I rarely read travel literature and memoir, but there have been two crossover books I recently enjoyed: The Sky Burial by Xinran and Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh.
The Sky Burial
The Sky Burial is the story of Wen, a young Chinese doctor who went to Tibet in 1958 to find her lost husband, who had been dispatched there as an army doctor. She lived there for 30 years and returned to China as a totally transformed person.
In the introductory section, Xinran explains how she met Shu Wen through someone who was listening to her radio programme. She found and interviewed the woman and was fascinated by her story. She then went to Tibet (Qinghai) herself as a journalist, and I understand that in this book, she has combined notes from her extended (2 whole days) interview with Wen and from her trip to Tibet. And she probably had to fictionalise a little.
The book takes its name from a traditional burial practice, whereby a corpse is cut into pieces and left on a mountain altar for the vultures to eat. This is to ensure that the person’s soul is taken to the heavens: “When a smoking fire of mulberry branches is lit in a sky burial site, it rolls out a five-coloured road between heaven and earth, which entices the spirits down to the altar. The corpse becomes an offering to the spirits and we call upon them to carry the soul up to heaven. The mulberry smoke draws down eagles, vultures and other sacred scavengers, who feed upon the corpse. This is done in imitation of the Buddha Sakyamuni, who ‘sacrificed himself to feed the tigers’” (p. 127).
I enjoyed the book, makes a relaxing read – until you come to the section quoted above! There is not much action in the plot, because obviously, that’s how life is in Tibet. The landscape is totally spectacular for a city-dweller; spectacular in the way that it is vast, empty, dead silent and almost unmarked. With accounts of altitude sickness early on in the book, I could imagine how this place could feel “out of this world.”
I appreciate the author’s efforts to give us the whole picture, including Tibetans’ basic ontological perceptions. But I think I’d prefer if the story was told in the first person, rather than the third person, as Xinran has done.
I like how the nomads on the plains lead an utterly simple life, i.e. free from the complications of modern urban mode of living. (I am especially envious of it as I get more and more depressed about my PhD dissertation). They live with very few possessions and meet the practical challenges of natural life with wisdom and patience.
I had difficulty identifying with Wen’s search for her lost husband, which is the basis of the plot really. And the only thing I didn’t like about the narration was that emotions were spelled out, especially in and right after dialogues. This made the story slightly over-dramatised, I felt.
The book is translated by Esther Tyldesley (who has translated two of Xinran’s previous books) and Julia Lovell. I like the Chinese (and Tibetan) expressions that have been rendered literally, like telling a Chinese girl from her “peach mouth” and “licking jiaka” for breakfast – a dough made of roasted barley flour and curds, placed in a bowl of milk tea. So you turn your bowl between sips from tea so that the dough gradually washes away.
Palestinian Walks is a more modern account, and because it contains details of the Palestinian conflict, it comes across as more “real.” The book basically tells about the seven walks the author took on the hills of Palestine from 1978 to 2007. Shehadeh is a Palestinian property lawyer and human rights campaigner, and has written other memoirs on his experiences in his country that’s literally slipping through his fingers. On each walk he takes on the hills, he is gradually more restricted and he risks life on several encounters with the Israeli soldiers.
The book explains a great deal about the development of the conflict itself. I learned how, for example, the Israeli settlers are taking advantage of the nomad lifestyle, by confiscating any land vacated by Bedouins that are headed for the hills or the plains for the summer and winter. Arabs don’t see land as something to be divided into plots and owned (privately), so that’s another thing Israeli settlers have picked up.
However, all of these aside, I saw this book as a piece of writing about one’s love for their country. The Palestinian hills are mostly dry and relatively barren, and Shehadeh loves them for what they are, because he knows how to look at them. He cherishes every hill, every plant, creek etc., and he hates to see them mistreated by Israeli settlers who erect concrete buildings and build tarmac roads, without taking into consideration the particular way nature behaves there. He addresses every hill with its proper name, translated in parentheses, and explains the individual properties of bushes and shrubs. As I read these descriptions, I imagined the dry earth to be olive-coloured and the air to be infused with herby smells.
One passage I remember was the story of Ayoub, an old distant relative of the author, who built a qasr (a farmer’s house on the hills) with his new wife on their honeymoon. He is described as “strong and as nimble as a goat, with short legs, a large muscular torso and a big chest, a hill man well adapted to this stony terrain” (p. 21). The building of a qasr is usually a communal business, but being an only child and having cousins that are useless, Ayoub decides to face the work all by himself. He goes to his newly bought property with his wife Zariefeh – not really planning to start the work that day – and starts carrying large blocks of stone, while she clears the bushes. In the evening, they realise it might be dangerous to walk back, so they light a fire to keep warm and keep the jackals off, and they spend the night in the open air. Ayoub doesn’t sleep much anyway, watching over his young wife. For a week, they ration their bread and Zariefeh makes herbal tea with what she finds on the hills. They only consummate their marriage once the walls are high enough. Ayoub builds a perfect qasr entirely out of stone, with no cement. He feels as if he’s in paradise, on his beloved hills, in his own place, and with his understanding and hardworking wife.
Again, the book is not plot-driven, and I’ve seen reviews on the internet calling the book “boring,” unfortunately. But you can’t expect a memoir/travel writing to be an action film, and it kept my interest alive throughout; it was like listening to someone talk sweetly about their homeland.
I must say I was impressed with the author’s writing skills though, since he is not a professional author, i.e. a lawyer, and presumably English is not his first language. At the time of reading, I thought, “He’s either naturally gifted or has an excellent editor.” Well, both may be true.
I recommend both of these books for anyone who needs some escapism. The first one gives you the sense of justice being delivered, although the second makes you feel just the opposite. I hope we can one day read a book that tells about the reversal of Shehadeh’s story.