The Jordan Valley and the hills of Jericho

The Jordan Valley and the hills of Jericho

On our first night in Jerusalem, Dave and I join friends for a thanksgiving feast. At some point in-between turkey and pumpkin pie we slip away from the main party and into a side room with someone who has ten years of hiking experience in the Middle East. They bring out Israeli-made topographical maps so we can scout out some of our planned route. “It might be worth your while taking half an hour to learn to read Hebrew before you go,” they tell us. This is the sort of thing people say when they speak fluent Hebrew and Arabic and have lived in Jerusalem for a decade.

They point at various lines and shapes on the map, all alien to us. “This section is cool,” we’re told. “The wadi here is beautiful. I think this is one of the firing zones actually.” Dave and I look at each other. “A firing zone?” asks Dave. “As in, where there might be live fire?”

“Yes,” come the reply. “You just have to be a little careful. The best time to hike there is the weekend, because the military won’t be there.” Our friend laughs, and we both join in. I don’t know why.

I think back to this conversation now as I walk over the lunar landscape of the dry beige hills to the east of Jerusalem. We have left the city well behind. It’s been raining most of the morning, and my view so far has been restricted to the borders of my raincoat hood. The major landmarks of the day – the Old City, the Mount of Olives, the Separation Barrier – have passed by without much fanfare. What I’ve learned is that on the first day of a 1000 mile walk, the only thing that’s going to make a lasting impression is the shoulder straps of a poorly adjusted pack.

The rain eases in the afternoon, and dark bulbous clouds add shape to the rounded hills. Somewhere farther to the west (but crucially, not that far) there is gunfire.  I walk faster to catch up with our guide for the day, Ahmad. He is a Palestinian Bedouin, and has agreed to walk us from just outside the small town of Al-Eizareya to the tents of the Hamedin Community near to sea level (his home.) It’s worth pointing out the obvious - Bedouin these days are rarely dressed in flowing white gowns with camels in tow (at least, not here.) A modern day Bedouin like Ahmad arrives with denim jeans, a leather jacket and a Bachelors degree in Biology.

He wears a kuffiyeh- the black and white scarf that has become synonymous with Palestine, but he has it draped over his shoulders rather than on his head (“I live two lives sometimes,” he tells me,“ and the kuffiyeh is a perfect indicator – “at university I keep it round my neck like the other students, and back with my family I have it over my head like the rest of the Bedouin.”) When I ask about the gunfire he laughs. Part of me wishes that people in the Middle East would stop laughing when I ask them about firing zones, but once again I join in against my better judgement. He tells me not to worry – they’re nowhere near us. We walk on.

At the top of the next hill, Ahmad again shows his expert straddling of two worlds – with little fuss he lights a fire and rests a blackened teapot on top, all while chatting rapidly into his smartphone. We drink the sweet tea and Ahmad chats with a man on a donkey who appears out of nowhere. This will become, though we don’t know it yet, a regular and endearing feature of our journey – there are few places in the countryside here where one can spend more than a few minutes without seeing a man on a donkey.

That night, after a longer walk than planned, Dave and I ease ourselves onto the floor of a Bedouin tent, surrounded by members of the Hamedin family. They smile politely as we remove toxic socks and recline. The tent large, perhaps ten metres long by four wide, and reserved just for visitors. The centre is kept mostly clear, save for a few weight-bearing wooden struts, and the edges lined with thick rugs to sit on. Every metre or so there is a nest of cushions for one to lay elbows on, encouraging the rest of the body to stretch out to the side. It feel extravagantly comfortable after a day’s hiking – just one step away from being fed grapes and lulled to sleep by lute music.*
(*Sadly I don’t think this happens anywhere any more – not since Roman times…)

Ahmad, reclining in the Bedouin fashion...

Ahmad, reclining in the Bedouin fashion...

Bones rested and feet taped up, we walk up and into Wadi Qelt the next morning– the original natural highway from Jericho to Jerusalem. Inside the walls of the canyon we sweat in humid heat. We’re below sea level – an odd notion to me, still - so even in December the wadi feels much more summery than even the best August weather in Britain. 

A crumbling Roman aqueduct crosses our path on entry, and a few hours later the monastery of St. George, clinging improbably to the cliff, signals that we’re nearly at the oldest and lowest city in the world – Jericho. Everywhere we turn there is something ludicrously ancient or holy and, best of all, there’s no Israeli firing zones in sight.

