Strangers in his house
"When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary of Ramallah Under Siege" by Raja Shehadeh, Profile Books, 152 pages, 3.99 pounds sterling.
"When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary of Ramallah Under Siege" by Raja Shehadeh, Profile Books, 152 pages, 3.99 pounds sterling
How should a man of about 50, an attorney, a lover of books and classical European music, welcome soldiers who, by all indications, are about to burst into his house, in a city under military occupation? Should he remain in his pajamas? Should he dress elegantly or informally?
Raja Shehadeh thought for a long time and chose the casual option. It was early in the morning on November 18, 2002, when a sudden curfew was imposed on his neighborhood and a friend who lives nearby rushed to the phone to tell him a group of soldiers was approaching the area where he lives.
When his wife brought the six soldiers into the house, Shehadeh managed to take off his pajamas and put on sand-colored corduroy pants and a gray and green striped shirt. After some hesitation, he put on shoes rather than greet the invited guests in slippers. Although, they do make him look taller.
In the epilogue to a diary he wrote during Operation Defensive Shield (late March and April 2002), Shehadeh, who is short of stature, lets the reader understand - in one of his characteristic hints - that he was pleased to find himself standing in front of a commander who was no taller than he. In his early 20s.
There is quite a lot of dry humor in the pages of this readable diary, which describes three weeks of life under constant military attack. Death. Destruction. Fear. Boredom. Explosions. But the descriptions are interwoven with meditations, historical or autobiographical digressions, and sarcasm, directed even at himself.
Infrequently, the meditations sound somewhat like propaganda, especially when he feels a need to contend with, or to characterize, Israeli rhetoric. One can tell he's tired of doing so. But, most of the time, the meditations and analyses are thought-provoking and arouse an appetite for more. The book is readable because the transition between harsh descriptions and those digressions is smooth and natural and doesn't expose the reader to endless and sickening details about this or that person killed by Israel Defense Forces fire.
One could think this sarcastic understatement comes from his years of study in England. But anyone who is familiar with Palestinians - and not only from intelligence reports and belligerent statements on Palestinian television, which are quoted on Israeli television - knows the extent to which they deal with the injustice of their lives with dry and sarcastic humor.
Shehadeh also knows how to be emotional. This can be seen when he writes about his wife, who was out of the country during the first days of the IDF invasion and the complete curfew imposed on the city. Sparingly, he describes Ramallah almost as a shtetl, in which everyone knows everyone else and life is conducted in a small, active radius of streets. Dryly, he describes terrifying situations: His mother, who lives alone in the center of the city, among all the explosions and the tanks and the shoot-outs between soldiers and armed Palestinians. Or a friend who stopped eating. This friend lived above a butcher shop during the attack, when tanks destroyed the electricity infrastructure and electrical workers were not allowed for days to fix it. All the meat in the butcher's refrigerators rotted and the stench was intolerable. A few days later, the neighbor's sister died. Because the IDF didn't allow the free movement of ambulances, her corpse (like those of other dead) remained in the house for several days. When Shehadeh visited her home to make a condolence call, the smell of death was still in the air.
Contracts have already been signed to translate the book into many languages, according to a friend of Shehadeh. In all languages, the readers will be exposed to a generous portion of Shehadeh's criticism of the Palestinian leadership, including Palestinian Authority [PA] Chairman Yasser Arafat. He reserves special words of sarcasm for the official Palestinian spokesmen: for their boasting and their panic, for their baseless promises. Shehadeh asks himself if he did the right thing when he decided to retire from public life, where he would have been a de facto spokesman for the Palestinian cause. He was one during the 1980s and the early 1990s, as an attorney who chose the legal arena to fight the Israeli occupation, and as the person who established the human rights organization Al Hak. In 1991, he joined the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid-Washington talks. He agreed with the position of the heads of this delegation, Faisal Husseini and Haider Abdel Shafi, that the main issue was the settlements: That the building of them and in them should be frozen as a condition for progress in the negotiations. When it turned out the Tunisian leadership of the Palestinian cause had circumvented and bypassed them, and had secretly conducted the Oslo talks, which included no specific Israeli commitment to stop the building in the settlements, he left public life and returned to his private practice.
The alienation and remoteness of the leadership from the nation, which he discovered after the establishment of the PA, only reinforced his decision. But, whatever his conscious choice, Shehadeh is a spokesman for his people by the very fact that he publishes books on "the Palestinian situation" from his own personal viewpoint. Last year, his autobiography "Strangers in the House - Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine" was published (also by Profile Books). He went on a lecture tour. A very successful tour, reported acquaintances in England. His unofficial spokesmanship stems for the most part from his personal instincts and from his talent for writing. But it is also a natural, self-evident part of his membership in the socioeconomic middle to upper class: education, the circles in which he moves, resources, leisure time, acquaintances abroad, English. Similar assets, but without the literary advantage of his type of spokesmanship, have turned many of his neighbors, acquaintances and friends in Ramallah, into forceful spokesmen for the Palestinian issue, in no small amount thanks to e-mail (in other words, access to computers and the Internet, which is very much a matter of social class).
