Palestine, day 6

2009-04-14 00:00

In the space of one day, I see the sun rise in the Negev desert and set on the Mediterranean Sea. In between, we scale the Golan Heights, look up at snow-capped mountain peaks, look down on the Sea of Galilee, flirt with three international borders – Jordan, Lebanon and Syria -- and eat a big fish supper in the picturesque coastal town of Akko/Akka. Later on, we walk our feet off on a late night walkabout of Akko’s old city.

The pace is still being set by our energetic host Mohammed Rabah Aghbarieh and, in order to fit it all in, he insists on an early start. It’s pretty nippy in the desert before sunrise, but I am quickly bundled into a Prado and we head for a rocky escarpment outside the northern Negev town of Laqya from which it seems possible to view infinity. Behind us is the fading full moon; before us are the fire-tone hues holding the promise of sunrise. The outline of a Bedouin settlement at our feet is emerging from the gloom. Suddenly, the sun crests the horizon and the day begins – a little too early for my liking but it’s aesthetically spectacular enough to compensate.

On the way back to Laqya, we take a detour to see the way Bedouin homesteads, squatting under power lines, are now competing for space and fresh air in the enormous industrial and hazardous waste disposal zone of Ramat-Hovav. There are major concerns around birth defects and cancer among the people living here. Indeed, the air is bad. After taking a photograph, I get back into the vehicle quickly.

In the city of Beersheva – ancient site of Abraham’s well and now the fourth largest city in Israel – we stop at a mosque which Rabah Aghbarieh says is now off-limits to Muslims as a centre of prayer and is to be renovated as a museum, which local Muslim argues, further restricts their right to practise their religion. Nearby, the old Muslim graveyard looks decidedly tatty.

After breakfast in Laqya we bid farewell to our desert hosts and head north. Surprisingly quickly the terrain changes and we enter the rich agricultural territories dotted with Kibbutzim – Israel’s famous collective rural settlements. Rabah Aghbarieh continues to point out ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israeli government forces. He also points out a surprising number of prisons in the area which, he says, house mainly political prisoners. The dates 1948 (state of Israel) and 1967 (Six-day war) pop up frequently in his narrative -- key signifiers of Palestinian dispossession. He says Israel imports thousands of farm workers from Thailand to work for little compensation on its commercial farms. I read later that Israel has a serious shortage of agricultural labour. I think of all the unemployed Palestinians I’ve seen sitting in refugee camps. This country is full of surprises.

Along hair-pin bends, we ascend the fertile volcanic plateau of the Golan on the border with Syria. Army bases and bunkers at regular intervals are reminders of the contested past (and present) of the territory. Rabah Aghbarieh says that leftover landmines are still a concern and people, often children, fall victim to them from time to time.

Somewhere along our travels, we stop at a touristy vantage point from which we can look over the low-lying 21 kilometre-long freshwater lake known as the Sea of Gallilee. On its opposite bank sits the city of Tiberias. Just below us are prickly pear cactuses and some kind of local tree, the name of which I can’t catch. Anyway, Rabah Agbarieh says in combination these plants are “proof” of earlier Arab settlement.

He comments on the presence of Jewish tourists. “How can you tell they are Jewish?” I ask. He smiles and puts it down to a “sixth sense”. A more prosaic response comes from my travelling companion: “You can see by the dress.” In any event, it’s an issue. I ask Rabah if he feels uncomfortable as an Arab in this tourist spot and, although I find it hard to imagine this confident man being daunted by anything, he admits he does.

On our mission to touch the snow on Mt Hermon, we pass through the steep Druze village of Majdal Shams which sits on the border with Syria. In the town, we take a quick detour to Givat Ha-Tza’akot or “Shouting Mountain” from which the locals on the Israeli side use bullhorns to shout their conversations to relatives on the Syrian side. Separating them is an electric fence and land mines.

The Druze are a fiercely independent sect of Shi’ite Muslims. Their traditional dress for both sexes is black with a white head scarf for women and a white hat for the men. Outside their homes in the town sit tractors not than cars, which they take out to use on their lands surrounding the town.

Access to the snow-capped peaks is closed (we’re too late), so we begin the descent to Akko on the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, the air is sweet with the smell of orange blossoms and wild flowers of yellow, purple and red carpet the ground. Local Israelis are out in full force to enjoy the many nature paths, waterfalls and hiking trails in the area. We stop to look at the bombed ruins of a mosque at the side of the road. I climb the minaret, which is still intact, and take in the stunning views.

In Akko, a holy place for the Bah’ai religion, in a seafood restaurant on the beach where we eat obscene amounts of middle eastern salads, dips and fish, we meet the tall and athletic–looking Sheikh Mohamed Madi, Dressed in a well-cut greyish suit with an open-necked, striped shirt, he could easily have just stepped off a fashion show ramp in Paris. But he’s introduced to me as the “principal of the city” and “deputy mayor” and some kind of representative of the Islamic Movement. He’s also a voluntary Imam and a teacher of Islamic studies. As I soon learn, he is actively working to improve the future prospects and protect the rights of Arabic residents in Akko’s run-down old city (now a Unesco heritage site) where he was born and where many of his family still live.

After dinner, I take a few murky photos of the outside of Al-Jazzar Mosque, the third largest mosque in Israel, which my companions enter to pray. When they re-emerge, Madi explains that the madrassa (Islamic religious school) attached to the mosque has been closed by Israeli authorities who want to capitalise on its tourism potential rather than see Islamic education continue. Madi says many of the official Imams are censored by the state and are cautioned about keeping politics out of their prayers. Being a voluntary Imam gives him greater legitimacy among his community and greater licence to say what he believes is necessary.

As we wander along the alleyways of the old city, Madi explains the challenges facing the Muslim community – mainly from the government – in uplifting the city for his people and defending their rights to freedom of religion, culture and economic activity. Funds sourced from the international community to pay for specific renovations in the old city, he says, have been blocked by the government, which claims they come from terrorist organisations. His own attempts to create a small community centre, containing computers and other learning resources, he says, has been met with suspicion by the government.

Madi is greeted warmly – “Salamou Alaikom” and lots of kissing by the men – wherever we go. A major concern is clearly the prospects for the youth. “There are 17 cafes where they spend their time hanging around and smoking [hooka], but only two overcrowded schools,” he says.

As if to illustrate the problems for our benefit, a young woman starts screaming behind us. We turn to see two rival gangs of young men squared up against each other. One is carrying a knife. There’s a lot of shouting from the boys. Madi moves quickly, placing himself between the two groups and pushing back the aggressors. Just when things seem to be calming down, one of the boys tries to break through to the other side, I imagine, to make a strike. In a heartbeat, Madi is after him, grabs him with ease and quickly pushes him back. Then he straightens his collar and pulls down his jacket sleeves and collects himself. It’s a masterful and elegant intervention. I can see why this man garners respect.

Later on, Madi is called back to intervene in the scuffle which has picked up again in a different area. We take our leave. I extend my hand to him in thanks, forgetting that women are not supposed to do that. Madi diplomatically keeps his hand on his heart and, then I remember.

* Sharon Dell’s trip to the Middle East is being made possible through local Muslim sponsorship.

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