You know, as an anthropologist, walking is what made us human. It’s funny — when you walk, you walk side-by-side, in the same common direction.
Now if I were to come to you face-to-face and come this close to you, you would feel threatened. But if I walk shoulder-to-shoulder, even touching shoulders, it’s no problem. Who fights while they walk? That’s why in negotiations, often, when things get tough, people go for walks in the woods.
So the idea came to me of, what about inspiring a path, a route — think the Silk Route, think the Appalachian Trail — that followed in the footsteps of Abraham? People said, “That’s crazy. You can’t. You can’t retrace the footsteps of Abraham — it’s too insecure, you’ve got to cross all these borders, it goes across 10 different countries in the Middle East, because it unites them all.”
And so we studied the idea at Harvard. We did our due diligence.
And then a few years ago, a group of us, about 25 of us from 10 different countries, decided to see if we could retrace the footsteps of Abraham, going from his initial birthplace in the city of Urfa in Southern Turkey, Northern Mesopotamia.
And we then took a bus and took some walks and went to Harran, where, in the Bible, he sets off on his journey. Then we crossed the border into Syria, went to Aleppo, which, turns out, is named after Abraham. We went to Damascus, which has a long history associated with Abraham.
We then came to Northern Jordan, to Jerusalem — which is all about Abraham — to Bethlehem, and finally, to the place where he’s buried, in Hebron.
So effectively, we went from womb to tomb. We showed it could be done. It was an amazing journey. Let me ask you a question. How many of you have had the experience of being in a strange neighborhood or strange land, and a total stranger, perfect stranger, comes up to you and shows you some kindness — maybe invites you into their home, gives you a drink, gives you a coffee, gives you a meal? How many of you have ever had that experience? That’s the essence of the Abraham Path.
That’s what you discover as you go into these villages in the Middle East where you expect hostility, and you get the most amazing hospitality, all associated with Abraham: “In the name of Father Ibrahim, let me offer you some food.”
So what we discovered is that Abraham is not just a figure out of a book for those people; he’s alive, he’s a living presence.
And to make a long story short, in the last couple of years now, thousands of people have begun to walk parts of the path of Abraham in the Middle East, enjoying the hospitality of the people there. They’ve begun to walk in Israel and Palestine, in Jordan, in Turkey, in Syria. It’s an amazing experience.
Men, women, young people, old people — more women than men, actually, interestingly. For those who can’t walk, who are unable to get there right now, people started to organize walks in cities, in their own communities.
In Cincinnati, for instance, they organized a walk from a church to a mosque to a synagogue and all had an Abrahamic meal together. It was Abraham Path Day. In São Paulo, Brazil, it’s become an annual event for thousands of people to run in a virtual Abraham Path Run, uniting the different communities.
The media love it; they really adore it. They lavish attention on it because it’s visual and it spreads the idea, this idea of Abrahamic hospitality, of kindness towards strangers.
And just a couple weeks ago, there was an NPR story on it .Last month, there was a piece in the Manchester Guardian about it, two whole pages. And they quoted a villager who said, “This walk connects us to the world.” He said, “It was like a light that went on in our lives — it brought us hope.”
And so that’s what it’s about. But it’s not just about psychology; it’s about economics. Because as people walk, they spend money. And this woman right here, Um Ahmad, is a woman who lives on the path in Northern Jordan. She’s desperately poor. She’s partially blind, her husband can’t work, she’s got seven kids.
But what she can do is cook. And so she’s begun to cook for some groups of walkers who come through the village and have a meal in her home. They sit on the floor — she doesn’t even have a tablecloth.
She makes the most delicious food, that’s fresh from the herbs in the surrounding countryside. And so more and more walkers have come, and lately she’s begun to earn an income to support her family.
And so she told our team there, she said, “You have made me visible in a village where people were once ashamed to look at me.” That’s the potential of the Abraham Path. There are literally hundreds of those kinds of communities across the Middle East, across the path.
The potential is basically to change the game. And to change the game, you have to change the frame, the way we see things — to change the frame from hostility to hospitality, from terrorism to tourism.
And in that sense, the Abraham Path is a game-changer. Let me just show you one thing. I have a little acorn here that I picked up while I was walking on the path earlier this year.
Now, the acorn is associated with the oak tree, of course — grows into an oak tree, which is associated with Abraham. The path right now is like an acorn; it’s still in its early phase.
What would the oak tree look like?
When I think back to my childhood, a good part of which I spent, after being born here in Chicago, I spent in Europe. If you had been in the ruins of, say, London in 1945, or Berlin, and you had said, “Sixty years from now, this is going to be the most peaceful, prosperous part of the planet,” people would have thought you were certifiably insane. But they did it, thanks to a common identity, Europe, and a common economy.
So my question is, if it can be done in Europe, why not in the Middle East? Why not, thanks to a common identity, which is the story of Abraham, and thanks to a common economy that would be based, in good part, on tourism?