Climbing in the Middle East
January 2017 I set out to have an adventure in the Middle East. I hoped to come back with a story that people wanted to hear. A story that inspired people to use climbing to connect people despite their differences. Like most climbers, I struggle to confront reality.
I was going to Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. An area of the world known more for its political instability than its world class climbing areas. I was going to visit places I had heard about when I was small, long before I started climbing. I was going back to visit my roots with which, at that point in my life, had almost no connection. My mother was born in Ramallah, now the unofficial capital of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Our family is from there but by now almost everyone has moved to the US. Growing up I was steeped in Palestinian activism and culture. As I got older and started climbing I strayed from my Palestinian identity. I always wanted to visit, but with few family members left there I struggled to find a purpose for going.
I stumbled upon an Al-Jazeera article about Tim, Will and Wadi Climbing. Two American climbers who started a climbing gym in Ramallah, Wadi Climbing Gym, and were developing routes in Palestine in hopes of getting more Palestinians into the sport and outdoor recreation.
Here's a link to the Al-Jazeera article about Wadi Climbing:
I started writing emails to Tim about his work in Palestine and eventually I planned for a visit. I figured that while I was over there I should check out the climbing in Lebanon and Jordan as well. I convinced my friend and climbing partner Lauren to come along. The walls in this part of the world were smaller than those I had climbed on in Yosemite and in Patagonia, yet the potential for adventure was much greater.
Lebanon was our first stop. I was going to visit Grace, an old family friend who I’ve known since before I started climbing over 17 years ago. Grace lives on the top floor of an old apartment building in downtown Beirut. Beirut is beautiful city scarred by war. From the corniche you can enjoy views of the turquoise Mediterranean Sea and the snow capped Lebanon Mountains in the distance. Despite its polished sophisticated vibes there is still evidence of the country's turbulent past. You could see it in the old frames of blackened bombed out buildings and you could feel it walking past the armed soldiers in the streets and driving through checkpoints. Its vulnerable and fragile state makes its elegant beauty all the more impressive.
Lauren and I went climbing with locals, Jad and George, in an area called Tannourine -- about one and a half hours from Beirut. I met the two through social media and friends of friends. It seemed like all the climbers in the Middle East knew each other. We drove from warm coastal city into the snowy mountains. Tannourine is one of Lebanon’s best climbing areas and sits at about 8000 feet above sea level, making it possible to climb in Lebanon year round. Jad and George made a point of buying water and food for the day in the small mountain town of Tannourine in order to promote good relations between climbers and the local community. Clean and steep limestone walls set the backdrop to this tiny town. The walls are streaked with various shades of grey and orange rock. Long prominent tufas run down the walls like the veins of a climber’s flash pumped forearms.
We climbed amazingly steep and striking lines. George and Jad tried their projects, and I took some whippers on a stout 5.12. We ended the day feeling satisfied and ready for beer. Before we left, we stopped by a small farm house at the base of the cliff to say hi to the old couple living there and thank them for letting us climb in their backyard. George and Jad informed me that this was an important ritual of climbing in Tannourine, like going out for beers at the end of a climbing day. This house was the oldest continuously inhabited house in Lebanon. George, who is making a documentary about climbing history in Tannourine, told me that the father of the guy living there used to climb up on the walls to set quail traps.
The next day we went to Amchit. A beautiful south facing crag by the sea known for its magnificent tufas and three dimensional climbing. I was thrilled to wrestle human sized stalactites making little vertical progress as I twisted my body to climb out of steep caves. Lauren and I spent one week in Lebanon which was not enough. One could easily spend a month there climbing stalactites, enjoying local cuisine and exploring ancient cities on rest days. But for Lauren and me it was time to move on to Ramallah.