Many of the experiences of occupation mentioned in Shehadeh's diary have been described in e-mail reports sent by members of his class to every possible contact list, especially in the West. In this way, the experience of middle- to upper-class Palestinians was given a much more personal and precise description, which also went to a much larger readership than the experiences of lower-class neighborhoods and refugee camps.
Shehadeh's dramatic restraint suits the intimate and tolerant act of reading. For example, the way he describes the disgust he felt suddenly, in the days when the curfew was lifted for several hours and all the city's residents went amok in their efforts to resupply: "... as though the life of society had become restricted to the buying and stocking of food, so that it would suffice for our time in jail. All people do is buy, cook, eat and wait for the next time the curfew is lifted, in order to buy again. Without income, without work, without pleasure."
Shehadeh has the background and the material conditions to enable him to lift himself above the humiliating situation that military attacks and the curfew impose on most of his people. During the three weeks of curfew, when shooting and the echoes of explosions frightened all the inhabitants of the city, Shehadeh couldn't help but remind himself that his situation was much better than that of people whose houses are small and crowded, who have no gardens, whose windows don't offer a view of the same natural landscape. He is real, as in his descriptions, as in his comments about Arafat, as in his belittling of the "mock battles" conducted by the armed Palestinians.
Shehadeh and his wife live in Al Tira, a spacious neighborhood in western Ramallah. In the local slang, it is called the "Puppies" neighborhood (Palestinian yuppies). Doctors, lawyers, scholars and lecturers in Bir Zeit University; natives of Ramallah and other cities who managed to save money and move during the past 20 years from the old, crowded family home to the developing neighborhood; senior officials in the PA offices, who recently returned from exile in Tunis or Amman; ministers and former ministers in the PA; poet Mahmoud Darwish; journalists in the foreign television networks; 30-somethings who were born to the right families and studied the right subjects abroad for the period when the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and endless foreign agencies became increasingly entrenched in the society, and were in need of employees who were natives and speakers of the local language. And many others, who don't fit into any of the above categories, live in the neighborhood, as well.
Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, lived in this neighborhood - before he was arrested during the Operation Defensive Shield campaign - in an apartment that is not at all luxurious or yuppie. It is interesting that Shehadeh doesn't even mention his arrest, which for understandable reasons received a great deal of coverage in the Israeli media. Is this a statement directed against one of the members of the PA leadership, whom he sees as arrogant, or does Shehadeh view Barghouti as just one of thousands of detainees who aren't mentioned by name and aren't so well known?
As is universal among all members of their class, it seems the residents of Al Tira are careful about their health (more so than the residents of the lower-class neighborhoods) and are accustomed to going out for power walks in their handsome neighborhood, whose streets climb the sides of hills and descend steeply to wadis full of olive trees. When his American-born wife Penny returned home, they did their daily exercise by walking in the house. A house that is apparently large enough for two good walkers not to feel ridiculous going back and forth in it.
Emotionally, Shehadeh had a lot of time to prepare for the moment when the soldiers came to his house, to fear it, as does everyone who lives in Ramallah and El Bireh, as do all the inhabitants of all the cities and villages in the West Bank. During 2001, even before Operation Defensive Shield, IDF forces took control for a few days of neighborhoods in Hebron, Bethlehem and its environs, of suburbs in Ramallah and El Bireh. Residential homes turned into temporary bases for battalions of soldiers, some even turned into lookout and firing positions for days on end. In some cases, the residents were told to leave their homes. In other cases, they were told to crowd into one or two rooms, under a military regime of the soldiers who spread out in the other rooms.
That was the fate of Shehadeh's brother Samer, with his wife and his two young children. On March 29, a short time after Raja Shehadeh awoke to the sound of the screechin tank chains, his brother called and told him in a whisper that Israeli soldiers were in his house. He spoke in a whisper because he was forbidden to use the telephone. He was taken as a "human shield" when the soldiers conducted their searches in other apartments. For hours, his wife and children didn't know what had happened to him.
The diary keeps track of what happened to his brother, and of the concern of the older, fatherly brother for the fate of the sibling who is seven years his junior. On April 13, Shehadeh describes what happened to his brother's family the night before: They were sitting in the living room watching television. The soldiers were sitting in the doorway, their rifles aimed at them. A news flash announced a suicide attack in Haifa. The first pictures began to flicker on the screen. A valley of carnage, writes Shehadeh, experiencing his brother's fear that one of the soldiers would want to take revenge; and he doesn't tire of once again revealing, as on other pages of his diary, his repugnance toward this type of struggle.
If there are those among us who think that criticism of the PA means longing for Israel and its rule, or preference for its occupation regime, let them read Shehadeh and they will change their convenient assumption. As a spokesman, willy-nilly, Shehadeh operates within the objective framework of the characteristics and privileges of his class. His penetrating criticism of the Palestinian leadership is not exceptional and reflects the atmosphere in his society. But when he analyzes - for a huge Western readership - the behavior of Israeli soldiers, in particular, and Israeli policy, in general, he breaks the rules dictated by the relations between occupier and occupied. In these relations, the one is subjugated to the other, his life is determined by the decisions and needs of the former. But for Shehadeh, the soldier, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli governments become the object. An object of comments and distinctions. And when it comes to soldiers, they are not only objects of feelings of fury and hatred, but of his feelings of pity, as well.