The Abraham Path was the spark that ignited my desire to learn more about the Middle East and its unsettling turmoil. Before Dr. Weiss shared the project with our Leadership and Negotiation class I knew very little about the Middle East. After hearing of his and William Ury’s desire to introduce the Abraham Path as a way of bringing people together in hopes of highlighting just how similar we really are beneath our wonderfully diverse cultures, I was hooked and it tugged at me in such a way that I could not simply sit back and learn from news stories. I had to see it, taste it, smell it, and feel it for myself.
The Palestinian people were incredibly gracious and giving. They truly practiced the old time traditions of Abraham, as they welcomed us into their homes, shared their food and told us stories of their incredible historic past. As we traveled from one beautiful location to the other the people were warm, friendly, welcoming and proud of their world. Tables were overflowing in homes, in restaurants and in the refugee camp where we stayed. All this was set against a landscape that was different from anything I had ever seen. The beauty of unspoiled hills where shepherds walked along with their flocks was juxtaposed with nearby Israeli settlements that presented an odd combination of politics, progress, and a battle of traditions.
For me personally, this journey to the Middle East triggered a sense of adventure, compassion, learning, and spirituality. It started out innocently enough with a desire to learn and perhaps find a need that I could satisfy in a part of the world that has more need than satisfaction on any given day. A fellow participant put it best when she described my journey as a pilgrimage. It had certainly not started out that way since I understood her to mean that my pilgrimage had a spiritual component.
However, I couldn’t help but notice the number of churches and the mixture of faiths. What stood out clearly was the reverence given to all faiths and the respect among friends of different faiths. One of our guides, Mohammad, mentioned that friends of different faiths will celebrate or fast for each other’s holy days as a sign of friendship and respect. I saw no desecration of holy places, no graffiti and no violence against different faiths. On the contrary, there was a willingness to teach and share beliefs. The Samaritan community was a great example, as Priest H. Wasef, gave us his time and offered his teachings on the Samaritan faith and culture.
And then there were the churches! The Greek Orthodox faith is part of my culture, and even though it’s been decades since I’ve been inside a Greek Orthodox Church, it all came flooding back. My memories as a child and the wonderful celebrations with my father’s side of the family reemerged as I saw and touched the beautiful carvings and icons that are such an integral part of that faith. How could I sit back and not offer a prayer of hope for my fellow travelers and for the part of the world we were visiting?
Another observation that touched my heart was the kindness and sharing among my fellow travelers. We were all strangers when we set out on this journey, yet by the end we had shared food, sleeping quarters, laughter, and blisters. Each time the going got tough, there was an outstretched hand from a group member or a guide. Patience and kindness abounded and appeared to be something absorbed by the group from the very rocks and crevices we were navigating as we walked across a land that could be harsh, yet strangely welcoming, at the same time. I took a picture of a beautiful and delicate red anemone flower that was growing out of dry, dusty, rocky outcrop because it reminded me of the resilience and beauty of the Palestinian landscape and the incredibly warm and welcoming people we encountered. The people are as bright and vibrant as the red petals of that strong yet delicate flower.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the environmental degradation along the Path that we encountered. From a healthcare and an aesthetic perspective there was a lot of trash with no apparent plans for its management. But let’s stop for a moment and think of own little part of the world. When we got back to the US and were riding the train home to Springfield I noticed for the first time that we have our own piles of trash throughout the landscape. It’s just that I didn’t notice it before, or as much, as I did in the Middle East. I am not sure why that stuck with me, but the memory seems to linger.
I could go on about the people, the history, the politics and so much more, but I’ll conclude with a final comment. Most of the fears of family and friends that were expressed before I left on this trip were apparently based on incomplete information and their far away perception of the region. Yes, violence is a part of life in the West Bank, but it’s also part of our lives in the US and also the lives of our fellow travelers from Europe and South America. Violence, however, is just part of the picture. There is also beauty, goodness, and spirituality if one just scratches the surface.