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Theatre Brings Community Based Tourism to the Classroom

The Abraham Path’s success depends entirely on local investment. Therefore, much of the efforts to build sustainable infastructure for tourism along the path involve increasing awareness and understanding among local communities. This outreach can involve everything from simply building personal relationships to running skill-building workshops or programs in local schools.

A great example of this is a play that Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil, our partner organization, commisioned to be written by Manal El-Kassis. The play had 13 showings, primarily in different villages along the path. It was mostly geared toward youth, using drama and comedy to introduce the concept of community based tourism as a way to share the culture and history of rural areas with travelers from around the world.

The performances were often a part of a larger school program, where students participated in discussions and prepared research projects about the path’s role in their communities.

Click on the images below to see a few pictures of students enjoying the events, but also be sure to keep an eye out for the soon-to-be-published video!

(All pictures by Elias Halabi/API)

“On the Abraham Path, I feel 20 years younger”

“I’m a smoker and I’m not a young man; but on the Abraham Path, I feel 20 years younger.” When travelers walk with local guide Abu Ayman today, they would never guess that he was not very confident in his walking skills on his first walk on a scouting trip between his village of Araba and nearby Sanur. “I wasn’t sure if I could walk all that way, so I was planning to duck out halfway through an olive grove and go home,” he jokes.

But when he arrived in Sanur, he thought to himself, “That wasn’t that hard.” And he began to think that if he was able to walk from Araba to Sanur, surely he could walk all the way to Nablus, and then to Hebron, and perhaps the whole way across the Middle East! He has begun walking to work every day, three kilometers each way, and has worked as a local guide on almost all of the walks in the northern sections of the Abraham Path.

One treat of walking with Abu Ayman is his knowledge of plants and herbs found in nature. One moment, he will hand a walker a springy, succulent sprig of wild asparagus; the next, a juicy, wild fennel bulb. Depending on the season, he is often gathering greens and herbs to take home for his wife to cook into tasty traditional dishes. “We learned about nature as children. We spent a lot of time outdoors, learning about the plants and animals and landscapes,” he says.

Abu Ayman enjoys getting to know people from around the world who come to walk the path. “I want travelers to know that people here are not like what they see in the media. We are kind and welcoming people, with culture and traditions. This is a beautiful area and we invite people to come experience it with us.”

“Abraham Is a Notion that Half of Humankind Is Believing”

“Abraham is a notion that half of humankind is believing.  It’s a very low common denominator that connects people to something that’s easy to identify with.”

When David Benshabat and his wife Tali moved to Har Amasa almost 20 years ago, the community was small – only ten or eleven families lived in the forested village overlooking the Judean Desert.  For many years, David and Tali continued to share their hometown with only a handful of neighbors.  Then, about two years ago, newcomers began to pour into the village; and Har Amasa absorbed almost three times as many residents as it had previously contained.  The fabric of the town naturally began to change as a diverse community was built beneath the pines.   David and Tali found themselves brushing shoulders with musicians, potters, permaculturists, farmers making biodiesel from goat manure… As David is quick to admit with a sly grin, “There are a bunch of crazy people here.”  Despite this broad range of interests, though, the Har Amasa community has succeeded in finding shared ground and growing into a close-knit living environment.   Commonalities like a desire to live close to the earth in an environmentally conscious manner have helped establish a baseline for mutual understanding.

This knitting together of the residents of Har Amasa is also representative of the ways in which David and Tali have felt their community turning outward and engaging with its surroundings.  David believes that his region is uniquely placed in the Middle East.  Geographically and demographically, Har Amasa and its environs are characterized by variety.  “This area is…if you come and live here, it shows you many challenges,” he explains.  “It’s not simple terrain.  We’re at a crossroads of different geographies – mountains and desert and forest.  And we’re also at a crossroads of different communities, different identities.  In a very small square of five by five kilometers, you can find every identity of this region.”  David frequently refers to his region as a collage or a “playground of identities”; yet even amidst the different backgrounds surrounding him, he feels deeply connected to all his neighbors by one of his academic passions: the existence of a common linguistic heritage.

David firmly believes that the connectedness of the Semitic languages – specifically, of Hebrew and Arabic – allows him and fellow speakers of those languages to understand both biblical and shared cultural narratives in a uniquely meaningful way.  Pointing out that Abraham himself was thinking in Hebrew, David contends that modern speakers of Hebrew have an innate ability to connect to concepts that are contained in the very words of Abraham’s narrative and in other cultural narratives in a profound way; and the presence of many similar structures, features, and words between Semitic languages similarly allows David and many in his community to connect to the narratives of their Arabic-speaking neighbors.

