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One Man’s Quest To Walk The Middle East

There are many arguments for it being unwise to walk, mostly alone, through the Middle East, including war, terrorism and punishing heat, which is just one of the reasons why Leon McCarron decided to do it

For all the expeditions that involve climbing or sailing, riding or hauling, sometimes the most radical act possible is to simply go for a walk. If you follow the news it can seem like half of our world is a no-go zone, but putting one foot in front of the other can overturn such preconceptions.

For seasoned adventurer Leon McCarron, walking is more than just locomotion: it’s about curiosity, a desire to see over the next hill, and it’s also about connection. In 2015 he decided to step out into the Middle East to cross cultural, political and religious boundaries to explore realms with fascinating, buried histories.

Setting out from Jerusalem, he travelled through the West Bank and followed wild hiking routes tracking ancient trading and pilgrimage routes. onto Jordan’s legendary Wadi Rum. His journey’s end was in the depthless deserts of the Sinai, haunted by its Biblical past...

People always talk about the hospitality and kindness to strangers – it’s an innate part of the culture

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Q: What made you want to go to an area that's often regarded as off-limits, especially now?
A:
‘I’m really curious about places that have such a strong, and generally negative, reputation. My experience of travelling, and of life in general, is that generalisations are normally pretty inaccurate. The Middle East is amazingly diverse – I learned that pretty quickly. To say it’s dangerous, or full of extremists, or whatever else is the same as making any broad statement about large swathes of Europe; nothing can encompass that many people, ideas and identities.’

Q: Was there a reason you decided to walk – after all, you rode 14,000 miles from New York to Hong Kong?
A:
‘I have invested a lot of time into the concept of slow travel, and slow journalism – to borrow a phrase from Paul Salopek – and I’d wondered if moving like this through a part of the Middle East would make some of the nuances rise to the surface, and give me an opportunity to show off the humanity, as a counterpoint to the high-level geopolitical manoeuvring that we hear about so often.’

Q: What was the typical reaction from people you met there?
A:
‘Overwhelmingly, it was very warm. People who’ve visited always talk about the hospitality and kindness to strangers there, and that’s because it’s an innate part of the culture – it’s a way of life to look after visitors. So I was made very welcome. There would often be questions about why I was there, and what I was doing, and what I thought of the town, village, camp, family or whatever, but it was usually a very gentle line of questioning, and always accompanied by tea and some food.’

Q: What was the most surprising reaction?
A:
‘Close to the city of Kerak in Jordan, a man called Mahmoud saw me walking. I’d been going for 14 or more hours that day, and was feeling pretty run down in general. Mahmoud brought me into his home and insisted I stayed because I looked so tired. Then when I told him what I’d been up to, he asked if I would allow him and his sons to wash my feet, because they must be sore after such a long journey. I was worried that the smell of my feet would kill this poor guy, but he insisted. This is the sort of experience that really humbled me, and which I’m privileged to have been part of, and proud to share.’

Q: Did you get much of a sense of how the West in general is viewed there?
A:
There are lot of crossovers culturally in the bigger towns and cities these days, so a lot of Western life feels or seems familiar to many people that I’d meet. Mostly though it was just a curiosity. There was rarely if ever any animosity towards people – occasionally there was towards governments. Why would America do X, Y or Z?, which causes unrest in the region, for example. Mostly though, people were curious as to what the west thought of them; more specifically, people wonder: “Why does the west not like or trust us?” There’s a sense that the poor reputation of the Middle East is unfounded and unfair.’

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Q: Was there a time when you thought you were genuinely out of your depth?
A:
‘The physical and mental pressures of hiking continuously meant that at times, in some of the tougher parts, I really wondered why I was doing this, and particularly doing it again – I’ve walked long distances before. There was some loneliness when I got low on the solo sections, and combined with exhaustion and cumulative aches and pains it starts to eat away. But that’s also just how expeditions work, and generally after a good meal, or sleep, or a random encounter with someone interesting, I’d feel much better.’

Q: Was there a place that you'd want more people to visit, if there wasn't such an aura of inaccessibility around it?
A:
‘The West Bank is one of my favourite places in the world. Palestinians are so friendly to strangers, and so welcoming to walkers in the areas I passed through. There’s a trail there – the Masar Ibrahim al Khalil – and I’d love more people to experience that.’

Q: What would you recommend we all could do to improve our understanding of the Middle East?
A:
‘I think just to have an open mind. Go to somewhere like Jordan which is accessible and easy to get to. If that’s not feasible then just try to absorb media from a wider range of sources. A lot of the misperceptions of the Middle East are also tied to misperceptions of Arab culture, and particularly of Islam, so it’s always good to engage with these closer to home. Having Muslim friends and eating Arab food shouldn’t have to be forced, but in general the more we know about other cultures from direct interactions, the more understanding we are.’

McCarron’s book on his walk, The Land Beyond, is available from Amazon and you can find out more here www.leonmccarron.com

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