Olivia Snaije
Haaretz (Analysis)
June 7, 2011 - 12:00am

We left Jenin early on our first day of cycling through Palestine. After an inaugural hill, we crossed a main thoroughfare where the terrain flattened, and whizzed along under a brilliant sun, the road lined with olive trees as well as multicolored fields of thistles, poppies, marigolds and daisies. Our guide, Nidal, drove ahead slowly, as if he were a Tour de France team car. At one point he stopped as a tortoise ambled across the road. Several other times during the week he would stop to pick some of us up when the rolling hills started to seem like mountains.

Around midday, hot and thirsty, we arrived at the village of Sebastia, whose archaeological ruins date back some 10,000 years, and where tradition says John the Baptist was beheaded.

The idea for the trip began when I met George Rishmawi in London three years ago. Rishmawi, a Palestinian from Beit Sahour, co-founded the International Solidarity Movement, and now runs the nonprofit Siraj Center with Michel Awad. Siraj promotes educational tourism, including walking tours around the West Bank, and is partnered with the Peace Cycle project, inaugurated in 2004 to raise awareness about the Palestinians' plight. Now, the center is hoping to organize bicycle trips; ours was a trial run.

This spring had seemed to be the perfect time for the trip. I dragged along my son Lucas, admittedly to remove him from his teenage existence for a week. We came from our Paris home to Jerusalem in mid-April, where we met two other participants at the Jaffa Gate: George Snow, a self-described MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man in Lycra ) from Great Britain, who had recently taken up biking and had coordinated the tour with the Siraj Center, and Louise Rafkin, a writer, journalist and martial arts expert from San Francisco.

We took a taxi to Beit Sahour in the West Bank, just over the hill from Bethlehem, where we met Nidal, George Rishmawi's brother. We then drove to Jenin to meet the fifth member of our party.

Davey Davis, 23, of Salt Lake City, was waiting for us with a broad smile. He had spent the day biking to Jenin from Nablus, where he has been working for the Palestinian NGO Project Hope for the past three months. A filmmaker, Arabic student and former bike messenger, Davey proved to be an invaluable companion as a bicycle technician, translator and inspiration to any teenager. He was also a serious rival to Palestinians in terms of friendliness.

Our first night in Jenin was spent, bizarrely, in a 90-room, luxury hotel called the Haddad Tourism Village, which had a fully functioning amusement park out front, packed with children and adults screaming with glee. Director and actor Juliano Mer-Khamis had been assassinated less than two weeks earlier in the Jenin refugee camp nearby, so it felt all the more incongruous to be having dinner outside under the full moon, the Ferris wheel spinning out front and stone lion statues guarding the hotel entrance.

Louise, who had heard about the bike trip from Jewish Voice for Peace in Oakland, had been learning about the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. She had arrived several days earlier and had spent most of her time with left-wing Israeli peace activists, most of whom had never been to the West Bank. She was still fuming about an Israeli man she had sat next to on a plane to Tel Aviv. When she told him about her bike trip, he asserted that Palestinians would kill her. That first night in Jenin, however, Louise was feeling nervous and vulnerable, as an American and a Jew.

Lucas and I were feeling well-fed and comfortable, having spent many holidays in Arab countries, including Lebanon, where my husband was born. Our family is a motley crew: My mother is a New York Jew who used to read I.F. Stone's Weekly and has always preferred integration to segregation. Once, when asked what it means to be Jewish, she replied, "a vague nostalgia for poppy-seed cake." My father is a Chinese-American art historian who lived in Alexandria, Egypt (where I was born ) in the 1960s, when he was studying Greek art from the Hellenistic period. My husband is a reluctant Christian from Beirut who has been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause since he was a teenager during Lebanon's civil war. His mother was born in Jerusalem and lived in an apartment in the German Colony. She fled with her family during 1948 war and ended up in Beirut. She still had the key to her home, and often reminisced about her Jewish neighbor Miriam, with whom she played every afternoon after school. Her younger brother George played with Miriam's brother, Yoram.

In Sebastia we cooled off and had an excellent lunch. Later, walking around the amphitheater and the ruins, the fields carpeted with yellow wildflowers, Siraj Center hiking guide Nedal Salwameh joined us and recounted with great relish the story of how King Herod had told Salome she could have anything she desired. John the Baptist's head, she replied.

Leaving Sebastia, we cycled down a stunning, smaller road lined with Roman columns, and a little later passed the imposing Shavei Shomron checkpoint, now open. We arrived in Nablus late in the afternoon. The city is surprisingly vibrant given the destruction and occupation it has undergone. Louise and I were rushed to the Turkish baths in the heart of the old city in time to catch the women's hour.

The Ottoman-era Hammam al-Shifa was heavily damaged during the Israeli invasion in 2002, but has since been repaired, complete with the original domes and hot tiles. We were given the pure olive oil soap that Nablus is so famous for, which makes one's hair wonderfully soft. While waiting to be massaged, we ran into a group of towel-clad British and American writers and publishers. They were part of the PalFest literary festival, an annual cultural road show whose heavyweight patrons included Chinua Achebe, Seamus Heaney and the late Harold Pinter.

Book readings and discussions were held that evening in the leafy courtyard of the timeworn Sheikh Qasem cafe. We later met the bubbly and eloquent trade unionist-cum-guide Majdi Shella, who outlined the importance of establishing a democratic and free civil society, "so that when we have a country, things will be good ... we do not want a Taliban nation." He stated: "Our main battle is staying human. Even with all the struggling and violence."

Walking around the old city, Louise, who had relaxed by then, began to feel nervous again. She was convinced Palestinians could tell she was Jewish just by looking at her. That's silly, I told her. What about Majdi? His name could be Bernie Cohen. You're right, she said, he looks just like my uncle.

