Pioneering Hajj Reporter Is (Literally) Charting a Path Toward Mideast Peace

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Emmy winner who believes hiking the Middle East could bring Israeli-Palestinian coexistence

Anisa Mehdi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Anisa Mehdi, 62, lives in New Jersey; arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Israel?

I’m here for an initiative called the Abraham Path. We try to broaden awareness about the people and cultures of Southwest Asia.

Excuse me, but where is Southwest Asia?

Right here. This region is known as the Middle East, but we don’t use that term, because we’re not into politics. Southwest Asia sounds less frightening.

Definitely. What is the Abraham Path?

It’s an organization that was founded in 2007 at Harvard University by an expert on negotiations named William Ury. The idea was to use the story and the road taken by the patriarch Abraham, the very same path he followed, to bring people together. We are not a political or religious organization, but we believe that if people can walk together shoulder to shoulder – physically, not metaphorically – in the same direction, on the ground, in nature, in the hills, they will understand that it doesn’t matter what separates us, and that what we have in common is greater.

And what if people get lost?

We are a group that supports tourism, that hopes to help the economic development of local communities. When we mark the path, we go through small towns and train people to be group leaders, and we find families willing to host the hikers. It takes years. For the local people, it’s both an income and an opportunity to be more involved in the world. Our founder says that it’s an opportunity to transform hostility into hospitality.

Where is the path?

It’s a path of 2,000 kilometers that passes through Palestine, Sinai, Jordan and Turkey. We used to be in Syria, too, but that’s been put on hold. Abraham was apparently born in Iraq, in Mesopotamia, and went north to Aram and Urfa. The Turks claim that he was in their part of the world in his youth and later went along the Jordan River and arrived here. He also wandered about in Sinai and reached ancient Memphis in Egypt, where he brought Hagar from.

Quite a journey.

And he did it on foot or riding a camel, like everyone at that time. Even though it’s not clear whether there even was such a person, it’s a marvelous story.

How did you get involved in the organization?

My mother is from Nova Scotia and my father is from Baghdad. They met at university in Berkeley. I grew up in a Christian-Muslim family in New York, in an area with a large Jewish population. So I went to a lot of seders. I grew up in a very pro-Palestinian home. My father was a well-known spokesman for Palestinian rights, and in 1960s New York, that wasn’t a popular approach. In general, people didn’t believe there was such a thing as Palestinians then; from their point of view there were only Arabs. One reason I went to work in the media world was that I didn’t like the way people treated my father.

How was he treated?

Well, people thought he hated the Jews, even though he never spoke for or against them – he just had a problem with Zionism as a movement and with the expulsion of people from their homes. He was attacked by the Jewish Defense League. We needed police protection more than once. There were even some teachers who didn’t like my parents, so they gave me poor grades, even though I was an excellent student.

What did you do in the media?

I had a wonderful career in television. I worked for “60 Minutes.” I was an arts reporter, because my first love in the world is music, and I was also a reporter on religion, and even won two Emmys.

Wow. For what?

I was the first American to present the hajj on American television. I accompanied one of 7,000 Muslim Americans who made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He was an African American, really charismatic, the father of a girl from my daughter’s class. I followed him, and he showed the Americans that there is a legitimate Muslim population which until then had been invisible. At that time there were no Arabs or Muslims in the newsrooms in the United States, and certainly no Arab women. Since then we’re more present in the public domain. This year we have two Muslim women in Congress.

Liri Sandel.
Tomer Appelbaum

Liri Sandel, 22, lives in Abirim, in Upper Galilee; flying to Hanoi

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Vietnam?

I’m going with three girlfriends on a post-army trip and also after working at a “priority job” [for discharged soldiers, who receive a special grant].

What was it?

I worked in agriculture on Kibbutz Tzuba. Apples, lettuce, nectarines, vineyards; trimming, pruning, harvesting. In the winter, you deal with irrigation and also do pruning of the grapevines. The vineyard was the most fun.

Why?

It’s tough with apples, you have to hold a huge electric pruner and look upward all day – my shoulders are really strong. In the vineyard the work is more straightforward, manual, but easier. I worked there for nine months. Farming is the only thing I’m familiar with and know how to do, it comes naturally to me.

You’re a country girl?

Yes. Abirim is a small, remote village that’s located in an oak forest. It’s a community that was built with the aim of doing as little damage as possible to nature. The houses aren’t allowed to be taller than the trees. Everything has to be integrated into the surroundings, and there’s nothing grandiose or fancy.

What was it like growing up in a forest?

I’m the youngest in a family of five, and we’re all really into nature and the environment. The fact that we lived in a place where there’s awareness of the need to maintain environmental quality and a love of animals and plants was hard but worthwhile, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Why hard and why worthwhile?

Hard, because it takes 40 minutes to get to the nearest city – Nahariya, Carmiel or Safed – so you’re dependent on your parents until you get a driver’s license. It’s tough for the parents, too. And worthwhile, because it was really good for me: I am at my best in nature, outside. Even when I’m not in Abirim, I just go out and breathe cold air, and it’s amazing. There’s a feeling of freshness in nature. It lets you attain inner calm. Just about every choice in my life has been related in some way to nature. I feel fortunate compared to people who live in the city.

Does the city arouse other sorts of feelings in you?

I feel alien in the city, even though when I visit friends there, I am impressed because they have an all-night supermarket nearby.

Are those the girlfriends you’re going to Vietnam with?

Yes, we know each other from the army. We operated Hummers, which was great, definitely a good period of service. Like a battalion of boys – but it was only girls. From the unit’s headquarters down to the grunts. We drove Hummers during tactical maneuvers and tried to “conquer” hills.

And now you’ll conquer Vietnam?

We’ll travel there first and then go on to Laos and Cambodia. By June-July, I hope we’ll get to Mongolia.

Why Mongolia?

I’m interested in remote, isolated places. I want to live for a bit in a village there and get to know local life. Besides, I have a real thing for horses.

Do you ride?

Yes. When I was little I wanted to ride horses but my parents said no, because I was too small. I started when I was 6 and it was the greatest fun in the world. During my year of national service before the army I was a volunteer at a ranch where they do therapy with horses; it opened up a whole world. I saw how the connection with the horse was absolutely therapeutic. I felt like an understanding existed between us.

Whenever I tighten the saddle on the horse, I wonder whether it likes people to ride it.

I’ve asked myself that a lot. I don’t know. There’s this term in taming a horse – to “break” the animal – which is terrible. I don’t know if it’s all right or not to ride them. Maybe it’s not what they want.

Do you have plans for after the trip?

To be a photographer, I think. I have a dream of being a photographer for National Geographic, but that’s a really long way off. And I would also be happy to do illustrations for flower guidebooks – but I think that’s a profession that has become extinct.