Raja Shehadeh, The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank (London: Quartet Books, 1982).
My problem with the newspapers is that I can’t settle on the right time to read them. In the morning they darken the day, at noon they kill my appetite, after lunch they make me sick, and in the evening they set the pattern of my nightmares.
Raja Shehadeh, educated in literature, philosophy and law in Beirut and London, spent late Ramallah nights in 1980 assigning to paper his internal struggle between surrender and hate. The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank is not an evenly charted battle line. Oscillations abound. What emerges is a rare honesty and forthright doubt: that law is useless in a situation where the scales are so heavily tipped; that one’s paper work is a puny offering while others trot fearlessly off to prison; that personal worries are better replaced by objective concerns; that occupation is kinder to a bourgeois intellectual than to a farmer or revolutionary; that sometimes it is difficult to keep up the silent struggle and not slip into debilitating despair or compromising behavior.
In two dozen carefully edited vignettes, Shehadeh chronicles the subtleties of day-to-day life of the occupied West Bank. Those who expect a political diary will be disappointed. Shehadeh’s portrait is intensely personal. Most often he is recounting events viewed from inside a car or a courtroom. The stories have a predigested quality, an over-intellectualizing with which only a few Palestinians will feel comfortable. But the author does succeed in transcribing his own feelings, his reactions to events and people, in a sensitive manner and without a hint of exaggeration. His encounters with the enemy — Israeli officers and bureaucrats, roadblocks, airport checks — are symbolically instructive of the perspective of the occupied. West Bank Palestinians have learned to incorporate a high level of dehumanization into their lives. Shehadeh conveys the indignation of strip searches, the humiliation of “performing” some servile task for the amusement of a border pa- troller, the frustration of always being told “Come back tomorrow” by military-civilian personnel who occupy every office.
Less accurate are his portrayals of his brother and sister Palestinians, from whom he seems paradoxically distanced. But when Shehadeh, the lawyer, puts his own people on the witness stand and lets them speak for themselves, the reader sees a world that is spontaneous, palpable and crisp with the contradictions of West Bank life: Sabha describes a trip to court and her fruitless search for the judges. Subhi tells of cowering in his own house with a kitchen knife, his only protection against an approaching band of armed settlers. We follow Hani, a 15-year old neighbor — shot by soldiers while running an errand for his mother — from the life of a schoolboy to one of the hounded. He knocks at Raja’s door to whisper, “Did they ask about me?” as jeeps drive away in the night. A reassuring “No,” and he limps off. The understated incident is potent. The story of Maha, the freedom fighter, imprisoned at 16 for her 12 best years, is one of the least representative yet most moving. It is the kind of story that is told and retold within Palestinian families as an example of revolutionary heroism, a yardstick to measure one’s own steadfastness.
Shehadeh sees in simple emotions a psychological salvation for Palestinians living in the strangulating West Bank atmosphere: “We samidin cannot fight the Israelis’ brute physical force but we must keep the anger burning- steel our wills to fight the lies. It is up to us to remember and record.” What he fears most is the dissipation of this anger. He sees defeatism in the eyes of Palestinians who have lived 34 years under domination within Israel, and knows the same can happen in the West Bank and Gaza. If one recognizes that the purpose of Israeli occupation is to make life progressively so unbearable for the occupied that they lose the will to resist and eventually leave, then the effort of being samid — steadfast, staying on the land — becomes understandable. It is a creative, positive, active posture, an answer to psychological needs as much as a physical affirmation of existence.
The experience of occupation teaches you to mask your emotions behind an impenetrable facade — a vulnerable crack here or there is easily exploited by enemies and even supposed friends. A sense of isolation grips those living in the West Bank, emotions confined to living rooms. Occasionally it bursts out into the streets in the form of protest marches. The Israelis fear this bonding the most. Raja Shehadeh, for all his admitted confusion and uncertainty, fears and misgivings, dreams and complexities, romanticism and cynicism, has succeeded, at great personal risk, in breaking through the silence, with anger, eloquence, determination and hope. He is not afraid to say, “Yes, this is me. I am Samid.”