Walking the walk

It’s been a few days since I had a chance to blog – not least because I’m now away updating my Rough Guide to Switzerland (writing this on the TGV from Zurich to Basel). I’ve had it in mind to put down something about this BBC story profiling a group calling themselves the Jerusalem Peacemakers – Palestinian and Israeli community leaders who not only envision compromise but actively live compromise, meeting together, praying together, fostering cross-cultural interaction and dialogue. What an inspiration, when politics all around is lurching to the racist right.

One of the most interesting things was Rabbi Froman’s affirming the possibility of maintaining viable Jewish communities under Palestinian rule within a Palestinian state on the West Bank – surely a ‘third way’ between the expansionist status quo (immoral and profoundly damaging) and a Gaza-style settler clearance (inconceivable under current conditions, it seems to me). I would love to talk to him about it – and to try and gauge Arab opinion about Sheikh Bukhari in Jerusalem and Ibtisam Mahameed in Faradis. Are they admired? Respected? Marginalised? Ridiculed?

…but I’m not going to blog about that.

Instead I’m going to blog about this story in yesterday’s Jordan Times – which I followed as it unfolded on Queen Rania’s Twitter page. The Queen and Minister of Tourism went to Rasoun, a small village in northern Jordan, to mark the launch of the ministry’s project establishing walking trails in under-developed rural areas. I was in Rasoun a few weeks ago for the Independent: it’s a simple country town, set in a beautiful landscape of forested hills. Down in the valleys, streams water orchards of fig, olive and pomegranate. Up on the slopes are a few hard-to-find towns: Rasoun itself, Orjan, Baoun, with some smaller villages, linked by goat tracks. Some people are farmers, but most are public sector employees: civil servants, police, army.

Last year I also passed through Rasoun during a stay in a nature reserve run by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), which occupies a swathe of forest on the hilltop nearby. They operate a network of rural trails through the reserve, crossing Rasoun’s remote countryside.

Then I revisited the area this April to walk the Al-Ayoun Trail, a separate concern originating in a cooperative effort among the local villagers to introduce tourism to their area. This has been fostered by the Abraham Path Initiative (API), an American organisation seeking to establish an international walking route linking sites of Abrahamic interest across the Middle East. I’ve written in more detail about the Abraham Path for Wanderlust magazine and the Times. The API discussed cooperation with the RSCN in Rasoun, but were rebuffed (so I understand) by the RSCN’s policy of insisting that anyone walking on its paths must pay for an RSCN guide to accompany them. So instead the Al-Ayoun Trail runs around the reserve perimeter, purposely routed through the villages in order to encourage interaction between walkers and villagers.

Now the Jordan Times is reporting how the Ministry of Tourism wants to establish its own, compeletely separate walking paths in the Rasoun area, following neither the RSCN’s routes nor the existing Al-Ayoun Trail.

It’s a circus! From five years ago, when Rasoun was unknown and unvisited, suddenly everyone from lowly British hacks to the Queen herself are busy visiting, talking and planning. The poor Rasounis must be wondering what they’ve done to deserve it.

Why isn’t everyone co-operating? The background is complicated, but it boils down to this. The RSCN don’t like to work with anyone else: they set their own rules, devise their own business plans and pursue their own goals. They also have closer links with the Ministry of Environment than the Ministry of Tourism, who tend, as a consequence, to leave them alone.

The API has a different vision: their raison d’etre is to bring travellers and local people into contact with one another. For them, the RSCN’s trails, which bypass centres of population to traverse wild countryside, miss the point.

Yet the Jordanian tourism ministry, for its part, is suspicious of the API, since the Al-Ayoun Trail is intended to form one link in the longer Abraham Path (map here), which will connect across the border into Palestine and Israel. The underlying idea – to encourage Jordanians to follow the pilgrimage route into Israel and to encourage Israelis to walk the path in Jordan – is anathema to mainstream Jordanian opinion. The government, I’m sure, feels like it can’t be seen to condone such overt ‘normalisation’, let alone support it. Yet promoting rural development through sustainable tourism is a key theme in the government’s – and the king’s – plans for the next few years, especially in the beautiful, downtrodden region around Rasoun. So with the API cold-shouldered, and the RSCN playing the lone wolf, the government has chosen to go it alone, drawing in (to my knowledge) at least one ex-API specialist to help map new walking routes that follow none of the existing paths.

But how unseemly it all is! Rasoun is such a little place, in an unregarded corner of a much-overlooked country – does it merit a squabble? Aside from anything else, I wonder how sustainable three separately plotted, separately waymarked, separately guided (and, no doubt, separately charged) walking routes can be, in this tiny backwater.

The worst is that everybody is fighting about promoting walking and the enjoyment of nature! It’s such a simple idea: meet, talk, walk, for the benefit of all. Make contact through the physicality of walking on the land, and it becomes possible not just to share experience, but to compare experience. But if nobody can agree in Rasoun, what hope is there for the bigger picture?

Those who plough on regardless hoping or imagining that competing interests will just fade away are condemned to a life in denial. That applies in politics just as much as in business – or in building communities. Ideas are nothing without people. It seems that the Jerusalem Peacemakers – unlike almost everyone else – have realised that to bring about a desired goal (peace) you have to work with all the resources available to you (settlers, non-settlers, Palestinians inside and outside Israel, Jews, Muslims…). The Jordanian tourism authorities, if they wish to bring about the goal of sustainable rural development through tourism, should also be working with all the resources they have – which include, in this case, both the RSCN and the API. Even if the prospect of Israelis walking in the Rasoun hills upsets them, they should hold their noses and work to make it happen. Benefit may accrue – and ignoring the problem will not make it go away.