For the past five years I have given the occasional lecture to law students at Birzeit University. I used to leave my office half an hour before the time of my talk, get into my car and in ten minutes be at the university. Not anymore. From the crowded center of town I now had to take a shared taxi for the first part of the journey, which had only taken a few minutes. I soon realized that only yellow vehicles traveled this stretch of road. Private cars do not venture there. In a parade of yellow cabs, we drove along one of the highest hills in Ramallah and were let off halfway down the slope. The rolling hills stretched below us. The car that dropped us now searched for a place to turn in this blocked road, which had become a carpark for dropping and loading passengers traveling on the first short leg of the journey to and from Ramallah.
I walked up the earth barrier between two large cement blocks, followed by a sprightly pregnant woman who had ridden with me from Ramallah. Ahead, coming up from the valley, I could see a man with a belly as large as hers hobbling up the hill, sweat streaming down his swollen cheeks. There were about seventy of us in all, walking down the half-mile interruption in this eight-mile journey from Ramallah to Birzeit.
We walked in silence--students, faculty, merchants, shoppers with heavy bags, old women and men, some pushed on wheelchairs by volunteers from medical relief. There was something strange, almost timeless, about this stream of people walking down where the road had been, not angry, not complaining, as though paying penitence for crimes no one could identify. Just like the rest of our existence, our short trip to work has been slowed down into an interminable and agonizing "process," interrupted, prevented from developing and catching up with the world around us.
It surprised me that I didn't detect anger among my fellow walkers. There was only concentration on completing the task at hand, traversing that milelong walk. Perhaps they were sparing themselves for the drudgery of living. To get angry at every minute of our existence would be draining. We needed every ounce of energy, now that so many of the ordinary activities, such as driving to work, have become so exhausting and so fraught with danger. Despite everything, we are adamantly pushing ahead with our lives, trying to hold on to our daily routine as much as possible, pretending to lead normal lives in the midst of absolute abnormality. The only sign of anger had been scrawled on the rocks by the side of the road. In English some walkers had written: "Go Out From Palestine. Occupation Is Terror" and in Arabic: "We Shall Not Kneel. We Shall Resist."
Before reaching the valley between the two hills I saw the Byzantine burial caves that had been exposed by the PA's excavations for the new part of the road, eyes gaping from the wall of solid rock by the side of the road, peering at the living from the distant past. One was of several holes made for a large family; another only for two people, perhaps a husband and wife. I had seen these before as I drove down this road and had always wanted to stop and examine them but never seemed to have the time. Now I did. Leaving the asphalt, I scrambled down the side of the road and peered inside the holes. No remains could be seen of those who must one day have rested in them, only a long square hole dug deep into the limestone rock too dark to see the end of. I climbed back to the dug-out asphalt and rejoined the stream of reluctant walkers.
After dipping into the low point in the road at the intersection with the settler road we began our climb up the hill, another quarter of a mile to go. Along the side of the hill women were kneeling down picking cucumbers from plants, watered only by the precipitation of the morning mist that covers these hills before the march of walkers begins at sunrise. The runner plants had dark green healthy foliage piled up on the clumpy red soil, organic agriculture at its best.
Walking in silence, admiring the ancient peaceful hills on both side of our enforced trek in the middle of our working day, and smelling the stench of the fresh dung from the horses driving the carts decorated with red velvet tassels and filled with vegetables and university files, I could almost hear the rumble of traffic on the busy road just over the next hill, east of where we walked. As we ambled along our dirt track in the hot sun, the traffic of Jewish settlers who were resolutely building new lives on our land sped along the four-lane highways forbidden to Palestinians.