Abraham Path Day 6 – Hebron

March 9, 2011

Today was a cheat. Hebron is a key destination Abraham’s Path, but you are supposed to walk there, and not arrive in a car. However, time was pressing, so our guide Iyad Qumsieh collected us from the el-Beit Guesthouse and drove us down to Hebron, the largest city on the West Bank. Iyad told us that Hebron is a major contributor to the Palestinian economy, and its residents – “Hebronites” – are a major component of Palestinian humour :-)

Hebron is the second holiest city (after Jerusalem) for Jews, and one of the four holy cities of Islam for Muslims. It’s not entirely surprising that it is a flashpoint for tensions between the Palestinians and the Israelis (who have settlements in the heart of the city).

Our first destination was the Ibrahimi Mosque, an impressive building dating back to Herod the Great in the last years BC, but with the usual subsequent layers of Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamluks, etc on top. The Mosque is built over the tombs of the Old Testament couples Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. The site of the tombs are marked by impressive cenotaphs within the building, with access forbidden to the actual tombs below (conspiracy theories flourish about Israeli attempts to enter the tombs). Salah ah-Din’s minbar in the Mosque is a wonderful example of 12th century Islamic craftsmanship.

The recent history of the Mosque reflects the bloody history of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The Mosque itself is now partitioned into Muslim and Jewish areas. Even the street leading to the Mosque is partitioned down the middle – one side for Israelis, one for Palestinians. According to local legend, the solitary Palestinian souvenir seller opposite the Mosque has been offered fabulous sums to sell out to Israelis.

Walking through the Old City, the effects of this conflict on the local economy were only too visible. Instead of the bustling markets we had seen in Jerusalem and Nablus, in Hebron many of the shops had closed down. The reasons were not hard to find. Wherever Israeli settlers were occupying buildings, there was a strong Israeli security presence, and Palestinian properties facing them had been emptied and sealed off. We saw settlements built above the markets, and were told how settlers dropped stones and other missiles onto shoppers. When the shopkeepers put up nets for protection, the settlers simply poured dirty water down. As Iyad explained, shoppers couldn’t be bothered with the hassle and had given up on Hebron.

As we were getting back in the car at the end of our visit to this sad city, I noticed a woman scrambling up a ladder and through a window. Iyad explained the houses faced a settlement, so the Israeli security forces had sealed up all the doors. The only way in and out of the houses was via the ladders.

Abraham Path Day 5 – Kufr Malek to Taybeh

March 8, 2011

We woke after a stormy night, with heavy rain and strong winds. By the time we had eaten breakfast, the weather was improving, but our guides decided to call off the scheduled morning’s walk. Our young journalist and his partner had arrived in city clothing and were certainly not dressed for adverse conditions, but to the more experienced and properly equipped walkers among us it was a disappointing decision.

After some delay, a minibus arrived to take us to Taybeh, the only wholly Christian village left in Palestine, and appropriately, the site of the only brewery in Palestine, the Taybeh Brewing Company. This successful microbrewery follows the German purity law of 1516 which means only malted barley, hops, yeast, and water are used in its products. We had a quick tour, and a sample (well, you just have to…). The beer is available throughout the Middle East, and is manufactured under licence in Germany, but AFAIK is not available in the UK.

Our next stop was St.George’s Church, where we were met by the parish priest, Fr.Raed, for what turned out to be a most entertaining and informative whizz through local history, biblical stories and speculation, current affairs, social action, and Middle Eastern politics. Even the hardened secularists in the party were captivated by this energetic Palestinian, for whom no challenge was too great: there was nowhere in the village for visitors to the annual beer festival – fine, he’d build a hostel; there was no clinic – fine, he’d build one; the Israeli’s segregation wall had come between the village and the only care home – fine, he’d build one of those too.

He showed us his House of Parables – a 250 year old building, occupied by a local Christian family until 1974, with an entrance claimed to be 2,000 years old. It has rooms on three levels – for the family, for large animals and for smaller animals (who also have an access hole under the old wooden door). Fr.Raed uses this to illustrate Gospel stories – no Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land should miss this!

