Raed Saadeh \ Chairman of Rozana Association
One of the unforgettable memories that seem to accompany my few morning moments most days since I was a child is the smell of the Taboun bread stuffed with spinach saturating the air as it mixed with the first dawn light outside my grandparents house. I would watch my grandmotherâ€™s hands blend in the darkness of the Taboun oven as she fiddled with the bread back and forth before resting it on the stone bed in the bottom of the oven. My grandmother did this sacredly every day as a part of the breakfast preparation ceremony.
I guess I developed a connection to the countryside of Palestine guided by my grandmotherâ€™s passion for the fields, the fig trees, the apricots and the sage or mint herbs she took me to pick with her 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 den and the olive terraces leading down the valley through a set of intertwined narrow paths where shade is abundant during hot summer days. My grandmotherâ€™s generosity was an enlightment and a stone engraved lesson in rural hospitality and graciousness.
I guess I developed a connection to the countryside of Palestine guided by my grandmotherâ€™s passion for the fields, the fig trees, the apricots and the sage or mint herbs she took me to pick with her 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
den and the olive terraces leading down the valley through a set of intertwined narrow paths where shade is abundant during hot summer days. My grandmotherâ€™s generosity was an enlightment 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 mountains and a historically immersed serene Palestinian village are some of the first thoughts that might come to mind. In my involvement with organizations like the Rozana Association for rural tourism development working from Birzeit, in NEPTO (the network of experiential Palestinian tourism organizations), in Palestine Heritage Trail and others I have been active in promoting community-based rural tourism throughout the West Bank. All of our work is based on a simple platform idea that aims at identifying the resources and capacities that exist in rural areas and that are able to add value to its attractiveness and benefits to its 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 do 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 so connected to the land like my grandparents could convert everything they touch into gold as they were able to create many things almost from, seemingly, nothing. The lands in rural Palestine can provide for the wellbeing 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 civilization.
The question remains; how do we move forward beyond this potential?
All organizations involved in community-based tourism supported by strategic cooperation within the ministry of tourism and antiquities have been converging towards a holistic vision reflecting the shape of the Palestinian rural tourism product. The vision is based on a network of thematic trails and paths and a number of centers for local culture, all of which are linked together and developed in harmony and synchronization 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 Palestine Heritage Trail and is essentially a cultural trail that zigzags between villages fostering the Palestinian culture of hospitality, friendship and kindness. The 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. Palestine Heritage Trail 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, lead by the Rozana Association. The Sufi trails model is based on a network of hub villages that operate as centers 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 center of local culture can be a village, a cluster or villages or even a historic site. Its structure requires a consolidation of all stakeholders that operate within its center 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 centers of local culture.
Creating trails, paths and centers of local culture is only the beginning of a rural tourism development endeavor. 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 centers. It also includes the rehabilitation of shrines and historic sites and considering converting them into community parks. Such interventions might consider creating and improving village community centers, interpretation centers, 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 its 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 organizations and working in partnership and synergy to develop rural Palestine.
No matter what I dream about or wish for, a visit to any rural community or village has not failed so far in enticing my imagination and fulfilling my inner peace. I feel very grateful for my grandparents.Z