Setting out early the next day, we sailed through the often-tense Hawara checkpoint south of Nablus and rode up into the hills, in an area particularly dense with settlers.

Terraced hills

There are approximately 124 settlements and about 100 outposts in the West Bank. We were near the settlement of Itamar, where the Fogel family was recently murdered, and the village of Awarta, where two Palestinian teenagers had allegedly confessed to the deed. It was the only region where we felt any tension at all - we were asked several times by Palestinians we passed whether we were settlers.

As we biked up into beautiful terraced hills of olive groves, we passed a herdsman with a flock of handsome goats in soft grays, blacks and beiges. In this peaceful landscape there were signs of of the occupation in the ever-present Israel Defense Forces watchtower and some settler provocation - graffiti or huge metal Stars of David. Biking up the last and particularly difficult hill of the day, George, who had revealed a distressing inclination for off-color remarks and jokes, muttered, "Bloody hills - let's get the Israelis to level them."

That night we stayed in the Christian village of Taibeh, famous for its beer factory, where we were received by the tiny, French-born Mother Marie-Martine in the Sainte Croix de Jerusalem convent. She delighted Lucas by recounting how she and a few other nuns, out looking for a place to picnic, had inadvertently stumbled into the huge IDF outpost on top of the hill overlooking the village, and were told to leave immediately.

By then Louise and Nidal were friends and were behaving like kindergarten classmates, with Nidal teasing Louise, and Louise punching him on the arm. Davey, Lucas and I gravitated happily around them, while George wandered off doing his own thing. It was in this light and happy spirit that we coasted blissfully through a desert moonscape down below sea level to the historic city of Jericho.

An uber-modern, red, suspended cable car took us up to the Mount of Temptation, where wizened Greek monks patrolled the monastery of the same name. The next day we cycled down the empty road through the Judean wilderness, past a lone camel and Nabi Musa, which one Muslim tradition recognizes as the tomb of the prophet Moses.

At a turnoff point, a Siraj Center member piled the bikes into the car and left for Beit Sahour. Happy to take a break from our bikes, we followed Nidal into the desert for a three-hour hike to the glorious Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in 483 C.E. and home to 20 monks. Louise and I sat outside with a group of Cypriot women tourists clad in black under the olive trees, barred from entering due to our gender. We took a taxi back to Beit Sahour, where we were to stay for our last two nights at the spotless Arab Women's Union guesthouse, run by Milada Khair, a gentle, pint-sized, hyper-energetic woman who did her laundry around midnight. The next day we abandoned our bicycles and piled into the car with Nidal, headed for Hebron. After the empty northern West Bank, the area between Bethlehem and Hebron was teeming with IDF watchtowers and futuristic-looking settlements.

We toured the beautiful old city of Hebron with Walid Abu-Halawa of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee. Hebron really brought it all home - we saw and felt up close how the Palestinians were muzzled and oppressed.

At the entrance to the old city were IDF soldiers, whose jeeps were parked in the center of the square. They monitored the comings and goings of inhabitants, stopping nearly all the boys and men. Everywhere we looked there were soldiers posted on roofs of buildings; they were visible all over the place, their weapons trained at passersby. At ever corner there were two or three propped against the wall, near food stalls, clothing stores or next to old men sitting on plastic chairs and smoking.

According to B'Tselem human rights organization, more than 75 percent of all local Palestinian businesses have closed since settlements have taken root in the old city.

We walked around there in a daze, acting as if it were normal to see IDF soldiers, weighed down with military paraphernalia and assault rifles at chest level, every 10 meters. "Boys with toys," scoffed Abu-Halawa.

'Friends with a Jew'

Wire mesh over our heads had been put up by Palestinians to protect them from rubbish and excrement that settlers throw down on them from the buildings above. Even Nidal, who had brought along his 9-year-old son, was shocked to tears. The checkpoint leading to the partitioned Ibrahimi mosque, known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, was closed. Streets were sealed off and made into dead ends by barbed-wire fences.

In the market, products were attractively piled up; brightly colored embroidered dresses and bedcovers hung in front of the clothing shops. All dressed up and nowhere to go, I thought. Ever-optimistic schoolchildren danced past the soldiers, while 126 CCTV cameras, according to Abu-Halawa, installed in the one-square kilometer stared down at us from rooftops and street corners.

In the car on the way back from Hebron Louise timidly and only half jokingly asked Nidal, "So, what's it like to be friends with a Jew?"

"Lovely friend," he said softly.

We said good-bye to Nidal that afternoon; it was time for him to get back to his family. Afterward Louise sobbed in her room, devastated by the thought that so many people retain an image of Palestinians as hostile and violent.

That night Davey and Lucas played table soccer in a crowded hall with other boys from Beit Sahour, while a man made falafel in a corner. Our last morning we packed our bags into a new car driven by a Palestinian with an Israeli ID who could bring us through the checkpoint in Bethlehem and then take the bicycles back to Beit Sahour.

"I wish I could come with you," said Milada's assistant wistfully.

As we cycled past the wall and through the checkpoint in Bethlehem, we had the distinct impression of leaving somewhere warm and fuzzy, and going into what seemed to us to be an aggressive, dangerous world.

In response to my e-mail of thanks to a family in Taibeh who had us over for dinner, the wife wrote: "Thank you for coming. Such visits are important for us, it is showing us that we're not alone. Hope many people from all over the world do the same. It gives us the opportunity to speak about our lives and the real situation we live in. Since you visit our home, you must feel that you have friends in this country ... Best regards Maaddi Family."


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