Last Saturday I went on the saddest bike ride ever.
A few days prior I’d gotten an e-mail about a bike tour of the Jordan Valley, and I registered immediately. I thought it would be a great way to get some exercise, meet new people, and lend my support to Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) in the Jordan Valley. I volunteer in a village a little further north, so I’m familiar with the issues Palestinians face there: demolitions, land confiscations, resource theft, and the looming annexation threatened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamain Netanyahu in 2010.
At 7:30 in the morning (a time I rarely see), I managed to be in Al-Manara circle in Ramallah, and after standing awkwardly on the sidewalk for a few minutes, I identified a group of fair-haired foreigners that looked sporty and out of place enough. I went up and introduced myself, and found that most of them were European, many of them Danish, in fact. I shared that my father’s family was Danish, but I couldn’t remember from where. It wasn’t a very good story. The organizer then led our walk to the bus. For five minutes the fair-haired foreigners ruled Rukab Street, before we climbed into our big maroon bus and waited to move out. We were joined by a handful of Palestinian girls who looked much more bright-eyed and bushy tailed than me. I spent the next hour and a half drifting in and out of sleep, while trying to catch the conversations around me and take in the view of the desert hills we were descending from. We were taking the windy Palestinian route, not the highway that connected the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley with Israel ’48. That straight shot gives Israelis and tourists easy access to a part of the Territories that doesn’t look very disputed, with Hebrew signs and rest stops and military monuments. And here we were, a bus full of ajaneb (foreigners), descending on the valley first and foremost to go for a bike ride, but fully aware of the situation and the statement we were making by riding bikes with Palestinians.
I was excited to see that a Palestinian group was organizing this outdoor adventure. I’d heard of hiking trips and Christian walks, but I’d never participated in them because the touristy stuff always cost money and I just wanted to do something spontaneous and cheap. Naturally, any Palestinian tourist venture has a political slant to it, especially if it ties the Palestinian people to their land, and especially if that land is in Area C. This area, which covers 62% of the West Bank and includes the Jordan Valley, is under full Israeli control, and as evidenced by the settlements and military camps scattered throughout, it would not be easily relinquished. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared two years ago that Israel would never give up the Jordan Valley, even though the international community considers it part of illegally occupied Palestinian territory and essential to the contiguity and economic survival of a Palestinian State.
But two states or one state, Palestinians surely have the right to bike from one village to another, and that question didn’t seem to create any anxiety as we snoozed on our way down to Jericho. We live among Palestinians, so the fact of our presence here is in some way an act of solidarity, and we can never escape politics. But this felt like an escape, something therapeutic. At least we were getting out of the city and enjoying nature.
The hills came up around us, and as the bus squeezed onto a tiny valley road, we started to see bikers streaming past us. There were dozens of bikers, mostly Palestinian youths and some foreigners wearing kuffiyehs, and most of them had Palestinian flags attached to their bikes or bags. I was surprised and pleased to see that the event was so well-attended, and anxious to get off the bus and get on a bike!
Finally we parked and lined up to pay our 20 shekels for bike rental. I hopped on a bike and waited for everyone to get moving, but it turns out we didn’t have enough for everyone, so the team was bringing in more bikes in a big truck. I made some conversations with a guy from Ramallah, and everyone else was chatting and drinking coffee and waiting for the bikes to arrive. Then, one of the organizers came back in his car and announced that the Israeli army had set up a checkpoint and were stopping the bikers, and the bike truck from reaching us. If we wanted to get on the bus and join our friends where they’d been stopped, we were welcome to do so.
That was the first time I thought, “I just wanted to go for a bike ride.” My new friend echoed that sentiment. I was surprised that the bikers had been stopped, but I was also surprised that I didn’t see it coming. This occupation was ridiculous enough to thwart solidarity in any form. A few of us already had bikes though, so we decided to bike as far as we could and support the other riders. I just saw an absurd picture of lots of bikers and a truck full of bikes, in front of soldiers at a checkpoint who for some reason were like, “no.”
I saw some waiting, maybe a victorious passage, maybe a retreat. I didn’t see confrontation.
We rode for about fifteen minutes. It was a beautiful ride. The air was perfect and dry, and there was a small canal of rushing water along our road, which constituted the most water I’d seen here in a long time. Just the sight of running water made me happy. The valley was stretching out below us, and it felt good to be outside in the sun, cruising, working out, and laughing over our clanky, misfit bikes. I was glad I came, and even forgot where we were headed for a little while.
We passed a small traffic jam where an ambulance was wailing, and at first I thought it was my wild imagination that led me to believe a biker had been attacked. I realized later that this was where the first wave of bikers was stopped. I concluded that this had been a traffic accident and I need to stop assuming the worst. We continued for a few more minutes down the highway and approached the flying checkpoint that was waiting for us, in front of a long line of cars. My two friends and I wove between the cars and found three army jeeps and a dozen soldiers standing with guns. A few of them were on the bank above the road, to stop bikers from carrying their bikes around the blockade. We saw that a few bikers had gotten away with this.
