Walking a different path

Tourism, not terrorism, rules in the West Bank

October 23, 2019 | Opinion | Volume 23 Issue 19
Marlene Friesen | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Marlene Friesen of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, B.C., enjoys a sunrise view of the Dead Sea during a walking tour of the West Bank last spring. (Photo by Albert Friesen)

When we first started telling people we were going to hike the Masar Ibrahim Trail in the West Bank, Palestine, they were incredulous.

“You’re going where? You’re doing what?”

Over a three-week period, starting in Rummana at the northern Israeli/Palestine border and ending in Beit Mirsim southwest of Hebron, the 330-kilometre trail would take us over rocky hills and mountains, through green and fertile canyons, along olive groves and flowering pastures, across vast and dry deserts, each of these landscapes stunning and unique.

The next comment we often heard was one of fear: “Aren’t you afraid?”

William Ury, who developed the vision for the Abraham Path, similar to the Masar Ibrahim, talks about these walks as helping to change the perception of this region from a place of hostility to a place of hospitality, and a place of terrorism to a place of tourism: “The opposite of terrorism is to take in innocent strangers and treat them as friends, to welcome them into your home, and to show and create an understanding of respect and love.”

That is exactly what we experienced. We were welcomed like royalty in places that rarely see tourists. “Welcome to Palestine! Please enjoy our country!” “Can you come and sit and have coffee?” “If you wait a few minutes, we will bring you tea.” These were comments we heard continually, and we were perfect strangers.

The trails—the Masar Ibrahim (masaribrahim.ps) that runs through Palestine, and the Abraham Path (abrahampath.org) that runs through other parts of the Middle East—are part of a vision to eventually traverse the entire path Abraham would have walked through these countries as well as Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

The story of Abraham is a common identity that is shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Its history dates back four thousand years to a man and his family who walked across the Middle East with a message of unity and connectedness, and whose values were kindness and respect for all people, and showing hospitality to strangers.

As hikers walk side by side and shoulder to shoulder with others (the goal of the trail), the founders’ dream to bring people of all nations and backgrounds together is being realized.

The Masar Ibrahim that we experienced in Palestine did not fail to make this dream a reality. At every organized homestay and guesthouse, or in rustic Bedouin camps, we were welcomed as family.

We laughed, we talked, we played games, we heard stories about occupation and injustice, and we heard the pleas and prayers for peace.

Over tea and coffee and fabulous food, we were asked to go back to our homes and share their stories. By offering their delicious food, heaps of it, they showed how much they appreciated our company, our presence and our willingness to engage.

Even under many restrictions and the pressure of the occupation, the Palestinian people are resilient, pursuing higher education and trying to find ways of nonviolent resistance. They will not give up hope for change. It may not happen in this generation, but, hopefully, in the next one. They will continue to plan and work; to love and marry and have children; to build homes and friendships. And they will continue to dream of peace and equality.

Having never travelled on a tour before, we had some reservations, but our fears were unfounded. The group was small, only seven of us doing the complete hike, and others jumping on and off at different places for varying amounts of time. The guides were accepting of everyone, eager to show us the beauty of a forgotten country and its people. Not only did they have an exceptional understanding of the history of the land, they coloured it brightly with amazing and wonderful stories and insight into the traditions and culture handed down through the generations.

Palestine is a country that needs to be seen not only as a place of conflict, but as a land of great beauty, with a deep richness to its people and culture, a country that is resilient and hopeful, even in the midst of great oppression.

It is a country that must be experienced on the ground, among its families and its traditions. Go and see and hear and experience.

You will never regret it. 

Marlene Friesen and her husband Albert, members of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, B.C., travelled the Masar Ibrahim last spring. Originally published in the Vancouver Sun on Aug. 10. Reprinted with permission of the author and photographer.

Marlene Friesen of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, B.C., enjoys a sunrise view of the Dead Sea during a walking tour of the West Bank last spring. (Photo by Albert Friesen)

Out for a late afternoon hike in the desert with a Bedouin host from our camp, we happened upon their camel herd. (Photo by Albert Friesen)

Hikers pass Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in AD 483 and now considered one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world that still maintains many of its ancient traditions. (Photo by Albert Friesen)

Many of the valleys we walked through were carpeted with wild flowers. (Photo by Albert Friesen)

One of our fellow hikers speaks with a local shepherd comparing walking sticks and hiking poles! (Photo by Albert Friesen)

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