Innocents abroad on the frontline: You can't hide the Sun: A Journey through Israel and Palestine; Occupation Diaries; The City of Abraham; In Ramallah, Running; Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

A batch of new reports from Israel and Palestine reveals a long-term shift in sympathies

Stephen Howe
Thursday 04 October 2012 16:26
Epochal changes: barrier near Qalandiya checkpoint, on the West Bank
Epochal changes: barrier near Qalandiya checkpoint, on the West Bank

At least four slow, uneven but epochal changes are underway in perceptions and representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Longest and most obvious has been the steady shift in international, not least British and European, public sympathies towards the Palestinian side. More recently, ever more observers have come to question whether a "two-state solution" is any longer possible, and looked for other ways out of the long impasse. There is growing attention to the long half-forgotten plight of Israel's Palestinian citizens within the country's original borders – over a million of them, nearly a fifth of the total population. They are the main focus of former Beirut hostage John McCarthy's winning, sometimes sharply perceptive travelogue-cum-history, You Can't Hide the Sun: a Journey through Israel and Palestine (Bantam, £20). And there is a very marked transformation in the balance of cultural representation, with the quantity and, perhaps, quality of pro-Israeli depictions dropping away, and Palestinian and pro-Palestinian ones on the rise.

One should not exaggerate this. Very few Palestinian writers or artists have a wide audience. The "great Palestinian national novel" is not written by a Palestinian but by the Lebanese Christian Elias Khoury, with his Gate of the Sun. As several new books indicate, outsiders' accounts still predominate. Still, we have come a long way from the days when Edward Said used to lament how Palestinians were neither properly represented, nor represented themselves.

A handful of locations possess the kind of cultural aura whereby the very invocation of their name evokes a mass of emotions and associations. Jerusalem has, of course, long been eminent among those supercharged places. The nearby, smallish Palestinian city of Ramallah has had no such quality. But maybe it is now acquiring it, as titles like Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah (2004), and now books by Raja Shehadeh and Guy Mannes-Abbott suggest.

Ramallah has neither much history nor any great architectural or cultural distinction. It has the same feeling of near-claustrophobic crowding and semi-controlled chaos that the outsider experiences in so many Arab cities, exacerbated by Israeli walls and checkpoints. It is growing at breakneck speed, with many of the new developments (as Shehadeh complains) just as ugly, and alien, as the surrounding Jewish settlements.

Yet slowly it is accumulating its memories and shrines: both Yasser Arafat and Palestinian "national poet" Mahmoud Darwish are buried here. As the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, it is increasingly the centre of West Bank life.

Human-rights lawyer Shehadeh is a long-term Ramallah resident, and has made the town and its hills the heart of a long series of writings. The latest, Occupation Diaries (Profile, £12.99), is among the less compelling episodes in his remarkable sequence of books, mostly because it has neither the clear thematic focus of his Palestinian Walks (maybe the most poignant of all) and A Rift in Time, nor the unity and drama imposed by outside events. It is more purely diary-like; and the period it records was not one of dramatic events but slow changes, especially of disenchantment with the PA regime, and the loss of faith in any real possibility of Palestinian sovereignty.

Hebron, the "City of Abraham", is a much bigger, older but grimmer place than Ramallah. The grimness comes, beyond the burdens of occupation, from the aggressive presence of a small Jewish settler community in its midst, and the massive Israeli force which guards them. Behind that lie the rival Jewish and Muslim religious claims to the city's heritage, and the accretion of myth and pseudo-history.

The City of Abraham (Picador, £18.99) is Edward Platt's very personal attempt to disentangle all that, and perhaps the most compelling of these accounts, with their blend of history, reportage and political reflection. The West Bank's ever-encroaching Israeli settler population is an alien, often threatening presence in the other books. Guy Mannes-Abbott, out running and seeing figures in the distance, asks himself whether these are human beings or settlers. However well one knows that the settlers also dehumanise Palestinians, the sentiment is still as shocking as it is, in that place, horribly logical. Only Platt gets up close to the settlers – and finds them a strikingly if predictably unattractive lot. Mannes-Abbott's book, In Ramallah, Running (Black Dog, £19.95), is a more experimental hybrid. It brings together his own evocative, often moving prose-poem on running in the Ramallah hills with several shorter texts, paintings and graphic works by other, mostly Palestinian hands. The trouble is that the various texts and images do not really talk to one another. And it seems hard for the serious jogger to take in his or her surroundings, or make full human contact. Walkers, like Shehadeh, stop and chat. Runners mostly don't. The book in fact includes some slightly unattractive sideswipes at Shehadeh, and at Banksy. In my experience, locals in Ramallah and Bethlehem are mostly rather proud of how the Bristol artist-prankster has helped decorate their neighbourhood.

French-Canadian "graphic memoirist" Guy Delisle spent a year in Jerusalem, and gives us a cartoon-strip journal of that time: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). Yet not much really happened to Delisle. If he had been depicting his mild travails over childcare, shopping or car repair in Toronto or Tunbridge Wells, probably few would be interested. His is an appealing account, but in a very low-key way – and not one which really teaches us much about the city. The "innocents abroad" narrative, in which he, McCarthy, Platt and Mannes-Abbott all invest, has long become something of a cliché of outsiders' writing about the Middle East, and often a seriously irritating one – though maybe that only so impresses itself on those readers, like me, who know most of the places depicted fairly well.

Stephen Howe is professor of the history and culture of colonialism at Bristol University

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