“Things We Don’t All See”

A Profile of Osama Cori

As our group carefully picked its way down the wadi’s steep banks, I looked back and noticed that one white-hatted head had fallen behind. Crouched on a rocky outcropping, our companion gazed intently into the sky, apparently trying to focus his camera on some distant object.

“Osama, what are we looking at?” someone called.

Rising and striding toward us, he pointed at a cluster of large birds spiraling upward from the other side of the wadi. As we squinted into the distance, Osama flipped quickly through his bird manual, comparing the book’s images with the close-up photos he’d taken.

This happened frequently during our four-day hike; Osama was often drawing our attention to unique wildlife, plants, and constellations. As one of our group members put it, “He just sees things we don’t all see.”

As a child in Saudi Arabia, Osama had few opportunities to explore nature. He does remember watching a series of documentaries on African safaris with rapt attention, though. As the series was in French, he didn’t understand any of the narration; but the natural beauty and breathtaking adventures fascinated him. Reflecting on those years, Osama laughs in wonder: “Back then, I never thought my life would be just like the next documentary to watch; but that’s how it turned out.”

When he moved to Jordan some years later and began visiting its natural wonders, locals often assumed Osama was a foreign tourist; Jordanians never came to these places! As he considered this fact during his final year of university, he decided to begin a hiking group for Jordanian students. “When I started organizing these trips,” he remembers, “a lot of the people were going out in nature for the first time. So for me, the gift was when they say, ‘Oh, I never knew this kind of place existed in Jordan.‘  You really feel like you’re helping them to know more about their own country.”

In the years following his graduation from university, Osama continued leading weekend hiking trips.  Eventually, though, his goal of introducing Jordanians to Jordan led him to another place entirely.  Chosen by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, Osama was sent to South Africa to study nature tourism and guiding.  Accepting the risk involved in quitting his successful engineering job for something unknown, he departed for five months studying at one of South Africa’s finest academies for nature training and another five months working in nature guiding and adventure in Malawi.

After ten months of new adventures and experiences, Osama returned to Jordan. Today, as he hikes through the country’s steep canyons and arid expanses, many sights and activities prompt a smile and a happy memory from South Africa; it was clearly a transformative experience. At the same time, Osama admits, “Even while I was in Africa, I missed hiking in Jordan. In Africa, you have everything – beautiful, exotic places, wildlife, everything. But I still missed the canyons in Jordan.”

From his time in Africa, Osama has brought back to Jordan an energized vision for the future of ecotourism: “The way they manage ecotourism in South Africa makes it one of the biggest sources of income in the nation, and a lot of local tribes get involved. So why can’t we as Jordanians bring this as a new field that can bring income for people here?”

Having experienced the renowned beauty of South African safaris, Osama remains confident in Jordan’s potential as a unique outdoor tourism destination. To develop this potential, he has plunged into a number of local initiatives – among them, the development of the cross-country Jordan Trail. “Jordan is a very small area,” he admits, “but it’s full of small pieces of everything. Put together into one huge mosaic, Jordan can provide a full package experience.”

“Believe me,” he says of the Jordan Trail project, “every day has a different personality!  Every one kilometer, you find yourself in a completely different place.”

But what is his favorite of these places?  When asked, he studies the rock in front of him for a moment; he then quickly lists a half dozen locations across the length of Jordan, almost tripping over the words in his hurry to name them all. Pausing, he shakes his head and laughs. “Really, it’s all, all amazing,” he says.

“On the Abraham Path, I feel 20 years younger”

“I’m a smoker and I’m not a young man; but on the Abraham Path, I feel 20 years younger.” When travelers walk with local guide Abu Ayman today, they would never guess that he was not very confident in his walking skills on his first walk on a scouting trip between his village of Araba and nearby Sanur. “I wasn’t sure if I could walk all that way, so I was planning to duck out halfway through an olive grove and go home,” he jokes.

But when he arrived in Sanur, he thought to himself, “That wasn’t that hard.” And he began to think that if he was able to walk from Araba to Sanur, surely he could walk all the way to Nablus, and then to Hebron, and perhaps the whole way across the Middle East! He has begun walking to work every day, three kilometers each way, and has worked as a local guide on almost all of the walks in the northern sections of the Abraham Path.

