West Bank walks
MANCHÁN MAGAN'stales of a travel addict
My memories of cowering in a doorway in Old Jerusalem, caught in a hail of fire between the Israeli Defence Forces shooting right behind me and Palestinian boys slinging stones in front, mean that I try not to think much about the Holy Land, even at this time of the year.
It was during the Second Intifada in 2000. I remember running from the bullets into a cobbled alleyway and crashing into a group of pilgrims muttering the Rosary.
On a Sunday last August, I took a stroll up the Erne River to the 17th-century ruins of Portora Castle, hoping to replace these memories with kinder ones at an open-air talk given by the passionate walker, Raja Shehadeh about trekking in Palestinian territories. It was part of Enniskillen’s Happy Days festival.
Shehadeh explained the Palestinian concept of sarha – roaming freely, without restraint. The verb-form of the word refers to letting cattle out to pasture early, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty, like the bó bradach (trespassing cow) concept in Irish.
In Shehadeh’s book Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, he writes, “A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly – not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. Going on a sarha implies letting go.”
This type of walking becomes increasingly difficult as the impregnable walls of Jewish settlements encroach upon the land, not to mention the highways that only Israelis may use.
Shehadeh notes how highways “are more effective geographic barriers than walls in keeping neighbourhoods apart. Walls can always be demolished, but once built, roads become a cruel reality that is more difficult to change.”
Regarding the settlements, he quotes William Dalrymple’s description of a settlement outside Jerusalem as, “Milton Keynes transported into the landscape of a medieval Italian Fresco.” Despite this geo-architectural war of attrition, there are still some marvellous trails in the West Bank meandering through olive groves, wheat fields and along shepherd paths scented with Persian thyme and wild sage.
A Dutch diplomat named Stefan Szepesi has published a guide to 25 of them, Walking Palestine. It provides practical information about local guides, restaurants and places to stay, as well as information on the history and wildlife of the desert, hills and wadis through which you walk.
In the book’s introduction, Szepesi writes: “Simply put, there is another Palestine from the one filling our television screens . . . What makes walking in the West Bank so special is that you understand the conflict better, you see the scars on the landscape, but you also see the other face of Palestine.”
For Shehadeh, it’s hard for him to see the beauty of his homeland without dwelling on what has been lost.
When he began walking in the 1970s: “The hills were like one large nature reserve with all the unspoilt beauty and freedom unique to such areas”.
“With a small stretch of the imagination,” he writes, it would have “seemed similar to a contemporary of Christ. Those hills were, I believe, one of the natural treasures of the old world.”
Yet, there is still great beauty now and strolling through Palestine entails invitations to tea with locals, seeing farmers harvesting wheat by hand and women drawing water from crystal clear springs.
Having a guide is vital to avoid incidents such as Shehadeh experienced when he brought his 10-year-old nephew hiking in the hills and found him holding up a thick metal tube. Recognising what it was, Shehadeh shouted to the boy, “Keep holding it. Do not throw it.”
Then, he gingerly took the pipe bomb from his nephew and told him to run as far as possible, while he delicately replaced it on the ground – the hallowed ground – of the Holy Land.