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  • Tom Blower

Depends who's asking: Taxis


I rode from Madaba, the City of Mosaics, and home to a large Christian population, down to the Jordan River, dropping hundreds of feet in a glorious ride only momentarily rendered more perilous by being chased by a pack of ten to fifteen dogs at a checkpoint halfway down the descent. Seeing me screaming “FUCK” at the top of my lungs and pedalling like the clappers seemed to rather amuse the soldiers manning the checkpoint, but they were content to let me pass without question, and I was soon pulling up at the Sheikh Hussein/Allenby Bridge border crossing between on the road between Amman and Jerusalem. Given that I’d heard a Jordanian in Jerusalem tell of how it took him over seven hours to cross from Jordan to Israel, I was remarkably surprised to find that my own transition between the two only took a speedy three and a half hours. Peering from the window of the bus (the mandatory and only way of crossing the notorious bridge) through its drawn curtains, I tried to focus on the view of the land falling and rising again as we crossed the Jordan River rather than the thought of the inevitable stream of questions I would be asked on the other side at Israeli border control. The rigmarole of putting the disassembled bike through a scanner, avoiding the unwelcome stares of those around me, was soon over, however, and I lugged my bike in pieces onto another bus, the authorities deeming it inappropriate for me to simply ride my bike out of the Israeli terminal. It was nice, however, to be driven uphill a little, and I was in high spirits as the bus pulled up into the Jericho bus station. I was a little taken aback by the passport check conducted by representatives of the Palestinian Authority, half fearing they would stamp my passport in some bureaucratic moment that would render me unable to return from the West Bank into Israel ‘proper’.

Sunrise over Madaba. At this point, not a dog in sight...

Although the State of Palestine does not exist in the eyes of Israel - though it holds ‘Observer State’ status at the UN and has just been approved for membership of Interpol - the Palestinian Authority does have limited powers of governance and control within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and I found myself surprised at how orderly everything seemed. Television images of Palestinians throwing stones at tanks and Muslim families being harassed by crowds of Jewish settlers seemed almost an illusion as I rode into the centre of Jericho, ‘the oldest city in the world’. There was a bustling, small-town vibe, with shoppers walking the packed pavements under the shade of awnings, taxi drivers loitering on corners, and teenagers whizzing through the streets on e-bikes. And of the Muslim-majority countries I’ve been to, Jericho is the only place I’ve ever seen a Muslim woman driving. I stopped for an ice cream in a small cafe on the road leading out of the city centre towards Jerusalem. The owner kindly let me fill my water bottles for free, and asked questions about where I’d come from on the bicycle - “From Madaba? In Jordan?!” - and shaking his head in incredulity, though to me it had only been twenty-five miles or so. After a while, however, the need to continue had me back in the saddle, and I slowly began heading uphill, from far below sea level.

The climb from Jericho (846 feet below sea level) to the edge of Jerusalem (2474 feet above sea level) was a journey of only fifteen and a half miles, but the brutal gradient up winding backroads and then the main Jerusalem-Jericho highway meant that, with stops, it took me over four and a half hours to cover the distance. Panting, I finally reached the boundary of the city: the separation barrier. Twenty-six feet high and topped with razor wire, for some the symbol of the last frontier between the nation of Israel and its destruction, to others the sign of the occupying oppressor, the wall towered, blank and sterile. As I approached along the road coming through the wall, through which vans and taxis slowly filtered into the West Bank, the soldiers guarding the entrance beckoned me over.

“What are you doing here?”

“I just want to go through.”

“Through here? To where?”

“To Jerusalem.”

“Why through here?”

“It’s the fastest way on a bicycle.”

A momentary silence.

“Passport.”

I opened my rucksack, fumbling around as I reached for my documents pouch. It was gone. Panic, but greater than panic, anger started flooding through me. No, no, no! Where the fuck is it?! I cursed myself as I realised that somewhere between the Jericho bus station and the wall during my 3,320-foot climb I must have dropped it or simply left it somewhere. Groaning internally and externally, I began to head back downhill, and all the progress of the past four and a half hours was reversed in thirty-five minutes.

