at risk. The book includes several of the letters they exchanged, showing the affection each had for the other and the sadness that kept them apart. When each got married and later when Henry’s lifethreatening illness took over unexpectedly, the lines separating an Arab in the West Bank and a Jew in West Jerusalem were heavily drawn.
The second of the author’s themes concerns his chosen sumoud lifestyle. Sumoud belongs in the‘resistance by peaceful means’ family. Sumoud means steadfast defiance. It believes people have the power to recover after disappointment, and rise higher. It is more than suffering in silence, more than a lifestyle of patient endurance, it is a positive assertion of independence and of identity. The self sufficiency of farmers who subsist on their limited produce and refuse to consume Israeli goods; the builders and labourers who lose high income by refusing to work on Israeli settlements and earn low income by working within the Palestinian economy; the school teachers who continue to teach the history of the Palestinians although it is written out of the Israeli books are all embracing the sumoud principle. The author, as he attempts to encourage sumoud as a way of life, faces the challenges of the ‘intifada’ and the deceptive ‘Oslo Agreement’ as ways to peace. With prophetic insight, he fears one is too negative and the other sealed nonstatehood into law. The author’s own efforts to live by sumoud are severely tested and make harrowing reading, especially when he seeks to cross the drawn lines. When crossing from Jordan the Israeli guard at the checkpoint was a friend of Henry’s and they had socialized together and were on first name terms but that did not prevent the humiliation of a strip search.
Turning anger and frustration into something positive is the challenge of sumoud and in this latest stream from Shehadeh’s flowing pen we have a profoundly moving picture of the struggle to remain human and compassionate under an occupation which has regard for neither.
Raja Shehadeh is also author of Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (Profile, 2007) and A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle (Profile, 2010) among other titles.
Featured in Bible Lands, Winter 2019