Caelum Moffatt: Walking in Paradise

By Caelum Moffatt

Whether a Palestinian, an Israeli settler or a foreigner currently residing in the West Bank, engaging in whatever activity that makes the days pass, all are undeniably guilty of the same crime – obstinate blindness.

I am not talking about blindness toward each other with regard to the political situation nor am I attempting to highlight and promote mutual sensitivity, respect or coexistence. I am stressing the existence of blindness of another kind. It is a kind more visually obvious but yet somewhat overlooked – the disregard for the sheer beauty of the West Bank landscape. With this said, it is not so surprising an occurrence when one considers the current climate.

There are more than 500 Israeli checkpoints dispersed throughout the West Bank and over 120 Israeli settlements with a combined population of 450,000. Hundreds of kilometers of pristine roads, exclusively for Israeli use, connect these settlements with their place of destination. In addition, there stands a nine meter high, approximately 800 kilometer long wall which weaves through the West Bank.

All these illegal Israeli landmarks have physically disturbed this unrivaled and historic landscape. The construction of the wall has not only laid waste to Palestinian olive trees and land but has also concealed the scenic landscape from the Palestinians in the 8.6% of the West Bank on the west side of the separation barrier. The checkpoints taint the view with their cages, flags, army vehicles and soldiers while the settlements, strategically situated at the tops of West Bank hills, insult this unique and majestic land with their generic, manufactured and pseudo aesthetic style, bordered by more fences and Israeli soldiers.

These physical man-made obstacles invariably have a psychological effect on the local Palestinians. Instead of enjoying their surroundings and admiring their homeland, their minds are clogged with persistent new thoughts.

“How long will I be at this checkpoint? I can’t afford to be late for work again. What if I get fired? How will I feed my family?”

“The Israelis have confiscated hundreds of dunums to make way for the Wall and for settlement expansion. Who is to say they won’t expel more of my land? Is my livelihood secure?”

“When will the Israelis ever permit me to go see my wife in Haifa?”

“The friction between Hamas and Fatah is making life worse for Palestinians.”

“My mother is very sick and I must see her but she lives in Hebron. It could take me hours to get there.”

“I pray that when my wife goes into labor or my children get hurt, the ambulance is allowed through the checkpoint to the hospital in time.”

Even if Palestinians weren’t psychologically affected, they may have no interest in casting their eyes on a land laid to waste by the “iron fisted” nature of occupation. They would almost certainly prefer to think back on the region, which houses the cities of Bethlehem, Nablus and Jericho, in all its glory, as ancient, magical and spiritual sites of unprecedented religious history and immortal spirit.

The land hosts the oldest city in the world, witnessed the birth of Jesus and his temptation by the devil, saw Abraham make his first sacrifice to God and observed the tumbling of the walls of Jericho by Moses’ successor Joshua. It is a land where one can mentally travel back and imagine being a character within the chapters of history.

Just one example of this incomparable historical landscape can be seen from the top of the 758 meter Mount Herodian, five kilometers south east of Bethlehem. To the east is the old Judean desert and mountains of Moab, vast sand dunes with the Dead Sea in the distance; to the south are the unperturbed mountains of sand which seem to continue on forever, defying the possibility of life existing close by. But there is. Continuing on the 360 surveillance of the land from the desert, there is a great deep canyon which seems to geographically divide arid desert from blossoming green land. To the west and north are the thousands of old, simply constructed settlements of South Bethlehem, Beit Sahur, Khallet Hamad and Bureid’a, clustered sporadically around the contours of the Judean hills in no particular fashion – completely determined on sociological progression, dependent on the individual and the period. The scene is almost indescribable by our modern language standard – a real vision of tranquility and magnificence.

Whereas the majority of people seem to allow the political climate to cloud this natural beauty, there is a small group who refuse to be deterred.

Based in the de facto capital of Ramallah, this diverse group of Palestinians and foreigners of all ages set out twice a week and hike around the surrounding countryside. Although the pre-dawn time of the meet did discourage me at first [and continues to now], it is the most invigorating activity I have done in the West Bank to date.

