Walking as a literary subject has a long history. We can share the insights of walking with Thoreau as he journeyed through the back country of Concord and Lexington; we share the sights of Tibet with Eric Newby or the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson.
I particularly like the adventures of Patrick Leigh Femor as he walked the little known coastline of the Black Sea via Rumania, Hungary and Turkey and then Macedonia.
We now have two walking stories, one by Rory Stewart, a Scotsman, the other by Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian.
Rory Stewart’s account of his walk from Herat to Kabul in The Places in Between in 2002 won him international recognition and many admirers. He has taught at the Kennedy School at Harvard, co-authored a book on interventions, ran a sector of Iraq during the occupation, wrote a book on it, is a member of the UK Parliament, advised governments, lectured widely and is a careful writer. His latest book is about a series of walks through the borderlands that embrace the border between England and Scotland and Hadrian’s wall. Not only do we take in the landscape of this remote area of moors and hills and the people who live there, but we see history in the form of barrows, forts, castles and of course, the wall built during the reign of Hadrian. This area was one of continued wars between ancient tribes, between natives and Norse and Dane invaders, between Romans and the descendants of these earlier invaders, and then between the English and Scots whose raiding became a tradition and a culture.
As we walk with Stewart, we also meet his father and take in his father’s own history as member of the Foreign Service serving in a colonial post in what is now Malaysia. His family house was on the Scottish side of the border. We get glimpses of Stewart’s family and dwell on his father’s old age. His intention was to do these walks with his father, to share the experience as a father and son. However, his father’s old age crept up on him and he was soon to drop out as a hiking companion.
Stewart’s own pace was at times formidable, covering up to 30 miles a day. These walks are ruminations, sometimes about the Romans and how unnecessary and useless walls are other than as symbols of power. Then there were the ages of tribal wars, the War of the Roses which was but one of endless battles, skirmishes, rivalries, raids that went on and on until one day they stopped. That Stewart finds remarkable. They stopped because the parties finally found them pointless. They gained nothing and nothing was to be gained. As the book comes to its end the father takes to his bed and at the end the father dies and death becomes the subject.
One of Stewart’s discoveries is that the people who dwell in the border are very much like people everywhere in the sense that they are not of this place and know little of its history despite the abundance of ruins, walls and castles, and stories at every turn. Every foot has been washed in blood, the spirits of the dead hang heavy, yet the people are innocent of all that history with its suffering and dying.
Walking with Rory Stewart is an educational experience. He enquires, he researches, he then gathers information and he conjectures on our place and our role in this place which is anyplace you happen to be.
The second book is about walking in the hills of ancient Palestine.
Rija is a lawyer who represents Palestinians who are fighting before judges for their land as it is appropriated by a land-hungry occupying power. The hills were part of his childhood. He roamed them with uncles and cousins and knew the paths that had been used by his family for centuries.They played a role in the family histories. It is where orchards stood, where people had dreams, where they spent summers. He knows the flowers, the herbs used in cooking, the rocks used in building, the springs and watercourses. He knows the trees, some of them ancient. The olive tree is a symbol of their life. He describes cases involving lands in these hills where the owners lost their land to land speculators who were in league with the Israeli politicians who controlled the judges so he could never win a case because the law was that Israelis always won in cases against Palestinians.
Raia Shehadehi is an idealist. He believes in the law and in justice. It is the Israeli system however, in which he must practice these land cases, and the system favors the Israelis. Cases end with the judge saying the Palestinian title is good, but the Israelis win anyway because that’s the policy. It’s based on the biblical notion that all the land was given to Israel by God.
For the Palestinians, the land is their patrimony. They cannot sell it. It would be like selling their soul. So the courts take it from them and they get nothing, nothing at all. The hills are now covered with concrete houses of the settlers, the footpaths are blocked by walls, barbed wire and soldiers with guns. He writes of his memories of walking in the early morning as witness to nature, the birds, the sounds and the smells, all now gone.
Palestinian Walks is about the deep injustice of Israeli settlements and how it hurts the soul. It tells of a level of human suffering that is not well understood. It tells of a place called home, not just to a person, but to a people. Why can’t both Israelis and Palestinians share these hills? he asks. Why should it make a difference who “owns” the land if it can be enjoyed by all? Why can’t the Israelis see the value of the hills for what they are and have always been and not just the site for yet another real estate speculation? He meets an Israeli, also walking. They talk. They share the view of the hills. They have similar values, only different. One is a Jew and the other an Arab and they share the land, for a moment. Their dialog may be imagined, but it reflects the reality: two people claim the same land as their homeland.
Will there be a just solution? It is possible, but not under the present regime that is so blindly backed by the United States Congress.