Dappled sunlight, the beautiful sound of a tent door unzipping, and the last morning of our journey framed by olive trees.
We are camped in an area now known as Tel Hadid. The village of Al Haditha used to exist nearby. It is likely that it was the people of Al Haditha who planted and tended to these trees, who harvested their fruit every autumn.
On the 12th July 1948, Al Haditha was entirely cleansed of its population in the first stage of Operation Dani.
We quietly pack up the tent, load up our panniers and pedal off, passing two old wells as we pick our way back onto the path. Subtle signs of normal village life in a distorted landscape.
We soon stumble across this ancient mausoleum. The Israeli signs say it is a Roman ruin that was used for ritual and prayer surrounded by a cemetery. But it did not stand empty for 2000 years. The Palestinians who lived in the area until 1948 also used it as a sacred site. The sign does not mention the recent ethnic cleansing of the people as the reason for its state of ‘ruin’ today.
Again we notice the shoots of the Iris bulbs that are planted around the dead in the tradition of these parts.
Back on the trail a few kilometers on, we pass the now familiar sight of tall pines and an explosion of picnic tables. We spot arched, grass coated stone structures. A sign informs us that these beautiful ruins were once ‘Al Mir Flour Mill’, described as an ancient mill “named after a small village which was once located nearby”.
This was the small village of Al Mirr, also known as Al Mahmudiyya.
Its 170 inhabitants fled for fear of attack in the beginning of February 1948, some returned the following month, only for the village to be attacked and occupied on 13th May.
We spot another cyclist on the track and as he slows we point in the direction of the ruins and asks what he knows about the site. He reads the sign and repeats its information.
We explain our project, that we have heard that this place was once a Palestinian village called al Mirr, destroyed in 1948.
“Ah”, he says. “I have a map of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948”. And he offers to take us to another ruin nearby. We go but end up missing a turning and there is not enough time to continue.
He says he will help us get on a track to Tel Aviv, as the bicycle trail we planned to take will be covered with mud after the recent rains. We gratefully accept and begin to traverse a dirt road that runs the length of the sprawling route 5 into Tel Aviv.
There were puddles galore and after months of cycling on concrete roads with touring bikes it felt marvellous to feel the mud in our tyres and be able to carry on regardless! This didn’t last for long. The puddles got bigger, the mud got deeper. Sticky clumps gathered around our brakes and our wheels jarred. We waded through muddy water up to our shins and heaved at our heavy bikes, feet slipping and sinking.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry”, our new friend repeats. “No, really, it’s OK” we laugh. It’s an adventure.
After a while, when we can see little of our bikes beneath the mud which now coats them and no end in sight, we concede that we might have a bit of an issue. Darkness will descend in a couple of hours, we are moving slower than snails on the muddy track, and the only alternative is the roaring route 5 motorway.
“I’ll get my car”, our new friend pipes up. “I’ll cycle back to my car, and then I’ll come back for you. I can put all the bikes on my rack and drop you in Tel Aviv.”
“No, it’s OK”, we implore, “we’ll figure something out”. But he insists, and we don’t have so much choice.
He heads off, and we are left at the side of the road, wondering at the kindness which so often comes our way when cycle touring, marveling at how such situations work out, and feeling a little odd not to be cycling the final stretch into Jaffa.
Although not quite how expected, it felt good to arrive. We unload our bicycles and spray the pristine city roads with sticky mud as we ride through the city centre, and along the sea front. Quite the spectacle!
We are heartily welcomed into Cafe Yafa – a cafe and bookshop – despite the mud and grime we bring with us. It is a little pocket of Palestine, in a city which was ethnically cleansed in 1948, losing 95% of its Palestinians residents.
Revived by a mountain of Maklooba, and a delicious Taybeh beer, we muse about our journey, giggle at the encounters, excitedly plan, and wistfully dream about the future for Cycle ’48.
One day, we will cycle again to the sea; and we will be accompanied by Palestinians. We will pedal alongside Ahmed, Salah, Mousa, and all the other refugees, who we left behind in Aida. We will ride through towns and villages and witness the Return, and not the ruins.
It has to happen.
Once more, we urge everyone reading this to join the movement for Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions. Israel has to be held to account for its war crimes, denial of human rights, and occupation of Palestine. Find out more on our Take Action page.
Everyone should be free to cycle to the sea.
This post concludes our week-long ride from Bethlehem to Jaffa. Thank you for following our journey over the last days; it has been a very moving process for us to share these stories as we learn them. We have just scratched the surface of the history which calls to be uncovered, the routes which remain to be remapped. The journey is far from over. Please continue to keep an eye on this blog as we update it with more reflections, photos, recordings, interviews and plans for more cycling.