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The Heat on Palestine

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The Heat on Palestine
Sunset over Battir. Photo by Wietse Michiels

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The sun is only peeking over the horizon as I disembark my taxi at Beit Jala junction in the West Bank, south-west of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem. Birds chirp, dogs bark, and the orange glow provides a striking, if somewhat contrasting backdrop to the concrete compound behind me, clad in netting and barbed wire. Israeli flags flutter in the breeze, and it takes me a moment to register the armed forces stationed in the tower and the large red sign warning citizens of Israel that entering the area is forbidden, illegal, and “dangerous to your lives.” It is an almost peaceful scene.

I am here to meet Hijazi Eid, owner-operator of Palestinian touring company Hijazi Travel, to explore the village of Battir. The area has recently been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing Palestine as the ‘land of olives and vines’. However, it was simultaneously added to the list of world heritage ‘in danger’, due to the threat posed by Israel’s ever-extending separation barrier, also known as ‘the wall’.

Graffiti including a painting of a smiling Leila Khaled holding a gun on the Israeli separation wall
Graffiti on the Israeli separation barrier near Bethlehem. Photo by Faris Baidoun

We set off down a gentle slope, and the famous Battir terraces immediately come into view, hand-built dry-stone walls winding their way across the dry grass of the hills, dotted with the greenery of olive trees and other flora. Pausing at a fig tree, I have my first taste of the fresh fruit which is so elusive back in my part of the world, while Hijazi explains how the terraces work to irrigate the landscape, allowing water to reach the crops on each level plain. This system has been used in Battir for millennia, and is still alive and well today. As we stroll along the floor of the valley, sectioned-off plots become apparent, as do the farmers’ different approaches: there are brand new seedlings and established trees, diligently-cultivated fields and those that have been left to their own devices. Wildflowers intersperse the crops. Historically, the terraces were protected by watchtowers, known locally as qusoor (palaces), into which families would move during olive picking season. In addition to serving as a vantage point and a temporary home, the structures’ stone construction provided shelter from both hot and inclement weather — a function that they still serve today.

It is not only farmers that have use for the area, though — we run into a pair of local teens, blasting Rihanna on their portable speakers, who have come out early to do a photo shoot on the terraces. We clamber up Al-Kolleyeh rock for an elevated view of the valley, before ascending the opposite slope towards the village. We peer inside a square opening carved out of the rock, which Hijazi identifies as a Roman tomb — if the terraces themselves were not enough evidence of this area’s long history, such ruins and the pieces of ancient pottery scattered about are a useful reminder of the generations which have existed here. Arriving at the village, we stop in to visit a welcoming couple, friends of Hijazi’s, who ply us with tea, snacks and sweets as we shelter from the already-strong mid-morning sun in the shade of their olive trees. Climbing a different kind of terrace — their rooftop, strung with vines overhead — the valley is laid out before us and the necessity of the struggle to protect it becomes even clearer: this is their home.

The village survives on its internal relationships, born out of cultural traditions and agricultural necessities, and cemented by external pressures. Increasingly Battir’s people are also looking outwards for support — hence the drive towards UNESCO recognition: if the site is internationally-protected, it has a much better chance of retaining its autonomy. A central part of this initiative is the newly-established Battir Landscape Ecomuseum, which is tasked with facilitating local, participatory conservation and management of the site’s natural and cultural heritage. We sit down in the cool of the stone building overlooking the valley, built in a similar style to the nearby Dar Abu Hassan Guest House. Hijazi and the museum’s administrative manager, Wisam Owaineh articulate the sense of responsibility they feel for this place. To live as a Palestinian in the West Bank is to live under constant pressure: violence aside, the restriction of mobility by walls and checkpoints takes a mental toll. It is a theme that will be repeated many times during my travels here: while there is always the option to leave and build a more comfortable life, there is a stronger obligation to stand one’s ground. In the meantime, both Hijazi and Wisam find their freedom in hiking the local landscape.

Ancient irrigated terraces carved into a hillside and the white buildings of the Palestinian village of Battir further on
Ancient irrigated terraces in the Palestinian village of Battir, in the occupied West Bank near Bethleheim. Photo by Skip Schiel

Battir survives on a series of water springs, which collect each day in two pools around which the village is built. The precious resource is distributed communally among the eight main families of the village, each of which directs one day’s worth of water towards their crops using an intricate system of canals. I fill my now-empty water bottle with chilled, fresh water from one of the springs, and we hit the road. Due to travel restrictions, Hijazi cannot accompany me back to Jerusalem, so we pause just short of a checkpoint to await a taxi driver who can. As we stand by the roadside, I take in my first view of the infamous wall. It cuts decisively and uncompromisingly through the landscape, clearly delineating one territory from another, and hammering home the foreboding that residents of Battir must feel at its potential encroachment.