How that bike put up with me I’ll never know

I rode along the edge of Wadi Quelt (the Valley of the Shadow of Death in God’s best-selling novel, The Bible*), sure that I must have left my passport at the viewpoint overlooking the isolated St. George’s Monastery, a Greek Orthodox complex tucked into the side of the eroded canyon. But when I arrived, it was gone. Exhausted, I let gravity carry me the last few miles back into the centre of Jericho, where I stopped again at the cafe I had visited earlier and selfishly took comfort in another scoop of honey ice cream. The owner, suprised to see me again, asked what had happened and offered to help: “My friend has a taxi: he can take you to a place where you can jump through the wall. This is the Palestinian way.” I appreciated the offer, but refused: as badly as I wanted to get to Jerusalem, I didn’t fancy risking being mistaken by armed soldiers for a Lycra-clad terrorist intent on bringing down Israel one outraged sensibility at a time. I even reported the matter to the Palestinian police: though I had no hope that they could really find my passport, I found their kindness, and that of everyone I turned to for help in search of my documents, to be genuine and well-intending. After giving my report at the police station, I walked outside into the evening light. The sun was setting, and I knew I had neither the time nor the strength to reach Jerusalem in daylight. I resolved to get into Jerusalem somehow, and made for the taxi rank in the city centre. Perhaps it was my distressed look, or the fact that my clothes were either skin-tight, flourescent yellow, or both, but within a minute I had secured myself a taxi to east Jerusalem. My driver didn’t give me his name, but his English was near flawless, and though I was paying seventy shekels for his services (~£14.75), it was clear that he genuinely wanted to help me. His conversation flowed with ease as he told me how important it was to never discriminate between people when giving help. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Muslim, a Jew, or a Christian. You help them because we are all human being, you know?” I had been initially unwilling to pay ₪70 for a fifteen minute-taxi journey, but I realised that he really was taking a risk with me in the car, carrying a suspicious-looking bike and a passenger with no proof of identity nor of any right to be in the country. We reached Jahalin, a small town on the edge of the sprawl of Palestinian settlements adjoining east Jerusalem. My appreciation that I had someone looking out for me as we passed an Israeli police car pulling drivers over to check drivers’ documents. Being in a taxi with a Palestinian licence plate meant that we could go little further, but my driver seemed confident. “We can wait here for a bus. You take it into Jerusalem. It normally comes here.” We pulled over, and stood, watching and listening as the traffic slowly filtered past in the growing darkness, bright lights from shop fronts flashing and illuminating the many pedestrians going about their business in the cool of the evening. After waiting for around fifteen minutes - for which he surely should have charged me extra, but didn’t - the driver turned to me and said “Strange. The bus normally comes here. But it is ok.” He turned away again and walked straight into the stream of traffic, gesticulating with his arms at passing cars. Eventually, he managed to flag down a passing taxi with an Israeli licence plate, seemingly already carrying a woman and her three children. “Come! He will take you. He doesn’t speak English, but I tell him where you are going.” I was grateful that my bike frame folded in half on itself, allowing it to be easily fitted into the car boot on top of the poor woman’s shopping without too much difficulty. I thanked the driver, hurriedly paid the new driver another ₪70 and quickly got into the seat I was offered in the front of the cab, as the woman squashed into the back with the children. “Bab Damashq?” I asked my new driver cautiously in my best - and still incredibly poor - Arabic, hoping that he wouldn’t take advantage of our inability to understand each other’s mother language. He nodded - “Na’am” - and proffered me a slice of pizza from a box perched on his dashboard. I shook my head, and hungry hands reached out from the back seat to take the box. The next five minutes passed - to me - in a wordlessness broken by the blaring Arabic music from the radio. My breaths fastened and then slowed again as we approached and sailed without obstruction through the traffic barrier preventing Palestinian cars from entering Jerusalem, and by the time we reached the Damascus Gate of the Old City I considered my ₪140 well-spent.

