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The Orwell Prize: From Ramallah on Foot

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How do you explain presence? It’s not something you can really rationalise. Suggest a scientific explanation and you find yourself muttering about the release of pheromones or the ‘smell’ of confidence.

Whatever it is, you know it when someone has it. And Raja Shehadeh has it. This is despite being a slight man – he can’t be more than 5’4 and he hasn’t an ounce of spare flesh on him. Nor does he have a powerful voice, quite the opposite. He speaks sparely, calmly, without inflammatory verbs or adjectives – much like his writing. Indeed this is how he tells the story of his 6 walks around the West Bank. 6 walks made over three decades that chart how the place where he lives has been concreted over, literally and metaphorically. Yet though he is small and understated, you can’t help but be aware when he’s in the room.

Shehadeh last night won the Orwell Prize for political writing for his book ‘Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape’ (the Media Standards Trust runs the Prize in partnership with the Orwell Trust and Political Quarterly). A book that received astonishingly little attention when it was published last autumn, despite (or because of) being one of the few attempts to discuss the politics of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank without resorting to wild exaggeration or screaming (Shehadeh and his wife Penny flew over from Ramallah specially to accept the award).

The prize for journalism went to the Independent’s Johann Hari. A “young whippersnapper” journalist (in Clive James’ words) who, Hari told us, still gets asked for I.D. at the off license. Hari won for five articles he wrote last year including one about a cruise he took with American neo-cons and another about France’s secret war in the Central African Republic.

If you haven’t read these then do. ‘Ship of Fools’ is funny and scary in equal measure. ‘France’s Secret War’ is just scary. Hari goes to the middle of Africa, to a brutal, blood soaked country where the French still pursue a far from ethical foreign policy:

‘This is a forgotten corner of a forgotten country. Birao lies and dies in the far north-east of the Central African Republic (CAR). CAR itself has a population of just 3.8 million, spread across a territory bigger than Britain’s, landlocked at the exact geographical heart of Africa. It is the least-reported country on earth. Even the fact that 212,000 people have been driven out of their homes in this war doesn’t register on the global radar. In Birao, I realise I am too close to the immediate horror to find the deeper explanations for this war. I only begin to uncover the origins of this story when I stumble across a very rare find in the CAR – an old man.’

Clive James, given a lifetime achievement award for writing and broadcasting, spoke so easily and fluently you could’ve sworn you’d just tuned into Radio 4. He has such a beguiling wit and humour that he can prod life into even the most humdrum political issues. Oh, and he knows a surprising amount about George Orwell too (which you can see from this interview he did with us before the prize).

You can hear Clive James’ Point of View programmes (or read the scripts) at the Orwell Prize website, where you can also find quite a fun Orwell essay about how to make a cup of tea.

Written by Martin Moore

April 25th, 2008 at 7:35 am

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