“You guys are trying to cross into Israel with Lebanese stamps in your passports?! You’re fucked!” Lauren and I found ourselves in Amman, Jordan. Due to tensions between countries we had to make a quick stop in Jordan before crossing the Israeli border into Palestinian Territories. We were meeting with Hakim, an easily excitable man, who was delighted that we had traveled all the way from Yosemite to go climbing in the Middle East. I had so many questions for him about climbing in Jordan and Palestine. I also wanted to pick his brain about crossing over into Occupied Palestinian Territories via the infamous Allenby Bridge. Our taxi was coming in ten minutes to take us to the border and I still had so many questions.
I had already gotten a fair share of unsolicited advice about crossing the Allenby Bridge from family members who had done it; “Tell them you’re climbing,” “Don’t tell them you’re climbing,” “Tell them you’re a Christian and you want to see where Jesus was born,” “Don’t lie, they’ll know,” “Don’t tell the truth…whatever you do, do not tell them you’re spending any time in Palestine.” Hakim told us he was strip searched. My mom told me to erase everything on my phone because they would search it. Here I was drinking coffee with Hakim and Lauren, trying to relax and get as much information as possible about the logistics of our travel plans and a list of classic climbs in Wadi Rum.
The taxi arrived, and we jumped in. In the half hour drive to the border I was swept by a wave of nervous energy. I was finally going to Palestine. And within a few hours we arrived to the crowded streets of Ramallah. Everyone was out and about, getting ready for the weekend. The streets were lined with storefronts selling everything from spices to pirated DVDs. The stores spilled out into the streets, and the streets were filled with vendors selling fresh bread and a wide variety colorful produce. Cars didn’t seem to be priority in these crowded streets. The few that were there inched along, yielding to the hundreds of pedestrians and vendors.
We went straight to Wadi Climbing gym bringing along about a dozen pairs of used climbing shoes donated by climbers in Yosemite. Wadi Climbing is a boulder only gym that’s part of a huge fitness center called Trifitness. The bright and welcoming climbing gym hosts 50-60 bouldering routes, a variety of hang-boards, rings, aerial silks, a slack line and a corn hole game. It’s the perfect venue for beginners and a great training facility for more experienced climbers. When we showed up the gym was full of people training, hanging out and blowing off steam after work. Tim was in the middle of teaching a movement class.
People were not shy and quickly introduced themselves. “You’re the Yosemite climbers,” they would all say. Tim seemed to have told most of the climbers there about us. Apparently we were a big deal to this small but fierce climbing community. There were quite a few foreigners as well. It was refreshing to see what a positive impact foreigners had on the climbing community there.
After the class Tim talked to us about the uphill battle of opening and running a climbing gym, developing sport climbing crags and getting locals involved in an area where the land and its people are severely limited by an illegal military occupation. Tim has an eternally positive attitude but I could tell that his work there was wearing on him. Will, his partner in the project, had moved back to the US a few months prior. Tim was also ready to pass the torch along to someone else and was in the process of finding someone who was up for the job.
Tim, Will and a few other foreigners had developed three new crags in the West Bank with over 100 new routes. These crags, Ein Yabrud, Yabrud and Ein Qiniya are all in areas of the West Bank that are under Palestinian control. Over 60% of the West Bank is under Israeli control and there were two crags already in Israeli controlled areas of the West Bank when Tim and Will arrived in 2014. These crags, Ein Fara and Mikhmas, were developed by Israelis. Tim’s goal was to develop outdoor crags for Palestinians so he and Will focused on developing crags in Palestinian controlled areas. Unfortunately, access to Israeli controlled areas of Palestine are severely limited to Palestinians.
On my first day climbing in Palestine, Marcus, Tawfiq, Mujahad, Lauren and I went to a canyon called Ein Fara. Marcus is a German climber who has been working for GIZ a German development organization in Ramallah for a few years. Tawfiq is a small Palestinian Bedouin climber from Ein Qiniya. He was intrigued by climbers at a crag near his home and started asking questions. A couple years later, he is one of the strongest Palestinian climbers, pushing stout 7a’s. Mujahad is a Palestinian climber who works as a lawyer in Hebron.
