Occupational Therapy

Raja Shehadeh, Occupation Diaries

Profile Books, 256pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781781250167

reviewed by Matt Hill

As the scion of a leading Palestinian family, Raja Shehadeh inherited both a distinguished name and an ample share of the national trauma. Born a refugee in Ramallah, his parents having fled the Israeli-Arab war of 1948, he was again struck by tragedy when his father was murdered in 1985. Those events shadow everything in this book, but its focus is on the miniature burdens of life under Israeli rule. Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer, peace activist and author of several books on the conflict, bears witness to the petty brutalities and indignities of life in the West Bank that don’t make the news but erode the spirit of the occupied like water torture. As Chekhov said: ‘Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s day-to-day living that wears you out.’

These entries from the author’s diary cover late 2009 to summer 2012, a period which saw Tunisians and Egyptians overthrow their rulers, the Palestinian Authority thwarted in its bid for UN membership, and the Israeli military regime enter its mid-40s with few signs of middle-age burnout.  Shehadeh is a shrewd observer of current affairs, but he’s also an instinctively private man who would clearly be happiest tending his olive trees and trekking his beloved West Bank hills. Occupation Diaries isn’t just an intimate portrait of one man’s inner life; it’s an attempt to work out how to cultivate a meaningful inner life when oppressive public events keep getting in the way.

Diaries should read as though the ink’s just dried on the page, and this book has a nicely improvised feel. There are gossipy portrayals of Ramallah’s cafes and markets, miscellaneous gripes about the postal service and local officials, and scribbled feuilletons on cinema and literature. And, of course, there is the all-pervading ‘situation’, as it’s known in these parts. One moment the author is wittily comparing Israel to Dorian Gray, polishing its loving self-image while growing uglier by the day; then the key changes to the ordeal of Tel Aviv airport security and ‘that knot in my gut when I hear of their plans for new regulations for the gates through which we can enter our walled enclaves’. Politics invade everything, even the home: on answering the phone to a Hebrew-speaking caller, Shehadeh finds himself snapping at his dentist’s secretary because her language reminds him of ‘earlier times when I received calls summoning me for interrogation by the military.’

Just offstage is the ghost of the author’s father, the subject of some of the book’s most affecting passages. After the Nakba, Aziz Shehadeh became a prominent public figure in the West Bank, and an early advocate of a two-state solution to the conflict. One day he stepped out of his car on his way home from work and was stabbed to death by an unknown assassin. (The story, and that of the subsequent Israeli coverup, was grippingly told in the author’s previous book, Strangers in the House.) It was 2006 before Shehadeh pieced together the truth and discovered the identity of the killer – a local ‘collaborator’ who was by now dead – and his pain is still vivid. He presents his father as a man whose sense of fairness went so deep that, in his dealings with the Israelis, ‘he could see no evil’, keeping up a ‘futile struggle to invoke the laws of justice and reasonableness’ and failing to comprehend the magnitude of his people’s defeat. Twenty-five years on, his son is still pleading: ‘Why could you not accept it and see the evil they are capable of? Why did you not direct your energies elsewhere?’

In these moments Shehadeh is unconsciously addressing his own attempt  to steer between the anguish of hope and the agony of despair. He earnestly wants to persuade us that, in contrast to his father, he has found a sane path between struggle and quiescence and come to terms with what he calls ‘the problem of waiting out a dying world’. But readers will judge for themselves. To me, Shehadeh seems like someone who has learnt to be wary of his habit of believing in progress. It’s easy to care about this complex, sensitive man, with his helpless addiction to optimism. One morning he finds himself free of dispiriting political thoughts and, savouring the cool autumn air, his wife in the next room playing a Bach piano fugue, he opens his diary simply to remind himself: ‘It is always better to be alive.’ This is so moving because it could only occur to someone who has flirted with the opposite thought. In these small, unheroic moments, Shehadeh shows us that keeping hold of your capacity for joy is a kind of resistance too.