Palestine Dispatch: On the land
I realized early on during the research for this book that I was spending a disproportionate time sitting in urban cafes talking to Palestinian poets as they hand-rolled and chain-smoked cigarettes. Since the conflict here is, arguably, first and foremost one about land, I worried I wasn’t seeing very much of it. I love smoky Middle Eastern cafes as much as anyone, but I needed to get out of the cities and into the hills.
I connected with a local hiking group that organizes long walks in the West Bank countryside every Saturday. I first hiked with them last June, when we walked through Wadi Qana to the ancient city of Deir Istiya in the northern West Bank. Two weeks ago, we hiked from the Mar Saba Monastery near Bethlehem and onward through the Kidron Valley. The group hiked from the Burqin Church near Jenin and into the Hasmiyet Mountains last Saturday, and tomorrow we will walk through Wadi Fukin.
The landscape of the West Bank is remarkably diverse – from the thistle and thorns of the Kidron Valley to the green fields of tobacco and okra in the north. We shared the daylight with monks, shepherds, farmers and Bedouin. We climbed hilltops to gaze down on villages built of limestone, and paused in the shade of a carob tree to drink tea made of wild thyme. The fruit trees are just starting to blossom here now. White olive flowers hide fruit still as small as peppercorns. Pomegranate trees bloom like tiny bursts of flame.
This is not untamed wilderness: I saw very little land not used by the Palestinians here. Terraced orchards embrace the curves of the hillsides. Bedouins camp in the Wadis. Even the Biblically-dry land near Bethlehem provides enough green to feed the flock of sheep and goats driven by teenage boys.
There is a darkness, though, that hangs over all these walks. This is Palestine after all. Much of this land has been – and continues to be – confiscated to build illegal settlements, bifurcated by settler-only highways, and defiled by the Wall. Ancient land is rendered unrecognizable. We all know the trails we hike may one day vanish. The hilltop with its carob tree may one day disappear beneath a block of red-roofed settlement homes. This possibility is infuriating.