“This week, Paige is joined by Aziz Abu Sarah, an author, National Geographic explorer, and co-founder of Mejdi Tours, a company that aims to promote peace and understanding through its innovative tours of places like Israel and Palestine, Colombia, the Balkans, Northern Ireland — and Washington, D.C.

Aziz shares how his childhood growing up as a Palestinian Arab in Jerusalem shaped his understanding of the world, and he offers some excellent advice for anyone looking to have more meaningful experiences when they travel……”

LISTEN HERE: https://www.bettertravelpodcast.com/season-2-1/3

Jerusalem is undoubtedly among the most contended pieces of real estate in the world. In a constant tug-of-war between different religions and ethnic groups, the land is a volcano of tension- ready to erupt at any moment. As an outsider looking in, it can seem impossible to see a clear understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each and every one of us is encircled by an endless stream of biased media. However, MEJDI Tours offers a unique opportunity for those who want the full story: a dual narrative tour of the Old City of Jerusalem guided by both an Israeli and a Palestinian tour guide. 

 

The Dual Narrative Tour of the Old City of Jerusalem was guided by Alex, an Israeli Jew from London, and Nabil a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem. Symbolically, the tour kicks off at Damascus Gate, which, Nabil asserts, is mostly used by Palestinians due to its accessibility to East Jerusalem: the Arab sector of Jerusalem. As such, Damascus gate has become a symbol of Palestinian national struggle and acts as a main “flash point” for Palestinian protest in times of tension. 

 

Entering the Old City, Alex joked that he “teleported” us to Temple Mount, a holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Alex and Nabil take turns highlighting the importance of Temple Mount to Judaism and Islamic faith. For Jews, it is believed to be the location of the first two Jewish Temples and where God is most present, making Temple Mount the holiest site in Judaism. For Muslims on the other hand, the Mount is considered the third holiest site to pray. Temple Mount is the site of one of the three Sacred Mosques of Islam, and where Prophet Muhammad ascended to the divine presence of God. While we were on the Temple Mount, Nabil introduced us to Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was a truly unique experience for me since the mosque can only be entered by Muslims. We also got an inside look at the beautiful gold-plated Dome of the Rock: the home of a piece of Mount Moriah. According to the Jews, Mount Moriah was the location of the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s only son. Muslims have a different belief about Mount Moriah, however. The Quran alleges that Mount Moriah was located close to Mecca, likely in Saudi Arabia, and was where Abraham sacrificed his son Ishmael. The Temple Mount as a whole is a major point of tension between the Islamic and Jewish religions, not just because of their conflicting beliefs but also because non-Muslims are prohibited from praying there.

 

Alex and Nabil next took us to the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel. While the Kotel isn’t technically the holiest site for the Jews, it is the closest place to the Temple Mount where they are allowed to pray, so over time it has become an important site in Judaism. To adapt to the times of Covid, there were many tents put up at the Wall to divide everyone. This is an unprecedented sight to see at the Kotel; normally Jews crowd at the front of the wall, everyone trying to get as close as possible. Alex highlighted multiple different Jewish customs that occur at the wall, such as traditional dress, the division of men and women, the kissing of the wall’s stone, and the tradition of sticking notes in the cracks of the wall. 

 

Growing up Jewish, I’ve only been taught Jewish history and Jewish customs and traditions. My knowledge of the Islamic religion was extremely limited. I had only received a part of the story, and I know I am not alone in that sentiment. While some remain closed-minded to other religions, cultures, and groups of people, MEJDI’s tour accomplishes something so powerful and so rare: it unites opposing voices and creates a fuller narrative.

 

By our Co-Founder Aziz Abu Sarah 

Experts say that travel will never be the same again after COVID-19. While I believe that COVID-19 will inspire some people to rethink their travel habits, we need more than just talking about adjusting our habits when we can travel again.

If we just theorize about “the day after,” no changes are likely to happen. Instead, we need to talk about how to start changing the travel industry right now. This transformation needs a change of heart and mind. For many of us, It feels like our world has shrunk as we are confined in our homes. So, before we talk about how to travel as a peacemaker physically, we should consider how are we traveling now from home.

Travel isn’t about distance; it’s about making a connection

Growing up in Jerusalem, a popular tour destination for visitors to the Holy Land, I was always fascinated by tourists. As a kid, I went to Al-Aqsa School in Jerusalem – named after the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I went to kindergarten and summer camps held in the mosque compound, and on the way to and from school I passed many tourists. Each time, I would excitedly say, “Hello!” and try to catch their attention. Some of them would approach me, wait for my smile to widen, and then snap a photo. I would excitedly pose for them; I initially loved the attention.

Soon after they snapped the photo, however, their tour guide would typically intervene and tell them to keep moving. Even when they were alone, they would usually snap the photo, say thank you, and then move on. I hated that. I felt objectified. I wanted to speak to them, although I didn’t have the English to hold a conversation. Still, they could have spent an extra minute or two speaking with me. But they had plans and places to go, more sites to see, and more people and places to take photos of.

This experience is what moved me to fight for a different kind of travel industry, where people are at the most important part of our journeys. When I co-founded MEJDI Tours, we wanted to give a platform to ignored and unknown stories. We wanted to go beyond the usual landmarks and major sites, and focus on creating a lasting connection between our travelers and local communities. In his poem Tourist, Yehdua Amichai explained what tourism should be like:

“Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side.
A group of tourists were standing around their guide and I became their target marker.
‘You see that man with the baskets?
Just right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period.
Just right of his head.’
‘But he’s moving, he’s moving!’
I said to myself: redemption will only come if their guide tells them,
‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important:
but next to it, left and down a bit,
there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”

This poem is an inspiration to me, because Amichai outlines what will bring redemption to the travel industry. He describes the heart of travel to be about the stories of the people who live where we travel. The story of the man who works hard to buy fruit and vegetables for his family. The story of the person that has no voice in the public narrative of a country. It’s that voice that needs to be amplified by the travel industry and should be heard by every traveler.

