Certain points of Going Home feel unbearably melancholic. As Raja Shehadeh takes a walk through his home town of Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank, on the 50th anniversary of Israeli occupation, he presents himself as one who has lost all hope. Describing a vigorous and optimistic young man, who always wore a ‘silly smirk’, he seeks to make it plain that that person has gone. ‘I wonder whether I wasted a large part of my life on a useless activity,’ he writes of his attempts to end the occupation of his city. ‘The world has abandoned us,’ he adds. ‘I’ve had to accept this.’
This melancholy is tempered through the many anecdotes of family life peppered throughout his walk. These stories of life in an occupied land are vibrant and illuminating, filled with memories of delicious smells and flowers, parties and gunshots, fear and incorrigible optimism. So too do Shehadeh’s musings on the changing face of the city provide a fascinating window into modern Ramallah – now an urban sprawl with few green spaces and increasingly overt religion. There is regret here, there is also anger.
Among these stories Shehadeh slips into a more standard exercise in nostalgia, one that may well prove relatable to older people all around the world who, despite living in less dramatic circumstances, also feel the world has moved on without them. Shehadeh laments that where children once played in the street with hand-made toys, the young people he sees today hang out in Pizza Hut and ‘sit at their computers or with their smart phones, playing their electronic games and growing obese’.
And yet it’s here that Shehadeh’s attempt to persuade the reader that he is a retired optimist are not entirely convincing. Despite his disdain for their choice of activities, he can’t help but betray a hope that these young people ‘might even be more successful than we were in achieving liberation’. Going Home is a story of regret, failure, anger and ageing, but it is not as hopeless as its author would have us believe.
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