I’m going to do a very British thing and start this post with talk about the weather.
Because our weather here has been surreal. On Friday the week before last, I was at Tabeetha School in Jaffa to lead both the primary and secondary school assemblies. In between, I sat outside at a cafe wearing a jacket while I had coffee with the head teacher there. It was below 20C. The day before, we’d had apocalyptic thunder storms which, combined with the swirling dust, turned the sky an eerie orange. Flash floods in the south had tragically claimed the lives of 10 Jewish teenagers and at least 2 Palestinian children.
By Tuesday, the temperature had climbed to the upper 30s and last Friday it was above 40C, with such low humidity that my skin felt like it was cracking.
Two weeks ago, the hills around Tiberias were still green. Now they’re a scorched brown and will stay that way until the autumn.
But despite the recent bad weather, we’ve had a glorious spring. I tried to take advantage of the perfect temperatures when they were here and have spent many of my days off continuing to walk the Israel National Trail (which stretches over 1000km from the north near the Lebanese Border to the south near the Red Sea). It’s a wonderful way of getting to know the land from a different perspective.
I was on the Trail on 19 April when Israel was celebrating its Independence Day. All around the country there were flyovers and airshows for the big 70th anniversary, and I found it particularly poignant to hear the old propeller war planes flying above as I walked along the Amud stream through an extensive network of dams and mills that had once been used by the Arab community living in Safed until the war in 1948. The sun shone brightly, dancing through the leaves of the fruit trees lining the paths.
The mills are only empty shells now. What houses there may have been are piles of rocks.
It was communities like this that were destroyed by planes like the ones flying above 70 years ago and in the years following as Israel established its State.
And that is one of the many contributing factors to the tension that is present in the land at the moment. As Israel celebrated 70 years as a nation last month (according to the Jewish calendar), on 14 May (according to the Gregorian calendar), the Palestinian communities will lament 70 years of being evicted and unable to return to their family homes and land. In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, evictions and house demolitions still continue today.
As I’ve walked the Trail, I’ve become interested in the stories the land tells. This walk past the mills was the most beautiful stretch of the nearly 200km of the Trail I’ve done so far, but like everywhere else here, there was more to it than meets the eye, as this article in Haaretz a few years ago shows.
In Arabic, the stream is called Wadi Tawahin, the stream of the mills. In Hebrew, it’s Nahal Amud, named for a distinctive rock pillar found further along its path. A spring along the way bore the Arabic name Ein Al-Tina, Fig Spring, but was renamed in Hebrew Ein Yakim after a family of priests who worked at the Second Temple and then moved to the Galilee when it was destroyed.
The Ha’aretz article echoed my own thoughts: ‘The battle over names, with every place having a Hebrew and Arabic one, doesn’t contribute to a better acquaintance with the countryside. It only reminds us of the never-ending conflict. We don’t need a reminder at every spring along the way.’
At first, I found myself frustrated as I walked the Trail. After all, I began walking to take time away from work, to get space from all the talk of conflict and discrimination and occupation, to spend just one day every couple of weeks navigating streams and hills instead of difficult, tricky conversations. I just wanted beauty, the pure, innocent beauty of nature.
But here, even a tree is a political symbol of division (more of that to come in a future post). The Trail passes along pristine beaches but also through rubbish heaps, through quiet forests but also across major motorways, around enclosed Orthodox Jewish communities and through impoverished Arab towns. Beauty is marred (as it is in so many places) by power and poverty, arrogance and anxiety.
But I’ve slowly come to see things differently. Beauty may be marred, but it is not defeated. And wherever I turn, if I look hard enough, I can see something beautiful. As Annie Dillard writes: ‘beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.’
During my long slow walk through this complicated land, I am learning to be there, to search for the stories which lie within the landscape, to honour the troubled past, but also to open my eyes to the beauty that is performed along the way.