“The landscape is so dry!” was all I could think to myself as we left Jerusalem and headed north for the first of the Abraham Path’s weekly autumn hikes.
I had arrived in Jerusalem just two days ago, and for most of the last year I had lived in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. There, on hikes or mountain bike rides through dense Appalachian forests, I often had the sense that I was traveling through a series of green tunnels. Prior to that I had lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina and there rarely had to carry more than a liter of water on hikes because of the plentiful, potable mountain springs.
Now what I saw before us was an expanse of harsh, rocky hills rolling down to the Jordan River Valley to the east.
Beautiful, but barren.
How could anything grow here?
Yet when we arrived at the beginning of our hike in Ta’anek – a village of 1,000 people in the northern part of the Jenin Region – and set out on foot, we immediately entered a hardy grove of olive trees that had managed to flourish there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the dry rocky soil.
Just a little further up the trail, around a bend, we entered a stand of almond trees. While muted now after the hot, dry summer, our guide Mohammed assured us that they would be beautiful and in bloom in the spring after the winter rains.
Another of our guides, Ahmad, taught me the names in Arabic. Olive tree was zatoun. Almond was los.
“Only zatoun and los here,” Ahmad laughed as I recited the names of the trees as I saw them.
“Zatoun, zatoun, los…”
A couple hours later, after winding our way around the outskirts of Ta’anek and another local village, Mohammed stopped beside a small, leafy bush half his height. “All the plants here are central parts of our daily lives. This one here, serlis,” he pointed out the bush, “we even mention it when we have weddings.”
He smiled, “Before the wedding the mother of the groom sings this song to him.” Mohammed then sang a few lines of a local tune in wonderfully melodious voice.
When he finished he roughly translated the text to English (which unfortunately can’t convey the clever rhyme of the original Arabic):
“Mother: Where did you take your shower?
Groom: Under the shadow of the serlis.”
We chuckled. I thought about weddings and the serlis, and I thought about the resiliency of the flora and the resiliency of the people of this region.
I thought about our guide Mohammed and the resiliency of his humor.
Earlier in the hike he had told me about his failed attempt to enter a master’s program in archeology in Great Britain.
“While I was studying in Nablus, a Palestinian archeologist teaching in Great Britain noticed me. He invited me to study there, assured me that he had the appropriate paperwork lined up, and asked me to take the TOEFL test.” He flashed me a grin before delivering the punchline, “I swear he waited until I got my mark before he died of cancer!”
I thought about the resiliency of the people in this region that had allowed them to thrive here for thousands of years.
In Ta’anek before we started walking, Mohammed had explained a bit about the town’s history. “Everyone thinks that history began with the Bible,” he joked, “but caravans have been passing through this region from town to town for many thousands of years. This little town of Ta’anek is mentioned in Egyptian records as early as 4,000 B.C.E. These caravan routes were the reasons why Abraham’s path took him through this area.”
Later as we arrived weary in Burqin, George Rishmawi, Executive Director of Masar Ibrahim, introduced us to the local Byzantine Era Orthodox Church, now nearly 2,000 years old. “This is the third-oldest church in the world and the fifth Christian holy place,” he noted. At this site Jesus had purportedly healed 10 lepers held in quarantine.
I thought about the tough resiliency of the people there today as they continue to carve out homes from one of the hillsides and still have the grace to offer ice water to travelers trudging by.
Riding home I had new appreciation for that dogged, resilient life that surrounded us.