Based on the feeling of shared heritage created by these linguistic ties, David has gone into business with some of those Arabic-speaking neighbors.  Together, a group of them produce organic grape juice, diligently ensuring that their production methods don’t harm the earth.  On the back of each bottle is their slogan, featuring two Hebrew words – zulatanut and svivatanut, defined as caring for one’s fellowman and caring for the environment.  The connection between these words is critical, David says: only by engaging with and connecting to the people living in our communities and cohabiting our space can we find the motivation necessary to properly care for that space.

This mindset is constantly thrusting David and Tali into new settings and communities and identities.  But they cherish this turbulence as a part of their Abrahamic heritage.  As Tali points out, Abraham was the first person to be called a Hebrew – an Ivri.  The word means one who passes or crosses – from one country to another, one people to another, one mentality to another.  “This is what our language means,” she says: “To be a nomad in thought, not only in physical geographies.”

“The Relationship We Have with Visitors is Beautiful.”

“When we have visitors, I give them cooking lessons. I take them to the orchards, and we pick plums, and then I teach them how to make jam. One visitor went back to America and held an Arabic dinner party. She made a lot of dishes that I taught her, like maqlouba and gallaya.  They loved it.  She put photos of the party on Facebook. The relationship we have with visitors is beautiful.”

When Maysoun and her family first began hosting guests from the Abraham Path in their home, the presence of visitors from around the world seemed strange.  Neither she nor her neighbors were used to seeing foreigners around their homes, and they didn’t know how to interact with them.  Now, though, Maysoun and her family and community have come to value the tourists who stay with them and the intercultural friendships that are formed during the time they spend together.  Maysoun appreciates the opportunities to talk with a broad array of people and to learn about other places and cultures, and she loves watching her children play with other children from around the world.  As much as her family enjoys learning from their visitors, though, they are even more eager to share their own experiences – to show guests what games they play, how they harvest olives, what their lives are like.  For Maysoun, the arrival of new guests signals a chance to share one of her great talents – her incredible wealth of culinary knowledge and skills.  The world of Middle Eastern cooking is one that Maysoun knows well; and introducing new friends to that world has been a rewarding experience for her that, in turn, has created educational and culturally rich experiences for travelers.

The opportunities presented to Maysoun and her family by the Abraham Path extend beyond just cultural exchange.  Maysoun’s daughter Hiba is currently in fourth grade, and her parents realize that she will be finished with her primary education in only eight short years.  They know that sending Hiba to university will cost them a significant amount of money, and the income brought in from the homestay allows them to start saving for those expenses now.

How else has the family planned to use the added income?  They recently bought a laptop, which they use to maintain the long-distance friendships they’ve been building with Abraham Path walkers; and they hope to soon be able to buy a camera.  Other than that, their main goal is to invest in their home – Maysoun intends to expand their house and farm someday so that they can comfortably accommodate more guests.  She hopes her family will never stop hosting hikers, she says, and that the number of travelers who stay with her family will only increase as time goes on. Expanding their house will allow them to expand the capacity of their hospitality and, at the same time, to expand the range of experiences and friendships available to them between the walls of their own home.

Foreign visitors may have seemed strange and intimidating once; but as far as Maysoun is concerned, they’ve become a permanent fixture in her family’s life and home.

Kulli, kulli! Eat, Eat!

“Kulli! Eat!”

Just barely remembering my manners, I uttered a quick “Shukran,” before taking my first bite, thanking the Palestinian woman placing heaping plates of rice and chicken and stuffed grape leaves on the table in front of me. My gratitude was entirely genuine, and I began to shovel the food down rapidly, eager to replace the last 15 kilometers’ worth of calories. As one of the local guides reached across the table to load up his dish with seconds, he paused, observed all of us in the midst of our feeding frenzy, and smiled. “We have an old Palestinian saying,” he told us. “It’s something like…” he struggled for a moment, searching for the best way to convey the heart of the proverb in English. “It’s something like, ‘As much as you love, this is how much you will eat.’” And, having shared this with us, he shamelessly scooped another mountain of the delicious, home-cooked food onto his plate.eatting

We laughed, agreeing that our appetites had rendered us a pretty loving bunch after our first day hiking on the new Jenin section of the Abraham Path. But the old proverb stuck with me over the next five days, repeating itself frequently in my mind. As much as you love, this is how much you will eat. I was reminded of the phrase later that night, when I sat on the couch with our homestay family in their living room. Next to me sat the family’s grandmother, her face tanned and weathered from 80 years of Middle Eastern sunshine but her eyes still alert and curious and her mouth more given to grinning than to any other expression. Noticing I had finished my (third) bowl of popcorn, she grabbed her own bowl and – despite my protestation – patted me on the back as if to assure me that I would not starve and began to pour half of her own popcorn into my bowl, her rheumatic hands shaking and causing the plates to clink together cheerfully as she did so.

