Who owns this land?

Back from Edinburgh, where I saw many interesting things, including an excellent one-man play about Kafka, based on his letter to his father, which I now want to read. But I want to write about something else – my only jaunt into the Book Festival, which was really quite overpriced at £10 a ticket with no deals apparent. In fact a lot of things at the festival hovered around the £10 mark, which I think is a bit contrary to the spirit of a festival. They should offer carnet tickets where you pay a reasonable price and get entry to five or ten shows of your choosing.    

 Anyway, my Book Festival £10 went on Raja Shehadeh and David Greig. Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian writer and lawyer, and David Greig is a Scottish playwright who has adapted some of Shehadeh’s stuff. The talk began with a 15 minute play by Greig,  An Imagined Sarha, based on a scene from Shehadeh in which he meets an Israeli settler and they talk on the banks of a stream. The settler is armed with a gun and a nargile full of hashish and opium. There followed a 45 minute talk, which was fascinating.

Often literary talks are vague, with people rambling about inspiration or what have you, but the playlet at the start acted as a lens through which the discussion was sharply focused. They talked for a while about the significance of the gun in the scene performed: was it a mere prop, an unnecessary symbol of Israel’s dominance, or a concrete indication of the danger Shehadeh was in when he encountered the settler? David Greig, who I hadn’t heard of previously, was a brilliant foil in the discussion, bringing in quotes and ideas from other writers and teasing out interesting complexities around the ideas of possession and oppression. He quoted a wonderful line from the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, in relation to the love of the land felt both by Shehadeh and the settler: ““Who owns this land?/The man who bought it or/I who am possessed by it?” (from ‘A Man in Assynt’). This completely relates to Shehadeh’s scene, where both the Israeli and the Palestinian feel that part of their claims to possession stem from their love of the land – their feeling of being ‘possessed’ by it. It has a lovely symmetry: you possess that which possesses you.   

Raja Shahadeh

I could have listened to them for hours. The audience questions at the end were more than a little bizarre and some delivered quite aggressively, which was odd. There seemed to be some sort of competition of intensity going on. Shehadeh dealt with them brilliantly. He is a small, neat man, not the rugged outdoorsman you might expect from reading Palestinian Walks. I would highly recommend his writing, not only to anyone interested in Palestine, but to anyone interested in how a writer can convey complexity in simple, clear language. It’s only when you take a scene from his work – like the one from An Imagined Sarha – and unpack it that you see what a wealth of thought lies behind his work, so that a 15 minute play can produce 45 minutes of discussion and still leave you feeling that you’ve only scratched the surface.  


2 thoughts on “Who owns this land?

  1. It seems that there has never been a more urgent need for subtle and nuanced comment on the emotional substratum, the relationship of people to land, history and mythology which underlies the surface, political level of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    I wonder if you saw I am Yusuf and This is my Brother written and directed by the Palestinian author Amir Nizar Zuabi, performed at the Young Vic earlier this year. Startling. I felt I learned more about the roots of the continuing conflict — especially the Palestinians’ sense of betrayal and loss — by watching this play than I have by reading any number of commentaries by journalists.


    1. Damn. I missed ‘I am Yusuf’ – or rather I attempted to review it, but another reviewer snapped up the tickets before me and I didn’t book for myself, as it’s always a bit galling to pay for something you could have had for free if you’d been better organised.
      I completely agree with your point, though. There are certain books – Shehadeh’s ‘When the Bulbul Stopped Singing’ and Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’, for example – that tell you more about actual situation in Palestine or Soviet Russia, etc, than any history or piece of journalism ever could, no matter how factually accurate they are. I’ll have to be better organised in the future.


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