Palestinians hope rural tourism will lure tourists away from the beaten path
Lamb blood is splattered all over the doorway of what was once a church as if someone had just dropped a leaky garbage bag filled with guts from the heavens.
“The local people continue to follow Old Testament practices. They sacrifice unto God,” explains Maria Khoury as she leads me through the ruins of the Byzantine-era St. George Church on the outskirts of her Palestinian village, Taybeh..
“This is blood here,” she says, pointing to the big red patch at the entry way. “Sometimes we might not have a sacrifice for six months and maybe in one week we might have three,” she adds. “It’s a cultural tradition. It has nothing to do anymore with religion.”
It’s a hot summer day in the Holy Land and we’re in search of the so-called “Sufi Trail,” which we are told links the Arab villages of the central West Bank. Even with the help of two tour guides, we never quite identify the trail’s entire route, but it doesn’t matter. We enjoy an enticing melange of historical sites and scenery straight out of the Bible, take a sip of beer at a local brewery and celebrate a traditional Palestinian wedding.
The Sufi Trail is part of the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to get visitors to expand their itineraries beyond the traditional stops of Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah and to promote rural tourism. The aim is to create jobs for the villagers while giving tourists a unique experience.
“We feel that there are enough resources and capacities, which are not actually utilized but which are abundant in rural Palestine and we can easily package it,” says Raed Saadeh, the chairman of the Rozana Association, which promotes heritage and cultural strengthening events for the Palestinians.
“We have organized something that we call the Sufi trails. Our intention is not the religious part of the trail but the cultural,” Saadeh told The Media Line. “We indentify a number of Sufi monuments and Byzantine churches, mosaics, Roman garrisons, prehistoric caves and we design activities around them and villages in the vicinity.”
Our first stop is Taybeh, a picturesque Christian mountain village on the eastern side of the ridge Judean mountains about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northeast of Jerusalem. And while it’s the dead of summer, it’s still Christmas in Taybe. This we know because a huge banner across the road reading “MERRY X-MAS” welcomes us and no one seems to have taken down the other holiday decorations.
Jesus visited this village, known in biblical times as Ofra or Ephraim, on his way to the Mount of Temptation. But today it’s best known for its …beer.
“I believe that Jesus Christ made Taybeh famous in the old days and I made it in the new days. Now it’s Taybeh on the map. Taybeh became famous,” says Nadim Khoury, co-founder of the Taybeh Brewing Company.
Khoury is well known in these parts. Born in a stone house here, he followed the path of many of his fellow Taybeh residents and sought his fortune abroad. Educated in the U.S., he got hooked on making homemade beer while working in a liquor store in Boston. He was swept up in the peace fever after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993 and returned like a prodigal son to his village.
Together with his brother David, now the mayor, Khoury set up the Taybeh brewery. From 500 liters in 1995, today they produce 600,000 liters exported far and wide, but mostly in the West Bank and Israel.
Maria, who is married to the mayor, hopes the U.S. government will remove its travel advisory cautioning Americans visiting the West Bank.
“We are a very peaceful village so we would love people to come and visit us. [The advisory] is not fair. It discourages people from wanting to explore and see a Palestinian village,” she says.
To help us find the Sufi trail, we are joined by two young guides, Salma and Waffa, students at nearby Birzeit University.
“We finished our tour guide course two weeks ago. You are our first client,” Salma says with the enthusiasm of, well, a young tour guide on her first job.
Asked if she drinks beer, she answers, “We are Muslims, but my family is Communist. So of course, yes we can drink.”
Cheerful, even if they were not exactly certain of the route, the two came prepared with little fact sheets on the various villages we drove through.
“This is Deir Jarir. There are 3,800 Muslims in this village. That is Tel A’sur, you see, over there with the Israeli army antennas. That is the highest point in the Ramallah region,” says Salma. “Oh, you see that field (of sun flowers). It’s filled with what we call ubbad shams, sun worshippers because they follow the sun.”
We pass through the village of Silwad where huge villas built by Palestinians who have made their fortune abroad stand empty.
“Many people went to America and then they came back here and built great big houses,” Salma explains. “But they didn’t like it here and left, so their villas have remained empty.”
The route takes us to Ein Yabrud, known for its ancient trees. In fact, one of the largest ancient olive trees I’d ever seen was right in the middle of the high road, asphalt encircling it. Our guides stop at the local grocery for directions, hoping to pick up the trail. A local young man offers to leads us to a well-preserved holy tomb called Makam Sheik Yusef.
“It’s Joseph’s tomb,” Salma says, referring to the Bible character who interpreted the Egyptian pharaoh’s dreams.
“Isn’t that in Nablus?” I ask.
“Well, there are lots of them. Maybe it’s just another holy man.”
Inside was what turned out to be a wooden stretcher used to carry the dead, sending shivers down our spines. Further on is a magnificent yet neglected Crusader-era structure. I ask the young man, Fadi Zakaria Farhat, if he ever sees tourist or trekkers coming through his village.
“There are people who come to see our culture in our village. They come from different countries: from America, from Italy, Romania, Spain and Turkey,” he says. “There’s interest in us, but not like other cities, like Jericho for example, which is considered the most ancient city in the world.”
Heading out from Ein Yabrud we run into a “surprise” Israeli military checkpoint. I feel the nervousness of our tour guides in the back seat. We wait, experiencing another part of life in the West Bank. The soldiers summon us forward and with a quick glance wave us through.
Well off the tour bus track, the Sufi Trail and other new walking paths provide an opportunity for an authentic view of Palestinian culture, history and geography. The trails are careful to skirt the Jewish communities in the area.
“This is what tells foreigners about Palestine, more than industrialized, material things that they buy. Here is where Palestinian history was written, here is where revolutions began,” says Salma. “When tourists come, a great financial benefit could be gained. As a consequence, people will trust their village more, and they will be more active in supporting its cleanliness and renovation.”
We arrive at Birzeit for their annual heritage fair, where local handicrafts such as embroidery, wood carvings and blown glassware are sold in stalls in the renovated old quarter. The highlight is a reenactment of a traditional wedding, aimed at showing young people and tourists how it was just a generation ago. Old women in embroidered dresses gather around a smiling bride singing and clapping while the groom is carried to the ceremony on the shoulders of his relatives and friends.
“When this generation is gone we won’t have anything left. This is how my grandmother got married,” says one young woman. “Today, the young people just do a party in a big hall. They so much want to adopt the Western ways that they’ve forgotten their heritage.”
The Palestinians have started to hold festivals across the West Bank as another draw for tourists. There are the apricot and lettuce and art festivals and, of course, the Oktoberfest in Taybeh. Last year saw a record two million tourists visit the Palestinian Authority, although Tourism Ministry expects that this year is will be about 15% fewer.
“We are developing new types styles of tourism, especially rural tourism because Palestine has a very unique rural landscape, very original, still authentic,” says
Kholoud Daibes, the Palestinian tourism minister.
“In the political context, rural tourism can bring stability and attract more tourists and also generate more income for the communities living in the rural areas, which is very much needed today when we are talking about sustainable social-economic development in Palestine,” Daibes says.
But it’s not just about the heritage, or the politics. For the traveler, it’s about discovering new and intriguing places and people in a part of the world that has seen nations come and go for thousands and thousands of years.