One treat of walking with Abu Ayman is his knowledge of plants and herbs found in nature. One moment, he will hand a walker a springy, succulent sprig of wild asparagus; the next, a juicy, wild fennel bulb. Depending on the season, he is often gathering greens and herbs to take home for his wife to cook into tasty traditional dishes. “We learned about nature as children. We spent a lot of time outdoors, learning about the plants and animals and landscapes,” he says.

Abu Ayman enjoys getting to know people from around the world who come to walk the path. “I want travelers to know that people here are not like what they see in the media. We are kind and welcoming people, with culture and traditions. This is a beautiful area and we invite people to come experience it with us.”

“In every community, there is something special”

“This is a traditional culture, but there are a lot of things that we can share.  In every culture in the world, there are things that we are creating.  In every community, there is something special.  In every community, we need to accept and believe in that.”

Khadra Elsaneh, director of Sidreh – Lakiya Negev Weaving, carries a commanding presence, speaking with authority and confidence; yet in conversation, her tenderness toward her community and humble candor regarding her own personal growth are clear and startlingly human.  Time spent with Khadra reveals her to be a woman who has learned to holistically embrace, integrate, and adapt the varied aspects of her identity as necessary; and under her leadership, her Bedouin community is learning to do the same.

“People here are very warm to each other and to strangers.  If you come from outside, they want to give you everything,” she says of that community, painting a picture of benevolence and interconnectedness.  But even that warmth which seems to pervade her society must face the demands of a modernizing world.  Khadra recalls a time when survival in her desert village was entirely dependent upon a give-and-take system of generosity called al-‘auni.  If someone was struggling, members of the community helped him to overcome the obstacles facing him; later, he would do the same for others.  Khadra believes this lifestyle has been rendered nearly obsolete by modernization: “It used to be that you lived from the land – if you had a camel, you and your neighbors didn’t feel hungry.  Now, if you don’t have money, you’re hungry.”  The wealth of the earth was easier to share with community members than concrete currency.

While recognizing this transition, Khadra and her community tenaciously cling to the value attached to their land, explaining that “We want the younger generation to feel like they’re part of this land, part of this life, part of this community.  We have modern houses, but we still have sheep and chickens and horses and camels.”  Khadra acknowledges the necessity for change, but steadfastly believes that change can be implemented in a way that both embraces her community’s heritage and moves them forward.

Enter Sidreh.  Founded in 1998, the nonprofit organization brings Bedouin women together to support one another and their community by sharing their traditional weaving skills with the rest of the world.  Through Khadra’s tireless efforts, the organization quickly gained recognition on an international scale.  The demands of running an international business brought a wave of firsts to the community: the first fax machine, the first telephone, the first website, the first female lawyer…

Despite these modern innovations, however, Sidreh’s work allows the women to remain rooted in something they have known well since childhood: the inherited art of weaving.  Once, this art was practiced alone in the home.  Sidreh creates a community of women who weave together and, by selling their products, are empowered to support their families.

And their families are beginning to recognize the power these women hold.  Khadra recounts tales of trips to Jerusalem, where children saw their mothers’ crafts in elegant restaurants and hotels.  Only then, she says, could they realize how special the women’s work is.

As her own community is beginning to appreciate the value of Sidreh’s work, so are many other communities.  “When foreigners come, they learn and feel how strong the women are.”  The joy of demonstrating this strength to others excites Khadra.  “We really want Abraham Path people to come here,” she says, “because now we know how to share this community with others.”

As Khadra finished telling us this, as if on cue, a young woman walked through Sidreh’s facilities, a group of international tourists in tow.  We watched her begin to explain the weaving process to the foreigners; Khadra leaned in and whispered to us, telling us that the girl’s father had been adamantly opposed to the idea of his daughter learning English and working outside of the house.  Inspired by the work she saw women doing at Sidreh, though, she stood up to him and came to work with the organization.  Now, while I observed the girl’s interactions with the tourists, I marveled at her flawless English and at the ease and authority with which she handled the group.

Bringing us one more cup of Arabic coffee before we left, Khadra asked if we wanted sugar.  “Not long ago, people here never drank coffee with sugar.  Their lives were hard, not sweet.  Now, though,” she said with a laugh, “almost no one drinks their coffee without sugar.”

