By Dr. Ali Qleibo
One of the characteristics of a state is the cultural identity of its citizens. Palestine has been reduced to less than a quarter of its original size. Following the Nakba, an important part of Palestine’s cultural and historical heritage was destroyed. What remains of this heritage is in grave danger of being lost for future generations. Systematic alienation of the Palestinian peasant from the land and its mythos has been applied through Israeli economic sanctions, appropriation of land, imposed siege, and isolation of the villages amidst massive brutal harassment. In order to survive, Palestinian peasants no longer eke out a living from their land but have joined the urban labour force. Palestinians now face the ultimate challenge of survival on their land. The Israeli occupation presents an ever-increasing threat to their land, their homes, and their family members.

Against this background cultural heritage tourism is important first and foremost as a strategy to establish, reinforce, and define Palestinian cultural identity: it helps preserve our cultural heritage. Moreover, as a major economic enterprise, heritage tourism has a positive economic and social impact since it provides a venue for work for the local population and helps stop the migration of labour by providing jobs in the villages. Heritage tourism or diaspora tourism would be geared towards more specialised tourists who seek the challenge of adventure, culture, history, ethnography, archaeology, and stimulating interaction with local people.

Heritage tourism opens the Palestinian village to outsiders from other villages, urban centres, and international tourism; it creates a space whereby others are welcome to join in Palestinian daily life. It is also the best venue to provide the tourist with an ethnographic, agricultural, and pastoral experience of Palestine. Heritage tourism invites the visitor to explore explicit fundamental issues such as gender, folk customs, memory, communication, and personal and cultural identity in Palestine. The underpinnings of the contemporary Palestinian cultural identity are presented through first-hand experience of a wide spectrum of Palestinian cultural expressions. The diverse themes encompass the learning of peasant classification of nature and land use, love and marriage, privacy and intimacy, eating habits and aesthetics, daily social symbols and rituals, tradition and modernisation, inheritance and gender, and aging and sports. With culture as an instrument, alternative heritage tourism facilitates harmony and understanding among people. Moreover it promotes and updates local traditional culture and the village itself within a modern framework.

On the landscape where major events in the holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths unfolded, Palestinian heritage tourism breaks new ground for the biblical scholar, the archaeologist, and the curious tourist in search of challenge and stimulation. Whereas traditional tourism in the Holy Land focuses exclusively on classical tourist sites as mapped in the fourth century by Queen Helena and Constantine and by the Caliph Omar in the seventh century, heritage tourism provides an alternative complementary venue that introduces the outsider to Palestinian cultural heritage based on participant observation. Through updated lodging facilities, restaurants, and cafés on the Hebron mountain, in traditional cave dwellings (which were first inhabited by the Hurrites over five thousand years ago) and in the village centre, the tourist will experience first hand a culture and a way of life that is not merely other but one that has played a pivotal role in nurturing the spiritual context of the Judaeo-Christian and Muslim monotheisms, and that strikes deep roots in the early nomadic settlement of the Holy Land.

The cave cities and cave hamlets in which the Palestinian peasants lived until quite recently, the traditional villages with their narrow winding streets, traditional ovens (taboon), closed courtyards, and the interweaving of the modern village on top of the ancestral caves can be restored as invaluable ethnographic archaeological museums and a testimony to the deep historical roots of Palestinian peasants in Palestine. Investing in heritage tourism is a two-way bridge by means of which Palestinians become cognisant of the identity and history from which they have been systematically estranged, and outsiders are introduced to the Palestinians as the legitimate heirs to ancient Canaanite civilisation.

Mount Hebron remains the bastion of tradition and is best suited for projects of restoration. The cave culture, as an ecological adaptation of the aboriginal nomadic settlers to the geography of Palestine, survives in the region of Yatta, Dura, Dhahiriye, and Al-Sair, to name a few towns. The Mount Hebron region boasts numerous cave cities of several floors interlinking to form mazes of subterranean streets, storage space, and residential quarters that were abandoned less than eight decades ago. They were, for millennia, the Palestinian peasant home and hearth. The contemporary village built on top of the subterranean cave maintains its traditional character and offers significant historical, religious, and cultural sites. On these tours, visitors find themselves visiting communities in Palestine whose fabric of life and whose customs and traditions, music, dance, and food have changed very little, if at all, since the time of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Abrahamic religions who, in fact, predate the Hebrew settlers. Heritage tourism looks at difficult aspects of peasant life today in Palestine. Tourists are lodged in the villages, eat and drink coffee with the peasants, listen to their stories, and learn the mythos of the land. Their oral narratives preserve not only the memory of life in these caves but also their memories of their grandparents who used to bury their dead in these same caves.

The various villages south of Jerusalem, from Jabal el-Mukabber all the way to Dhahirieh, passing by Bet Mirsim, Birj, Khursa, Sirri, Domeh, Yatta, Tarqumia, etc., provide spectacular traditional venues wherein ecotourism, agricultural tourism, and heritage tourism may merge. Long sojourns in the village allow for tours that combine hiking, biking, horseback riding, and various other sports as well as joining in fieldwork alongside the peasants and exploring the wild fauna and flora of the country.