The canyon of Ein Fara sits just below the Almon settlement. Israeli settlements are illegal according to international law yet they continue to thrive and gain normalcy in the West Bank. The Israeli government designated the Ein Fara canyon as a nature preserve because it is particularly beautiful. Fortunately, Israeli climbers were able to bolt a handful of crags in Ein Fara before it was discovered by the Israeli government. Since then bolting and further development of this canyon has become illegal. Climbing is still allowed at most of the developed crags in this canyon unlike the next canyon over, Wadi Mikhmas. Mikhmas is equally, if not more, beautiful and hosts a wider array of steep streaked tufa climbs. This canyon was also turned into a nature preserve by the Israeli government but it is prohibited to climb there.
We meet at Tim’s house in Ramallah in the morning. We all squeeze into Marcus’s VW Golf and he drives like a mad man to the gates of the Almon settlement about 15 minutes away. Most climbers (Israelis and foreigners) drive through the settlement and enter the park through a kiosk where they pay 25 shekels for a day pass if they don’t have an annual pass. From there you can access all the crags via a short walk. Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive in so we have to park just outside the gates of the settlement and walk an hour along the top of the canyon before dropping down.
We park next to a bunch of other cars belonging to Palestinian day laborers who make their living working in the settlement. Marcus said that since three of us are foreigners it might be possible to sneak through the checkpoint but it was not worth the risk. Just over a year earlier a 13 year old Palestinian girl was shot dead by a soldier only meters from where we parked. This means we are not allowed to access the crags in the lower canyon because we didn’t pay the entrance fee. Even if they spring for the annual pass to the Nature Preserve, Palestinians still have to hike the long way around. Marcus assured us that the crag that was available to us was the best in Ein Fara and that the hike was as nice as it was long.
He was right. A deep green fissure cut into the arid land. The valley twisted and curved paralleling a small creek at it’s very bottom. Bedouins walked with their goats along the steep hillside. Calls to prayer traveled up the canyon five times a day. Tawfiq, Marcus and Lauren walked ahead. I stayed back with Mujahad who was nursing a sprained ankle that was a few months old.
Mujahad and I come from two completely different worlds. Mujahad is a devout Muslim. He feels guilty when he can’t pray five times a day. He is 27 years old and has never touched a woman and he won’t until he marries one. Mujahad is a kinder soul than a jaded American such as myself can even imagine.
Like most people I find interesting, Mujahad lives his life in a paradox. He is constantly struggling between wanting to be a good Muslim and saving up to get married, while at the same time he is obsessed with getting out, traveling, seeing the world, climbing, capoeira and camping. Mujahad’s favorite story to tell (I knew because he would tell all the time) was about how he went to Jordan for one week and stayed for a year. He learned to climb at the Climbat Gym in Amman and taught capoeira to Syrian refugees. During his year abroad, he traveled with a group of Syrian refugees to Turkey.
Mujahad also spent a year of his life in Israeli prison when he was 18. Mujahad was in solitary confinement for 60 days and was tortured by dogs. He was released after one year with no trial. He still does not know why he went to prison. Unfortunately Mujahad’s experience is not so uncommon amongst Palestinians. According to Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association there are over 6300 Palestinian incarcerated as of April 2017, over 300 of them are children. Three Palestinian climbers are currently in Ofer Prison for throwing stones.
We arrived at a cliff close to the bottom of the canyon hosting a few dozen routes. The rock was clean and colorful. Some of the routes were a little polished adding to the stoutness of the ratings. I climbed some steep lines out of a cave and a thin technical classic called 140 dollars (supposedly named after the cost of the rope that had to be retired after a chunk of limestone fell on it while the cliff was being developed).
The next day we went to Yabrud. The crag is short and south facing making it a great place for beginners to climb in the winter and spring. There are some extremely hard bouldery climbs there as well. Tim and some friends set up the first highline in Palestine in the same canyon just below the cliff. The hills surrounding the cliff were bright green with early spring seedlings. Ancient terraces that date back Roman times lined the hillsides and were speckled with old gnarled olive trees. Some of the olive trees in Palestine are up to 3000 years old. These olive trees continue to be a substantial source of income to Palestinians today.