Our adventure legs kick in, slowly but effectively – back muscles strengthen, hamstrings loosen, shoulder skin toughens. Each new morning bring less groaning, although it’s still normally a few hours before much conversation worthy of note is to be had. Days become a pastiche of the memorable, the heart-warming and the bizarre; sleeping in a guesthouse run by the Women’s Society at a refugee camp outside Jericho, then accepting an invite to a traditional Palestinian dance class. Walking along roads were Jesus once tread (so we’re told), then listening to a farmer tell us about his prize aubergines. Waving to, talking to and having to graciously decline offers of a lift from almost every driver that passes (although one almost got us with, “But you must come with me…I have aubergine!”) 

Kids run alongside us for a few hundred metres at a time debating the eternal and unanswerable question – Ronaldo, or Messi? The adults we pass talk less, in general, but even the most reserved all mutter greetings and put their hands to their heart – Merhaba, ahlan wa sahlan, ahlan wa sahlan! … Hello, welcome, welcome!

With a few days under our belt we are ready to welcome another walker in to the fold – this time it is Anwar, a local guide from the village of Duma just to the north. He is small and stocky with a well-trimmed beard and too many layers of clothing for the heat of the wadis (at least according to my internal thermometer – he maintains that it is Dave and I who are underdressed.) He walks with one stick and a small backpack which is filled mostly with sugar, wafers and a teapot. We have asked him to join us so that we may learn a little more about the land than otherwise might happen if we bumbled through this entire region on our own haphazard way.

It quickly becomes apparent that Anwar is two things – 1) very amusing, and 2) perhaps the first true Palestinian walker that we’ve met on this trip. Many Palestinians hike for one reason or another, and recreational rambling is growing. Anwar, though, is a real walker, by which I mean he seems only ever truly at home when wandering in the hills of his homeland. He is the only person we’ve met so far who does not, at the beginning or end of a day, suggest that we get in a car to get to/from the starting point of the day’s walk. He understands the desire to connect events and places on foot, rather than simply using hiking as a one-time experience that is bookended by motorised transport. He is also the first person we’ve met who will happily make (what should be) a 4-hour hike last all day long, by virtue of endless stops to inspect a plant, tell a story or make tea. All are very enjoyable. “This is all mine!” he chuckles regularly when we stand with a vista overlooking the Jordan valley, but he’s only joking. Anwar is much more a part of the landscape than an owner – he blends in seamlessly, at once on and in the environment.

He is full of short, sharp pieces of ‘wisdom.’ I use the quotation marks, because I can’t verify the accuracy of all of them. “If you want to kill a Bedouin,” he tells us, “put him in a palace for just one week.” Then, shortly after, “It gets very cold at night here now. If it gets any worse then all the people in the towns should move down to the caves.” 

He points at herbs and pick them for us to taste. “Za’atar,” he says, after we’ve chewed. “Good, no?” It is. Later, trust established, he picks something else for us and we quickly chomp down. Waiting until we’ve done so, he says, “this one won’t taste very nice.” A little smile spreads across his face and he wanders on with a chuckle.

Anwar, readying another story for his ever-willing audience (us)

Anwar, readying another story for his ever-willing audience (us)

Anwar knows absolutely everyone – it is perhaps his second most defining feature, after his love of hiking. In a one-street village, for example (the type where you can see every both ends of the main road and every house in it without having to turn your head), we first meet someone chipping away at a granite block – “my neighbour!” cries Anwar. Fifteen minutes later a man with a crutch is sat in the shade by the mosque. “One of my best friends!” is how he is introduced to us. Before we make it past the village limits (bear in mind this is not New York City) we stop again to speak to some men building a house. “This is one of my old students from when I was a teacher!” Anwar tells us. More thick, black viscous coffee is poured and, with so much caffeine in our bloodstreams that it can’t possibly be healthy, we are back into countryside.

Throughout the length and breath of the hills Anwar seems to have little stock piles of wood, just waiting for him to arrive with his teapot and build a fire. “I prefer sugar with tea, rather than tea with sugar. Please don’t tell anyone,” he confides as he forgoes a spoon and pours a steady stream of it into the pot. We sit looking out at the view, each comfortable in the silence of the other. “Rest before you’re tired, move on before you rest too much,” is his way of telling us it’s time to go. “Yalla!” – “Let’s go!”

There is never a dull moment in Anwar’s company, and after three days we are sad to leave him behind – I will miss the stories of his favourite barrel, or his tales of hunting for honey and losing his trousers. I’ll miss ambling along up hills (often in a circuitously long route) listening to him gently sing Bedouin songs in Arabic. Mostly, though, I’ll miss his love for the land – it’s infectious, and Dave and I are now feel thoroughly connected with the ground upon which we’re walking. 

Our journey is just a week old (although our bodies might feel otherwise) and already we have memories that will stick with us and tales that will be a long time in the telling. We are on the masar, and increasing feeling a part of it. Little of what we do seems to be in our control, and that’s just fine. As long as we wake each day with the sun and lace up our boots, we know it’s going to be a good day. Long may that continue.

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