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Abraham Path Initiative Receives World Bank Grant

$2.3 Million Grant Bolsters Economic Development on the Abraham Path in the West Bank


Autumn 2014 has seen a bustle of new activities popping up along the Abraham Path between Jenin and Hebron. Girl and boy scout trail clean-up events, university photography competitions, guided weekly walks, homestay trainings, trail analysis thru-hikes, and educational meetings with Palestinian municipalities are just a few examples of the hive of activity that is energizing the path.

These activities are largely possible thanks to a two-year, $2.3 million grant from the World Bank State and Peacebuilding Fund for a project entitled “Abraham Path/Masar Ibrahim: Economic Development Across Fragile Communities.” The Abraham Path Initiative and Palestinian partner organizations will utilize the funds to engage more communities, bring more walkers, and increase job creation and income generation on the path, especially for women and youth.

“This investment by the World Bank allows one of the most innovative social change projects in the Middle East to grow to scale,” commented Stefan Szepesi, Executive Director of the Abraham Path Initiative.

The main elements of the grant include:

  • Investment in People and Institutions, including a comprehensive one-year guide training program by Bethlehem University and capacity building for local partner organizations
  • Path Development, including increasing trail distance in the north and south and improving maps and other practical hiker materials
  • Marketing, Business Development, and Communication, including outreach to tour operators, profiles on points of interest, and production of marketing materials
  • Action Research, including the publication of 10 research papers which analyze the impact of the Abraham Path and capture lessons about job creation through trail development

API partners with Masar Ibrahim al Khalil, a Palestinian nonprofit developing the path in the West Bank that is comprised of a union with the Rozana Association, the Siraj CenterPalestine Wildlife Society and Bethlehem University Institute for Community Partnership.

For more information on the World Bank grant, see Follow our progress on social media!


Photo Credits: Sumaya Agha/API


“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.”


Resilient Landscapes: Tel Ta’anek to Burqin

“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.


“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.


Kulli, kulli! Eat, Eat!

“Kulli! Eat!”

Just barely remembering my manners, I uttered a quick “Shukran,” before taking my first bite, thanking the Palestinian woman placing heaping plates of rice and chicken and stuffed grape leaves on the table in front of me. My gratitude was entirely genuine, and I began to shovel the food down rapidly, eager to replace the last 15 kilometers’ worth of calories. As one of the local guides reached across the table to load up his dish with seconds, he paused, observed all of us in the midst of our feeding frenzy, and smiled. “We have an old Palestinian saying,” he told us. “It’s something like…” he struggled for a moment, searching for the best way to convey the heart of the proverb in English. “It’s something like, ‘As much as you love, this is how much you will eat.’” And, having shared this with us, he shamelessly scooped another mountain of the delicious, home-cooked food onto his plate.eatting

We laughed, agreeing that our appetites had rendered us a pretty loving bunch after our first day hiking on the new Jenin section of the Abraham Path. But the old proverb stuck with me over the next five days, repeating itself frequently in my mind. As much as you love, this is how much you will eat. I was reminded of the phrase later that night, when I sat on the couch with our homestay family in their living room. Next to me sat the family’s grandmother, her face tanned and weathered from 80 years of Middle Eastern sunshine but her eyes still alert and curious and her mouth more given to grinning than to any other expression. Noticing I had finished my (third) bowl of popcorn, she grabbed her own bowl and – despite my protestation – patted me on the back as if to assure me that I would not starve and began to pour half of her own popcorn into my bowl, her rheumatic hands shaking and causing the plates to clink together cheerfully as she did so.