Throughout our walk we had been constantly told by Palestinians how they desperately needed peace to help them build their country. Fr.Raed was the only Palestinian we heard who expressed a desire for peace for the benefit of Israelis too. The present situation of occupation is not sustainable long term, and demeans the occupiers as much as it oppresses the occupied. It was impossible to ignore his Peace Lamp Initiative.

Tearing ourselves away, we had a final look round the ruined old St.George’s Church. Taybeh is the New Testament Ephraim, and there has been a church on this site from at least the 5th century, although the ruins today mostly date back to the 12th century. Our guide told us that local people still occasionally sacrifice a lamb at its ruined doorway, and give the meat to the poor. Possibly a relic of pre-Christian, pre-Judaic, Canaanite practice?

Time to move on, and our guide bustled us into the minibus and off towards Bethlehem, stopping only for a quick falafel sandwich en route. After our somewhat spartan accommodation on the walk, we were delighted with the comforts of the modern el-Beit guesthouse. It’s amazing how much pleasure can be derived from a return to en-suite loos and showers…

Abraham Path Day 4 – Duma to Kufr Malek

March 7, 2011

Another glorious sunny day, with a slightly shorter distance to cover – 14km (8-9 miles).

As we left the village, we were intrigued by the donkey park – local bedouin school children use the animals to get to the village, and then tie them up in the field until it’s home time (click on the thumbnail below to see a larger image).

To start with, the terrain was much the same as yesterday’s, but it started to get stonier as the day wore on. We stopped in one of the villages to stock up on provisions for a picnic lunch (and drink the inevitable cup of sweet black mint tea).

The picnic lunch was served on a hillside overlooking a bedouin summer camp, where the sheep and goats were enjoying lunch too. I can thoroughly recommend flat breads for picnics – this versatile food can be torn into pieces, used to scoop up humus, dip in olive oil and zaatar, made into improvised sandwiches with sweetcorn, pickled cucumbers, and halal spam (?!) … and then you simply eat the washing up. Delicious.

The after lunch section of the walk turned out to be the toughest so far, uphill over rocky terrain with some mildly exposed sections. Our guides set an unnecessarily fast pace, which proved a challenge for some members of the party, only to arrive in Kufr Malek ahead of schedule. We were invited into a family house and given sweet tea to kill time (and rest our aching feet) before our luggage arrived and we moved on to our homestays for the night – men and women separately. The published schedule for the evening had included:

meet with the leaders of the local Women’s Committee

and just like yesterday, this event didn’t happen. We did however gain two extra walkers – David, a young journalist on an exchange visit from Germany, and his partner Zara. David had interviewed Michel at Siraj about Abraham’s Path, and Michel had suggested they join us for the final morning’s walk.

The men had dinner with the host family, who had a son shot by the Israeli Army in 2008 (a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time). We were offered two rooms to sleep in, and in recognition of our increasing knowledge of each other’s nocturnal habits, we agreed to be segregated according to our propensity to snore. After a tiring day, we were happy to turn in just after nine, especially as the small living room was full of chain smoking men gathered round a roasting hot wood burning stove. The party continued in our absence for another hour or two, and it was after midnight when the television stopped blaring and our guides went to bed.

Abraham Path Day 3 – Awarta to Duma

March 6, 2011

At last – our first day’s walking, 17km (10-11 miles) from Awarta to Duma with lunch in Aqraba. Our guides Habib and Nidal set a moderate pace over easy terrain – a mixture of rough roads and footpaths. The weather was glorious – warm spring sunshine. We’d been worried that we might have chosen too early a date for our trip, but there was a profusion of spring flowers, with clumps of startlingly scarlet poppies from time to time.

Mid morning, Habib made a small fire and boiled a kettle of tea with some mint and sage leaves, and about half a kilo of sugar. I’m afraid I’m becoming addicted to this sweet tea – good thing we managed to register with an NHS dentist before setting off.

Lunch was in a village hall in Aqraba, then off again for the next leg. The views along this part of the Masar were spectacular, with the Jordan valley in the distance. We made good enough progress to permit a mid-afternoon nap, before the final stretch to Habib’s house in Duma. Our schedule had promised:

a fireside gathering out on the open hillside for a flavour of the villagers’ music and dance traditions (and perhaps to smoke the nargileh or hookah water pipe)

but this did not materialise. However, we enjoyed another delicious meal, then boys and girls were sent off to separate sleeping quarters and to spend a night feeding the mosquitoes.

