To walk Palestine
Bassam Amohor - 16/10/2014
I walk because my country is small, and getting smaller, shrinking and vanishing. It’s getting fragmented, scattered into pieces, disconnected, or connected with thin narrow corridors. I walk to make it big; I walk in valleys and canyons to feel the land, huge around me. I walk to make my country look vast, wide. I walk so I can spend weeks to cross it, I walk to take photos, to breathe fresh air, to be tanned by its sun, to feel free, to stretch my muscles, to relax my ears, to listen to the sounds of nature. I walk so I can feel the whole country is my balcony. When I walk, Palestine is a continent to me.
I also walk for fitness. But, goodness me, even Bedouins nowadays stopped walking. Only their shepherds walk. I recently crossed Palestine and I only met two shepherds, two kids picking za’atar, and a handful of hikers. The rest: all driving. There is a taxi service in every village. A woman orders a taxi to visit her friend over on the next street. How big is the village? Not big at all.
There are very few footpaths in Palestine. Most of those beautiful old natural footpaths became car roads, widened savagely by bulldozers, crossing olive groves, and destroying the natural habitat. Of course, our mashtoob cars must drive. “I can stay longer, even after dark, in my farm nowadays,” says Abu Mahmoud from Jammalah, while starting his old van. His donkey has been retired, or only used when his van is out of diesel fuel or battery power.
There are very few people in the streets, or sitting on doorsteps, on their balconies, in an alley corner, sipping tea, coffee, and drinking glass-bottled Coca Cola. There are very few cafes in the villages, no more wooden little chairs, and no more Abbas, our coffee man. He’s dead. I still remember him with his blue apron, his always-pouting face, handing the old men their dark arabica while they played tarneeb. It’s the age of the Internet. What we call “social” is taking over. You meet people, exchange a few words, and the first question they would ask you, “do you have a face”? (Ed. Note: face refers here to facebook) Yes, I do have a face, and a tongue, and I speak Arabic, and actually I’m good looking, and can tell you tons of stories, please sit with me and leave your “smart” thing aside. We did not only stop walking, we even stopped talking. What Paul Salopek calls ‘car brain’, I call it ‘cell phone brain’.
Expanding a shrinking country
What is it? Why do people stop walking? Is it so hard? Is it that difficult to walk? Or is it dangerous? Is there a curfew? Or the settlers are roaming all around us, they cut our roads and valleys, frighten our children, and we have to take every precaution not to stick our head outside our windows, or not to step in their territories? Why did we stop walking?
Yes, the dark truth. Walking in Palestine is a dangerous habit. And thanks Google Maps, I now see where the borders of the Jewish settlements are, I draw my path virtually, save the path from Google earth into a ‘.kml’ file, then use a free website to convert the ‘.kml’ file into a ‘.gpx’ file and uploaded to my iPhone. Voila! I’m safe. Now I can consult my iPhone to find out where the nearest settlement is, and where its borders start, in order to avoid it. I thank every metaphysical element every time I bring my group back safe to their ‘natural habitat’.
But, come on! You don’t really need a GPS with you to hike, this is ridiculous. This place is so small, you can stand on a vista, look around you, and you can even touch the village, the farms, the valleys, the small Jordanian town of Shooneh, the towers of Tel Aviv, the red-roofs settlements. Oh, no, not these, they will burn you, that part is dark for us; we enter there only if we are workers to fix their windows, and build their housing units.
Walking is also dangerous if we want it to be so. Why do people think I am a Jewish settler every time I pass by a Palestinian village? Why do they say “shalom”, “mi efo atem”, “rotse maym?” every time I pass by a group of them? Why do a shepherd and his son run away over the hill with their eighty-five sheep to the Fandaqomieh village? Is it because of our peaceful coexistence? Is it because of the settler, who looks like me, carrying a rucksack, wearing “North Face”, and a big Canon camera? But I don’t carry a gun on my hip.
Why does walking hurt? Is it because of the blisters on your feet? Or the sunburns? Maybe it is difficult because we have to climb: our Palestine is full of hills, and for every down path we take, there is one up.