Tim Abrahams


Architecture and Design



Theatre of Conflict

Sunday Herald August 2004

THE Edinburgh Festival of 1993 was a good year for composer James McMillan. The International Festival programmed a large selection of his music. It was a good year too for the comedian Lee Evans. He won the Perrier Award for Comedy. For the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh, the Festival of that year was not a happy time. Returning dejected from Washington DC to Ramallah in the West Bank, he decided to break his journey in Edinburgh. In 1984, he had been advised by a friend who lived in the capital to buy a flat as an investment. He had never stayed in the apartment but for once it was free of tenants and he needed a place to stop and think.

For over a year, Shehadeh had been legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in their peace talks with the Israeli government. He had left the legal team, "having," he says, "lost all hope that there were going to be properly conducted negotiations that could possibly lead to real peace." Despite the calm of the new leafy environs, his state of mind worsened quickly. "It was in 1993, in our flat in Morningside that I read the Oslo Agreement. My heart fell. I thought it was terrible because it wasn't going to work."

As the writer Michael Ignatieff puts it: 'Shehadeh's voice is a rare one in the turmoil of Palestine: angry yet dispassionate, committed yet free.
Shehadeh had always promised he would remain in Palestine. He had studied law in London but his commitment was more than an idle attachment to his home territory. Writing in his book When The Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary Of Ramallah Under Siege he explains, "I was committed to the practice of sumoud (perseverance).I saw the perseverance of the ordinary Palestinian who was determined to remain on his land, despite all attempts by the occupation to make life impossible, as the best antidote for Israeli policies of ridding the land of its Palestinian inhabitants."

If sumoud was his shield, however, his sword was his tenacity and international law. In 1979, Shehadeh founded the human rights organisation Al Haq with fellow lawyers to harass and frustrate the establishment of Jewish settlements through legal means. Yet in August 1993, he decided to turn his back on this form of legal protest and considered not returning to Palestine. He took in the Festival instead, and fell in love with it. Since then, every April, he has gone through the Festival programme sent to him in Ramallah and without fail over-booked the number of events he will actually attend when he makes his annual trip to Edinburgh.

We meet in the Hub, nerve centre of the International Festival. Amid the bustle of its cafe, he is a small point of stillness. "I have always been a small person," he says. It is not a mistake. Shehadeh perfected his English during his legal studies in London and later used it with Israeli judges. "Small" you quickly realise is almost a philosophical concept to Shehadeh. "I was never the kind of person at school that would be aggressive. So I had to do my fighting, or asserting my ground, through other means," he says.

Despite his demure appearance, he admits his annual break this year is a little fraught. A prolific writer, Shehadeh has produced three diaries, a biography of his father and several academic tomes. The third diary, When The Bulbul Stopped Singing, has been adapted for performance at the Traverse Theatre. The stage version, written by award-winning playwright David Greig, opens tonight and the pair will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this month.

Born in 1951 and brought up in Ramallah, Shehadeh chose law for his career because his father, Aziz, had been a lawyer. He recalls that in spite of their arguments about what should be the correct approach to the Israeli government he and his father were very close. In 1985 Aziz was murdered. Shehadeh suspects - although it has never been proven - that his father died at the hands of a Palestinian incensed by his father's belief that a compromise should be reached with Israel. For a while he was radicalised by his father's death. Eventually, however, he returned to the belief that compromise with the Israeli state was necessary. This, perhaps, is why he was most saddened by what he saw as the intransigence of the Israelis back in 1993. "You have to live by compromises," he still insists.

Subsequently it was that same year during the Festival that Shehadeh struck a compromise over living in Palestine. He still longed for its liberation but knew he could no longer work towards it politically. "I stepped aside, concentrated on my legal practice and my writing and lived with Penny [his wife] on borrowed time in Palestine - the happiest years of my life." He describes himself as becoming a "self-exile" in his homeland. As the Israeli settlers moved into the West Bank during the 1990s, Shehadeh worked at his writing. Through a process he describes simply as "shaping", Shehadeh's meticulous observational style became, in Strangers In The House, a tribute to his father. "I realised that it was happening every 10 years that I was writing a diary book and I must say, I was a bit burdened by having to do it. I didn't want to be in a situation, which required that I had to write about it as a diary," he explains.

Yet Shehadeh returned to the diary form for When The Bulbul Stopped Singing mainly because the subject matter demanded it. He describes the days from March 28 to April 28, 2002, when the Israeli Army laid siege to Ramallah, "by concentrating on the minute, mundane, events in the life of this small man who is caught in the tiniest of spaces."

As well as illuminating the humanity of the conflict - in one passage he describes a young Palestinian man in civilian clothes adjusting his gun belt "as though he was grooming himself for a date with his girlfriend" - the book makes a significant legal point. "After the second world war there was a very important development in international law which arose out of the fact that 50% of the war's victims were civilians. There was a real attempt to give civilians a certain legal status," he explains. Shehadeh believes the global "war on terror" is permitting the Israeli state to violate the rights of civilians by treating everyone as potential terrorists.

He sees his Edinburgh stage collaboration with Greig as a natural progression. He had always thought the book had dramatic potential and had already developed some scenes from an event when Israeli soldiers occupied his brother's house. "There were different kinds of soldiers there. And one soldier felt very uncomfortable there. He would say, 'I can't wait for my period in the army to end. I have a rich cousin in Florida.' There was a relationship developing between the two sides and I thought that this would be interesting to work on." Greig's mother-in-law intervened to introduce the two writers after she attended Shehadeh's reading at the Book Festival of 2002.

Shehadeh's own play may still come. Theatre, he has realised, has great potential. He remembers February 23, 2003. It was the date that Shehadeh and Greig arranged to begin working together on the drama- tisation in London. "In December 2002, I get a call from the PLO office in the UN who are handling the case [the PLO took the Israeli state to court] at the International Court of Justice at The Hague and they say, 'would you be willing to be involved in the team?' I first suggested this idea in 1984. Finally 20 years later it comes and I say, 'I am ready.' But when is the case to be held? February 23. The two things that I have always dreamed about and they happen on the same day. I helped with the written submissions but I said that I wouldn't be there on the day. But as I say, you have to live by compromises. The submissions were in the morning so I could be there and then rush to London. So this is exactly what I did. Except I fractured my finger because I was rushing and I fell."

It was a lesson in drama, he says. "The Court of Justice is this baroque building and extremely theatrical on a grand scale. Outside there was another kind of theatricality because the Israelis brought an entire bombed bus. Then I flew across to London and met David. 'Theatre and theatre', I thought." He pauses. "I prefer this theatre," he says and gesticulates at the building around him.