Navigating through the checkpoint, the driver flashes his ID and I hand over my passport, our innocuous nationalities allowing us to be waved through. Soon, I am alighting at the East Jerusalem Central Bus Station, near the Old City’s Damascus Gate, to catch a bus to Ramallah. Not being a huge fan of this mode of travel, I am pleasantly surprised to find the #218 easily locatable, and a very reasonable 8 shekels later I am happily ensconced in aircon and on my way. The bus pulls up at Qalandiya checkpoint, where locals disembark to cross on foot through the metal turnstiles, waiting to see whether they will be allowed through that day, or denied. I have no real concerns in that regard, but no one is exempt from the palpable sense of uncertainty — of being at someone else’s whims. The air clears as we trundle further from the checkpoint, eventually arriving at the station in central Ramallah, near al-Manara square.

It is a short shared cab ride from here to the Mövenpick Hotel, an absolute sanctuary after a long and serious day. The check-in staff are extremely friendly, and I’m ushered up to a spacious Junior Suite overlooking the pool area. It’s difficult to choose whether to collapse onto the king-sized bed, decked out in fresh white linen, or lounge around the elegantly-furnished living area. The bathroom features a refreshing rain shower and all the touches expected of a 5-star hotel, including, appropriately enough, hand soaps made from Palestinian olive oil. However, I am soon drawn downstairs to Allegro, Mövenpick’s restaurant boasting Ramallah’s only Italian chef. A perfectly-balanced capricciosa pizza is preceded by fresh breads and, of course, a plate of olives, and the service is second-to-none.

A colourful street teeming with people and cars in Ramallah, Palestine
A characteristic street scene in Ramallah.
Photo by Alex Kuhni

The next morning, I return to the bus station and ask around until I find the parking garage inhabited by the yellow sheruts (minivans) which service the surrounding towns. I’m pointed in the right direction for the sherut to Taybeh, and once it is almost full, we make our way out of the city. Half an hour and several stops later, I am kindly dropped at the doorstep of the Taybeh Golden Hotel.

Having studied and worked in the United States for 2 decades, brothers David and Nadim Khoury were inspired after the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 to return to this village to start the pioneering Taybeh Brewing Company, the first microbrewery in the region. The beer is brewed according to the German purity law, with no additives or preservatives.

We visit the brewery — where the small batch production process can be seen in action — and sample a delicious and refreshing golden variety, just one of a range including dark, amber, light, white and non-alcoholic iterations which are distributed across Palestine, into Israel, and as far as Japan and Europe. Local beer culture has been celebrated each year for the past decade with Taybeh’s own Oktoberfest. A more recent initiative is the family’s winery, led by Nadim’s son Canaan, who has also returned from overseas along with sister Madees, the only female brewer in Palestine. An important focus for the winery is the study and use of indigenous Palestinian grapes, sourced from local vineyards with specific terroir informed by volcanic soils, blazing summer heat, high elevation, and large daily temperature variations.

These conditions enable the winery to produce unique varieties. In addition to the standard labels one might expect, we are therefore able to taste a new, indigenous variety while marvelling at the state-of-the-art facility on display in the tasting room: Zeini is a medium-bodied wine with aromas of apple and pear, perfectly refreshing. Not one to rest on their laurels, the family have also founded a stylish contemporary hotel where suites and conference rooms look out onto an expanse of olive groves — so visitors can sample the wares to their hearts’ content and simply roll upstairs. It’s clear the Khourys prioritise the touristic and economic development of their hometown, and just as Hijazi and Wisam described, this has an inescapable political dimension. We drive back into Ramallah together, and Madees points out the Israeli settlements, matchbox houses on the crests of the hills.

Two brothers holding red wine in goblets standing by wine barrels
Taybeh Winery

Back at the hotel, I enjoy a bar snack (and why not, another Taybeh Golden) as I admire the contemporary art adorning the walls in the common areas, representing Palestinian artists. According to general manager Nicolas Pezout, this reflects the Mövenpick way: to integrate the group’s reputation for quality and professionalism with local sensibilities. This even comes down to the lovely staff: the employees — with the exception of imported management and the Italian chef — are all locals.

My next field trip takes me north of Ramallah. As the bus attempts to leave the city, we are stalled by an impromptu roadblock: four grey and yellow concrete blocks placed seemingly arbitrarily across the road. We circle back, taking ‘the scenic route’ to the other side of the blockade, and go on our way. The old city of Nablus combines historical architecture with contemporary protest art to striking effect. Walls are adorned with posters of citizens who lost their lives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was brought to the town with devastating effect in 2002. A larger-than-life flag is draped down a building, and street art features a particularly Palestinian brand of nationalism: the ensign’s black, white, green and red are incorporated with renderings of doves and figures giving the peace sign.