I thought of the saying again as we came to Arabe village and wound our way through the narrow, stone alleyways of the old city. Upon our arrival, two of our hosts from the village immediately brought us a staggering spread of delicious foods they’d been preparing for us all day: musakkhin and mujaddara and harisi, all these previously foreign words which now awaken in me a rumbling stomach and extra-active salivary glands. We thanked the women profusely; they smiled and nodded their understanding. Both chatted with us a bit, occasionally stumbling over a word in English. One of them laughed apologetically, “I’m not so good at English. Cooking food for people – that’s what I’m good at.”

zatarAnd I was reminded of the proverb repeatedly as I walked the trail itself with our local guides. As we traversed the countryside – now drowning in fields of wildflowers up to our waists, now victoriously summiting a stunning mountain, now poking around in ancient stone dwellings – our guides would periodically dart into the surrounding vegetation, emerging with some apparently edible piece of nature and urging us to try it with that ubiquitous Arabic demand: “Kulli, kulli! Eat, eat!” They would then proceed to describe the traditional dishes their wives and mothers and grandmothers had made from the plant; and often, they would supplement this gastronomic instruction with an old folk tale or song featuring the plant. Traditional foods, connectedness with the land, cultural heritage…they are all tangled one with another, the guides told us.

foodAs much as you love, this is how much you will eat. The longer I walked the path, the more I began to understand this correlation. Even if our guide hadn’t shared the proverb with us – even if I hadn’t heard it put into so many words – I think I would still have intuitively felt the truth behind this sentence. I couldn’t have missed it. The spirit of hospitality and community and connection is as alive around the Palestinian table today as it was thousands of years ago when Abraham invited weary travelers to join him for a meal in the shade of the oak trees.

A New Role as a Kurdish Village Guide

Outside her brightly painted green and yellow house, 18-year-old Nadile makes sure that her guests have what they need for the village tour. “Hat. Sunscreen. Water. Good shoes.” She lists the items clearly in English from a piece of paper covered with notes. When everyone is ready, she will lead them around the tiny Kurdish village of Göllü where she was born and raised.

“I am a village guide,” she says, again in English, carefully but confidently. This is a new role for her. Since 2009, people from all over the world have come to her family’s homestay. As the oldest of five children, she has always helped prepare and serve food for guests, including making a welcome cake from the family’s own flour, eggs, and milk. This spring, however, a few visitors asked to see more of the village. Nadile enthusiastically volunteered and discovered a chance to use the English that she had begun learning with a project volunteer.

Now she leads a complete tour, including an ancient tomb site, a view of Mount Nemrut, an abandoned stone quarry, her uncle’s orchard of pistachio trees and grapes vines, the remnants of her grandparents’ original mud and stone houses, and a hidden cave where, according to the story, a princess was kept during times of fighting. Sometimes a younger sibling will accompany the group, wandering off to reappear with a handful of green almonds or a bushel of fresh chickpeas to be eaten from the pod.

Nadile takes pride in sharing the natural abundance of Göllü. She picks leaves from a camomile plant and explains how to make a soothing tea. She makes a hair ornament from some yellow flowers and a leaf with spiky teeth and jokingly passes it to Seth, an American who just finished a Peace Corps mission in Ghana and is clearly enjoying some vacation time in this unique setting.

At 5PM, she points out the herds of sheep returning from their grazing to be milked. Her family has 100 sheep and 70 lambs this season. When her mother Ayten finishes the evening milking, Nadile and her sister Fadile show guests how the fresh milk becomes the cheese that they serve at breakfast and sell in the neighboring city of Sanliurfa. “I am a food guide, too,” says Nadile with a smile.

She says the best thing about the project is meeting people from other countries and seeing what good people they are. She also recognizes that her family offers something special–“Everything here is natural, organic,” she says in Turkish. “Guests can be comfortable here.” Her hope for the future is to continue learning English and guiding visitors.

Written by Mary Leighton

“A Chance for Palestinian Women to Be Self-Dependent”

Few people speak more eloquently and passionately about the Abraham Path – or Masar Ibrahim – than Rola Ibrahim Jadallah, or Dr. Rola, as she is known in her community of Arraba.

