Walking in Palestine

A trek across the dry, tranquil landscape to end the day at a Bedouin camp

 

I should have known it: Palestine time is the same as Irish time, only slower. I’d had the rucksack packed for a 9am start. Water bottle? Check. Shades? Check. Except that it was another hour before Amir, my guide, rolled up, all smiles and ready to go. By then, my host family, the Badrrs, had all gone – five children to school, Omar, the father, to his taxi driving job, leaving his wife and myself to have a quiet cup of cardamom coffee while she showed me her family heirloom: a small brass bowl engraved with verses from the Koran and decorated with a shimmering myriad of tiny, moving discs. A trembling dish, it’s called. If you drank from it under a full moon, your life would be filled with tranquillity.

In fact, I had a whole day of tranquillity for Amir took me on one of Palestine’s loveliest walks which runs from Battir to the town of Beit Jala, about four hours walk away. Battir, built on a Roman site, is a Palestinian village 7km from Jerusalem and the walk, an experience that takes you in and out of time, is part of a 26km proposed Unesco hiking trail.

We started in Battir itself, walking through terraced fields irrigated by communally controlled springs until we descended to a pool from Roman times but which is still being used by village women to wash their home-grown vine leaves and cos lettuces before taking them to sell at the market.

Battir is well-known for the springs that sparkle out of the mountain on which the village is built. It’s these ancient springs that enable local farmers to maintain the age-old terracing that marks the contours of the hill and where the community of Battir has grown its crops since Roman times. Now fast-forward to when Battir, under the Ottomans, became a stopping point of enormous importance when the 19th century Jaffa-to-Jerusalem railway was built.

Below us, the disused rail track curved out of sight in both directions but after a few minutes we came across the old water pump where the steam-train stopped to fill up with water and where the women came to sell their fruit and vegetables to passengers.

The temperature was hitting 25 degrees and so we slowed a little, allowing a farmer armed with a strimmer to overtake us on his donkey going to work in his field. These fields, watered by four springs (two others were blocked by an Israeli construction project) are small, square and neat as patchwork quilts.

Further along we had a chat with a villager doing what his people have been doing for centuries: building a dry-stone retaining wall.

So precious is Battir, ecologically, that the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) have joined with Battir villagers to oppose the building of the separation wall which would cut right through this terraced landscape.

The day was idyllic – warm, quiet and peaceful as a day in the country should be. We stopped a few times for a drink of water but as we reached Beit Jala I realised time was running out: I had to link up with my next guide, Hijazi, who would take me to spend the night in a Bedouin camp up on a breezy hill overlooking Jordan.

The light was fading as Hijazi bumped his car across the stoney desert track to the big black tent, home to the leader of the Rashaida tribe, Sheikh Haj Ali.

When the Bedu move, they leave a basic structure in place so that they can lock into it on their return.

Right now, the sheikh’s family were in their summer quarters. The women were cooking in the kitchen tent while in the main one I found the sheikh’s adult son, Firhan, watching football on the solar-powered TV; the sheikh himself, reclining on a pile of cushions, was speaking to one of his people on his mobile phone, his first wife cradling a curly-headed little girl, the child born of the sheikh’s second and younger wife.

Later in the evening, with the camel herd safely gathered in, the evening meal served (the sheikh being served first), and the children settled under warm blankets, the coffee pot was passed round and the sheikh and I got into conversation.

“I need another wife,” he said, cheerily.

“But you have two perfectly good ones already,” I pointed out. Just then his cellphone rang, bringing an end to my foray into the marriage market.

Next morning before dawn, the sheikh was up overseeing his grandson lead the camels off in search of grazing.

Firhan was looking after his small sons while his wife slapped thin circles of dough onto hot upturned metal pots where they would instantly cook and provide us with delicious warm bread for breakfast.

Then, after coffee, Hijazi and I set off on another trek that would take us further into the tranquil hills ahead – Palestine at its best and not enough days to enjoy it all.

“You can always come back,” said Hijazi, “and spend a few days camel riding.” Now there’s a thought.

The details

Hijazi Eid graduated in tourism and business studies at Bethlehem University. His trekking site is hijazih.wordpress.com

A four-day trek, half board, in a group of four costs €543 and includes transport to and from Bethlehem, accommodation, guided walks. More information on the website.

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