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Running is a luxury lost to Palestinians

Onlookers laughed at me: Why run if you aren’t fleeing arrest or imprisonment?

Jonathan Brown running at night in Palestine.

Fri, Dec 13, 2013, 11:09

   

Jonathan Brown

Four red lasers are bouncing off my marathon T-shirt. They’re moving in fast, halting lines from my thorax to the road and back again.

One hundred metres ahead, these lasers are attached to rifles. Between a house and roadside shrubbery, street lights are silhouetting a clutch of figures wielding light automatic weapons. It’s Eid al-Adha, marking of end of Hajj to Mecca, and I’m midway into my evening run in the West Bank. This evening, it has brought me to a secluded suburb of Nablus, and what is shaping up to be a military raid.

I only arrived in Palestine in September, partly on a whim, partly following a girl, and knowing little of the region’s conflict. But I’ve been here long enough to have learned two crucial facts: military activity escalates at night; and arriving at the wrong place at the wrong time can be fatal.

In Israel and Palestine in recent weeks, a Palestinian boy stabbed and killed an off-duty Israeli soldier on an Israeli bus, and Israeli soldiers shot and killed a young man playing with fireworks near Nablus. Does it matter that I consider running a harmless, unthreatening activity? Am I in the wrong place at the wrong time? What reaction could turning to run away provoke?

Stark realities

Whether along the rugged Atlantic coast of Donegal, or through the Siberian forest, the routes of the only marathons I’ve run were precipices with only the emptiness of the sea or the forest beyond. The sense of freedom I experience on a good run feels like an affirmation of the human spirit. But the realities of running in Nablus deny this sense of freedom.

Nablus is claustrophobic. It’s enclosed by sharp valley walls topped with military encampments, with F-16s tirelessly patrolling overhead. The 24- hour potential for military incursion can be suffocating. All main roads lead to military checkpoints, passable only with the right paperwork.

But these restrictions contrast with the magnificent topography of Palestine’s northern region. Although its mountains are inviting to the unsuspecting runner, few places that boast such beautiful landscapes are as inaccessible.

Drawing attention

Running is not a celebrated pastime in Nablus. I ran once during the day, drawing much attention to myself. Audibly wheezing up the steep hillsides in short sleeves, ankle socks and shorts, I passed women in full niqab, gulping equal parts car exhaust and second-hand cigarette smoke, while onlookers pointed and laughed. Why run if you aren’t fleeing arrest or imprisonment?

With rifles raised to my chest, it is in this moment the essential difference between running in Palestine and almost anywhere else crystalises. The difference is between “running” and “running away from”. As words on a page, it’s a small difference. Even the physical action is similar – they both trigger primal human instincts. But the feelings they instil are polar opposites. One is endorphins, the other adrenaline; the certainty of your safety and the certainty of imminent danger. I’m caught between these dichotomies when I realise running is a luxury I’ve been taking for granted, a luxury lost to Palestine.

The silhouettes flicker, dart, then disappear. Before they evaporate, I make out four children carrying toy pellet guns: Eid al-Adha gifts. These children feel similarly threatened by my approach as I had been by theirs. Senselessly, we are each other’s antagonisers. Defeated, frustrated, confused, I turn to walk home.

Usually, 2am is the best time to run. Traffic is minimal. Most people are sleeping. A cooling breeze rolls off the Mediterranean and on to the hills. It’s impossible to avoid steep climbs, but the farther up the valley’s sides, the more promising the view. Sodium-yellow streetlamps fall away, the sky gets darker and the stars brighter. Two lanes turn to one, which turns to gravel. The view and its eerie calm are worth the climb.

From here it’s easy to see where the lights of Tel Aviv meet the sea. It’s only 40km to the Mediterranean. Maybe, one day, it will make for a picturesque marathon.