With many thanks to Kelsey Whiting-Jones for this piece on the UK Friends’ walk in Jordan last May.
Some call them the ‘Three Musketeers” – Mahmoud, Abu Ibrahim, and Eisa – three local Abraham Path guides and leaders of the Al Ayoun Society. Mahmoud invites us to join in a song, huddled beneath the shade of a live oak tree. Abu Ibrahim bends down to show me a yellow plant that is used for stomach-aches. Eisa points to the hillside and explains the names of each peak and cave.
These trails run through their blood and they know shortcuts, where you can find the stunning black irises growing in April, or where to stop for a rest from walking and a enjoy cup of sage tea. They are proud of the landscape of their ancestors and of the history in the stones – the ruins of mosques, Byzantine mosaics, and castles. They tell tales of holy men – like the prophet Elijah –who have made this place a site of age-old pilgrimage. And they tell tales of the travelers they have come to meet on the path and made lasting friendships with. In the Ajloun region the path winds though forests, olive groves, and steep ravines. Huge boulders create narrow passages ways you nearly have to climb through. Summit vistas open out to rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Through the haze you can spot the rolling hills of Israel and Palestine and on a clear day, even see the city of Jerusalem. Wildflowers bedeck path – purple hollyhocks, red poppies and little white daisies. You’ll wander through meadows pulling out little thistles and thorns from your trousers. Pistachio trees here, red-barked strawberry trees there. Tortoises may even join your walk. You will encounter countless flocks of sheep and goats, their bells tinkling through the valleys, accompanied by their herding dogs and friendly shepherds. Young boys on horses or donkeys many ride past you with a flicker of curiosity in their eyes. And as you pass through the hamlets along the route, school children will run to their windows giggling and calling you with shouts ‘Hello! What is your name!’ Shopkeepers and women in their homes will come out to greet you, saying Ahlan wa sahlan (loosely translated, it means: “May you arrive as part of the family, and tread an easy path” or “welcome”). They will invariably invite you in for tea. If it is hot out, you may be lucky enough to be offered a refreshing lemonade made green with the generous addition of mint leaves. The people on the path light up at the thought of sharing their hospitality with you – wherever you come from, wherever you are going. At the end of the day, my feet feel relieved as I take off my shoes to enter the homestay where I am spending the night at in the village of Orjan. Iman has spent the entire afternoon, after returning from her job as a school teacher, to prepare what was possibly be a feast unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The centerpiece is maqluba – a fragrant pillow of savory rice cooked with vegetables and chicken. Countless dishes served family style surround the maqluba – lentil soup, eggplant dip (moutabal), stuffed zucchinis (kousa mahshi), flavorful cooked tomato dip (galayet bandoura), stuffed grape leaves (yalangee), cauliflower fritters (mshat), tabouleh salad, and plenty of freshly baked bread. This is more than enough to satisfy an army, let alone a group of walkers. You dine on cushions, which line the perimeter of the family’s living room. Iman is beaming from ear to ear watching you enjoy her home-cooked meal. She asks eagerly which one was my favorite. I tell her I must have her recipe for mshat. We took to the balcony as the sun lowered in the sky, sipping on sweet tea and looking out onto the pomegranate, fig, and apricot trees that surround the house below. The next morning we awake to another feast – this time of various hand-made cheeses, olive oil and za’atar, humus, grilled taboon bread, thick savory yogurt (labneh), and pomegranate molasses. I am sad to leave Eisa and Iman and their children – especially 2-year old Tamar who was always up for hugs. I have brought a bottle of maple syrup from my home in New England as a gift for Iman and her kitchen. She bursts with excitement at the sweet taste. She has welcomed all of us strangers so warmly into her lovely home and I can’t even begin to repay her hospitality. But it makes me happy that in exchange for an unforgettable experience; she can have a little piece of my home with her. We are all nearly in tears as we say goodbye to one another. But as all goodbyes in the Middle East go, we say with a smile “See you again soon, inshah’Allah (God-willing).”