Swimming in Al-Bidhan

Last weekend we were thirsty for a Palestinian adventure, and we headed off into the West Bank with the intention of tracking down a new and bizarre landmark alongside a 1970’s retro experience. Our travels took us past Nablus to a café that has opened inside a Boeing-747 and to the area of Al-Bidhan for swimming Palestinian style.

The road that skirts around Nablus, is part of a steep valley with the contrast of beautiful, rugged mountains on one side and rubbish and rubble piled high on the other side. It’s a bit unloved and I definitely spotted a few animal carcasses amongst the rubbish. Rounding the corner however, we suddenly saw the unusual sight of the tail of a Boeing-747 painted in Palestinian colours. This is incongruous because of the landscape – they didn’t fly it there, nor did it crash land, and Palestine has not been ‘allowed’ to have its own airport since 2000[1]

On board the plane

The bizarreness of the experience was further amplified when the owners – twin brothers called Ata and Khamis, came to meet us at the gate. Despite being older gentlemen, they were dressed identically in violet coloured polo-shirts, white shorts and yellow trainers. Before I could question the logistical arrangements that goes into their wardrobe, they had ushered us up the boarding steps into the shell of the plane which was air-conditioned with tables and chairs arranged for drinks. I realised again how poor my Arabic was, as I sat desperately trying to write some questions I could ask them about ‘how…? From where…? Since when…’. Luckily for me, others had beaten me to it and you can read all about the history of the venture here.

I wouldn’t go as far to suggest that people travel from Jerusalem just to visit the plane, but if you are in the area anyway then the mango smoothie they offered was surprisingly good and it was a welcome pit-stop on a hot day.

The Palestinian-Jordanian Airline Restaurant and Coffee Shop Al-Sairafi Nablus

Continuing down the road to the bottom of the valley we soon reached Al-Bidhan. This is an area with many natural springs that have been used as the foundation of several Palestinian swimming resorts. The area was recommended to us last year by a Jerusalemite sage on these matters and last weekend we paid it our second visit.

The swimming resorts here are very different to the water parks you find around Jericho and for a non-Arabic speaker it takes a bit of figuring out. From the two different resorts that we’ve been to the basic set up is that there are separate men’s and women’s pools with kids able to enter either. Then there is a large, shaded area where the natural springs are channelled down, and people can sit and eat in the water if they want to.

The entrance to the Shalalaat resort – the oldest in Al-Bidhan

Second time round I was better prepared for the swimming side of things, and I had swimming shorts and a swim vest to wear. The women here are very conservative and swim in anything from full length day clothes to pyjama type suits with few actual swimsuits on show and certainly no bikinis.

All eyes turned on us as my daughter and I rounded the corner into the women’s pool area. The entrance was designed so that no man would ever glimpse what lay beyond and there was something nice about this that surprised me. Despite the huge amount of attention that we were attracting it was friendly and inquisitive rather than unwanted. The pool was covered to keep the sun off it, and it was busy. There were at least three or four generations in the water with others watching from the sides. There was a lightness to the atmosphere that gave the real feeling of a holiday and perhaps because it was women only, people laughed and appeared more at ease. Despite the cold water, we jumped in trying not to make a fuss.

The entrance to the Filastin resort

People asked our names, and my daughter was surrounded by schoolgirls wanting to practice their English and speak with her. We splashed around and swam for a bit before our teeth started chattering and we came out to warm up. Watching from the sides, some women swam well, while others unashamedly wore rubber rings around their waists. Without access to the coast, swimming is not a skill that everyone has had the chance to acquire.

Later we reunited with the male half of the family and swapped notes. They had also made friends in their pool and had found people warm and welcoming. ‘The water was really warm wasn’t it?’, they said. ‘Ummmm is that a joke?’, I replied. The men’s pool was open air so perhaps that explained the difference but really my head was concocting a conspiracy theory where the male pool was heated because they knew the women wouldn’t find out.

Choosing to ‘do as the locals’, we dragged a table and some chairs into one of the water channels and set out our hastily assembled picnic. Our kids were very amused to have their legs dangling in the cool water as they ate, and we had a regular trail of other kids coming to say hi. As we sat under a canopy of leafy green trees it was quite blissful. ‘I think I could live here’ my husband said. I wasn’t sure if he meant in Palestine generally or at the Filastin resort in Al-Bidhan, but in either case I left him to his daydreams.  

It was a great scene to take in. Palestinian grannies had kicked off their sandals, hiked their long thobe dresses up a few centimetres and were also enjoying the cool water. At the next table a grandfather gently rocked a tiny baby girl whose bouncer was up on the table. Another family was barbequing, some tables had shisha pipes, the common theme was that each table included several generations and copious amounts of food. You can count on ice-cream and drinks being available in the resorts but most people bring their own food. It was akin to a day at the beach without the hassle of the sand. 

Sitting in the water under the trees at the Filastin resort

Before long a child came along and offered us a plate of warm stuffed vine leaves. The women from a few tables away smiled and waved. Next came a plate of yogurt, then more vine leaves, then some homemade humus, mutabal, bread a few cucumbers. Each time we offered gushing thanks for their kindness but also signalled ‘enough’, embarrassed that we had nothing to give in return. A separate table offered coffee and the kids were given crisps and sweets. It was getting ridiculous but the generosity of spirit towards strangers revealed a true slice of the Palestinian character.

When you are driving through Al-Bidhan you’ll almost certainly think that the resorts have been abandoned, as all you see from the road are some ancient fairground rides that would have been past their best in the 1970s. The signs are faded and give little away. It’s worth persevering though, and if you make it inside one of the swimming venues, the glimpse you’ll get of Palestinians at leisure will make it a memorable experience.

Al-Bidhan is around a 75 – 90 minute drive from Jerusalem. We visited the resort of Shalalaat last year (which is on the first bend when you enter Al-Bidhan) and the Filastin resort which is a bit further along the road. They will probably close soon for winter so go soon!

[1] This is a restriction imposed by the Israeli occupation. Most Palestinians are not allowed to fly out of Israel’s Ben Gurion airport and have to travel over land to Jordan in order to fly anywhere. This adds time and inconvenience to all journeys.

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