‘Travels with my Ottoman uncle’
In “A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle,” Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh retraces the footsteps of his great uncle Najib Nassar. Najib went on the run in 1914 after being put on a wanted list by the Ottoman authorities for voicing opposition to the empire’s participation in the First World War. “A Rift in Time” follows a familiar literary model: An author following the path of a historical figure in an evocative and interesting part of the world. But the sharpness of the political situation and the thoughtfulness of Shehadeh’s writing make it stand out.
Shehadeh is the founder of the Ramallah-based human rights foundation Al-Haq. He learned of fellow-writer Najib’s story while waiting one night to be arrested by the Israeli authorities. Inspired by this echo of the past, Shehadeh decides to make a journey in the landscape that Najib traversed a century before. In these “excursions into Najib’s world,” he writes. “I wanted to try to capture a sense of what has happened to the land, how it has changed. To see the route that Najib followed in his great escape ... without the need for visas or permits.
The resulting book is part travelogue, part memoir and part elegy. It meditates on the major shifts in the political landscape in the century since Najib’s escape. Shehadeh contrasts today’s checkpoints, borders, roadblocks and settlements to Najib’s era, when the entire stretch from the Taurus Mountains in the north to the Hijaz in the south was under Ottoman rule. “Najib might have had other problems to contend with, but they did not include the fragmentation of the land and the tormenting restrictions on movement that plague my life and the lives of most Palestinians, many Arabs and to a lesser extent Israeli Jews in the Middle East,” Shehadeh writes.
The author has a keen sense of the natural world. The book includes extended paragraphs on how the landscape has been physically transformed by political shifts. The land has gone from being a “unique tapestry of numerous small, ancient farming villages belonging to members of the three religions” to domination by “large, mechanized, Israeli-style farms.” Shehadeh reflects on how “many of the Arab villages and Bedouin encampments thriving in Najib’s time have been wiped out and new Israeli villages established where they once stood.” Only from photographs, does he “know the landscape as it had been, with Arab villages nestled among the slopes of the beautiful hills. My direct experience of the land is confined to what it has become, now that most Palestinians have been forced to flee.”
The author is constantly brought up short by settlements and military zones. He therefore strives to imagine the country “it as it had once been, all one unit, undivided by present-day borders.” This is not just an imaginative exercise, it is also a battle of willpower. “I hope I will never acknowledge that my tiny area of the West Bank has become separated into 227 geographical areas. I must always insist that I live in the region of Greater Syria along the Great Rift Valley,” he writes.
Both Shehadeh and Najib are Arab Christians. Despite the fact that his great uncle was on the run from the authorities, Shehadeh portrays him as a committed Ottomanist, “firmly defined as an Arab Ottoman … He saw no contradiction between being a Christian and an Ottoman, because the empire was multi-ethnic.” Despite the brutal suppression of Arab nationalists and even moderate Arab decentralists during the war, Najib was against the “fragmentation of the region into the mosaic of countries that it would become.” Shehadeh writes that he “believed it was possible for the three ‘Religions of the Book’ to coexist and live freely within the Ottoman system he sought to perpetuate.”
Shehadeh shares with Najib a fondness for the Ottoman past. But he cherishes a very selective vision. The struggles of the Palestinian present lead him to romanticize the Ottoman era, which is sweepingly portrayed as a progressive model of unity and multi-ethnic harmony. The strain can be seen in the book’s sections on modern-day Lebanon. Shehadeh laments that “the fragmentation of Lebanese society along denominational lines has continued even after the state was established and has led over the years to terrible civil wars.” But in many ways today’s Lebanon, politically riven along confessional lines, is close to a contemporary version of the Ottoman system he idealizes.
But on the whole this is an extraordinary, eloquent book. Shehadeh negotiates a web of checkpoints, borders, roadblocks, zoning and settlements; he also negotiates a complex emotional hinterland in lyrical but hard-edged prose.