I watched the scene unfold in disbelief. The bikers were being treated like a real security threat. More jeeps arrived with border patrol officers in green berets, and I watched two of the participants, one man and one young woman with curly hair, arguing heatedly with the officers in Arabic. The officer in front was sneering at what they were saying. At one point, the woman said “we can go by foot? We can go by foot? Ok, I’m going by foot…” and she picked up her bike and motioned like she was going to continue forward, but the officers would have none of it. It made the bikers laugh. We recognized the absurdity of the situation, but the soldiers were mobilizing for crowd control and I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. I was the only foreigner in this group. I didn’t know where the activists in the kuffiyeh’s had gone, or how far behind the others were in the bus. There were a few moments where I felt like riding my bike between the jeeps while all the attention was focused on the argument going on, but would that be too intrusive? Like I felt the need to put myself out there and be provocative because I would get more attention as a blonde girl? I couldn’t figure out what my role was here, all I knew was that I didn’t want to hide in the back.
One of the soldiers kicked the woman’s bike really hard. Another soldier took a bike and threw it in the canal by the road. They started to charge at the people. I saw red and I yelled, “are you fucking serious?!” to which the commander replied, “yes, I’m fucking serious!” Then I got ordered around from this place to that, but I stayed on line with whoever was in front, holding my bike, looking innocent and expectant.
I wanted to ask, “Why are you being such a bummer?” “Why can’t we just ride our bikes to Jiftlik?” and “What would happen if you just let us pass?”
I was afraid. They were clutching their guns and their faces were so cold. This wasn’t going to happen.
So the organizer of the event got everyone’s attention and told us that they would allow us to proceed on the bus, so we should leave our bikes by the road, and ride the bus to Jiftlik.
I retreated towards the bus with this tugging feeling that I hadn’t done enough. As I walked down the aisle, I met people’s eyes with a hopeless look, like “did that just happen?” So we sat. And we rode past the jeeps.
We rode to the village of Fusayal. There we got juice and water, and used the bathroom in the youth center. Then all the participants gathered in a covered area and listened to a few of the organizers giving us a re-cap of what had happened and the mayor of Fusayal explaining the situation in this village. Fusayal was in Area A, B and C, and if they built a house or dug a well or planted crops or held this meeting in Area C land, they would be met with the “same kind of hospitality we received today.” I recognized the tone of some of the speeches, which was the same in the village where I worked. The visitors had to know the situation of these villages “tahet al-ihtilal,” under occupation.
Once the speeches were done, we all piled on the bus to head to Al-Jiftlik, our final destination. On our way out of Fusayal, we were surprised to see the same three Israeli army jeeps waiting for us. They had stopped one of our cars coming out of the village because it was flying Palestinian flags out of the window. Eventually our caravan of two buses and three cars was allowed to exit the village and proceed onto the highway. My bus was pumping music and the atmosphere was pretty light-hearted, in spite of it all, but we looked back every time the bus turned to see that the army jeeps were following us. Twice they passed our bus and headed off the caravan to search one of our vehicles. The second time it looked like all of the first bus had to disembark before we were allowed to continue.
This was absurd. Not only were we not allowed to bike down the highway, but now we were being stalked like criminals. By this point I was exhausted and just wanted to go back to Ramallah. But we made it to Jiftlik, with our soldier friends in tow. They parked outside of the school and watched us all stream through the gate, being greeted by local girls with fliers. There were villagers and students everywhere, looking strangely unperturbed, just happy to see us. I asked one of the girls if this was “3adi,” normal. She laughed and said, “3adi, you can relax.” The soldiers were just standing with their guns and watching us.
The event was like the one in Fusayal times a hundred. Here we had a pavilion, a microphone, and three different dance performances. The boys’ dabke was phenomenal. The speeches were again, mostly in Arabic and talked about the occupation and remaining steadfast. The organizer of the bike ride thanked the soldiers for taking their time to provide security for our event, and everyone laughed. At one point the three activists who had been injured in the first wave of bikers showed up with bandages and scars on their faces, and everyone clapped and cheered for them. I wondered what the soldiers thought of that, like we were fawning over our martyrs. I knew at least one of them spoke Arabic and wondered what he thought of the speeches.
Most of all I wondered if the soldiers enjoyed the dabke. Seeing the boys with their legs flying and their hands clasped is an image I’ll never forget.
After the event in the pavilion we were served lunch, then we made our way back towards the buses. My new friend from Ramallah went up to two soldiers and asked them if we were so important to deserve their attention, and the soldier replied, “no, you just make trouble” and gestured for him to move on. I could see in my friend’s face that although he was cracking a joke and probably wasn’t expecting a real answer, the experience nonetheless left him a little deflated. Like the guy with the gun always has the last word.
And so we headed back to Ramallah, blasting that new pop hit, Ti Rash Rash. I was on my way to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and I wondered if I could convey to my friends what happened outside of Jericho today.
I did notice that Tel Aviv is a very bike-friendly city.
This post first appeared on Morgan’s blog.
(Scenes from the day including Jiftlik’s Cultural Festival can be viewed in the this video , recommended)