 

“Abraham Is a Notion that Half of Humankind Is Believing”

“Abraham is a notion that half of humankind is believing.  It’s a very low common denominator that connects people to something that’s easy to identify with.”

When David Benshabat and his wife Tali moved to Har Amasa almost 20 years ago, the community was small – only ten or eleven families lived in the forested village overlooking the Judean Desert.  For many years, David and Tali continued to share their hometown with only a handful of neighbors.  Then, about two years ago, newcomers began to pour into the village; and Har Amasa absorbed almost three times as many residents as it had previously contained.  The fabric of the town naturally began to change as a diverse community was built beneath the pines.   David and Tali found themselves brushing shoulders with musicians, potters, permaculturists, farmers making biodiesel from goat manure… As David is quick to admit with a sly grin, “There are a bunch of crazy people here.”  Despite this broad range of interests, though, the Har Amasa community has succeeded in finding shared ground and growing into a close-knit living environment.   Commonalities like a desire to live close to the earth in an environmentally conscious manner have helped establish a baseline for mutual understanding.

This knitting together of the residents of Har Amasa is also representative of the ways in which David and Tali have felt their community turning outward and engaging with its surroundings.  David believes that his region is uniquely placed in the Middle East.  Geographically and demographically, Har Amasa and its environs are characterized by variety.  “This area is…if you come and live here, it shows you many challenges,” he explains.  “It’s not simple terrain.  We’re at a crossroads of different geographies – mountains and desert and forest.  And we’re also at a crossroads of different communities, different identities.  In a very small square of five by five kilometers, you can find every identity of this region.”  David frequently refers to his region as a collage or a “playground of identities”; yet even amidst the different backgrounds surrounding him, he feels deeply connected to all his neighbors by one of his academic passions: the existence of a common linguistic heritage.

David firmly believes that the connectedness of the Semitic languages – specifically, of Hebrew and Arabic – allows him and fellow speakers of those languages to understand both biblical and shared cultural narratives in a uniquely meaningful way.  Pointing out that Abraham himself was thinking in Hebrew, David contends that modern speakers of Hebrew have an innate ability to connect to concepts that are contained in the very words of Abraham’s narrative and in other cultural narratives in a profound way; and the presence of many similar structures, features, and words between Semitic languages similarly allows David and many in his community to connect to the narratives of their Arabic-speaking neighbors.

Based on the feeling of shared heritage created by these linguistic ties, David has gone into business with some of those Arabic-speaking neighbors.  Together, a group of them produce organic grape juice, diligently ensuring that their production methods don’t harm the earth.  On the back of each bottle is their slogan, featuring two Hebrew words – zulatanut and svivatanut, defined as caring for one’s fellowman and caring for the environment.  The connection between these words is critical, David says: only by engaging with and connecting to the people living in our communities and cohabiting our space can we find the motivation necessary to properly care for that space.

This mindset is constantly thrusting David and Tali into new settings and communities and identities.  But they cherish this turbulence as a part of their Abrahamic heritage.  As Tali points out, Abraham was the first person to be called a Hebrew – an Ivri.  The word means one who passes or crosses – from one country to another, one people to another, one mentality to another.  “This is what our language means,” she says: “To be a nomad in thought, not only in physical geographies.”

“We Are More than Brothers”

 

“We have been friends since the day our mothers gave birth to us. We are more than brothers.” Habib and his cousin Anwar have spent their entire lives adventuring together; recently, many of those adventures have taken place along the Abraham Path.

Both from the village of Duma, Habib and Anwar learned the trails in their region by following their fathers through the mountains to collect wild honey. “We were very young. I was about seven years old when I used to follow my father on the donkey as he and Anwar’s father would track the bees to their hives,” remembers Habib. More than forty years later, Habib and Anwar still wander the trails of Duma and the surrounding areas in search of wild honey, carrying on their fathers’ longstanding traditions.

Their wanderings also reflect another aspect of their heritage, though: the commitment to warm hospitality and friendliness. Habib and Anwar can’t remember a time when their grandparents treated a new visitor as unwelcome or a stranger.  “The Roma people used to come through Duma, and they would set up tents here,” they recall.  “All the families in the village would take turns cooking and offering them food as guests in their land.”