As a mother of four and an assistant professor of biology at the Arab American University, Dr. Rola has plenty to keep her busy. On top of that, she was recently elected as Arraba’s deputy mayor.

In all these roles, the path means something special to her: “I like the name Ibrahim. It was my father’s name. People with that name have a certain personality. They are leaders and broad thinkers. Ibrahim is the father of prophets.  Because I love this name and I saw how the name affected the personality of my father, I named my son Ibrahim. His personality is different from others. He’s a leader who wants to help others. I am telling him: you are Ibrahim.”

Hospitality is one of the most important values associated with Abraham/Ibrahim, says Dr. Rola. “According to our traditions you must be generous as a host. There is an old saying that states that any guest should be able to stay with you for at least three days without any questions asked.”

As deputy mayor, Dr. Rola welcomed the recent extension of the path to the Jenin region that included Arraba in the Abraham Path. “The path allows us to be connected to the world. It can increase income for local families, and it provides a chance to introduce people into other cultures, to listen to the happiness and sadness of the stories of others. This type of tourism is a chance for Palestinian women to be self-dependent, create their own businesses. I look at the Masar Ibrahim as cultural exchange. Young people are speaking English with visitors and being guides from their own home; you can imagine how that affects their self-confidence.”

The image of the Middle East in the rest of the world is often negative. For Dr. Rola, this is an additional motive to make the project succeed: “We cannot separate our lives from political issues, and at the same time we are not the ones representing politics in the media. So my dream is to divide the issue in two: at the top are the people who make the decisions. But the bottom is the community. The Masar Ibrahim allows for an exchange of ideas between regular people. That will provide the real picture for visitors and those will be your ambassadors. Maybe after some time it will affect the people at the top.”

 

Tourism in Their Own Back Yard

Rozana Association holds a hospitality training

By Anna Dintaman

Photos courtesy of Rozana Association and Konstantin Hoshana

“I get to host the first guests!” “ No, I get to host the first guests!”

A friendly argument broke out during a coffee break in a one-day hospitality training hosted at the Arraba Municipality in the northern West Bank. Thirty-eight women from local villages along the Abraham Path in the Jenin district gathered to learn about the Abraham Path/Masar Ibrahim, leadership skills, professionalism, food safety, and housekeeping.

Enthusiasm ran high as the women participated in lectures and discussions with the goal of preparing them to operate homestays for hikers on the Abraham Path/Masar Ibrahim. Trainer Malak el Masri encouraged participants to accentuate the positive and to view their home villages through the eyes of a tourist. Masar Ibrahim director George Rishmawi introduced the group to the highlights of the Abraham Path/Masar Ibrahim, and emphasized the way that the path connects the villages to each other as well as to world famous historical and cultural sites.

Upstairs, a group of 14 local men and women participated in a trekking guide-training workshop, with the topics of trails in Palestine, history, flora & fauna, and community based tourism. The goal of this training was to prepare local trekking guides to lead hikers through their villages and the surrounding landscapes.  Raed Saadeh, co-founder of the Rozana Association and the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations, presented about social tourism, including the Sufi trails in the Birzeit area. Dr. Walid Salim Basha of Jenin presented about the plants and animals of the Jenin area, with his love and appreciation of nature shining through in his energetic enthusiasm.

The participants from both trainings enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal together, prepared by the Arraba Women’s Association. In spite of the chilling wind, many meaningful conversations took place over the rice, meat, stuffed grape leaves, chickpeas, salads, and dark Arabic coffee cups. The setting of the training, in the beautifully restored 19th century palace of Abdil Hadi, added to the ambiance and excitement around tourism in rural Palestinian communities. From the roof of the historic building, a magnificent view extends, inspiring participants to notice the beauty and tourism potential in their own back yards.

Negev Hospitality

By Julian Bender

Photos: David Landis/API

A scouting trip in January took the Abraham Path’s prospective route further into the wilderness than it’s ever been—down to the Zohar and Mt. Sodom areas of the northern Negev, above the salt pools of the Dead Sea.

A long trek through Hemar Canyon led us to the shore-side village of Neve Zohar. Here, we’d been informed by an local contact, was a town where we’d be lucky to find even one person worth talking to. In the Abraham story, ten good people was more or less established as the lower limit for a city in these parts to be spared a fire-and-brimstone shower, so this town would seem to be really pushing its luck.

