Leaving the City

Reflections on Hiking with Shat-ha

Passionately, I wait for Friday’s early hours every week, when a group named Shat-ha1 meets to share a common interest in hiking through the dazzling terrains of Palestine. It’s the one day off from the routine, the mini-vacation we need in order to reset for the next week, a day to free our lungs and our souls – whether through the fresh breeze, the clear water from a spring in the middle of a mountain, or a freshly picked fruit. This is the day we all wait for to share our mutual appreciation of Palestine’s landscape, and of course, to fix and share a meal that incorporates each person’s small homemade contributions that are offered under two conditions: that they be prepared with love and without preservatives!

Photo by Ibrahim Habash.
Photo by Ibrahim Habash.

Whoever described Palestine as a “small continent” was correct; both its weather and geography are absolutely stunning and versatile. After all, Palestine is 424 kilometers from north to south and 114 kilometers from east to west at its widest point. In such a small geographical area, the amount of diversity that can be found is considered huge if not exceptional.
Heading north at Marj Bin Amer,2 we encounter a meadow that takes us beyond the crops and vegetables to gander intently into the distant horizon. A most enjoyable hiking trail for the spring when the green fields are ornamented with wild red anemone, creating a stunning carpet for the pleasure of our eyes. We come across sheep grazing quietly, unawares that the more they nibble on the greens, the closer they are to getting slaughtered.

Blessed with an abundance of various climates and ecosystems, Palestine resembles a “small continent.”

Once the weather gets warmer in the summer months, the mountains in the center and northern Galilee offer just the needed breeze and shady trees. The mountains are determined to challenge our ability to climb their rocks through the dry and prickly thorns. Sometimes we get lucky and encounter a deer running gracefully away from hunters, or a family of wild boars that depict the motherly instinct of protecting their young. Many miles in the mountains are covered with za’atar (thyme) that exudes an amazingly refreshing scent that keeps us going! These mountains are steep and dangerous, but every step brings us closer to the top, where a breathtaking view – including the Mediterranean – awaits.

The Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea.

The Palestinian valleys that spread along the rift line are most enjoyable in winter. Wadi Qelt, east of Jericho, fills up with water and with visitors from all areas to watch the tiny hyrax3 that dance along its rocks. The fierce and humongous rocks in Wadi Darajeh fascinate us with their gushing waters that end up in the Dead Sea. One can only hike through this valley at certain times in the spring, once the winter rain halts and before the blazing sun burns its hikers. The hiking season opens in April, inviting curious nature lovers to experience the beauty of the landscape and the same challenges that face the mountain goats.

Starting from Lake Tiberias, hikers head south, passing through Bisan and Tubas before they arrive in Jericho, yet another geographical attraction, especially for hikers who want to keep hiking all year long. During the last bits of winter, any trail in Al-Ghor (literally “the dent,” i.e., the low-lying Jordan Valley) is a perfect way to transition from the mountain cold to the warmth and beauty of spring! Fountains are almost everywhere in Al-Ghor – but the heartbreaking reality hits home when we see all the metal pipe track installations that lead to Israeli settlements.

Throughout history, Palestine’s magnificent variety of climates and habitats has attracted many peoples and tribes who moved to and settled in this place, and it is true that every week we encounter the ruins of a village, a church, a mill, or some other important site on our hike. History’s wonders in Palestine include Al-Bardawil Crusader Fort that overlooks Al-Haramiyeh Valley, located to the northeast of Ramallah; the ruins at Sebastiya, a site north of Nablus that for over 10,000 years was inhabited by numerous successive cultures that range from the Canaanites to the Romans and Byzantines; and Montfort Castle in Upper Galilee.

Historical sites are spread throughout the country, inviting us to explore and enjoy.

