Malak Hasan rides her bike in Ramallah Image Credit: Supplied

Malak Hasan has transformed cycling in Palestine to make it play an empowering role for a people living under a harsh occupation: a tool to resist movement restrictions and the attempt to erase Palestinian memory. She has even added a touristic dimension to it for good measure.

To learn firsthand about her incredible journey, I meet with Hasan, co-founder of Cycling Palestine, the largest cycling group in Palestine, and founder of Women in Sports Network Palestine, who in March 2017 cycled 500 km from Qalandiya Refugee camp near Ramallah in Palestine to Aqaba in Jordan to promote cycling as a sport among women and girls.

Wearing a hijab and bursting with enthusiasm, Hasan begins telling her story. “I was born in Sharjah, I lived there until sixth grade. We returned as a family to Palestine to reconnect with our homeland. (While) living in Sharjah, I enrolled in ‘Arab Cultural Centre’ and there I enjoyed doing dabkhe dance, karate and swimming. Let’s say I had a very active sporting childhood. Then came the move from the UAE to my village which had no clubs, no sporting facilities and it was during the ‘Intifada’ (Palestinian uprising) which was a difficult period with closures and curfews. As all physical activity came to a halt, we never had a chance to pursue sports again. Reading and watching movies was what I did to expand my horizons and that then led me to studying English at university. Thereafter I worked in translation and media, until I saved enough money to do my masters in media communication, practice and public relations in Swansea,” she says.

“In Swansea, the first thing I did was.. I bought a used bicycle and I fell in love with cycling, riding for miles to the mountains, to the seaside and I felt free. But when I returned to Palestine, I came back with my mind set on cycling and ready to take on anyone who told me that a woman should not be on a bike but I was jolted by a culture shock. A woman riding a bicycle was not on and I couldn’t do it. Frustrated, I summoned up enough courage and enrolled into a local gym to do boxing and this was my battle with my own demons. The gym coach asked me, ‘why do you want to do boxing?’ I replied, ‘do you ask the guys the same question or is it because I am a woman?’ After being accepted I was the only woman in hijab doing boxing. My progress even led me to become the secretary general of the Palestinian Boxing Federation.”

From that point onwards, Hasan’s journey with cycling begins, which was initially met with indifference by a male-only cycling group. Undeterred, she found another group that accepted her and there she co-founded with Sohaib Samara, ‘Cycling Palestine’— beginning with a trip over 40 km from Jericho to Tubas. This club is now open to women and Hasan is credited with pioneering women cycling in Palestine.

“Since 2016 we have visited over 300 villages, towns and cities and over 3,000 have joined us and today we have more than 100 core members with 30 women, with some that come and go. Our growing group of experienced and new cyclists use the bike to explore the land and uncover its secrets, learn about its history, and connect with the present and becoming aware of Palestine’s diversity,” Hasan says.

“We have cycling tours every Friday, which we advertise on Facebook. Participants only pay for transport and expenses incurred as we use trucks to take the bicycles and bring them back with buses ferrying the people. I am the creative mind, writing stories, making videos and creating greater awareness while my co-founder Samara is the muscle and tour guide.”

“We travel from village to village, reconnecting Palestinians to their land, after we have been told that it’s not yours, as we rediscover so many treasures. It is an educational and empowering experience that cycling — with its freedom of movement — provides. Cycling in Palestine is a unique experience because there are not many designated cycling lanes; thus, every road — paved or not — can be considered a cycling lane that will lead you to discover hidden or not-so-hidden treasures. And many international tourists are joining us on an alternative route that takes them to see the real Palestine and its people, who are always welcoming and accommodating. They ride through the many springs, the landscape dotted with almond, cherry and apricot trees and experience the magic of Palestine off the beaten track. The best way to interact with locals is when you ride your bike. They will be intrigued by your bike and generally look forward to sharing some of the most amazing and personal stories with you.”

Do you encounter any difficulties with the Israelis?

“Yes! Once we were stopped by two Israeli military jeeps, who then escorted us out of the area, instructing us that we are forbidden to cycle there.”

Hasan then points out that their main difficulty lies with the poor infrastructure in the West Bank, especially in ‘Area C’ which is under Israeli control and where the road may pose a danger to their cyclists “I record either on a camera placed on my helmet or sometimes I use my phone and there was an occasion when I fell off my bike,” she adds with a hearty laugh.

However, Hasan is quick to point out, “Our main issue is to change age-old perceptions and that is our challenge. Women are happy seeing me cycling in the cities but when I go to the villages, the men are shocked and they even threaten me that they are going to tell my father about it.”

Hasan cycles to work and she is excited about the future. “Palestinian youth are into it. The cities are becoming overpopulated, very few spaces are left and cycling has created roads unseen wherein a new outlet has been discovered.”

Hasan concludes by quoting American novelist, Herman Melville who said — ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are.’

“I fully understand what he meant when I started to bike around Palestine for sport and adventure. I discovered that true experiences are not found on the busy road but rather on paths less taken by tourists and more by locals. And the best way to explore Palestine is by putting on local lens and getting into the saddle,” she says.

Walking away from the meeting with Hasan, with her enthusiasm rubbing onto me, I am infused with a fervent desire to get myself a bicycle and join her and her fellow travellers to ride off into the beaten paths of Palestine and to experience another side of Palestine.

Rafique Gangat, author of Bending the Rules, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.