I thought of the saying again as we came to Arabe village and wound our way through the narrow, stone alleyways of the old city. Upon our arrival, two of our hosts from the village immediately brought us a staggering spread of delicious foods they’d been preparing for us all day: musakkhin and mujaddara and harisi, all these previously foreign words which now awaken in me a rumbling stomach and extra-active salivary glands. We thanked the women profusely; they smiled and nodded their understanding. Both chatted with us a bit, occasionally stumbling over a word in English. One of them laughed apologetically, “I’m not so good at English. Cooking food for people – that’s what I’m good at.”

zatarAnd I was reminded of the proverb repeatedly as I walked the trail itself with our local guides. As we traversed the countryside – now drowning in fields of wildflowers up to our waists, now victoriously summiting a stunning mountain, now poking around in ancient stone dwellings – our guides would periodically dart into the surrounding vegetation, emerging with some apparently edible piece of nature and urging us to try it with that ubiquitous Arabic demand: “Kulli, kulli! Eat, eat!” They would then proceed to describe the traditional dishes their wives and mothers and grandmothers had made from the plant; and often, they would supplement this gastronomic instruction with an old folk tale or song featuring the plant. Traditional foods, connectedness with the land, cultural heritage…they are all tangled one with another, the guides told us.

foodAs much as you love, this is how much you will eat. The longer I walked the path, the more I began to understand this correlation. Even if our guide hadn’t shared the proverb with us – even if I hadn’t heard it put into so many words – I think I would still have intuitively felt the truth behind this sentence. I couldn’t have missed it. The spirit of hospitality and community and connection is as alive around the Palestinian table today as it was thousands of years ago when Abraham invited weary travelers to join him for a meal in the shade of the oak trees.


Across the West Bank on Foot

There are few places in the world where a good walk can be as stimulating to body and soul as the Palestinian West Bank. That may be a surprise to many, but six years after I took up hiking its valleys and hillsides, these high rewards remain. Here, perhaps like nowhere else, a physical escape up into the hills is also a mental climb down the ladders of prejudice — about what this part of the world is and what it can be.

We wake up in the pretty town of Sebastia and walk towards the village of Arabe on a new section of the Masar Ibrahim, as the Abraham Path is called in the West Bank. Both places are living testaments to the layers and tides of empire that have moved forth and back for over 3,000 years. Their remnants are immense Roman walls, Greek defense towers, and a Herodian palace. And then there is the Hejaz railway that once connected Damascus to Medina with branches to Haifa and Nablus. One of the largest infrastructural works of its time, it collapsed in 1917 just prior to completion. And along with it went another empire. Today, with its tracks long gone, it is a walking trail that snails around the hills of the northern West Bank.


Near Sebastia: Ottoman railway station reconquered by nature

Our walk in between these places passes through silver-green olive orchards, mixed every so often by almond, apricot and fig trees. Mysterious holy shrines dot the hilltops we pass on our walk — the places where for centuries holy men were revered by people of different faiths seeking cures for their ailments, forgiveness or council. After climbing for a good two hours we reach such a shrine, that of a Sheikh called Bayzeed. Our guide Mohammed tells the story of the renowned Palestinian physician who wrote about the “superstitious” beliefs of his patients and their stubborn refusal to take modern medicine for simple ailments. His resolution was not just to provide pills, but to also send his patients on a walk up to these scared shrines. There, his patients were to ask for a blessing over these pills prior to taking them. Only through a fusion of modern medicine and traditional beliefs did the people oblige.


In Arabe: restored Ottoman castle

Arriving in Arabe at the end of the day we stay with a local family. The parents speak little English but proudly gaze as their five children engage the strange bunch of American, French, Canadian, British and Dutch guests who will sleep in their home that night. The conversation meanders between their family history, world cup football and the popularity of the local Arab American University where the eldest daughter, Zeina, has learned near perfect English. A Harry Potter book lies on the shelve. I ask her 15-year-old brother, Adham, what he likes to read. “Shakespeare and Marlow”, he says. I think I’m dreaming. A thought crosses my mind: “I used to read that in high school…” Close behind lurks another thought: “They read it too?” Adham explains how he deals with the curiosities of 16th century English poetry: He translates it online. Other than that, foreign visitors to Arabe provide for good conversation practice.