Abraham Path Day 2 – Nablus to Awarta

March 5, 2011

Another bright and sunny day in Jerusalem. Three other walkers – Rani, Alexis, and Maggie – introduced themselves at the hotel reception, then it was off in Mohammed Barakat’s minibus for the drive to Nablus. Mohammed as usual was a mine of information as we went, with our first experience of the notorious Israeli security wall (or segregation wall), army checkpoints, and settlements on the hills.

A sightseeing stop by the side of the road gave us a chance encounter with an ageing Palestinian lady on the way to her olive groves. She told us how the villagers were constantly harassed by settlers, and how she had stones thrown at her by settlers recently on her way to the olive groves. She explained that every time they had troubles with the settlers, they had to call the Israeli military, who call the Israeli police, who would eventually turn out and escort them – but at the expense of most of the day’s work in the groves.

On then to Nablus, picking up our final walker, Peter, en route. Our first stop was the Greek Orthodox church at Balata, on the edge of Nablus, which houses Jacob’s well of biblical fame (if you don’t know the New Testament story, it’s worth a read). This is one of the more credible biblical sites – once established, wells don’t move, and there are no other likely candidates in the area. We can also certify the well is indeed deep! Photography of the well itself is not permitted. We were also shown the grave of the previous parish priest, who had been shot dead by the Israelis. The current incumbent had already got his own tomb prepared outside the church – the experience of his predecessor must have given him a heightened awareness of his own mortality…

Literally across the road from the Church is the Balata Refugee Camp – the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, with over 25,000 residents in a space of one square kilometre. We were told the history of the Camp by one of its project managers, from its origins as a field of tents set up by the UN to its current warren of apartments, schools, etc all still crammed in the same area. The Camp is currently peaceful, but we heard of its grim history during the intifada, with hundreds killed and the camp sealed off, put under curfew, and turned into a prison. We went for a walk round – it’s still incredibly cramped, but more clean and sanitary than the archetypical slum.

Following an enormous lunch of what I can only describe as Palestinian pizzas – delicious but very filling – it was back in the minibus to the centre of the bustling city of Nablus, for a walk around the Old Town. Our trip took us through a traditional soap factory (made from olive oil); a sweet factory; a spice merchants (with sacks of saffron on sale at unbelievably cheap prices to us); and a wonderful ancient hammam (public baths) where we were shown round and then treated to sweet tea (only Peter was brave enough to try the hookah). But we all tried the kunafeh – I thought it was delicious; others weren’t so sure…

Less happily, we also saw some of the results of the recent troubles in the city, where maze of old byzantine streets must have been a nightmare for the occupying Israeli army. One square had proved inaccessible due to the narrow roads, so the army had simply demolished a house to get a tank into the square. The memorial to the people who were living in the house and were crushed to death in the process is pretty hard to take.

From what we saw, there is considerable tourist potential for Nablus, which would provide a needed boost to the local economy. With some investment, the places we visited could be turned into ‘visitor experiences’ with explanatory boards, visitor shops, cafes, and prices to match. For now, we enjoyed it just as it is.

Our planned itinerary for the day should now have seen us starting our Abraham Path walk through open countryside from Nablus to Awarta – unfortunately time was getting on, so we were mini-bussed instead to Awarta for our first overnight homestay.

Our hosts and their extended family all turned out to make us welcome. They were wonderfully warm and hospitable, and the home cooked meal was delicious. They then offered to take us for a wander round the village as night fell. On hilltops around the village we could see the lights of Israeli settler villages – illegal under international law, but spreading rapidly along the hilltops none the less. We were shown the extensive exclusion zone around the settlers’ villages, taken from Palestinian families’ land. The settlers had also decided there was a religious site in Awarta, where they had the right to come and pray. They exercised this right twice a week, at midnight, with a heavy Israeli army presence to accompany them.

We returned to our host’s house to settle down for the night. The accommodation was a bit of a shock to the system – one large room with mattresses on the floor and a rather dodgy bathroom screened off only by a curtain. We realised that the six complete strangers who comprised this walking tour would know each other rather well by the end of the trip…