Two months prior, I’d watched an expert in international conflict resolution named William Ury present his idea to replace terrorism with tourism. His project, the Abraham Path Initiative, aims to create a backpacking route that retraces the footsteps of the prophet Abraham through 10 Middle Eastern countries. Abraham is considered the father of the world’s three main monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—and the common ground of three billion otherwise sharply divided people.
Never mind the fact that I’m an atheist. Or that resurrecting a 4,000-year-old prophet as a symbol for peace could be folly. Ury was going to be in Palestine and Syria for three weeks with a team of academics testing out portions of the path. And I wanted to hike it.
Tens of thousands rioted in the streets in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. By the time I arrived in Palestine, the situation was out of control.
Meanwhile, a 26-year-old vegetable vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire in civil protest, igniting a wave of unrest across the Arab World. Tens of thousands rioted in the streets in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. By the time I arrived in Palestine, the situation was out of control. We immediately canceled our plans to hike through Syria, but since there hadn’t been any violence in Palestine we decided to stay. We would spend 12 days in the West Bank, trekking from Nablus in the north to Hebron in the south.
The first day on the trail, I felt doubtful. I wondered if Ury was more than just a little crazy for thinking that a backpacking route could make a difference in world politics. He looked harmless enough, middle-aged, soft spoken, with laugh lines around his blue eyes, dressed in grey cargo pants and a light blue button down. But he was almost too normal, in a Walter White kind of way.
We started our hike in the Jordan River Valley, one of the most famous places in the Bible. Abraham’s old stomping grounds are lush and inviting, and probably haven’t changed all that much from the time of Genesis. Goat paths expose the fertile rust-colored soil, flowing like ribbons across the green hillsides. Farm plots form patchwork quilts of barley, wheat, and lentils. And beyond, the mountains of Jordan sweep upward like giant sand dunes. The longer we walked, the more I relaxed. After a full day on the trail, we saw not a single other person, save for one shepherd with his flock.
My ease didn’t last long. In the village of Awarta that night, we were awoken by the sound of a helicopter. I sat up on my cushion on the living room floor. Our homestay hostess Nahla rushed in with her three teenagers and flicked on the light.
I stood to get my glasses. “Down,” said Nahla’s son Ahmed, the only one who spoke English. I dropped to the floor in front of a large picture window. He explained that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were out patrolling. We would hear helicopters, trucks, and gunfire. We should ignore it and go back to sleep. Nahla turned off the light.
I felt like a child being told that things were fine when they clearly were not. Had the revolution spread to Palestine? I spent a fitful night wondering if I’d underestimated my risk.
In the morning, the village was quiet. As we resumed our trek, I noticed double fences on the town perimeter. One of the academics in the group knew the reason. He explained as we walked the portion of the Abraham path through the craggy Valley of the Hyenas. Awarta is adjacent to an Israeli settlement called Itamar, where Orthodox Jews have been squatting since 1984. Tension between the two opposing communities over land rights often turns bloody. The IDF has been stationed in the area since 1993 to mitigate violence. The barbed wire could have put there to keep Palestinians in, or to keep Israelis out.
I realized that last night had nothing to do with the Arab Spring. It was just the regular old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This begged an Abrahamic question: If both Muslims (most Palestinians) and Jews (most Israelis) originated with Abraham, why can’t they live in God’s promised land together in peace?
I posed the question to Ury, who seemed bemused. He said the real problem was with Abraham’s women. Abraham’s wife Sarah was initially unable to conceive, so she gave Abraham her handmaid, an Egyptian woman named Hagar, to produce offspring. Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael. Eventually, her consorts with Abraham caused tension between the two women. When Sarah finally did conceive—a son named Isaac—she sent Hagar and Ishmael away. God consoled Abraham that both his sons would produce great nations. Isaac’s descendants became the Israelites, spawning first the Jews, then the Christians. Ishmael went to Egypt where he fathered the line that brought forth Mohammad, the source of Islam. God failed to mention that these two lineages would end up fighting for thousands of years.
When I mentioned it to Ury, he didn’t seem fazed. He told me that backpacking across conflict regions can turn hostility into hospitality in both the hiker and in the host community, no matter how long and sordid the history. “Remember our homestay last night?” he asked. I sure did. “Did you know that earlier that day Obama vetoed a U.N. Resolution that would have condemned illegal Israeli settlements like the one beside Awarta as obstacles to peace?” I did not know. “Palestinians were infuriated with Americans when we arrived at Nahla’s house,” Ury said. “But she and her family welcomed us with open arms.”
He had a point. By then, we had crossed the Valley of the Hyenas and were walking through fields of ancient olive trees. It was a particularly beautiful swath of the path and Ury’s hopes started to feel contagious. I found myself smiling as I photographed the gnarled trees. But my optimism didn’t last. When we arrived at our next homestay, the Arab Spring was in full effect.
Our hostess’ teenage sons clutched their bellies and howled with laughter. Gaddafi looked like a lunatic, with erratic speech and long pauses.
We joined our host family in front of the TV. The coverage was in Arabic, so I didn’t understand the details. But the general message was clear. Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi was standing behind a podium, ranting and raising his first into the air. He was rallying his loyalists to shut down all civilian demonstrations by force.
Our hostess’ teenage sons clutched their bellies and howled with laughter. Gaddafi looked like a lunatic, with erratic speech and long pauses. The young men’s slapstick reaction helped lighten my mood. But the next day, when I heard that the Libyan Army had opened fire in Benghazi killing hundreds of protestors, it didn’t seem so funny.
As we hiked through the Judean desert in the Valley of the Shadow of Death—an actual place, not just a Biblical metaphor—Ury’s vision for turning terrorism into tourism seemed very far away. It was hot and windy, and I kept getting blasted in the face with sand. I pulled my headscarf further around my face like a Star Wars jawa and resolved that it was going to take a hell of a lot more than some polite hospitality between locals and travelers to make a change. Between the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Arab Spring, I hadn’t found much peace walking in the footsteps of Abraham.
Our homestay that night was with a Bedouin tribe, far outside of any village. There were no televisions or even a radio. The property was lined with pens of chickens, goats, and sheep. A family of dogs wandered free. In a large tent we shared a meal of chicken and rice with the Bedouins, sitting on cushions in the sand.
Our guide Nedal helped translate so we could speak with the tribe elder about her life as a semi-nomadic shepherd. Her face was wrinkled like a dried apricot, her white hair dyed pumpkin orange. She was the only one who sat above the ground—in a wooden chair. From her perch, she rolled cigarettes and told us that she had never wanted any other life.
It was hard to argue with her. At the Bedouins’ camp there was no sign of conflict with Israel, and no reminder of the raging Arab Spring. I relaxed on my cushion and audibly exhaled. The Bedouin matriarch must have heard, because she stopped talking and turned toward me. We made eye contact and she gestured for me to come forward. When I got close, she pulled me in close and kissed my cheek, whispering something in Arabic in my ear.
I’ll never know what she told me. But that moment somehow made my journey easier. As it turns out, I would encounter neither violence nor peace in the 140 kilometers I spent retracing Abraham’s route through the West Bank. What I would find were moments of connection. Some were with the landscape, like the Jordan River Valley and the olive tree grove; others were with people I met along the route like Grandma Bedouin. Looking back, I can link those memories together, like beads on a string, like a path. Maybe Ury was onto something after all.