In just over a week, I will set off out of Jerusalem to walk the masar (Arabic for 'Path') - 1000 miles on foot through the Heart of the Middle East. 

When asked to think of the Middle East, what comes to mind? Deserts and princes; camels and fairytales? Perhaps.

Ancient citadels on rocky outcrops and sleek new cities, petrodollars glinting out from the glass-walled skyscrapers? Maybe.

The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS (IS, ISIL, Da’esh)? Sadly, this is all too often most common, at least among those who have never been to the area.

Politics, dictators, terrorism - the unholy triumvirate of reportage from the Middle East. The rise, fall and brutality of such things form my earliest memories of the region, listening from a distance as I was growing up in rural Northern Ireland (we loved hearing about bad guys worse than our own.) Those far off desert lands seemed simply to be a place where awful wars happened sporadically, and occasionally the USA had to go intervene to try and make it better. There was never (in my memory) another side presented – it was all too possible to forget, or not even think, that there might be a majority of very ordinary, peace-loving people there.

{As an aside, and a useful lesson on perspective – in my early days of travelling I once found myself stuck in a lengthy airport queue in Doha, and I began to chat with the two men either side of me. They were a Yemeni and a Somali, and they joked that I must be used to queuing coming from England. I corrected them, mentioning Northern Ireland. “My goodness!” one said. The other looked aghast. “But isn’t that place terribly dangerous?”}

I’m lucky now to have travelled quite widely in certain parts of the Middle East, and to have had any misconceptions truly and utterly vanquished. It's an overwhelmingly beautiful and hospitable place; I’m now planning my third expedition there in as many years and I recently moved to Gulf- to the quaint port city of Muscat, wedged picturesquely between jagged beige mountains and the pale blue of the Indian Ocean.

As a general rule I try to travel by human power when I can, and the world that I find on these journeys is awe-inspiringly friendly (perhaps because of the vulnerability of arriving on foot or by bike, or perhaps just because it’s a fact that most people will go out of their way to help a stranger in need.) Recent trips in Oman and Iran left me convinced that, despite stiff competition, the Middle East is perhaps the friendliest of all places on a generally already very friendly earth (I won’t comment on whether Arab or Persian hospitality wins out though- that’s too close to call.)

I've been lucky to have had all these enlightening personal experiences. Yet I can’t recall the last time I heard a positive story from anywhere in the Gulf, or the Levant, or Iran, or North Africa, or anywhere close by – at least not in mainstream media. This journey that Dave and I are proposing is a conscious effort to try and find (and share) a different narrative. We will walk the trails, wadis, canyons and deserts around the Dead Sea; wandering amongst some of the most impressive landscapes on earth, and between cultures that lay claim to being the earliest hotbeds of civilisation. It’s a chance to travel slowly, to see the sights and meet the people on our route (people who share the same values as I do, as most of us do; people who want to work hard,  look after their families, have fun.)

In our digitised, technologically enabled world, we can feel like we are more connected to the rest of the world than ever before with 24/7 global news delivered straight to the tiny computers in our pockets. Yet that connection is often misleading – the riches of our planet are far too great to be reduced to the contents of a reporter’s dispatch (then skim-read by tired commuters through a 4-inch screen.) To understand the world to any real degree we must travel in person and feel the hot winds of the Sahara in our hair, or the wet brush of an Amazonian vine on our face (or the enormous blood-filled blister obscuring at least three of our toes – you get my point.) We must not be fooled into thinking that the world is small - I have spent years of my life walking and cycling on it, and I can report truthfully that it’s reassuring (exhaustingly!) vast, beyond all comprehension that I can muster.

So to come back to the point – this journey will actively attempt to not be political. It takes place in a part of the world where geopolitics dominates our understanding, and so a backdrop must be set. But the land, and many of the people, have been there much longer than the conflict. This is why Dave and I look at the route by region rather than country and why I think that the best way to depoliticise a place is by humanising it – by giving a voice to those who rarely get the opportunity to be heard, but who represent that rarest of things in storytelling from the Middle East – normality.

We set off on 1st December! Follow our journey:
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