A Walk in Palestine
This spring, I walked for five days through unexpected natural beauty and unmatched historical sites, deep into the memory and heritage of the Palestinian people.
The Masar Ibrahim is a walking trail from the North to South of the West Bank. It retraces the journey of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), the common ancestor of three of the world’s most prevalent religions.
The idea of a long distance walking trail across occupied territory, following a Biblical patriarch is undeniably brimming with colonial machismo. And yet, I found the experience of walking, connecting remote villages with my feet and my stories, to be a warm, organic, and gently seductive journey into a land on fire.
Nothing can be extracted from politics here. Not the sunny mountaintops, whose summit cairns have been occasionally mistaken for land grabs, nor the numerous Hebrew and Arabic names of rivers and canyons, not even the roads, many of which Palestinians are not allowed to use. The fact that a mapped, visibly marked, continuous trail exists across this land is nothing short of a miracle.
In a way, I suppose it always has, as most of the paths have been travelled by merchants and farmers for generations. I would venture to generalize that in any culture, farmers know where the best vistas can be seen. The north of the country is home to stony, Mediterranean hills and soft mountain landscapes, dotted with wildflowers, like the bright red anemone. The legend surrounding the vibrant little blossom is that it grew from the tears of Aphrodite after her lover, Adonis, was murdered. If the tears of women really fertilized flowers, this would certainly explain the lush springtime gardens and fields of Palestine.
Heading south into the Jordan Valley, we walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or as it is called nowadays, Wadi Qelt. The deep, craggy canyon stretches from Jericho to Hizma, a town near Jerusalem, and is dotted with remains of civilizations past. Ruins of Ottoman and Roman aqueducts have left striking lines of green vegetation along the steep walls, and crosses mark the locations of monasteries that were destroyed. Hikers can reach one of the monasteries that remains in operation by passing several ancient hermit-houses carved into the canyon. The monks’ accommodation has since been upgraded, but they still live and work in the Monastery of St. George, which clings tenuously to the stone cliffs.
Throughout the journey, we were welcomed with truly Biblical hospitality, by both Bedouin shepherds and city dwellers alike. The sprawling farms, gentle sun, and endless cups of tea create a feeling of peace at the eye of a storm. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated by the fact that this intensely beautiful and uniquely spiritual place is being suffocated, cut off from the outside world by conflict, rather than treasured and preserved for the unmatched historical significance it holds for billions of humans.
Walking in the footsteps of prophets, conquerors, crusaders, pilgrims, and saints, I cannot help but feel a sense of awe at the extraordinary journeys made by ordinary people. People have walked this path because of commerce; to reach an ancient Roman market town, or to bring their goats to better grazing, because of fear; to flee soldiers who have burned their village, or to relocate their family, and even because because of pride; they’re on a gap year and just can’t right now. One of these ordinary people of irreplicable character gave us some wisdom that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Umm Tha’er, (whose name directly translates to Mother of the Revolution and is a complete badass) lives in a refugee camp outside Jericho, and hosts travellers in a guest house run by her women’s collective.
During a conversation translated by a young man in the camp, one of my walking companions asked Umm Tha’er what is her most valuable, special, important possession. We expected to hear the familiar tragic story of 1948, captured in yellowing family photos and big brass keys to a house on the other side of the green line. But not this time.
Her response is not just the story of Palestine, but of womanhood.
“My Patience.” She said, with an eager smile. “I always have it with me.”