Writing about Palestine isn’t easy, just like then knowing what claim to make about what you’ve written isn’t easy, like cycling through Palestine isn’t easy and the lives of those you meet in Palestine aren’t easy. That nothing about being in Palestine or then talking about Palestine is easy is not accidental, it is deliberate.
Some of the difficulties are internal: Are these my stories to tell? Am I doing them justice? Am I self-censoring and am I being censored? Am I putting-out a valuable message or just creating well-meaning travelogue from the Middle East?
Other difficulties are external: the Israeli settler who is armed with a rifle and stops you on the road to Ramallah; the metal barriers to the West Bank that are open only to freight; or the Israeli conscripts who lie about the route to take to Hebron, because part of the architecture of military occupation in Palestine is to create an underlying confusion that disorientates those living it but also those visiting it, and so, in that confusion, sets the conditions in which to claim that night is day and day is night.
Although it includes many stories, the book, Fifty Miles Wide, is about the community of cycling that is so loved so widely that sometimes it feels like it could break through old and painful definitions of kin to create new and more inclusive ones. At its most emblematic, it is about the freedom felt by a Palestinian cyclist living forever under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. But, when you see him ride – out of the saddle and putting on a sprint, smiling as we descend a long hill – it is impossible to believe that he is not already as free as any of us who’ve ever known what it is to ride a bicycle.
It is that story, but it also the story of his rebuke to me, polite but firm, for stopping to refill a water bottle at a certain point where – unbeknownst to me – he had regularly been pulled-up by checkpoint conscripts from the Israeli army, terminating his bike ride.
Palestine is both stories: the joys of a free people, with inspiring resilience, and free in spite of everything. But it is also the injustices that curtail that freedom. It increasingly becomes acceptable to talk more about the former – about Palestinian culture, its food – but at the same time it grows more controversial, censored, to discuss the latter, and the Israeli policy that creates the injustice.
This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, most important, it is unfortunate because it means Palestinians have to keep living under that injustice. Second, less important but still unfortunate, it means Israelis keep living in a society where racism, fear, and erasure of the people they built their country on top of, are all central to how the country is governed, which in turn prevents Israelis forming relations with those with whom it shares a country and region. This is neither healthy nor sustainable, and Fifty Miles Wide is also the story of those Israelis resisting bravely the apartheid conditions being set up by their government, increasingly living in fear of abuse similar to the one faced by Palestinians for demanding the justice that is necessary to create true peace.
The bicycle is always a good friend in travel. It gives you something in common with others, including others you might not naturally agree with or recognise as one of your own. It places you right into the heart of a land, and you make your way through it by the force of your own body. You see everything: the armoured vehicles with which you share the road, the concrete pill boxes, but also the perfect orbs of those violet thistles that grow at the roadsides. You taste the softness of the lemon’s flesh, in the lemonade sold by a Palestinian vendor under an umbrella’s shadow cast in a pool of heat.
Fifty Miles Wide is, in its intent at least, a testament to a people, a place, a land and a history that should long ago have been resolved and had its injustices ended. It is published in an environment where many expressions of solidarity with Palestinians are misrepresented as prejudices against Jews, thus derailing conversations that should have happened long ago. I have not, I don’t think, ever known a freedom like the one I have travelling by bicycle, and I simply wanted to write that sense of freedom, and give it to a people who perhaps most deserve such a thing.
Fifty Miles Wide is published April 16th 2020, and is available from all good bookshops.