Today, the two cousins love to welcome visitors to their land much as their grandparents did.  Like the villagers of previous generations, Habib and Anwar often share food, water, and their special herbal tea with hikers.  They’ve also discovered that taking these newcomers to some of their favorite places in the region is a wonderful way to introduce them to the land and to make them feel welcome.  One of these special places is called Fasayel; it’s a place both men hold very dear.  “We like to take people to Fasayel because it is a place that quiets the heart,” Anwar says.  “When I feel burdened by life, I go to Fasayel and sit on a rock, make tea, and give the mountain all my troubles.”

Many visitors have enjoyed walking with the knowledgeable men; and through their experiences, the two are slowly learning how best to utilize their combination of skills in order to function as an effective guiding team.  “Habib is an expert on all the natural habitats, and he’s good at discovering alternative routes.  I can speak English.  So when people come, Habib gives the explanation of things and I translate,” explains Anwar.

The opportunity to share information is one Habib cherishes.  “There is a pleasure in being a guide,” he reflects.  “I feel a satisfaction when I share information about plants and animals with people who have never been here before.  I feel that I am sharing the generosity of my elders, who passed down this information to me.” The two cousins have experienced much since the days when they used to follow their fathers through the hills, searching for honey; but their family heritage and traditions continue to shape their paths and adventures.

“I Would Like to Be Outstanding”

“I would like to be outstanding,” says Dina and then smiles. “There are not many female guides in this area.” Dina was the only woman who attended the Abraham Path’s training for the local guides organized by the Rozana Association in the village of Araba, located southwest of Jenin. Initially, she joined another workshop held for future hosts along the path, which was run at the same time; but after a while, she decided that she preferred to learn about the possibilities of becoming a guide and joined to the guide course as the only woman in the class. “I already knew how to welcome visitors in my house,” she says.

Dina became interested in tourism after taking some courses related to the field at her university. But she really became convinced that this was truly what she wanted to do in her life after hosting a visitor from Japan. During that time, Dina showed her guest a number of interesting sites in Araba. She took the Japanese woman to the Abd al-Hadi palaces located in the village’s historic center. There, by chance, she met Abu Ayman, a local guide, who told her about the Abraham Path’s training.

“Being a guide has changed my character,” admits Dina. Today, she is proud of the fact that because of regular walking she became not only stronger physically but also mentally. She is glad to share her knowledge about the region with the people from around the world.

“When I walked from Araba to Sanur for the first time, I got very tired. But every next time it was only better. Now I reached the point that I cannot wait for the next trip.” Dina, who comes from the small and, as she says, “closed” village of Kufeirat was not used to walking at all. “We were always moving by car and not really going out much,” she says. Her situation changed recently when she got married and moved to Araba. Dina’s husband supports and encourages her to be a local guide.

As a child, Dina did not have a lot of opportunities to meet many people. “I knew only my closest cousins,” she admits.  But now, thanks to her involvement with the Abraham Path, she has a chance to expand her local contacts and also to meet many people coming from different cultures and origins.

Dina thinks that her in-depth knowledge of Kufeirat and Araba – two villages located along the Abraham Path – is a great advantage in her work. Having grown up in the area, she can spice up her guiding with a number of regional stories. For example, she often mentions to walkers that Kufeirat is located next to a hill which is called Musallah, which comes from the Arabic word for prayer. Local tradition remembers the hill as a place where Abraham himself once prayed.

Dina would like to invite everyone to join her in walking the Abraham Path and to let her be their guide between Araba and Sanur.

A Gentle Oasis of Peace

abraham-path---david-landis-207Izzet and Asya Aran have known each other since they were babies, as black and white photographs of them as chubby-cheeked toddlers will attest. They played together back when Kisas was a mud brick village with no electricity or running water. Today, Izzet and Asya are married with two children, daughter Sevcen (16) and son Ümut (8), and Kisas is a thriving town of 7,000 replete with shops, post office, and internet café. Izzet remembers his childhood fondly and pours over his collection of historic photographs of that time period, documenting traditional clothing and rituals from the era before modernization.

