By Joanna Chen
Photograph by Joanna Chen. All rights reserved.
Today we go to Jericho, Raz and I. It’s a brilliant summer’s day, and the garden twinkles. Grapes are ripening on the vine that grows to the side of the house. They’re pale purple and hard to the touch. I pop one in my mouth anyway and make a face as the sour juice hits the roof of my mouth.
We drive from our home in the Ella Valley, following the lead of our car’s GPS. Barely one hour later the landscape surprises; fields of melon and dull green slopes are exchanged for pale gray earth, an equally pale sky, and the arid air of the Judean desert.
The GPS guides us off the main sweep of road that leads steeply down towards the Dead Sea. I falter for a moment, wondering if this is a good idea. I know the way and have been to Jericho several times, never leaving the main road. But it’s the weekend and we’re willing to give it a go. For a moment I feel as if I’m on vacation and very far from home.
I drive. The road becomes bumpy and dusty. There are numerous potholes and part of the road isn’t really a road at all, more like a dirt track. I drive slowly through the twists and downwards plunges. Jerusalem, just 20 miles from Jericho, is about 2000 feet above sea level. But the level drops sharply to just under one thousand feet below sea level at Jericho. Donkeys plod along the side of the road and a couple of people wander down on foot. They look like they know where they’re going.
After some time, we reach St. George’s Monastery, a building that literally hangs off the side of the wadi. It dates back to the fourth century when a group of monks settled in what was then a cave, hoping to experience seclusion in the desert like the prophet Elijah did before them. Today, Greek Orthodox monks inhabit the monastery, but they are nowhere to be seen.
What we do see is a coach parked outside, glinting in the bright light. A stream of tourists wearing baseball hats and big sunglasses tumble out. Two camels, suitably festooned for the tourists with bright red saddles and gold baubles, stand with their owner, chewing lazily. I stop the car and roll down the window.
“Is this the way to Jericho?” I ask the driver, who’s leaning against the coach lighting a cigarette. I’m beginning to wonder if the GPS works down here. “Yes,” he says, then shakes his head. “Don’t go that way unless you know how to drive.” I laugh. I know how to drive. “Turn back,” he says, pointing up the hill from where we just came.
But we continue. There’s a rule in my family from when I was a kid: never turn back unless you’ve forgotten your passport or your makeup. Only then can you turn back. I have my British passport, and I’m not wearing any makeup.
Raz is Israeli-born and does not have a foreign passport. Israelis are forbidden entrance to Jericho, located in area A, but we have friends there, and the stalemate political situation is not going to stop us. We both glance back.
Our hosts, Nuha and Khader, tell us by phone the day before that there will be no problems at the checkpoint. For the last few weeks rules have been relaxed, they say, and cars enter and exit Jericho freely. When I worked as a foreign journalist for Newsweek I would cross these checkpoints regularly. I became accustomed to the long line of cars, the knock on the car, the slow lowering of the window, the handing over of documents, the hand waving us on.
I am British by birth and can enter Jericho using my British passport. I am also Israeli, having been automatically given Israeli citizenship when I was sent here by my parents at the age of 16. At the time, I had no wish to be in Israel. I am Jewish, and it is, apparently, my right — although I am aware of the injustice. There are Palestinians who are denied entry and who are split from their loved ones despite the fact that they were born here or their families lived here for generations. Judge me for this right to live where I want and where others cannot — the least I can do is offer the hand of friendship where it’s taken. In the Gospel of Luke, just before the parable of the Good Samaritan (traditionally located within this desert landscape), a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Martin Luther King, accompanied by his wife, traveled this same road to Jericho from Jerusalem in 1959. He mentions it in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, recasting the parable into modern terms, underlining the importance of extending friendship to others, even those we do not know. How can we even recognize our neighbors if we do not visit them? The Palestinians are my neighbors and I want to know them, however twisted the road may be.
So, we wave goodbye to the coach driver, shaking his head at us, and manoeuvre around the tourists, who are now buying bottles of water and trinkets. It’s noon by now and the sun beats down on us. I turn the air conditioning up a notch.
We quickly discover what the coach driver was talking about. The road narrows, and below there is a sheer drop into Wadi Kelt. There are more potholes than road; the GPS says we have two and a half miles to go until Jericho. Raz, who knows his stuff, tells me that this is the old road taken to Jericho by the Romans. Wadi Kelt is rumoured to be the Valley of the Shadow of Death from Psalm 23. When Raz was a student, he used to hike there regularly, even staying overnight in sleeping bags with friends. Back then it was regarded as safe territory for everyone. But in 1993, just before the Oslo Agreements, three Israeli hikers were murdered down in the ravine, an incident that put an end to this idyll.
A donkey wanders along up the hill, sure-footed and confident, carrying a small boy on his back. The boy waves to us and Raz waves back. I keep both hands firmly on the steering wheel, as if this will keep us from plunging over the side of the wadi.
We already know we won’t be taking this road on our return. We travel down the steep track slowly, painfully, from west to east, into the continuing wilderness. Occasionally I glance down into the ravine and feel vaguely dizzy. I can drive, I remind myself. We both fall silent in the car, concentrating on staying the course.
We pass a flock of sheep, watched over by a shepherd. He sits on a rock, gazing ahead at the cloudless sky. I wonder what he’s looking for. We pass a couple of broken-down dwellings and a small estate of houses under construction, deserted as if someone decided to stop building suddenly. A few minutes later, we enter a narrow alley of houses huddled together, and a small convenience store with rolls of toilet paper and bottles of Sprite stacked outside. Finally, we hit a main road with street lighting and a gas station and I recognize where we are: already inside Jericho.
From afar we see the checkpoint leading off from the main road. A long line of cars snakes along. Had we entered through the checkpoint, Raz would have been turned away. We have arrived and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Ahead of us lies a beautiful day with our gracious friends. They meet us at the gas station and lead the way to their home on the other side of Jericho. We pass through the center of town, buzzing with life. Once again I am struck by how close it is to where we live, but so very different. We’ll talk poetry, politics, and we’ll crack jokes about Israelis and Palestinians. We’ll take the easy road home.