Call me crazy, but my idea of a day off from reporting on the Middle East is driving out to the West Bank, past the big red signs that warn Israelis that it is illegal and dangerous to their lives to proceed any further, and going for a hike.
These excursions have taken me through rustling olive trees, amazing canyons, and a wadi that could well have inspired the 23rd Psalm’s “valley of the shadow of death.” But never had I imagined stumbling upon a Palestinian country club.
A few adventurous friends and I set out from Battir, a village just south of Jerusalem that’s more famous for its eggplants and agricultural terraces than any marked trails. We were armed with Stefan Szepesi’s essential “Walking Palestine” guidebook and a GPS programmed with the route, but sometimes detouring for luscious fresh figs is more fun than bushwhacking through thorny weeds that look like they were custom-made for hiding snakes.
We got pretty off track, and were picking our way through some villagers’ hot peppers and enormous zucchini when, above the braying of donkeys, we heard what sounded like quite a party for a Saturday morning. As a Palestinian farmer redirected us and we got back on the right path again, ascending a steep rocky hillside above the village, we saw the aquamarine of a big swimming pool – complete with a bright orange water slide.
Lo and behold, a Palestinian country club right here in this little valley.
Ok, so there is no golf course or tennis courts. But the complex, which is ringed by palm trees and sculptured bushes, does include a state-of-the-art gym; an outdoor veranda with gorgeous views; a poolside café with ice cream, soda, and other snacks; and an upscale indoor pool for women and children.
At the main pool outside, where kids splash vigorously and dive for shekels, women are welcome to lounge poolside in their hijabs and long dresses. But they are forbidden from swimming, since the owner is a conservative Muslim and frowns on women showing that much skin in public.
While that might sound ungenerous to Westerners, it is due to the beneficence of this man, Mohammed Sayeed Jabber, that this complex even exists, according to his adult nephew, who invited us for a tour. A former employee of the Intercontinental Hotel in Jordan and Jerusalem, Mr. Jabber used his retirement package to build this oasis for local kids and their families.
It’s not totally free – a board at the entrance says the fee is 30 shekels per day ($8.50) for adults, with a slight discount for children. That’s a considerable expense in these parts, but clearly not a deterrent – taxis and minibuses full of fresh customers unloaded at the front gate during our short visit. The pool is open in two shifts, from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. with a break in between.
If only I had brought my bathing suit on the hike.