Perhaps this fondness for traditional life is what inspires Izzet’s love of photography. “I was always drawing pictures of people when I was a child,” he recounts. “After I got my first job I immediately began saving up for a camera.”  Izzet’s extensive collection of photographs demonstrates his eye for evocative portraits of his people, capturing the depth of experience in the folds of an elder’s face and the twinkle of mirth in a child’s bright eyes. His photos document rituals in his community, from weekly religious meetings to holidays and cultural events.
Kisas villagers practice Alevism, a form of Islam which draws from Shia and Sufi influences and is practiced by many Turkish people. The name comes from Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammed, whom the Alevi hold in very high esteem. Alevi women and men pray and worship together, and women are highly respected and encouraged to pursue education. Alevi meet on Thursday evenings for a ritual ceremony known as a cem, which incorporates traditional songs, dances, and representational actions. Many of the songs are hundreds of years old and are accompanied by traditional instruments such as the saz or baglama, a seven-stringed instrument similar to a sitar.

abraham-path---david-landis-208Entering the Aran family home in Kisas is like entering a gentle oasis of peace. Step from the dusty streets into the softly carpeted hallway and strains of Mozart caress your ears. “Music is very important to our family and our community,” said Izzet. He plays the baglama and guitar, and his daughter has a lovely, clear singing voice; she feels as comfortable singing traditional Alevi hymns as she does singing Greenday and Pink songs.

One traditional Alevi nafe or “hymn” says:

“Look at 73 different people in the same way,

God loves and created them all, so don’t say anything against them.”

Another Alevi saying states that “the greatest holy book to be read is a human being.” The Aran family embodies these values with their open hospitality and their acceptance of and curiosity about the diverse visitors who stay in their home. Izzet says that his work with historical sites reminds him constantly that “nothing lasts forever, that riches and belongings are only temporal.” For Izzet and his family, the most important parts of life are the intangible and spiritual aspects, like friendship, community, music, and sharing their way of life with others.

 

“The Relationship We Have with Visitors is Beautiful.”

“When we have visitors, I give them cooking lessons. I take them to the orchards, and we pick plums, and then I teach them how to make jam. One visitor went back to America and held an Arabic dinner party. She made a lot of dishes that I taught her, like maqlouba and gallaya.  They loved it.  She put photos of the party on Facebook. The relationship we have with visitors is beautiful.”

When Maysoun and her family first began hosting guests from the Abraham Path in their home, the presence of visitors from around the world seemed strange.  Neither she nor her neighbors were used to seeing foreigners around their homes, and they didn’t know how to interact with them.  Now, though, Maysoun and her family and community have come to value the tourists who stay with them and the intercultural friendships that are formed during the time they spend together.  Maysoun appreciates the opportunities to talk with a broad array of people and to learn about other places and cultures, and she loves watching her children play with other children from around the world.  As much as her family enjoys learning from their visitors, though, they are even more eager to share their own experiences – to show guests what games they play, how they harvest olives, what their lives are like.  For Maysoun, the arrival of new guests signals a chance to share one of her great talents – her incredible wealth of culinary knowledge and skills.  The world of Middle Eastern cooking is one that Maysoun knows well; and introducing new friends to that world has been a rewarding experience for her that, in turn, has created educational and culturally rich experiences for travelers.

The opportunities presented to Maysoun and her family by the Abraham Path extend beyond just cultural exchange.  Maysoun’s daughter Hiba is currently in fourth grade, and her parents realize that she will be finished with her primary education in only eight short years.  They know that sending Hiba to university will cost them a significant amount of money, and the income brought in from the homestay allows them to start saving for those expenses now.

How else has the family planned to use the added income?  They recently bought a laptop, which they use to maintain the long-distance friendships they’ve been building with Abraham Path walkers; and they hope to soon be able to buy a camera.  Other than that, their main goal is to invest in their home – Maysoun intends to expand their house and farm someday so that they can comfortably accommodate more guests.  She hopes her family will never stop hosting hikers, she says, and that the number of travelers who stay with her family will only increase as time goes on. Expanding their house will allow them to expand the capacity of their hospitality and, at the same time, to expand the range of experiences and friendships available to them between the walls of their own home.

Foreign visitors may have seemed strange and intimidating once; but as far as Maysoun is concerned, they’ve become a permanent fixture in her family’s life and home.