Architect Naseer Arafat talks us through his efforts to conserve part of the city’s heritage via a restored soap factory, now a cultural centre. A significant project here is represented in the many homeless doors that are scattered around the courtyard: they have been decorated by local children, bright colours and upbeat scenes providing a sense of hope against the more difficult aspects of life represented here. We visit a store which specialises in an unlikely combination of knick-knacks and seasonings — I am tempted by several embroidered flamingo scenes, and the colourful and aromatic spices on show: whole star anise, galangal, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon, along with dried pomegranate. However, it is the regional speciality of knafeh — a syrupy pastry oozing with cheese — that steals the epicurean show.

After another relaxing evening at the Mövenpick in Ramallah, our touring of the surrounding country resumes the following afternoon. We take the same route out of town as the previous day, and pause at the same roadblock, its purpose now abundantly clear: yellow bulldozers command a nearby lot, demolishing some unlucky Palestinian houses. A small crowd looks on, the destruction completely out of their control. We learn that this is par for the course: building codes are set by the Israeli military, and Palestinian residents will routinely be issued notices of demolition with no set date attached — meaning families have no idea if or when the bulldozers will show up. This precarious state must be almost as trying as the eventual loss of property and land.

Sketches drawn from firsthand experience inside the Gaza Strip, Palestine, of air strikes and the smoke plume converted to a fist punching the sky
Art drawn from firsthand experience inside the Gaza Strip. Sketches over images of air strikes that convey strength, hope and despair. Art by Tawfik Gebreel

Cityscape and olive trees give way to a camel-coloured plateau of dry grass scattered with rocks. Makeshift pens of corrugated iron stand ready to contain herds, and the by-now pervasive watchtowers, penned in themselves with barbed wire, whizz by as we descend into the Jordan Valley. We drop in at a Bedouin camp, and sip tea under the shade of a communal tent, a light breeze making its way in through the open sides. As always, the conversation turns to resource management: although demolitions, along with forced eviction, are aggressively-pursued strategies here, the primary concern in this area is water rights — desperately needed in this climate. The region actually has ample springs for irrigation, but uneven access means that many groups can utilise only a fraction of the available resources — and some are off the grid altogether.

I am reminded of my conversation with Madees Khoury a couple of days earlier, as our host gestures up the hillside, to the settlements only a few hundred metres away which do have access to this precious resource. Again, this creates a dilemma for the tribe: will they continue their traditional way of life here, as the people of Battir have managed to do, or buckle under the pressure to move to a more amenable environment? As we continue our exploration of the valley, the juxtaposition indicated by our Bedouin friend could not be more evident than in the artificial oases which generate the settlers’ fig crops. Row after row of tall, healthy trees dominate the dry plain. We pull up at a small Palestinian village, one orange wall covered in dozens of multi-coloured fish swarming from a water tap — an anachronistic image given its surroundings; one that speaks to an imagined plenitude just out of reach.

Departing in the bus, two teens mime throwing rocks — a stance all too familiar from countless photographs of violence in the region — only to morph their fist into a peace sign. It’s both witty and disheartening: it would surely be exhausting and frustrating, to be so conscious of how I am represented globally; to be trained to constantly reinforce my pacifism in the face of propaganda painting me as a terror. Winding our way back up and out of the valley as the sun sinks onto the horizon, the view is incredible: the hues of the land, bleached in the sunlight earlier in the day, take on new definition, and the seemingly infinite expanse of this area — one with so much potential — stretches out into the distance. Returning to Ramallah, the ubiquitous black water tanks which populate the roof of nearly every building are silhouetted against the sunset sky, reinforcing the fact that the battle over resources is not only contained within the valley.

On my final evening, I am treated to a traditional feast at Mövenpick’s Al Riwaq restaurant. Perfectly crispy kibbeh — torpedo-shaped meat croquettes — segue into a rich musakhan of tender chicken, tangy sumac, and sweet caramelised onions topped with pine nuts. I celebrate my good fortune, brought into clear view by the last few days, with a glass of Palestinian red. Exiting Ramallah on approach to Qalandiya once again, this side of the barrier is covered in defiant and idealistic slogans: “One wall, two jails”; “Imagine war is over.” But another aspect of the built environment also speaks to the tenacity of the Palestinian people: brick columns and the wires contained within reach skyward from the roofs of existing structures, ready for the second storey to be built — a sign of growth in progress, a commitment to standing ground and moving forward.

Published on December 16, 2015
Country: Palestine ›
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