I’ve been an on and off runner for years with more ‘off’ than ‘on’ and a penchant for excuses. I’m attracted to the efficiency of getting the exercise done in as short a time as possible and then racing home for tea and a biscuit. Of the many words I would associate with running, ‘privilege’ has never been one of them. Yet that was the lasting impression from the recent discussion I had with a local runner, Mahmoud Lafi.
In other countries he explained, if someone wants to go running, they ‘have only to put on their shoes and go’. Across Palestine a run requires careful planning. The route must stick to designated areas and not stray into Israeli managed zones. Then there is the need to avoid areas of tension where clashes can flare up quickly and unpredictably. In fact, when a group of runners, trying to train for a marathon in 2012, failed to find a suitable 40km circuit, it led to the founding of the Right to Movement group.
Right to Movement (RTM) is a community of local runners who simply want to exercise their right to move. The group is now active in 9 cities across Palestine and Israel and continues to attract both serious runners as well as social members.
Mahmoud only took up running in 2018 and he is now the leader of the Jerusalem RTM branch. I was interested in his experience of sports as a child and how much physical activity is mainstreamed in everyday life. Mahmoud explained that sports at his school were very limited. Boys would sometimes be given a football to kick around but there was no training and no investment in sports. He didn’t think this experience was uncommon, and said that even if people were into sports they generally gave them up once they started working and had a family.
East Jerusalem doesn’t have as many open green spaces as other areas and I’ve certainly felt self-conscious going out running during daylight hours. Partly this is down to cultural and religious norms.
In 2013 Right to Movement organised its first Palestine Marathon and this annual event has helped to embed the idea of running as a hobby. Mahmoud noted the societal shift that was underway and said ‘girls in Ramallah couldn’t go out in the streets and run by themselves. Now they can’.
Strangely, it was a trip to the UK which caused Mahmoud to reflect on the privilege of running. Palestinian runners took part in races in Edinburgh (my hometown!) and Wales, and they also ran in London. The sense of freedom he explained, from being able to go as far as you wanted in any direction shone a light on the limitations of movement in his homeland.
You will be warmly welcomed if you would like to join Right to Movement on a run. They meet several times a week in Sheikh Jarrah, First Station and the Old City. Visit https://www.facebook.com/rtmjerusalem/ to connect with the group.
I’d love to hear your experiences of sport and exercise in East Jerusalem. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.