A New Role as a Kurdish Village Guide

Outside her brightly painted green and yellow house, 18-year-old Nadile makes sure that her guests have what they need for the village tour. “Hat. Sunscreen. Water. Good shoes.” She lists the items clearly in English from a piece of paper covered with notes. When everyone is ready, she will lead them around the tiny Kurdish village of Göllü where she was born and raised.

“I am a village guide,” she says, again in English, carefully but confidently. This is a new role for her. Since 2009, people from all over the world have come to her family’s homestay. As the oldest of five children, she has always helped prepare and serve food for guests, including making a welcome cake from the family’s own flour, eggs, and milk. This spring, however, a few visitors asked to see more of the village. Nadile enthusiastically volunteered and discovered a chance to use the English that she had begun learning with a project volunteer.

Now she leads a complete tour, including an ancient tomb site, a view of Mount Nemrut, an abandoned stone quarry, her uncle’s orchard of pistachio trees and grapes vines, the remnants of her grandparents’ original mud and stone houses, and a hidden cave where, according to the story, a princess was kept during times of fighting. Sometimes a younger sibling will accompany the group, wandering off to reappear with a handful of green almonds or a bushel of fresh chickpeas to be eaten from the pod.

Nadile takes pride in sharing the natural abundance of Göllü. She picks leaves from a camomile plant and explains how to make a soothing tea. She makes a hair ornament from some yellow flowers and a leaf with spiky teeth and jokingly passes it to Seth, an American who just finished a Peace Corps mission in Ghana and is clearly enjoying some vacation time in this unique setting.

At 5PM, she points out the herds of sheep returning from their grazing to be milked. Her family has 100 sheep and 70 lambs this season. When her mother Ayten finishes the evening milking, Nadile and her sister Fadile show guests how the fresh milk becomes the cheese that they serve at breakfast and sell in the neighboring city of Sanliurfa. “I am a food guide, too,” says Nadile with a smile.

She says the best thing about the project is meeting people from other countries and seeing what good people they are. She also recognizes that her family offers something special–“Everything here is natural, organic,” she says in Turkish. “Guests can be comfortable here.” Her hope for the future is to continue learning English and guiding visitors.

Written by Mary Leighton

“A Chance for Palestinian Women to Be Self-Dependent”

Few people speak more eloquently and passionately about the Abraham Path – or Masar Ibrahim – than Rola Ibrahim Jadallah, or Dr. Rola, as she is known in her community of Arraba.

As a mother of four and an assistant professor of biology at the Arab American University, Dr. Rola has plenty to keep her busy. On top of that, she was recently elected as Arraba’s deputy mayor.

In all these roles, the path means something special to her: “I like the name Ibrahim. It was my father’s name. People with that name have a certain personality. They are leaders and broad thinkers. Ibrahim is the father of prophets.  Because I love this name and I saw how the name affected the personality of my father, I named my son Ibrahim. His personality is different from others. He’s a leader who wants to help others. I am telling him: you are Ibrahim.”

Hospitality is one of the most important values associated with Abraham/Ibrahim, says Dr. Rola. “According to our traditions you must be generous as a host. There is an old saying that states that any guest should be able to stay with you for at least three days without any questions asked.”

As deputy mayor, Dr. Rola welcomed the recent extension of the path to the Jenin region that included Arraba in the Abraham Path. “The path allows us to be connected to the world. It can increase income for local families, and it provides a chance to introduce people into other cultures, to listen to the happiness and sadness of the stories of others. This type of tourism is a chance for Palestinian women to be self-dependent, create their own businesses. I look at the Masar Ibrahim as cultural exchange. Young people are speaking English with visitors and being guides from their own home; you can imagine how that affects their self-confidence.”

The image of the Middle East in the rest of the world is often negative. For Dr. Rola, this is an additional motive to make the project succeed: “We cannot separate our lives from political issues, and at the same time we are not the ones representing politics in the media. So my dream is to divide the issue in two: at the top are the people who make the decisions. But the bottom is the community. The Masar Ibrahim allows for an exchange of ideas between regular people. That will provide the real picture for visitors and those will be your ambassadors. Maybe after some time it will affect the people at the top.”