After our group of hungry walkers takes in a feast of a home-cooked meal, Zeina uploads pictures of our group to Facebook. She befriends, tags and shares. Within moments, the Abraham Path family I stayed with last October in Kisas, Turkey, is connected to the hospitality in Arabe, Palestine. Exactly a hundred years ago these villages were part of the same grand empire, with a grand railway project about to spark a travel revolution. Almost. Now four impassable borders separate them. They speak different languages. And yet they are connected. Arab Spring and Winter. Muslims fighting Muslims. The fate of dwindling Christian communities. Occupation. Big themes in the Middle East; sad stories that incessantly cross the world in nano-seconds. They are real stories. But so is Adham’s world of Harry Potter and Marlowe. And his ability to reach out to that world and that world to him. In nano-seconds or through a day’s walk across the West Bank.

Photography by Evan Bryant and Joris van Winckel


“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.”



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Almond Blossoms on the Abraham Path

By Sumaya Agha

Japanese culture has revered the cherry blossom for centuries. Among the varying interpretations of the flower’s symbolism, it represents the beauty and fragility of life, as the blooms only flourish a short few weeks every year.

I understand this. Cherry trees lined my quaint neighborhood streets in the Pacific Northwest’s Portland. They brought the city alive, almost to another-worldly state. And then they were gone.

Hiking today on a new section of the Abraham Path, between Rosana and Burqin, we hiked up the Canaanite Tel Ta’anek, and then began sauntering through almond trees in bloom, so reminiscent of springtime cherry blossoms. It is early February and even without the needed rains this winter, the hike was green, and the contrast of verdant grass highlighted the clouds of white almond flowers. This was my first time up and personal with the native trees’ blooms.

Our guide, jolly Abu Jameel, walked our multinational group through a field covered in limestone slabs, speckles of red poppies, periwinkle cyclamen, and sparsely placed blooming almond trees. They are really beautiful, and ephemeral like the cherry tree.

Wondering if the almond blossom had a similar following as cherry blossoms, I looked up “symbolism of almond blossoms.”

They are mentioned in the bible. Vincent Van Gogh used the blossoms to represent new life, the life of his newborn nephew. The astounding Lebanese singer, Fairouz, sings about the “shalabi girl under the pomegranate tree,” her eyes are the seed of the almond blossoms, she has “almond eyes.”

Symbology of almonds and their tree is evident, but I found little  for almond blossoms. Maybe it’s just not written down, maybe it’s in the villages, in stories and legends. Maybe it’s just not on the Internet. (I’ll search for the symbolism of the blossom in historical texts and from the source–the people.)

What I did find out, not surprisingly, is that the almond tree and cherry tree are related, from the same genus, Prunus. They are stone fruit. The almond that we all know is not a “true nut,” but the seed of its inedible fruit–although in this area the un-ripened fruit is eaten (I tried it once, I didn’t take to it).

The Levantine fruit and nut trees and their edible delights are legendary. My own father, who hails from the Levant, has a passion for these trees that I never understood–he feels connected to the trees. He walked through almond trees in bloom every year of his childhood.

In this region there are mosaics that date back to Byzantine times, with imagery of fruit that is widely prevalent in agriculture and cuisine today: pomegranates, figs, olives, lemons, and almonds (okay, seeds). Maybe there is a mosaic out there of almond tree blossoms. I might have seen it and didn’t realize what it was, but next time I will know.

For centuries the products of these trees have been ingredients in delectable and artfully displayed cuisine that is shared with friends and strangers alike. The variety of native trees and their fruits, nuts, and seeds are such an engrained part of this region’s history and culture that they are in songs and in old mosaic floors, used as vehicles for stories and bridges to interaction and friendship.

I may or may not find significant historical symbolism of the almond blossom. No matter–they are a sign of spring to come; they inspire friends and strangers to share walks together; they are a precursor to their autumn seed, which has provided for this region and been a part of perpetual tables of hospitality for centuries. As it’s cousin, the cherry blossom, they are full of meaning, and beautiful in their moment.

A Walk Away from Fear

By Stefan Szepesi

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.