Chasing a Runner’s High in the West Bank
“IF YOU EXERCISE TOO MUCH, your thighs will become too big,” Amira tells me.
Sitting at Café Sima in Bethlehem, she digs her spoon into the lava cupcake in front of her; chocolate pools onto the plate. I use a piece of cookie to stop the flow before taking a sip of my iced latte.
“How much exercise is too much?” I ask.
“You shouldn’t run through the streets every morning.”
For a moment, we are quiet, but there is no silence in the West Bank. Every space is filled with taxis honking and people shouting. Spoons clink against glasses of tea, goats bleat as they swarm around parked cars, shopkeepers yell “Welcome, where are you from?” to the busloads of tourists being shuttled from the checkpoint to the Church of the Nativity and back again.
An only child, a latchkey kid, I am used to silence, to slipping my key into the lock of my apartment, pushing myself into my space and the silence that fills it. But here, not even my lone little room on the roof is silent. I sit on a cot in my room listening to large families and communal dinners. Turkish soap operas blare from living room windows, neighbors conduct conversations from across the street, the pigeons above me make soft, muffled cooing noises amid the flutter of wings. Nights are punctuated by the screech of the mongoose that lives right above my window.
The only silence I can steal from this place is during my morning runs. Sandwiched between the call to prayer and the taxis crammed with early morning commuters, I pack minutes of silence into my daily routine. The hills in the desert rise and fall like a sea of camel humps and as I move along the pockmarked paths, all I hear is my heavy breathing. At the bottom of a hill, I clatter to a stop.
Plastic bags move like tumbleweeds through the fields and the stillness settles onto my shoulders as I cradle the one peaceful moment I can wrestle from these hills. As I stretch, I look up and see an Israeli soldier seated in a jeep gazing at me curiously.
I turn to trot back up the hill, knowing that just ahead is the makeshift roadblock where Palestinian guards step out of their shack and yell “yallah, habibti, yallah.” I wave at them as I pass. In baggy pants and a long-sleeved shirt, my hair is tied back with a bandana, sweat beads along my skin, trickling down my neck and back, dripping off my forehead.
As I circle back through town, shopkeepers are pulling open their doors and dragging plastic chairs to the sidewalk. Old men take up their posts in the shade, smoking cigarettes, and only lifting an eyebrow when a tiny foreigner in billowing clothes runs past.
Back at Sima’s, I chew a piece of cookie and consider Amira’s disapproval.
“But it’s early,” I protest. “Only the shepherds and guards see me and they don’t seem to care.”
“I don’t go out in shorts,” I add as an afterthought.
“You should run in the gym,” she says sternly.
I make a face. The gym is a tiny room crammed with stuttering fitness equipment and an assortment of weights. I went once during the allotted time for women and hated it. The smell of sweat settles into your pores as soon as you arrive. It’s stuffy and loud, the constant buzz of machinery and conversation circles the room.
“What about the pool?” she asks, referring to the YMCA pool at the edge of town.
I throw up my hands, knock my eyes back in exasperated disgust, and spit out the word she taught me to use in the marketplace. “Ghrali” “Expensive.”
She chokes on a bite of cupcake, sputtering with laughter in between coughs.
Across the street, haunches of some unidentified animal sway gently from meat hooks. The sun slides down the sky and behind the hills. Young men walk arm in arm down the street.
I bite down on an ice cube. “I like running outside in the morning. It’s quiet.”
A single pummeling shot reverberates off the stone and there is a stunned hush as we try to distinguish the sound of a gunshot from the sound of a car backfiring. In the ensuing seconds of silence, I want to pull back the taxi horns, the bartering women, the bleating goats, and the call to prayer; a shroud of normalcy over this exposed and uncomfortable quiet.
Everyone looks to the police officer leaning against a crumbling wall. He spits, bored. The noise resumes.
Amira turns to me as if nothing happened.
“This running, it will make your thighs too big. Men will find it unattractive.”
I’m so relieved to return to the noise and chatter that I lean across the table and smugly respond, “Well, the men haven’t complained yet.”
She shrieks, pretending to be shocked, shoulders shaking as laughter ripples through her. The women at the table next to us turn to stare. I order another cupcake.
The next morning the call to prayer bounces into my room, my flimsy curtains billow out and then are sucked back against the screen. Morning is the only time the desert seems soft; the sun pulling day forward and throwing a buttery light over the hills. My running clothes, hanging on the back of a cracked plastic chair, my only piece of furniture, are stiff from the sweat of yesterday’s run.
I trot down seven flights of stairs, pulling the heavy metal door shut behind me. A bag of bones with luminous, feline eyes and a twitching tail watches me warily from the side of a dumpster. I pull my sleeves down over my hands and kick a rock down the street, watching it bounce along the pavement.
Amira’s words have unsettled me. I question my morning ritual and wonder if it is reckless, unnecessary, and stupid.
Three women walk up behind me. One of them is my landlady. I look horrible and smell worse. Also, I forgot to pay my rent.
They’re wearing jogging suits, faces flushed, flyaway hairs stick to their foreheads with sweat. My landlady tells me they usually walk in the evening, along with the dozens of other families who migrate to the streets after dinner. “But,” she continues, “I see you run in the morning. Wallah, it’s peaceful.”
I shield my eyes from the sun and nod.
“Once, my daughter, you know her, she went running with her brother, but the boys said things. She goes to the gym now.”
Then she turns to go inside. “Oh, and don’t forget the rent.”
Later that afternoon I decide to put up a notice on the bulletin board in the community center. In block letters, I advertise my desire to start a running group and neatly write my e-mail address and phone number.
Nobody responds. After weeks of waiting and a few noncommittal expressions of interest from other expats, I give up. Eventually, the sign, its edges curling and the ink already fading, is removed.
I continue running. My thighs remain the same size, the Palestinian guards continue to wave me along, and I stick to the roads I know. Occasionally, kids run alongside me, which they find funny. But mostly I’m ignored. The quiet hovering over the hills at the edge of town becomes mine and mine alone.