Apr 20, 2021

Cookbooks, YouTube videos, Zoom gatherings guide travelers to Palestine

Urfa, Turkey, the city of Abraham dedicated to the patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam

"Have you been to Israel?'' is a common question.

I haven't, but in thinking about a future trip, I've stumbled onto a trove of information on Palestinian history, culture and food. I know now that the West Bank, including the cities of Hebron and Ramallah, will be on my itinerary.

This assumes a post-Covid era when more vaccinations have reached Palestinians, and international travel in general opens again. But Israel is leading the world in vaccinations, and while it's not yet possible to travel there, it is a good time to begin researching the possibilities beyond Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Travel guidebook author and television host Rick Steves' excellent YouTube video titled "The Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today," is good place to start. Along with the usual religious and historical sites in Jerusalem, Steves leads viewers to an olive harvest near Hebron, a family home in Bethlehem and a university in Ramallah. 

Most useful is a 48-page downloadable guide Steves compiled that blends historical background with practical advice.

"Arriving in Bethlehem, I checked into my guesthouse, and within minutes, met my Palestinian tour guide," Steves writes."He took me to a tourist-friendly restaurant that posted a “families only” sign so they could turn away rowdy young men. I guess we looked harmless enough, as they let us right in. We sat down, and an impressive array of Palestinian dishes appeared.

"For too many, unfortunately, the word 'Palestinian' raises an automatic association with terrorism. Because of this fear, the typical Christian pilgrimage tour visits Bethlehem as a side-trip from Israel...These unfortunate travelers miss a lot and come home with only one narrative. "

Reem Kassis

East Jerusalem native Reem Kassis, author of The Palestinian Table and a new book, The Arabesque Table, expressed the same sentiment in a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross. 

"It's comical because all it takes is for me to use the word 'Palestinian' and anything that I want to talk about — no matter how far removed from politics — suddenly it's political," she said.

Kassis' books could double as travel guides to Palestine and other parts of the Middle East with insights into the Arabic origin of familiar foods such as hummus and bagels. She uses food as a common denominator, stressing that  "regardless of where you come from or what religion you are or what your beliefs are, you have to eat. "

Another excellent resource is the The Abraham Path Initiative (API), a nonprofit organization established to develop walking trails for tourists to learn about the people and culture of the Middle East, a geographical description it replaces with "Southwest Asia" to avoid pre-conceived judgements.

Pilgrams in Abraham's Cave, Urfa, Turkey

API started when 25 people embarked on a trip from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron, following the prophet Abraham’s legendary walk from what may have been his place of birth, to the place he is believed to be buried. This laid the foundation for the development of walking trails approximating the travels of Abraham and his family in Mesopotamia, who shared hospitality with people they met along the way

Since that time, API has worked with local partners to create over 2,000 miles of trails in Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Sinai, and Iraq, providing economic benefits to local communities and opportunities for walkers to have positive intercultural encounters. 

During Covid, I've enjoyed tuning into API's Webinars on YouTube featuring interviews with people in those areas involved in organic farming, olive oil production, seed sourcing and Saudi tourism. Check the website for upcoming Zoom events.

Anyone looking for an organized tour into Palestine might want to consider one of the "Reality Tours" offered by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, an international nonprofit dedicated to promoting social and economic justice.

All tours are on hold for the moment, but pre-Covid, the group sponsored an annual "Palestine During the Olive Harvest" trip where visitors had the opportunity to volunteer with local farmers.  Travelers took part in Oktoberfest in Taybeh, featuring traditional Palestinian dance, music, and food. This trip has been on my list for some time, so I'm hoping it will restart in the fall of 2022 if not this year. 

"Marhaba! I'm Charlie, born and raised in the old city in Jerusalem," is how a young guide begins a walking tour sponsored by tenLocals, a new Covid-era company employing local guides in cities around the world who give live tours in real time to travelers over Zoom.

Charlie focuses on Jerusalem where he includes a walk through a Jewish neighborhood bordering the West Bank, and a stroll through the Musrara neighborhood where the Green line (border) between Israel and the West Bank was drawn. 

Finally, The Bradt Guide to Palestine, separate from the publisher's guide to Israel, is one of the few guidebooks devoted exclusively to Palestine. It hasn't been updated since 2011, so it's most useful for general information, historical perspective and an overall sense of why go.

Writes author Sarah Irving, "This tiny area packs in more historical, religious and cultural heritage than perhaps anywhere else in the world."

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