By Raed Saadeh
One of the unforgettable memories that seems to accompany my few morning moments most days since I was a child is the smell of taboun bread stuffed with spinach saturating the air as it mixed with the first dawn light outside my grandparents’ house. I would watch my grandmother’s hands blend into the darkness of the taboun oven as she fiddled with the bread back and forth before laying it to rest on the stone bed in the bottom of the oven. My grandmother did this sacredly every day as part of the breakfast preparation ceremony.
I guess I developed a connection to the countryside of Palestine guided by my grandmother’s passion for the fields, the fig trees, the apricots, and the sage or mint herbs that we picked to prepare tea. We would wait for the rest of the family to get up to prepare breakfast under the grape pergola. My grandmother made everything herself: the jam, the labaneh balls dipped in oil, the olives, the pickles, and the zeit and zaatar. Her kindness taught me to care for the little things around me; the sound of the birds, the small vegetable garden, the chickens running around in the coop, and the olive terraces leading down into the valley through a set of intertwined narrow paths where shade is abundant during hot summer days. My grandmother’s generosity was an enlightenment and a stone-engraved lesson in rural hospitality and graciousness.
What does rural Palestine offer beyond this affability? A diverse landscape, a commanding series of olive-tree-covered mountains, and a historically immersed serene Palestinian village are some of the first thoughts that might come to mind. In my involvement with organisations such as the Rozana Association for Rural Tourism Development working from Birzeit, NEPTO (the Network of Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations), Masar Ibrahim, and others, I have been active in promoting community-based rural tourism throughout the West Bank. All our work is based on a simple platform idea that aims to identify the resources and capacities that exist in rural areas and that are able to add value to and benefit the local community. Needless to say, resources in the rural areas are abundant and include elements of architecture, handcrafts, environment, nature, food, culture, and heritage. Consolidated together these elements not only form attractive packages for visitors and guests, they also contribute to the building efforts of a differentiated Palestinian identity. I used to think that people who are as connected to the land as my grandparents could convert everything they touch into gold, given that they were able to create many things seemingly from nothing. The lands in rural Palestine can provide for the well being of our people. They are our food basket and our heritage. Our villages are immersed in history and they tell the story of an ancient people whose roots reach beyond time and civilisation.
Beyond the diverse landscape, the commanding olive mountains, and the historically immersed serene Palestinian villages, the Rozana Association is engrossed around the clock in its efforts to offer visitors and guests a bundle of educational, cultural, and community-based activities and initiatives. These include the Birzeit Heritage Week, the Maftoul Festival, the Abraham Path, and the Sufi Trails, as well as an enticing holistic rehabilitation of village historic centres, shrines, maqams, Byzantine churches, and other historic sites, and the opportunity to meet and stay with the local communities in order to engage rural Palestine in socio-economic and cultural development.
The question remains: How do we move forward beyond this potential? All organisations that are involved in community-based tourism supported by a strategic cooperation within the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities have been converging towards a holistic vision that reflects the shape of the Palestinian rural-tourism product. The vision is based on a network of thematic trails and paths and a number of centres for local culture, all of which are linked together and developed in harmony and synchronisation, building and sharing synergies, resources, and capacities. One of the main pillars is a long trail that runs through the West Bank from Rummaneh in the north to Hebron and its vicinity in the south. This trail is locally called Masar Ibrahim and is essentially a cultural trail that zigzags between villages, fostering the Palestinian culture of hospitality, friendship, and kindness. National Geographic recently ranked this trail as the number one new trail in the world. It forms a spine as it crosses the entire West Bank. Masar Ibrahim intersects with the Nativity Trail in several areas as it connects between Bethlehem and Nazareth. Both trails also link with a network of Sufi trails, led by the Rozana Association. The Sufi trails model is based on a network of hub villages that operate as centres from which a number of trails originate. These are also cultural trails that attempt to promote local resources, history, heritage, landscape, environment, and an opportunity to meet and benefit the local rural communities.
A centre of local culture can be a village, a cluster of villages, or even a historic site. Its structure requires a consolidation of all stakeholders that operate within its centre in order to form a unified management that grows into an attractive and beneficial destination for local and international visitors. There are many places in Palestine that can become centres of local culture. One such example is Battir, west of Bethlehem. The inhabitants have succeeded in attracting people to visit their eco-museum of historic terraces and agricultural irrigation ducts. Efforts are under way to nominate Battir as a World Heritage site.
Creating trails, paths, and centres of local culture is only the beginning of a rural-tourism development endeavour. As people visit rural attractions and sites, intermingle with the local communities, and buy their products, the interest grows in understanding and appreciating what can be developed and improved. On this level, interventions and future initiatives include the rehabilitation and transformation of village historic centres. It also includes the rehabilitation of shrines and historic sites and considering whether to convert them into community parks. Such interventions might result in creating and improving village community centres, interpretation centres, handcraft production, capacity building, and training of community guides as well as home-stay managers. Signage, services, and infrastructure need to be addressed as well. This type of activity is not only about attracting visitors to rural areas; more importantly, it is about the protection of the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental balances.
One main element that should never be bypassed is the role of the local rural communities in planning and deciding their future. This starts with a coordination visit with the municipality and local references, identifying local experts, connecting with the local organisations and working in partnership and synergy to develop rural Palestine.Article photos by Emile Ashrawi.
No matter what I dream about or wish for, a visit to any rural community or village has so far not failed in enticing my imagination and fulfilling my inner peace. It is within this inner peace that I constantly remember my grandparents and silently thank them for my rural self.
Mr. Raed Saadeh is the co-founder and chairman of the Rozana Association for Architectural Heritage Conservation and Rural Tourism Development based in Birzeit. Mr. Saadeh is also the owner and general manager of the Jerusalem Hotel, a boutique hotel in Jerusalem, the current president of the Arab (Palestinian) Hotel Association (AHA), and the co-founder of the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations (NEPTO).
NEPTO, the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations, is an umbrella coordination organisation that brings together many NGOs whose work and activities advance the concepts and purpose of experiential and community-based tourism in Palestine. Some partner organisations are involved in developing tour packages, trails and paths in rural areas, and eco, cultural, religious, and solidarity tourism. Others organise cultural and heritage festivals in villages around the country, while still others are involved in fair trade and local production, environment and wildlife, and architectural heritage preservation and rehabilitation.
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