Learning from Bassam Almohor, Paul’s guide through the West Bank, Palestine

Out of Eden Learn recently invited Bassam Almohor to be the guest of honor at a Google+ Hangout with Out of Eden Learn educators and students. Bassam was Paul’s walking guide through the West Bank and is an accomplished writer, photographer, and videographer in his own right. Our hour-long conversation with him proved to be both enlightening and entertaining. We learned, for example, that:

  • Bassam thinks you need “legs of steel” to be Paul’s guide.
  • Their most uncomfortable night’s sleep was in a cold village community hall near Ramallah, with Bassam lying on a round table and Paul taking the small hospital bed that Bassam turned down because he thought it might give him nightmares.
  • Bassam got a break from Paul each evening because as soon as they stopped walking, Paul jumped on to his small laptop for the rest of the evening, trying to keep up with his writing assignments.
  • Bassam thinks that Paul resembles Data from Star Trek.

On a more serious note, I think our conversation with Bassam yielded several important insights:

  1. Paul’s guides play an essential role in the Out of Eden Walk, in no small part because of their deep contextual knowledge of the places where he walks.

Bassam was asked about the special qualifications required to become Paul’s guide. He said that in addition to physical fitness and knowing how to find your way around and monitor the weather, you need to understand politics, geography, and people. Further, in a divided land such as Palestine, you need to know how to navigate both the visible and the invisible borders that exist and be able to win people’s trust by being friendly and open. While Paul did considerable prior research and knew the kinds of things he wanted to see, it was up to Bassam to work out a viable route. When asked what his biggest fear was when walking with Paul, Bassam referred to the enormous trust that Paul places in his guides and said he felt a responsibility to represent his country: “I wanted to show him what is meaningful in this place, my biggest fear was misunderstanding … he trusts his guides a lot and he listens to them carefully and their directions.”

  1. The guides’ perspectives on the walk are necessarily different to Paul’s even though they enjoy a powerful, shared experience on the trail.

Praising Paul’s observational skills and unique way of looking at the world, Bassam said: “You are walking with Paul and you see him take a photo and then he publishes a photo and you say, “Oh I didn’t see that.”” But Bassam’s comment points to a bigger truth: that two people walking the same route will likely notice different things. Moreover, events that happen along the way will mean different things for different walkers and they will choose to highlight different things. For example, Paul in Pneumococcus describes how he fell sick on the trail; he uses this experience to write about the development of infectious diseases as humans transitioned from a nomadic to a pastoral lifestyle and to contrast the sterile nature of the desert he has just left behind to this densely populated new environment. Bassam talks about this incident in far more practical terms: he became worried by Paul’s physical appearance and persistent coughing and forced him to turn around to seek medical attention despite his initial reluctance to do so. Bassam’s version of events does not contradict Pauls’ version but adds a different perspective: as Paul’s guide he felt responsible for Paul’s wellbeing and became alarmed that his walking companion was getting dangerously sick.

  1. The Out of Eden Walk can serve as a catalyst to inspire others to create their own “slow journalism”

Bassam exemplifies the ways in which Paul’s walk can inspire others to take learning journeys of their own: “Walking with Paul and experiencing the land in that way led me to whenever I walk the land to look for stories and look for meanings and I look for ways to share those stories to the outside world.” Bassam now writes monthly pieces that are translated into Hebrew for the Israeli press; the original pieces, which he writes in Arabic are featured on his own blog. His pieces are photo stories that convey the “normal” everyday life of Palestinians from a foot level perspective. During the Hangout he told us a beautiful story. That very day he had came across a father and son harvesting wheat. Because he had shown an interest in their work and lives, the pair took a break for five minutes and sang a song for Bassam: “What makes a place nice is not the nature and not the geography and not the skyscrapers or the advancement of technology: it’s the people.”

Indeed, Bassam feels a particular moral imperative to share the stories of his fellow Palestinians: “The problem is you’ll hear about the violence from a small aperture, a very small opening of a camera, and this frame of the camera is so small, it’s so tiny. And unfortunately the news industry only focuses on the hot things, the blood, the fire – not the 99% of the time where it’s cool and nice. … That’s why you see the country and you think burning, fire, all of it. No! You can find loads of peaceful places and peaceful people running around their normal lives. But nobody reports about them.” For him, Paul’s work as a journalist is so important precisely because he is telling the kinds of stories that normally remain untold.

Looking ahead we hope to feature the voices and perspectives of Paul’s guides more prominently within our learning community: we made a start with our interview with Vito Uplisashvili, Paul’s youngest guide to date. At the end of our conversation with Bassam, he shared a parting message to our students and educators that could serve as a kind of motto for Out of Eden Learn: “There are loads of untold stories in the world out there, outside your door, waiting for someone to pick them up. So go out there and hunt for them.”

You can watch the full conversation with Bassam Almohor here.

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