On the occasions where I do obey the purpose of my alarm and rise, meet with the group and drag myself into a service taxi, I replay my alarm going off in my head over and over. But in the dream scenario I ignore it and succumb to deep sleep. I wake to sometimes find that we are at Surda checkpoint and have to go through the tedious process of presenting our papers to a disgruntled and equally tired Israeli soldier. I further doubt why I have come. The service taxi arrives at the destination and the first thing my eyes fall on are the imposing Israeli settlements of Ofarim and Hallamish, fenced in, draped in Israeli flags with armored vehicles offering protection from the outside. These unavoidable complexes with their modern houses unattractively squeezed together, obscuring the view of the natural landscape and authentic Arabic abodes, compel me to question even further the reason for my attendance. Then tiredness flees and the reason manifests and becomes overwhelmingly transparent.

Turning away from the settlements, we watch as the sun gradually illuminates and reveals the Palestinian hill towns of An Nabi Salih and Beit Rima.

This is what the West Bank has in abundance – a plethora of residences and communities scattered arbitrarily throughout the countryside. The effect is very much similar to that of Machu Pichu in Peru. There, people walk for days in an environment where civilization seems to have been forsaken, and then reach the Sun Gate, detecting not only a seemingly isolated community but a noticeably developed one in the middle of the mountainous terrain. The scale is obviously smaller in the West Bank but the element of surprise is still the same. On hikes, one could walk in the hills, through olive groves, on rocky terrains where rivers used to flow and think oneself to be completely alone, assuming that no community could be situated in such a detached area. Then after hours of walking, on reaching the top of a hill, a small town established discreetly on one side of the hill would reveal itself.

On this elevated ground, in the dead silence of morning, with the cool breeze still in its element before it gives way to the blistering heat of late morning, unparalleled freedom and peace can be found. After hiking for a couple of hours and having reached the hill’s peak, breathing slightly heavier yet utterly satisfied, the hikers display their food contributions to the rest of the group, sit down enjoying some tea, food, conversation and of course the fabulous sight that nature has offered. From this position, space and beauty surround all compass points with everything subsequently becoming subject to the viewer’s gaze. Communities are boosted into consciousness, the animals are heard waking in preparation for their daily tasks and the residents, commanded by the sun’s course, venture out into the quiet streets and go about their business. Another day has started in the West Bank.

In addition to marveling over the structure of the towns, the people who dwell in them and the minarets towering over the houses, there is the greenery which is a rather unexpected characteristic in such a warm climate. There are trees, valleys and olive groves which adorn the land with so much pride and perfection. Especially intriguing are the vast formations of olive trees creeping up the top of hills. They are meticulously planted to optimize their use and minimilize the farmers’ labor in tending to them. The olive trees themselves stand old but graceful, with their trunks wide and intertwined, forming shapes which would baffle the most skilled sculptors. Not only are the shapes wonderfully crafted, they possess uncanny resemblances to human and animal expressions. This trend is also applicable to the rock formations which used to be, at one time, submerged in water. They could easily be mistaken for fossils, as trapped ancient creatures in time, unable to escape the torments of their previous lives, frozen with their last look of anguish and sentenced forever to be held prisoner only for the odd camera enthusiast to take notice.

The service taxi on the way back is significantly quieter. The sun is reaching its zenith and its heat spreads weariness over the tired travelers. Full stomached and exhausted, the group sits in their seats, proud of themselves for achieving so much before the clock has struck eleven. It is also a time for self-reflection, to look back on the events of the morning, to replay the views over and over again, and relive the pleasure they brought. However, the feeling diminishes once the service taxi returns to Ramallah and the group acknowledges that they’ll have to wait for their next fix. It is the unfortunate affect of being back in Ramallah or any other major West Bank city; one is instantaneously reminded of the political situation. What awaits them is an imprisoned Gaza, economic problems, a belligerent Israel and a beleaguered Palestinian people, frustrated with false promises, no independence and swiftly losing faith in it arriving anytime soon.

The group returns to their lives but they have their release, their two mornings when they can escape, feel liberated and marvel in the beauty of Palestine. This keeps them grounded, sane and hopeful.

This method of psychological release is not utilized by all. Perhaps it doesn’t suffice for some while some may not be able to partake in such an excursion. Palestinians may channel their energy elsewhere but most people unfortunately allow themselves to wallow and sink into the engulfing depression of oppression.

The olive branch has been a symbol of peace since ancient Greek mythology three millennia ago. With the masses of olive groves which span across the land, it is an anomaly that peace has not yet ensued.

(MIFTAH – www.Miftah.org – Nov 5, 2007)

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