In her book Wanderlust, on the history of walking, Rebecca Solnit writes that perhaps "the mind, like the feet, works at three miles an hour" and that if this is so, "then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness." Walking is the time-tested engine of the mind: when done alone it opens a unique thinking space; when experienced together, it brings out the conversations you would not have when sitting down facing each other as opposites. Most of us know this. The question is why, in the haste of daily life, is walking so frequently regarded as the slowest of transport options and so rarely as the most liberating of human conditions?
I learned about the power of walking in a place probably least associated with its merits: the Middle East. In the spring of 2008 I drove up with five friends to Tubas, a sleepy agricultural town above the Jordan Valley and in between the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus. We parked our cars to the side of the road and started walking. As seasoned foreign residents of the Middle East, we thought of ourselves as more curious than naive. We had no idea who we would encounter along the way, whether there were any pleasant rural paths out there, or whether we could pass through the area unhindered by the check points that are the concrete manifestation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What we found during that first walk, and during the hundreds of walks that have since followed, still amazes me. Walking through a region generally portrayed as uninviting, if not hostile, was not only practically possible. It was also beautiful, inspiring and safe. It felt as if we had finally stumbled upon the obvious, something that could give us -- diplomats, journalists, development workers -- a new way of connecting to the Middle East: to apply the world's oldest method of human encounter in a region that is the pinched nerve of civilization. Walking allowed us to know both the region and its people anew.
Over the course of five years, we walked over 6,000 miles through the West Bank and we were not the only ones. A mosaic of walking groups, local and international, has been venturing out to explore a different Middle East than the one framed by mainstream media. Not to deny the misery and strife that is unmistakably a part of this region, but to become familiar with its hidden beauty and nuance, with encounters not through the lens of headlines and history, but through the personal and the particular. In recent years, the first long distance walking trail across the entire region, the Abraham Path, began to take shape. Over 250 miles of accessible route now connects communities across seven regions and four countries. People from near and far are walking these trails. And as in the story of the patriarch Abraham, some are stepping out of the their comfort zone to do so, connecting to the communities of the Middle East step by step.
But why is it that after five years of safely walking across the region I still hear that same little voice when preparing my backpack in the morning: "this time something will happen. Someone will happen." A message from the stomach to the mind. "Someone will harm me because I am not from here. I look different. I may be mistaken for 'the enemy'." The voice contradicts both reason and experience; it is underwhelming but present. It is gone by the time I start my walk, and deeply buried under conversations and encounters by the time the sun sets at the end of the day. And yet, the difficult question I must face is: after five years of crossing the Middle East on foot, after countless instances of hospitality and kindness, why is that voice still there? Or, more painfully, why is it there in the Middle East but absent when I venture out for a walk in the Alps or the Rocky Mountains? Is deep anxiety of this region a quiet but natural steady state for me, only temporarily off-set through these beautiful walks. Is the concept of "the other" so hard-wired that no path is long enough to walk it entirely out of my system? Ever?
Perhaps this is so. Or perhaps it is not about a culmination of time and distance to overcome some of our most deeply rooted fears. Perhaps a walk towards "the other" is really a daily ritual of mind and feet; daily footsteps outside our comfort zone, and towards ourselves. Each time, away from fear.
Stefan Szepesi is the executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative and the author of Walking Palestine; 25 Journeys into the West Bank. He worked as an economist and diplomat in Jerusalem and regularly writes, blogs and speaks about walking and the Middle East.
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