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DOWN TO JERICHO

Cycle touring author, Julian Sayarer, released his latest work today: Fifty Miles Wide. A book / reportage on his journey along the roads of Israel and occupied Palestine - a route that weaves from the ancient hills of Galilee, along the blockaded walls of the Gaza Strip, and down to the Bedouin villages of the Naqab Desert. He shares a couple of extracts from the book with us...

PROLOGUE

Sometimes in life it happens that an idea you first held only in passing becomes steadily stronger, until finally you realise that it has come to possess you. That single idea grows in prominence until it has you working for it, it makes you its keeper, until maps, notepads and books scatter your desk in homage to a once-vague thought, and your every waking moment pours into forming the plans, at first so small, that unwittingly you have become. So it went with that idea to ride a bicycle through Palestine and Israel, and if it would be too strong to suggest that it began as only a single casual suggestion, still, I never expected to wind up doing it, nor to be so convinced that indeed there was no better place to learn about this world than from the seat of a bicycle. Dragging yourself across a landscape, one pedal stroke at a time, if you can take that theory and test it in the heart of the Middle East, in the guts of history that you find there, if the bicycle can navigate some sort of truth in even that tangled place, then there is no knot or idiosyncrasy it cannot unpick.

How it does that I do not know, and I can only make the guesses of a student, someone who spent years pedalling roads and watching what the roadsides showed me. Riding a bicycle served as something of a leveller, a vantage point that reminded me of the basic sameness of streets and roads everywhere, for these are simply the venues in which people set quietly about the work of building their lives and their dreams. Whether I was pedalling the Middle East or my route into the city of London, the surrounds of each and news of both places reached me as if filtered by the same strainer of my spokes. Aboard a bicycle, I felt so keenly that what passed in one place would eventually come to pass in the other, for it is with only the passing of time that the many separations of our world are proven false. Through all the miles, the bicycle came to represent in my mind the best of us. It was our ability to live in harmony with the laws of physics, with ourselves, our better natures, and by which, when riding, the world seemed like it might just about be OK. Perhaps. In my bowed head above the handlebars, sweating through the pilgrimage of a long mountain pass, only in the bicycle have I found a place where all beauty, ecstasy, anger, hate and joy could collide together in chaos but still come out the other side as something recognisable. Even as something positive. My vehicle is the bicycle, always the bicycle… for when I ride, still to this day and just like the first time, it feels like I am reading a love letter.

But for all that is so, I never rode so that I could write about the cycling. To me, the best thing of the bicycle was the way it allowed me to see better and so write better of everything that was around it. The bicycle’s main gift was the way it was willing to take me great distances, relying on few but myself, and to ask in return for almost no mention of its service. The bicycle is simultaneously a telescope and a cloak, it reveals and it hides. It shows you details that you would not normally see for haste, for barriers, for your own cluttered thoughts. And at the same time it shelters you from the world, concealing those causes for cynicism and for suspicion that adults acquire in their instinctive views of one another. So that somehow, miraculously, at the end of it, you are left only ever as a human being, riding on a bicycle. Innocent. Arriving by bicycle, people see their young self once learning to balance. Arriving by bicycle, people see their children at play. And if you can take that energy into encounters with checkpoints, with walls, with soldiers, with both the wretched and the wronged, then by bicycle, I swear, you go fortified forever with that most potent of defences, a smile.

DOWN TO JERICHO

There are roads you always remember better than all the rest, roads you’ll live your life by, roads that you come to treat like heirlooms, that you stow away in the treasure trove of your memory because the moment you first found them was so precious, so irreplaceable. Those thirty miles down from the Taklamakan desert into Uygur-Xinjiang. To Briançon down from the Col du Lautaret. From the Rockies on the highway east of Tijuana and down into the Sonora Desert of Mexico. And then that one, to Jericho, less a descent than a chasm, with the earth torn apart and inviting you in.

Out of that Bedouin camp it immediately begins to haul you down. Ahead I watch the black asphalt unfurl like the ribbon of a typewriter, where my bicycle hammers as the key that records this story. The red earth is wide open, spotted by the soft green of the last olive trees before the desert, their trunks twisting and leaning tired towards the ground. When finally I finished my journey in those two countries – or that one country, whatever history decides – it was mostly with the sense that I would never return. Still now, the regret that comes both first and last to mind with that thought is that road down to Jericho and the prospect of never again riding it. For it pulls you in, reeling you in towards the end, where waiting is the Dead Sea itself, and so it is less a road than a diving board to the bottom of the world. You crest a final small hill, bouncing up into the air as the last plants, a garrison tower and small settlement, dusty with goats being driven back to their pens, all rush by and disappear fast. And then, with the road rippling, reverberating beneath, finally, you lift off, and in you go.

