Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh’s memoir Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a film in which an old man reflects on his life, and it shares its melancholy and dreamlike quality. On the anniversary of the Six-Day War, Shehadeh, now 68, sets off on a walking tour of Ramallah. His journey is a tale of two cities: the invisible one he summons up from childhood, with its bakeries and haberdasheries, and the one that exists today: filled with high-rises, cafes and burger joints.
As he walks, he reflects on his own experiences and that of the West Bank, as it has faced the upheaval of the occupation, the Olso Accords and two intifadas. Going Home is a book saturated with regret, both personal and political. Shehadeh harbours guilt about his youthful arrogance, his fraught relationship with his father, and his failure to effect the change he dreamed of in his roles as lawyer and human rights activist.
More than 20 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the lives of its citizens are still trammelled by the Israeli state. “Could it be that I have lived a mock existence of words, led a false paper life?” he asks.
Shehadeh has the ability to conjure up places so viscerally you want to reach out and pluck the fruit from the trees. On the street leading to the hisba (market) “the pavement [is] crammed with sacks of brown dried figs, raisins, black carob beans and solid white yoghurt balls”.
He is captivated by flowers: purple jacaranda, light blue rabbit-ear irises, yellow birds of paradise flowers, pink bougainvillea.
And the setting is not the only thing that shines; along the way, Shehadeh encounters an assortment of mavericks, some alive, some dead, who transform his canvas from a vibrant van Gogh garden into a bustling Bruegel townscape. Here, scrabbling around in a recycling bin is Abu Hassan, the hoarder. There, sticking a monocle in his eye, is the German watchmaker.