Al Walaja: walking the ruins, cycling a storm

We awoke this morning after a troubled nights sleep; cold in our bones, the wind (and the dogs) howling all night.  We unzip the tent and peek out, a bright sunshine appears over the top of the towering hill on the other side of the valley.

Are we really going to do this? We ask each other in the freezing gale, remembering the words of friends who assured us the weather this week would be terrible.  But we load our stuff and get on our bikes – the wordless response for our latest cycling predicament.

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We pick up the first bit of the JNF Jerusalem to Tel Aviv trail, thankful that we borrowed mountain bikes as we traverse boulders on a very rocky path.

Blue and white strings tied to the trees next to us flap in the wind, indicating that we are on ‘Israel’s National Trail’. We are in search of its secrets. This morning, we are looking for al Walaja.

We reach a juncture – to our right the path carries on, getting rockier and rockier, to our left is a road – with a checkpoint and two male border police. A checkpoint? Here? We thought we were done with them after Bethlehem. But we need directions. So we ask them.

“Walaja?” They laugh. They don’t speak much English and do not know what we mean. We eye their big guns and walk away.

We realise it makes sense to take the road, through the checkpoint, to Walaja.  We check with one of the soldiers as we pass, confirming that one of the Israeli villages we found on the map close to the ruins of Walaja is in this direction.
“Yes, this way,” he confirms.
There. There it is  – the almost tangible absence of memory of a village who stands right here along this road.

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We cycle along the railway line, past beautiful prickly pear, olive and almond trees, blossom indicating that at least spring is on the way. The land is lush and green, and there are terraces on the hillside, dotted with red and yellow flowers.

After a while I notice golden stone houses, (abandoned) beside us:
“Is that it?” I ask, stupidly, feeling the hairs stand up at the back of my neck. A ghost town amidst this beautiful landscape. Being on a bicycle helps you notice things, alert to the weather and friendly passersby, appreciative of the flowers and the views, witness to lost Palestinian villages.

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We stop and cross the road with our bikes, leaning them on the barrier that separates the busy main road from the village ruins. We climb over it and clamber down the ditch on the other side.  There are no signs indicating what these stone structures are, no dedication, no apology. Just the golden ruins of a people lost to this land.
We stare up at the houses, and begin to wander amongst them. It feels like we are forensic scientists searching for memory, scouring the land for evidence. The houses stand hollow, long-since emptied of life. Now we can only imagine, fill in the pieces of the village that was.

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Al Walaja was attacked and occupied in October 1948; however the Zionist militias were not able to hold on to the village, and were forced out by a successful counterattack by Arab forces. Most of the village was handed over to Israel according to the terms of the armistice agreement signed with Jordan on 3rd April 1949, (some of the land remained in the West Bank – more on this later). The Israeli army entered al Walaja, along with other villages handed over in the Jerusalem area, in the weeks following the signing of the agreement.

Today, three major structures still remain. The rooms look large and beautiful, the ceilings are domed, the windows and doorways arched.

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To the north, beyond the road, amongst the terraces of olive trees, lies the railway. The Jerusalem – Jaffa railway, connecting two great cities. Both of which are now closed to Palestinians. As we watch a train passes, no one from Walaja can take that journey now.

Many cars pass too, but there is no place to stop. We wonder how many of those passing by look to their right and consider these remains. Not many, in their speedy machines, we suppose. Though the stone houses stand so close, and so clear, they are almost invisible. This is the architecture of forgetting.

Walaja, I want to tell you blossom grows from the stone walls of your houses
Walaja, I want to tell you your ground is covered in red and yellow bouquets.
Walaja, you are beautiful.
but you are naked and lonely without your people.

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We leave Walaja with heavy hearts. We continue on and the wind is even stronger. We battle against it, up our first big hill, cycling through cloud. Freezing and exhausted, we can’t but admire the views. Gorgeous olive groves in the valley below and mountains poking through the mist.

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Some way up we see the Palestinian village of al Walaja today. The 1949 armistice line divided the village, giving a large part to the new Israeli state; Palestinians from the village cannot visit this part, they cannot wander among the old stone houses, as we did. But perhaps that is the least of their worries. Al Walaja is emblematic of the continuing Nakba. Since 1948, more and more of their land has been stolen and destroyed. Today, Israel’s apartheid wall encircles the village; isolating its inhabitants, controlling their movement. The villagers have no security, as the Israeli forces encroach ever deeper onto their land, destroying olive trees and houses as they go.

With the weather against us, we don’t have time to stop in the village today, but please have a read of this article for more on their story. 

Tired out, and wanting to get provisions while we are temporarily back in the West Bank, we stop for food. Dried date paste, a bag of nuts, houmous (obviously) and pretzels. Perfect cycling snacks. We get speaking to the shopkeeper and tell him our plans.
“I’m originally from Jaffa”, he chimes. Everywhere there are stories. Everyone is from somewhere. Nobody will forget.

We pass another checkpoint, not even needing to show our passports, we are reminded again how privileged we are: to be taking this trip, to be crossing these lines with such ease, to find these villages and these experiences.

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Snaking our way up and around hills, with icy rain in our faces, every 10 minutes it seems we are passing the sites of villages that were destroyed. Begin Park – where al-Qabu and Ras Abu ‘Ammar once were. The American Independence park, where Allar, Dayr al-Hawa, Khirbat al-Tannur, Jarash, Sufla, Bayt ‘Itab, Dayr Aban once stood. JNF sponsored erasure.

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But there isn’t time to tell all these stories today; eyes tired from the wind, hail snapping in our faces, we head towards Mahseya, where we will meet an Israeli contact who will tell us about the villages that once stood around the site of his Kibbutz.

By the time we meet him, the fog has thickened, we are exhausted, and we decide that a cup of tea is the only course of action. We hear the story of Michael, born in a Kibbutz a few kilometers from the villages of Sar’a and Dayr Aban; until recently he was completely unaware of the history of the Nakba. After a couple of years of determined research, he has much to tell, and we sit with steaming mugs in hand, listening to the history of the land around us.

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