The landscape of the mountains of Hebron stirs up a feeling of spirituality, a sense of religious feeling that has no parallel in the rest of Palestine. Saints’ shrines and holy men’s memorial domes (maqam) dot the Palestinian landscape – an architectural testimony to Christian/Muslim Palestinian mysticism and its roots in Canaanite spirituality. The holy site may be a modest square room with a melancholy dome crouching in the shadow of an ancient oak tree perched on a lonely crest of a mountain (or guarding the entrance of a tiny village or city). These remote holy shrines, albeit under Muslim mystic Sufi veneer, attest to the pervasive intimations of the transcendent “Other” sensed throughout Palestinian history as residing in high places. Innumerable bimot (Canaanite high religious places) have been absorbed within the classical Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition and have become part of the Palestinian national cult of St. George, also known as Mar Jiries in the Greek Orthodox tradition or el-Khader in the Muslim narrative. Alternately Sufi Islam empowered these high places to become the popular sanctuaries that dot the landscape astride mountaintops, under the generic name of El-Sheik Saleh, the good sheikh. They may also survive under the garb of biblical iconography, such as the sanctuary of Noah in Dura, Lot in Beni Naim, Matthew in Bet Ummar, Esau in Al-Sa’ir….

The opening up of the villages to accommodate outsiders on a day visit or for extended sojourns is a massive enterprise that requires the cooperation of historians, archaeologists, ethnographers, restaurateurs, and town planners under the umbrella of UNESCO, the Ministry of Tourism, and local private enterprisers as shareholders who are empowered to become responsible beneficiaries. It should be possible for the visitor to take a leisurely afternoon walk to the sanctuary outside the village, enjoy a caffè latte and the sunset, return at dusk together with the shepherds along the winding country road, and look forward to an agreeable supper in a village restaurant. A standardised chain of restaurants and cafés in most villages would be set up, allowing the local Friday visitor a pleasant pastoral weekend and the tourist a longer sojourn to fully savour the Palestinian heritage and landscape.

This aspect of heritage tourism encompasses rural tourism and focuses on participating in a rural lifestyle. It can be a variant of ecotourism. Any village can be a tourist attraction, and many villagers are very hospitable. Many niche tourism programmes may be developed. Vineyard and olive grove tours encourage visitors to participate in seasonal events such as the harvest of grapes in the traditional way, using the donkey as the means of transport, and joining in the preparation and cooking of dibes (grape molasses) grape jams, and malban (grape delicacy). An especially joyful seasonal activity is the early spring harvest of wheat, lentils, and barley. Tourists can participate in the festive threshing and winnowing of the Palestinian staples in the village jurun – a Jebusite word that survives in the modern Palestinian dialect and refers to the threshing floor. It is closely associated with the Canaanite sacred “High Places.” The olive harvest is another late-autumnal activity. Tourism can be a viable economic enterprise of special benefit for local farmers too. Agrotourism includes a wide variety of activities, including buying produce direct from a farm stand, picking fruit, feeding animals, or staying at a family bed and breakfast.

Heritage tourism is equally attractive for both local visitors and foreigners alike and requires a visionary attitude for planning and marketing the rural community. Local citizen participation as shareholders is essential and should be included in starting any kind of a tourism programme. Careful tourism planning can assist in the creation of a successful programme that enhances the community and helps in defining the cultural identity of the people in relation to their land and history. Rural ecotourism may be packaged as a cross-cultural adventure that allows tourists to participate in the local rural pattern of life. It can be supplemented by thematic tourism – connected with justice and solidarity tourism, traditional cuisine, ethnography, and traditional music and handicrafts.

The native daily discourse provides extremely relevant information about the constituent elements of traditional Palestinian identity, namely the agricultural calendar, traditional sports, the role of women, economic solidarity of the extended family, and the perception of nature, sexual intimacy, and privacy. In the diverse cultural expressions unfolds a tapestry of life that has witnessed continued adaptations of the various peoples who have lived in Palestine. Each group has brought its own unique tapestry to the land, building on the ecological adaptations made by the Hurrites, the original cave dwellers of Palestine, the Canaanites and their classification of nature and land use, and the evolution over the last two or three millennia of the original agricultural Palestinian calendar, which was based on farming olives, grapes, figs, almonds, leeks, various species of squash and, of course, the main staple cereals, namely, wheat, barley, and lentils.

Contemporary Palestinian culture is a testimony to the silent contribution of the ancient Canaanite tribes in their various city-states, now clusters of Palestinian villages. Ethnological tourism is a pioneering work that provides a vista to experience the space in which the native narrative is written. The customs, manners, and beliefs of the contemporary Palestinians in the Palestinian village may be viewed as the margin informing and providing insights into the ethnological context of the Bible. Whether the tourist is a practicing Jew, Christian, or Muslim immersed in his/her own sacred scriptures, a secular historian, an anthropologist, or a visitor interested in Palestinian peasant social history and culture, experiencing villages as ethnographic reserves of culture opens up the past and, in doing so, gives each of us a better understanding of the spiritual context that informs our individual faith.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at