Can anyone think of a more enchanted way to learn? On many occasions, and as soon as I return from our weekly Shat-ha hikes, I find myself looking for more information about the trail that we just completed and the spots we visited. Hiking by itself entices our brains to explore, search, analyze, and ponder. Not only are we gathering new information and learning about nature, history, and cultural heritage, we are also creating a harmonious group and building a strong team in which each member is genuinely concerned about the safety of all members. We free our spirits and souls to experience the influence of nature, we sing and laugh together, and we share five minutes of silence while we gaze into the ample shades of green that calm our insides, giving nature its right to rekindle our mental and emotional health.

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Challenging our bodies to take an extra step through the more difficult hikes provides the means to overcome fears that have nested inside us from childhood and managed to grow and create limitations in our minds. Towards the end of every hike, I stop for a moment to look for the point where we started, and I try to estimate the number of kilometers we covered, just to appreciate what our bodies are capable of and how we reached the goal initially set by our hike leader for that day.

Exhausted, yet grateful, is what I feel after every hike. After all, the exhaustion and the oxygen renewal, away from our daily routine, create a place for a sort of freedom that’s becoming very precious, very energizing, as it brings us closer to the earth. During certain hikes we are forced to tread over asphalt, and I cannot help but notice that everyone sticks to the unpaved shoulders, where their feet still have a chance to remain in contact with nature. During one hike, a friend asked “Don’t you feel the difference? The softness of the soil and rigidness of the asphalt?” Only those who have had this experience can tell the difference and describe it with passion.

What breaks my heart is seeing all the trash along the many trails that are frequented by visitors. We reward this natural “small continent” by littering it with plastic bags and bottles. During every hike, I wonder: Is this the land we’re fighting for? Or are we just ignorant in our lack of love and care for this precious land?

I long to hike through the Naqab (Negev) Desert and walk along the Palestinian coast and on every meter of Palestine to complete the portrait of our small continent. The huge cement barrier (the Wall) not only separates certain areas for whatever reasons, it destroys everything in its path – from families to flowers – creating a rather ugly horizon of cement that has a devastating impact both physically and psychologically.

Enjoying the outdoors.
Enjoying the outdoors.

Throughout the last few years, some trails have simply been lost due to the expansion of Israeli settlements. Some trails are too close to settlements, and others have actually become part of settlement borders. We meet villagers who suffer every day from settler aggression. It often happens that Israeli settlers, accompanied by heavily armed soldiers, surround Palestinian springs, such as Ein al-Zarqa and Ein Bobin, and make it nearly impossible for Palestinian hikers and families to use the open space with water to relax and enjoy the simple pleasure of being in nature.

During one of our hikes through a valley that had a settlement at the top of the surrounding mountains, we noticed a settler among the trees pointing his gun towards us. And although we arrived safely at our destination, we now understand much better the daily threats and intimidation experienced by the residents of the nearby towns and villages.

As all things must come to an end, our Friday Shat-ha ends as well, as we all hop into the taxi that will drive us back to Ramallah, only to be traumatized by the visual contamination of the buildings and the cement matchboxes that limit our vision. Fresh air is scarce, and the stench of burning gasoline replaces the clean air and fresh breeze that we enjoyed in the morning.

Article photos by Ibrahim Habash.


i Literally “perfume,” referring to the dazzling smell of Palestinian lands and nature.
ii The valley between the Nablus mountains to the south and the Galilee mountains to the north. See also the article “Marj Ibn Amer” in TWiP’s issue no 139, November 2009, available at http://archive.thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=2924&ed=175&edid=175.
iii Also called dassies, hyrax are small furry animals from the order Hyracoidea.

Juwana Rafeedie, a specialist in social development, holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Birzeit University. She has worked as a career counselor and a women’s rights defender as well as in the development of open space for children through reading. She currently sits on the board of trustees of The Palestinian Popular Dance Group (El Funoun), where she started dancing at an early age. She has been hiking with Shat-ha since 2012.
This month’s issue Discover Palestine: Hiking Trails and Alternative Tours