The next day as I waited in the British Consulate for my approval for an Emergency Travel Document, I thought back on how many people had helped me, from policemen to tourist information volunteers to cafe owners to bus station workers. Several of them were willing to take quite significant risks to help me, even though they barely knew me. This was one of the reasons I enjoyed my short time in Jericho - plagued though it was by frustration at my own idiocy - more than any other town in Israel. I had met many good, kind, generous people, like Liran, my Airbnb host in Eilat, who had taken me snorkelling and allowed me to stay a night for free when my plans to visit Wadi Rum fell through on me, but the recognition and cheerfulness in the face of such strained, potentially dangerous conditions really touched me. Though constrained in many ways by the relationship of modern Israel and Palestine, such as it is, the Palestinian people I had met seemed still to find pleasure and a sense of community through humanity. For all the media ‘lies’ I was warned of by both Israelis and Palestinians, for all the hardships and dangers faced by both just in their very different, difficult co-existence, people were still able to live a life of value, though some with a greater sense of humour than others. Violence is not all-pervasive but is ever-present in Jerusalem, and the way in which it has become so quotidian is evidenced in the language of ordinary people. A Palestinian shopkeeper in Jerusalem, from whom I was trying to buy a small, cheap necklace from, exemplified this to me. I had haggled and brought his price down from ₪500 (~£105.40) to ₪75 (~£15.80), and though he had tried to drive a hard bargain, he folded and met my price. I didn’t feel too bad, as I knew what I was buying was clearly not worth what he was asking, but I felt a flash of pity me as I handed over my money. A wry smile broke across his careworn face. “Remind me to kill you if you come back here again.”

*Some call it his debut work, but I consider the short satirical poem The Ten Commandments to be his first literary opus.

Outroduction

Sunset in Tel Aviv

Seven hours after having obtained my single-use Emergency Travel Document for the eye-watering sum of £103, the frustration at my inability to function like a responsible adult was increased by an email from work colleagues informing me that someone had indeed found my passport, and that it it was waiting for me in Tel Aviv, from where I was due to fly home. The journey to the coast from Jerusalem was quick, and despite a small spill when some light rain got the better of me at a roundabout - at the cost of a ripped jersey and some road rash - I was glad to be able to have my passport (albeit totally useless by this point, having been cancelled) back. The metropolis of Tel Aviv seemed a million miles from the austerity of Jerusalem, the glory of Petra, the warmth of Jericho, or the silence of the Negev, but I was happy to be headed home. I’d been reminded that travelling with others can be more enjoyable than I’d thought, that though cycling in the desert can be fun it’s best done with a hell of a lot more water, and that the freedoms of movement and expression I have in my own country make me one of the luckiest people alive.

I spent a lot of time trying not to offend anyone, be they Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or secular, but by the end of my trip I had come to some of my own conclusions despite being exposed to some very strong opinions from Israelis and non-Israelis alike. I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone with my words but I’m not sorry for having said them, particularly when it comes to any opinions, explicit or implicit, on the relationship between Israel and Palestine. I feel that a statement criticizing the political state of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, just as a statement criticizing a political state which calls itself an Islamic state is not Islamophobic, and that people should always be able to question authority in any form, religious, political, or social, but that such questions and debates need to be conducted carefully for productive results.

On a final note, I’d like to recommend anyone to see Israel, Palestine, and Jordan by bike. Although my experience is that whilst some of the drivers are perhaps not so brilliant, the roads and paths on which they go truly are. As I sat looking out into the Mediterranean, my mind already miles ahead of me, thinking of the next ride and the next adventure, I paused to think of the uphill struggle, the aches, the scrapes, the cramps, the thirst, the peeling skin, the smell of unwashed body as I bed down for a night in the sand by the side of the road, the first cold sip of water after a long climb, the view from the mountain top, the exhilaration as you fly down the hill at 56.8 miles per hour. Is it worth it? Always and forever, my friends. Always and forever.

Just in case there was any doubt.

#society #plan

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 Graphics and design by Tom Blower and Ellie Newis. Created using Wix