Leaving Palestine

Palestine bike
Palestine

At the end of my time in Nablus I bought a bicycle, strapped my possessions onto it and headed out on the road. I cycled south to Jericho, to the warmth and the desert and the ochre-red mountains. I came up against the absurdity of the Israeli Occupation Forces halfway through my cycle. They waved me through a checkpoint easily enough, my face doesn’t look Palestinian enough to be a threat. I rested in the shade of the huge red ‘Danger: Area A’ sign and checked my map. A soldier came over to help me and asked where I was going. Jericho, I said. He recommended the less hilly route and I thanked him. He said ‘just watch out when you see these signs,’ gesturing at the ‘Area A’ sign, ‘it’s very dangerous, don’t go past the sign’. Ok, but I’m going to Jericho, that’s in Area A, right? ‘Yes, Jericho is fine though’. I looked up the road where I’d come from, behind the Area A sign. And I’ve just come from Nablus, that’s in Area A as well isn’t it? ‘Yes, but the villages are dangerous, off Route 90. Don’t go to the Palestinian villages’. Right. Last time I was on this road travelling back to Nablus I saw the Israeli army shooting at teenage boys on bikes. I think about this as I cycle off. Dangerous for some maybe, but not me, not today.

Area A
Area A. Very dangerous, except I survived living there for two months fairly unscathed.

Later on in Ramallah I found myself chatting with some people about the absurdity of Israeli border guards. One international told how she’d been questioned coming back into Tel Aviv to return to her job in Ramallah. She was asked, ‘do you have friends in Ramallah? Did you speak to locals there?’ No, we come to Palestine but we don’t talk to anyone, especially not Arabs. Another friend entering from Jordan was asked by border security what he thought about the war in Syria. Another friend was called back to security for further questioning because she had a ‘learn Arabic’ textbook in her luggage. Forget this absurdity for a minute, just do what you do well, enjoy being outdoors, complicated though they might make it. As I rested in the heat of Jericho after my cycle ride I got a text from the manager at Wadi Climbing centre in Ramallah to see if I wanted to join their outdoor trip that weekend. I said yes and abandoned my plan to cycle further south, returning instead to Ramallah. We climbed at Yabrud, taking a group of beginners for their first experience on rock. From there I decided to stay in Ramallah, and went to volunteer at an arboretum near Ein Qinya, cycling distance from the city. There I became a lazy fellaha, spending days idling in the sunshine, occasionally doing some work, planting some trees and watering some plants, but mainly drinking coffee and looking at the hills.

sunset mashjar
Falling in love with this view on a hillside near Ramallah

One night we went out in Ramallah, meeting friends from Nablus and dancing until the early hours. When we returned to our camp on the hillside we find some invited guests making a barbeque and drinking. We eye them cautiously, trying to establish who they are and how friendly they are. Their shiny machine gun is unsettling us slightly and I give up trying to work out if they’re settlers and go to bed. The arboretum is in Area C (Israeli security control) and it’s very unlikely that Palestinians would carry guns here. Most probably they were security guards working for the nearby settlements. One day I try to cycle through the settlement that we can see from our hill, called Dolev. The soldier comes down from the tower to question me. ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?’ I’m just trying to go to the highway, can I go this way? ‘No, you can’t come this way’. Oh. Do you know how I can get to this highway? I show him on my map. ‘You can’t go there.’ Oh, ok. ‘Go back to where you came from’. He asks me if I like cycling. Yeah I like cycling. He says he has a mountain bike and he also likes exploring. A few days later I’m chatting with a friend from Ramallah. He says he was mountain biking with a friend near these settlements one day early in the morning. They were picked up by the settlement security guards, handed over to the army and put in a cell at a police station for five hours. The guards told them ‘don’t try and have fun on our land’. When they were released they had to go to Bet El, a different settlement north of Ramallah, to collect their bikes. Their phones had been smashed and thrown away, and were returned to them by Palestinian villagers. Looks like I got away lightly. I turn away from the settlement and instead cycle up the huge hill to Beitunya and into Ramallah.