A 24-kilometer day of forging down desert cliffs, over boulders and through seasonal pools left us tired, sweaty and thirsty, so any sign of civilization was welcome. We stopped in at a regional government building for water, and so far, the town’s population seemed quite friendly. The people there happily shared information on the area with us, and one surprised me by being strangely familiar with the recent weather patterns in my hometown back in the US.

Camping out on the beach (incidentally, at the lowest-altitude campsite possible on Earth’s surface), we were approached by another local resident and his small pug dog. He expressed the usual mild surprise that we’d walked here all the way from Arad, and then offered to show us to his house where we could get the next day’s supply of drinking water from an outdoor sink.

Shortly after bedtime (namely, 8pm – long hiking days tend to shift one’s sleep schedule decidedly in the direction of “Grandpa”) I was roused from half-slumber by someone calling my name. It was Moti, the same guy—and he was announcing that he’d brought us food!

I struggled to get dressed in my cramped tent, and emerged to find David sitting out there with a container of hot Russian soup and a couple slices of warm bread—and Moti already gone. A paragon of efficiency, he’d deposited the food and vanished into the night.

We’d already eaten dinner, but our hikers’ appetites left no hesitation to eat another serving. As we feasted, we reflected on the radically different modes of hospitality one can encounter while walking across the Middle East. Middle Eastern hospitality is renowned for its overwhelming generosity and personal care—not only do hosts welcome guests for a long social evening and a lavish meal, they take pride in observantly watching to make sure the guest’s every want is met, and repeated emphatic declarations of welcome are made.

All this is great, and makes a person feel welcome and taken care of. But, particularly for the introvert, there’s really something to be said for the functional, to-the-point hospitality we got in Neve Zohar. Hikers tired out from a long day of walking are often just as inclined to wolf down dinner and fall asleep, as to talk for hours with their hosts—and being brought dinner in a simple act of kindness without any social obligations has its own definite appeal.

A Gathering at the Home of the Friend

By Stefan Szepesi

For travelers with a sense of the world map, southeastern Turkey does not strike as a place you immediately crave to visit. It borders Syria to the south, where a terrible civil war rages on, and more eastwards is Iraqi Kurdistan, a word combination that would puzzle any travel marketing professional.

But that is the mental geography of the Middle East. Reality is quite different: Urfa and Harran in southeastern Turkey are safe, inspiring places to travel, remote in every sense of the word. Urfa is a city of Islamic pilgrimage, one of the places where it is believed that Abraham was born. Its peaceful parks and water lakes stands in very sharp contrasts to neighboring Syria. In northern Iraq, tourism has actually been booming for years. But that’s a story for another day…

Between Urfa and Harran, I embark on a seven-day walk-and-talk with a group of seven friends. The purpose is to test walk the Abraham Path, with overnights in Kurdish, Alevi and Arab villages, and explore new trails in the desert and the mountains to the north of the mythical Euphrates river. Traveling from Beirut, London, Pretoria, Jerusalem, Skopje and Rotterdam, our group has just one thing in common: an odd habit of walking together in unusual places. Our last practice, though, was two years ago in the Palestinian West Bank and few have done any serious walking since…

The first day is one of reunion and slow arrivals. We meet in the Kurdish village of Yuvacali, a small hamlet with more cattle than human inhabitants. A hundred years ago Armenians, Kurds and Jews still lived here together. That seems a while back, but it is just yesterday compared to the Neolithic origins of the area. It is here that humans evolved from wandering hunter-gatherers into farmers with settlements, where wheat was first cultivated and man built the first religious temple some 12 millennia ago. The cradle of civilization is a fitting title.

But fast forward to 2010 when, thanks to the efforts the Tanik family, the village of Yuvacali gradually becomes a small but exemplary hub for community-centered tourism. No room keys here, no check-in forms, no private bathroom or western style toilets. Instead, there is an orchard with plastic chairs and a room with carpets to sit on, drink tea and eat freshly baked bread with fried aubergines and peppers. Our hosts Halil and Pero come armed with big hearts and two words of English.

A few hours after arriving, we sit cross-legged on the floor and talk about our confused state of anticipation. The journey ahead of us feels pretty dissonant to the term “holiday”. Why would we willingly seek physical and perhaps cultural discomfort in a place so remote? The answer must lie somewhere in between a desire for adventure, a fascination with walking, and a tickling curiosity about the mad ambition of the Abraham Path project. And there will be plenty of conversation along the way no doubt.

Our host Halil helps to prepare our beds for the night, turning our room of reunion and tasty food to a make-shift bedroom by folding out mattresses onto the carpet. His name is similar to the second name the prophet Abraham is known by, “Al-Halil” or “the Friend”. His home is a fitting start to our journey.