I was surprised how many people showed up to climb and try highlining for the first time. It was perhaps the highlining that was the last straw for Lauren and her injured shoulder. She had been nursing a pain in her right shoulder for months, climbing well below her limit and forcing herself to take extra rest days to “heal”. But she needed surgery. It was hard but she made the decision to go home early. A few days later she took a flight from Tel Aviv back to the US.
I spent my days in Palestine climbing in the five crags around Ramallah. Each one had its unique style and allowed me to see different parts of the countryside. On rainy days I’d help out or train at the gym, setting routes and mopping the floors. On rest days I’d visit Ghada and her father Hanna my only relatives left in Ramallah (that I know of) who I had met for the first time during that visit. I loved visiting their old house on Edward Said Street. Ghada showed me around the old city of Ramallah and the house where my grandparents used to live. Hanna, who I respectfully called Sido, told me the story of our people which was vanishing before my American eyes. His house, the same one he still lived in, was built in 1925, two years before he was born. Back then Ramallah was a small town. His house (now in the heart of the old city) was on the outskirts of it. He came from a family of bakers and was proud to show me how he baked his own bread, boasting about how ne never bought bread from stores.
He told me the tragic story of the Nakba (Arabic word for catastrophe) referring to the time when almost 800,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes, or fled out of fear, in what is now the state of Israel. He told me about people who left their homes during this time and are still not allowed to return today. The city grew and changed drastically over the last half of the 20th century as people took refuge there. It used to be a Christian town with five families, now it is a thriving city with a mostly Muslim population.
In your average day climbing in Palestine it is easy to see both extremes of life. My last day in Palestine we went from seeing bounding gazelles and Bedouins grazing their goats on nettle and wildflowers in the quiet canyon of Mikhmas in the morning, to the post-apocalyptic world of Qalandia in the afternoon. From there we crossed over into Israel to pick Tim’s sister up at the airport in Tel Aviv.
Situated on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Qalandia is a bit of a no-man’s land, unwanted by Israeli or Palestinian Authorities. If you’re one of those people who sees beauty in ugliness then you would awestruck by the beauty of Qalandia. There isn’t much there but a huge checkpoint, some sketchy shops, heaps of trash, a refugee camp and a separation wall. The wall is a medium for murals that literally paint the picture of the Palestinian struggle. The checkpoint in Qalandia is more like a portal that allows us to transcend from one reality to another.
We crossed the Separation Wall but we were still miles from the Green Line (the Israel/Palestine border according to the 1967 UN resolution). We blasted down the Begin Highway. On either side of the highway there was a wall. This road is an artery that connects Israeli settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem. It divides numerous Palestinian Villages. Palestinians living in these villages have to travel for miles to bypasses that allow them to access their neighbors on the other side. Most of the residents of these villages are not allowed on this road.
We made it to Tel Aviv where I felt as though I was on a vacation from the Middle East. A comfortable yet dazzling western city. The streets are full of beautiful people wearing shorts and miniskirts, soaking in the warm sea breeze and biking everywhere. A twinge of familiarity in that city made me realize how much I could relate to locals there. In this first world city it is easy to ignore the problems of the world just as I do in the States.
I learned so much in my trip to Palestine about my family’s history and the impact of climbing on one of the world’s most oppressed groups of people. It's hard to describe the frustrations I felt in Palestine without going off on a political rampage. I wish I could tell people to go to Palestine for it's climbing. Access to climbing areas is something we take for granted in the US. There is so much potential for climbing in Palestine but so little hope of further development. I can recommend that people go to Palestine for a real adventure. Go to hear the side of a story we don’t get in the US. The story of the Palestinian people is all too common in the world. It's the story of indigenous people being pushed from their land, their voices getting silenced and their history rewritten. Go to Palestine, climb in the beautiful canyons and talk to the locals. You’ll find that nowhere else are the people more welcoming and resilient despite their situation.