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Summer Walking in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.06.2010:

In Praise of Thorns and Thistles Summer Walking in Palestine

By Penny Johnson

TWIP, June 2010

Walkers in the lovely Palestinian spring usually mourn the dry, hot May wind, the khamsin from the desert, which blows away the last of the anemones and rudely announces the end of a season of delicate wildflowers and, occasionally, rushing water. But in June, summer settles pleasantly into the hills around Ramallah – now darker green, gray, and yellow – and it’s time to consider the pleasures (and pains) of summer walking. The winter walks in Wadi Qelt and the Jerusalem wilderness are out of bounds in the summer heat, and the best option is to open the door and take a walk from home.

For me, summer walking has one special icon – a visual pleasure and often a physical pain – which any walker will encounter once he or she turns from the road and descends into a wadi – thorns, or their more elevated companion, thistles. The presence of thorns and thistles in many a Biblical verse attests to their lengthy residence in Palestine, although, I am sorry to report, they are usually invoked in a prophetic curse where “plagues of briars and thistles” are visited upon the unworthy (and then there is the Crown of Thorns). Not being of a Biblical frame of mind myself, I urge you to look at the beauty of these familiar neighbours in a happier light. Note, for example, the contrast of the delicate flower and the spiky thorns, but also the patterned symmetry of the thorns themselves, evoking the elaborations of molecular or cellular geometry.

In the Ramallah of the not-so-distant past, two decades ago, let us say, before the housing projects and apartment blocks, you only had to walk along the Tireh road beyond the UNRWA women’s training school and you would find pink-purple flowering thistles that lined both sides of the almost deserted road, with only an occasional rabbit or lizard moving among them. As someone who looks anew into the flower book each spring as if it contained breaking news, I cannot confidently identify which pink-purple thistles graced Tireh in those bygone days: some leading contenders are the Cotton, the Syrian, or the gloriously named Holy Milk Thistle (after the Virgin Mary), or perhaps even the darker purple Globe Thistle. Flowering thistles do not vanish as quickly as spring wildflowers, but late spring and early summer are their apogee, and you may find the yellow-blooming thistles, such as the Spotted Gold and the Spanish Golden thistles lingering throughout the summer. In June, thistle and thorn lovers should be in luck: take any track or trackless way down a valley and some thistles will appear. And thorns, for sure, are waiting for you – and indeed will come home with you on socks and even, due to a thorn mystery, inside your clothing.

Admittedly, it is now harder to walk from home into one of the Ramallah valleys – bulldozers and our careless building habits have obliterated not only paths, but whole hillsides. In that Ramallah of twenty years ago we used to leave our house in Tireh in the late afternoon, as the summer air softened, and descend to one of the valleys; no upheaval of buildings and building rubble had yet made this an unpleasant and often impossible option. One summer afternoon, our five-year-old neighbour, Lydia Maalouf , asked to go along. Nodding vigorously when we enquired if she had her mother’s permission, she proceeded, wearing shorts and sandals, to skip down the thorn-laden hills, without a word of complaint despite the ever-reddening lashings that her legs and ankles received. Fortunately, a tortoise and some surviving frogs on the way to Ein Qenia provided a cheerful respite. Returning several hours later in the dark, a happy, if very scratched, Lydia had another encounter with her angry and worried mother who, of course, had not been told by her adventurous daughter of the walk. While such deception is not recommended, Lydia’s spirit is advised to truly appreciate summer wadi walking. I borrowed a bit of resolve from Lydia on my first walk with Shat-ha, our Ramallah-based walking group, in deepest summer with a start-time of 5:30 – and that’s AM, not PM. I spent a sleepless night – my usual anxious routine for travel outside the country at an early hour, rather than a meeting with friends at Ramallah’s manara. And then there was the bee-sting as we walked up a particularly slippery hill in the noon-day sun … and I tried to remember if I was allergic, thinking that this might not only be my first Shat-ha walk but also my last. But a clear blue sky, an elegant speckled lizard, and views below Deir Dibwan convinced me to continue walking.

Thorns and thistles do not a summer make – flowering trees turn to fruit, olive trees undergo yet another shade of gray-green, and the dry grasses are alive with the young creatures that have survived their spring birthing – from toads, turtles, snakes, and lizards to the occasional, heart-lifting, gazelle. (Even a young scorpion, however, is unlikely to stir maternal feelings, at least in humans). And then there are our older companions, signalling geological time (a respite from political time, media time, shopping time, and all the other times through which we whirl). These are rocks … and more rocks … and then, for a change, a torrent of pebbles. For Palestine, we can boast proudly, is a global capital of rocks. In an unpublished memoir of hiking in Palestine during the 1940s, Levon Malakian, an Armenian Palestinian who often went on long walks with the Quest Club, a hiking group from the Jerusalem YMCA, contemplated the rocks above, below, and around him and told a story: The Angel Gabriel, he said, had been given two bags of rocks by God to distribute throughout the whole earth. Flying over Palestine, however, he dropped one of them. The contents of the second sack were spread over the rest of the earth.

Rocks, thorns, thistles, fruit trees, gazelles, and tortoises, early morning and early evening summer light – summer in Palestine. But I think that our summer is also haunted by an absence: the absence of the sea. Scroll back several decades and there it is: just drive past Beit Ur, towards the coast, and the sea is before you. In conversations over several years with young people living in Amari Camp, Dheisheh Camp, and West Bank villages, I have been struck with how often they dream of going to the sea. When eighth-grade girls in Dheisheh were asked about where they would like to go on their school trips, after noting “any place but Battir” (the site of most school trips), they gave pride of place to “the sea” as well as to cities by the sea – Haifa and Acre. In an after-school session in a draughty cement room in Amari, a teacher asked third-graders to draw a picture of a “life without violence.” One girl held up her picture: the sea with happy bathers. She, like the girls in Dheisheh, had never seen the sea. And even the Gaza sea is off-limits. So perhaps the promise of summer in Ramallah has an additional promise to a new generation; to experience the beauty of the land and sea without borders.

Penny Johnson is an associate editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly, a frequent researcher at the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University, and a devoted, if erratic, walker with Shat-ha.

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