The first place you feel the speed is on your eyeballs, as the air picks up pace and presses against them. The energy with which you’re moving – so bright, so fast – itself trickles into the mind with a subtly coded message that, truly, anything is possible if a mere human being can move like this. Next, the rush moves into the fingers, becomes nervous, tickling them and suggesting they reach for the brake levers in time for that fast-approaching turn that leans around the edge of a mountain like a drunk clutches for the bar as he goes toppling over. The brakes pull you towards them, but then you refuse, you remember your courage and you rush into the turn so that the speed comes for your stomach and lifts it up towards your chest. Merciless, the turns call out the order of events. You grab at the brake, too early and too hard, pulling you off balance for a moment before you get your lines and then, banking into forty-five degrees, the old feeling of descending and immortality comes back and the rhythm of how to crest a mountain makes its way back to the memory of your muscles and the posture of the body. One exit points into the next entry, and a line of delicate memory is sketched on the road for you to follow.

Leaning down, I flatten myself against the bicycle so that the two of us bore a faster hole into the air until I must lift with a gasp and brake with my chest, a hopeless parachute that catches a little drag and slows my fall into the coming hairpin. A car pulls alongside, passing me as the road straightens and sends us along a flat ledge of the mountains: a shelf before the next drop, where cracks break free in the tarmac, small fissures from a part of the road slowly slipping down under its own weight, readying to join the sea and the wrecks at the bottom of the world. The ploughed earth of farmland ends, turning to dry grasses and the final grazing animals. Bedouin boys stand at the roadside with their flails – always aloft – in a wave to me, their jeans rolled up on skinny legs. Opposite and in the near distance, for the first time I see the mountains of Jordan, cradling out of sight that ruby of the Wadi Rum. Nearer at hand the brown red of hills slides into a rocky desert landscape, so that earth grows tiger stripes where the depth of old hollows and dried rivers leave the shapes of their black shadows. The mouth of the ravines gapes wide and the land commands me call out the voiceless names of those deep contours written in the earth and into which I scream. I smile, the earth lending its lightness and its play for just a moment, dissolving the politics as a sugar cube falls into tea. I see, but just for a moment, the faces of young children, pressed to the glass as the adults drive by in a car, and a young girl gives a smile and then a wave. Below I can see Jericho, see the outlying buildings that gradually cluster together and form a town, then a city, where Jesus was baptised at the foot of the mountain I race down. As it all flattens, I see the rigid rectangles of green palm plantations, growing like a verdant patch slapped on the desert, while beyond the town a pale white haze shimmers in a sign that there waits up ahead a vastness still greater than the one I see before me. An old house stands in ruin beside the road, its walls made from dried earth, a rich yellow marked with empty holes for its missing windows and doors. It is all crumbling back to soil, but beside it, where once might have been a garden, a perfect palm lances clear out of the ground and shoots up to the sky in a proof that one day all that remains of our human projects are the trees that we planted. I take a new bend leaning out from me, and in my head ask myself again how so much that is ill can come to pass in such a place as this. The same voice as always chides me, a laughing comes through on the wind as the desert answers, simple and as flat as these opening horizons.

Because humans have not yet learned how to fall in love with the earth.’

Onwards we continue, one of those impossible descents, tear-jerking with the rip of wind and the sheer audacity of so much earth to suddenly fall away so fast. I give a nod of thanks to the desert for its wisdom, take its offered thought and realise that perhaps the world it is not inherently beautiful, but that it is only able to show us that beauty which we keep inside us. While we still have unconditional love for ourselves and those we meet, and for the world itself, then land inspires in us change. But where eventually that strength of feeling calms, it becomes only land. I pedal fast between the drops in the road, along the brief bits of flat snatched back from gravity, and on two wheels the mountainside itself rides like a tiny evidence of freedom, so that as I bank quick left-rights and pick up speed, it feels clear that freedom exists in this world, and that it is inviolable.

But back to the road, back to the descent. Forgive my wandering mind a moment, it is just that here is one of those places where you can forget yourself a while. You forget the limits of regular possibility and regular speech and are simply lost to the desert, where polite company and measured statements do not tread, and if they did… forgive me, but they would look so ridiculous and suburban beside a landscape so eternal. On we press, the city of Jericho opening fast around me: where children play on bicycles, a woman buys baklava and kadayif, and an attendant with a hose sprays an arc of water across municipal gardens at the roadside. I move on through, see a church with a few nuns and the last of a worshipping congregation outside it. I flash by as a pair of fighter jets roar overhead and out of the town as I press down, deeper down and under the sea.

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