Racha Salah's first book is a collection of love letters which also explores the ongoing tragedy of Palestine's diaspora. Robert Fisk met her
The living-room windows of Racha Salah's tiny apartment in the Chouf mountains rattle in their frames every time Israeli jets bomb the valleys to the south. Attacking the Hizbollah on the other side of Sidon, the planes are flying from the land that the young woman still regards as her home, the Palestine from which her parents were driven out in 1948 but which she has never seen - except in photographs and through the memories of her grandmother, Um Salah. For 23-year-old Racha Salah, the only Palestine she knows is the midden of the Ein el-Helwe refugee camp in Lebanon, "the camp of my childhood, the family cocoon, the warmth of my relatives", its stinking alleyways so narrow that the dead must be manhandled down to the carpenter's shop to be put into their coffins.

"The sound of the bombing is louder at night," she says. "It depends which way the wind is blowing. All the houses in the village shake with the explosions, but the people here are used to it." Outside, in the bright morning sun, hens cluck beneath the cheap cement apartment building. Druze children shriek in the little orchards. Beside Racha Salah sits her new French husband, Nicola Marlin, and on her lap she holds her first book, a series of ten short letters which she wrote to Nicola in the days of their courtship, published now in France as a remarkable volume of love and indignation.

The 23-year-old Palestinian has the dark skin and long hair of her Palestinian Bedouin family and runs rather than walks around the house, her face only occasionally losing its smile when her anger rises. Young love sits uneasily beside scorn for a Western and Arab world which has abandoned both herself and three million other Palestinians to permanent exile - despite the American-Israeli "peace process".

And a writer's lot, she is discovering, is not necessarily a happy one. Since her book was published in Paris by Albin Michel, she has heard nothing from her editors. "You've done better than me," Racha says as Nicola - a former humanitarian worker who came to Lebanon during the war - prepares Arabic coffee. "At least they talked to you." Nor were her humourous, gentle, angry, sometimes enraged letters easy to squeeze into book form. "Luc Balbont, the French journalist who helped me, could not at first understand what was wrong with the `peace process' and why I wasn't happy with it," she says. "Then he went to Gaza for several weeks and when he came back, he told me he understood."

For Racha Salah and her family and the other 350,000 Palestinians living stateless in Lebanon have been left out of the Middle East "peace", along with 500,000 Palestinians in Jordan and 400,000 in Syria and perhaps another 750,000 scattered around the world. All of them come from that part of Palestine which is now Israel, from lands which even Yassir Arafat would never hope to include in his probably hopeless dream of a Palestinian state. The Salah family came from the village of Gouayr on the shores of Lake Tiberias - which is why she has entitled her book L'an prochain a Tiberiade ("Next Year in Tiberias"), an ironic reference to the Jewish yearning for a return to Jerusalem which eventually came true. Like millions of other Palestinians - perhaps seven in 10 of the entire Palestinian population - Racha Salah has been consigned to one line at the end of the Oslo agreement, an acknowledgement that "refugees" will be discussed in final status talks - talks which may now never take place.

So her story is one of both affection and fury. "On the 13th September, 1993, Arafat and Rabin clasped their hands together before the entire world's television, and America and Europe applauded together," she writes to Nicola from her university at Bordeaux in 1994. "As if peace depended on this handshake. What do they know, these powerful men, of our suffering? How can they understand our hatreds?"

Racha Salah's 79-year-old grandmother is the heroine of this book, brought up in a traditional Arab society in which women worked for men, in which, after her first husband Mohamed was killed by British troops in 1939, she was forced to follow rural tradition by marrying his brother. In all, she bore 10 children and survived to tell her grandchildren of her eviction from the orchards and the still waters of Tiberias by Israeli troops and then of their subsequent flight to Lebanon.

What makes this book so moving is not its familiar story of eviction and exile, perhaps the first by a new generation of Palestinian women from the community which has been left out of the peace process. It is poignant because it acknowledges the freedom and democracy of Europe, because of its fury at the chauvinistic, "Islamist" society. Why, she asks, does the West not encourage democracy in the Middle East instead of supporting corrupt potentates?

Racha's despair is doubled because she finds that to object to her circumstances - which is to object to the peace process - is to be branded a terrorist. There are times when her refusal to believe in Israel's word will anger her readers. "I don't believe in any `process' with Israel because they have never respected it. Again and again, we are making fun of ourselves. ... As long as there is no equilibrium between both sides, it cannot work. One way or another, it will explode."

The latest comments of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insists that Israeli settlements will be enlarged on the very Palestinian lands for which Arafat has negotiated, only serve to emphasise the reasons for Racha Salah's distrust.

Now she wants to open an educational centre in Sidon to remind Palestinians of the society and life they left behind in 1948 and encourage them to separate religion from state. "For me, religion is a kind of curtain," she says. "You can't see things clearly and objectively in this way. The religious people are far from our struggle for a secular land." But for how long can Palestine remain in the hearts of those who can never go back to villages that were levelled decades ago? Sometimes, she admits, she believes she will not go back. But not often

`L'an prochain a Tiberiade', by Racha Salah, is published by Albin Michel, Paris

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