Cycling to jericho
Cycling Nablus to Jericho

These restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians will always be resisted. As one friend tells me, ‘freedom to me is building something self-sufficient, something they can’t get to.’ If you can pursue your life in the way that you want despite all their controls and restrictions then you are performing your freedom. That’s why my friend goes mountain biking near settlements at 5am risking detention or being shot at, to just go about his life the way he wants, to enjoy being in his land. That’s why the owners of the arboretum are planting trees, repopulating the land with rare native varieties, building something green and beautiful in the hills. The owner tells me he wants people to come and enjoy this green space, see flowers, see trees, relax. In amongst building controls, house demolitions and the control of water resources and farmland, the arboretum, illegally occupying the Israeli-controlled illegally occupied Palestinian land known as Area C, is a beautiful kind of resistance.

st georges monastery
Hiking Wadi Qelt to St Georges Monastery, Jericho

I go with some friends I met in Nablus to Tel Aviv for a night out. Me and a friend hitchhike there, walking through Qalandia checkpoint and taking a lift at the highway. I start speaking Arabic to our lift and he gruffly speaks back in Hebrew. Are we in Israel now? I’m confused and decide to stay quiet. Our next lift is a settler from Ariel, a large settlement near Nablus. He’s en route home from Jerusalem and is celebrating because today he bought land near his house. Congratulations, I say flatly. He’s jubilant. He’s an architect, and has various plans for the land. I play dumb and ask him if it’s dangerous living in the West Bank. He says no, and tells us a proverb about the ‘near Arab and the far Arab’. I don’t attempt to understand what he means by this except something racist, and I ask him why people choose to live in the West Bank. He tells me that some do it for religious reasons (there are many Jewish holy sites in the West Bank) but that he likes being in nature. If you like green rolling hills then Palestine has far more beautiful landscapes than Israel. I don’t want to talk politics and I ask him about his children. Later on in a Tel Aviv club my friend keeps getting drawn into arguments about politics, and Palestine. We tell her it’s not the time and the place but I can see her frustration. One guy is bothering me and the second or third time he tries to talk to me to ask me what I’m doing in Israel I tell him I’ve been living in Nablus. He asks ‘where’s Nablus?’ It’s a big city in Palestine. ‘Where’s Palestine!?’ he shouts at me as I walk away from him. Leave it, you’re not in Tel Aviv to talk politics. The flat we rent has a huge framed picture of the owner in his army days, on a mountain top surrounded by fellow soldiers, smiling, arms round each other, probably somewhere in the occupied Golan heights, or occupied Palestine. In this place it’s hard to get away from politics. As I part ways with my friends I’m eager to get back to Ramallah, something about the city has captured my heart.

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Days later I drag myself away from Ramallah for the final time and shed tears on the way to the airport. I don’t want to leave this place. Being suddenly off the plane and in Europe is jarring, as I sit at a café watching a homeless man approach people drinking €4 coffees and ignoring him. I give him a €1 and he barely registers it, or me. Take me back to Palestine, please. Why did I like it so much? I think about the relaxed beauty of Nablus, nestled between two mountains, the friendly open people who treat you like an honoured guest. The markets in the old city, the Ottoman baths, the views over the city as you walk up the hillsides, the call to prayer echoing around the hills at sunset. The people in Ramallah, the culture, the language, the history, the hills, endless hills. In my final days I never made it to the Mahmoud Darwish museum but I have no regrets for this time, and as I try to wrap my head around what I’ll do next, my mind stays in Palestine.

climbing yabrud
Climbing at Yabrud, Palestine

Climb in Palestine with Wadi Climbing Centre, Ramallah: http://www.wadiclimbing.com/

Cycle in Palestine: https://www.facebook.com/palestineriders/

 

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One thought on “Leaving Palestine

  1. I’m reading this from Palestine ❤
    That's a good summary of what life is like here..
    I've seen checkpoints, racism & soldier & settler brutality towards palestinians, and then massive generosity from Palestinian people living under the occupation.

    Like

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