We can start practicing that kind of travel right now. We can learn about other cultures, peoples and stories using technology. We can attend online seminars, listen to livestreams and podcasts, and connect with people who live thousands of miles away. We can listen to people’s stories by reading autobiographies, listening to interviews, and watching documentaries.

If we get into these habits at home, and learn to listen to other people voices, especially those we that aren’t usually on our radar, we will be more likely to travel differently when physical travel is possible again. The first decision we made at MEJDI Tours upon the shutdown was starting a livestream to connect our travelers with storytellers from all over the world.

Travel should be about overcoming preconceptions 

As we encounter those who are different than us, we learn to face our stereotypes and about other communities. About 12 years ago, I was invited to speak on a panel with Nobel Peace laureate Betty Williams, who told me a story about how she had battled stereotypes in Northern Ireland.

Williams described how much the conflict in Northern Ireland is intertwined with identity and everyday life. Catholic and Protestant children often don’t understand that the world is bigger than their conflict.

As a result, Williams worked to bring Catholic and Protestant children together, in order to break down social barriers between the two communities for future generations. To widen the worldview of the children, one day she brought in a Buddhist monk to give a talk for the children. The monk explained the teachings of Buddhism. The children loved it and ate it up. At the end of the lecture, their hands shot into the air with questions for the Buddhist man.

But humorously, one of the first children Williams called on had an unusual question. In an innocently puzzled voice, he asked, “This is so different; this is amazing! But I still don’t understand one thing: are Buddhist monks Catholic or Protestant?”

The children believed that the Catholic-Protestant divide in Ireland shaped the whole world. My first reaction was to laugh when Williams told me the story, but I realized that many of us are no different than those kids. We divide the world into us versus them – those who look like us, have the same cultural background as us, speak our language, and practice the same religion or beliefs, versus those who are different. And many times, we only discover our own prejudices and stereotypes when we’re directly faced with them. This is why travel – or inviting others who travel to share their stories – can be a powerful tool for breaking down these assumptions.

In some places, COVID-19 has brought people together, but in many other regions in the world, it exacerbated divides. Like the story above, many people have started to view the world in terms of us versus them. Many of my American-Asian friends in the United States have shared stories of discriminatory attacks on them and on their families. Random people yell at them and accuse them of bringing the coronavirus into the United States. Our political divide of “left and right” is getting worse by the day, and the class divide is more visible than ever.

Sometimes, the most challenging travel is not the furthest way, but rather it’s crossing the street. It’s in these times of extreme polarization that we need extreme compassion. We must reach out to the vulnerable in your community. Ask people how they are doing, and what they are going through. We can donate, volunteer, connect and learn what the needs are in our community.

Travel provides an opportunity to learn about each other and understand one another, which leads to our empathizing with each other. However, we will not care about those living thousands of miles away, if we don’t connect with those who live in our own neighborhoods, cities and country.

Travel is an essential peacemaking strategy

In the end, travel can be a remedy for the biggest threats facing humanity today. In an interview with the British newspaper the Independent, Stephen Hawking outlined the biggest threat to humanity, and it was not what most would have expected. It wasn’t an asteroid hitting the Earth that worried Hawking. It wasn’t even the environmental crisis that we’re facing. Instead, it was human aggression.

“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression,” he said. “It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory, or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.”

According to the Independent, Hawking especially wanted humans to focus on empathy to safeguard our future.

Hawking understood that major threats to humanity can be dealt with if we learn to work together; none of the other important issues will be solved if we continue fighting and killing each other. That’s why its so important to transform how we travel, and to START NOW.

Hawking’s message is particularly important amid growing nationalism around the world, in which individuals are told to always put their own interests and their country’s interests first. We are told that we are in the midst of a global crisis, in which there will be winners and losers – and our country must win.

But we all live on this earth together, and what happens in China will affect people living thousands of miles away in Uruguay. Similarly, what happens in the United States impacts the lives of billions of people around the world. We don’t live on islands isolated from the rest of the world’s political problems, climate policies, economic situations, and threats. Perhaps nothing has proved the interconnectivity of our world like the spread of COVID-19.  The issues facing human society do not recognize the artificial boundaries and borders we’ve created. We are all connected.

We must understand the privilege of travel, and therefore the responsibility we have in bringing down barriers and building bridges between our peoples. If we accept Hawking’s claim that human aggression is a major threat to human existence, then I don’t know a better medium than connecting with others to promote understanding and coexistence. We, the travelers, have the power to better this world, whether we are traveling in a different country or right at home.

Aziz Abu Sarah is a National Geographic Explorer, a TED Fellow and cofounder of MEJDI Tours. His work has been featured by BBC, NPR, CNN, the Washington Post, and Al Jazeera, among others. He is the recipient of many awards, including the Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East from the Institute of International Education. 

Check out Aziz’s forthcoming book here –  Crossing Boundaries – A Traveler’s Guide to World Peace 

This article appeared first on the Impact Travel Alliance website: https://www.impacttravelalliance.org/travel-like-a-peacemaker/

Sunday, AUGUST 12

Jerusalem: Dual Narrative Tour – ½ Day

Featured by National Geographic and TED, the originators of the Dual Narrative Tour (TM) are now offering this unique day tour to the public! See Jerusalem presented by one Jewish Israeli and one Palestinian guide in tandem. Understand deep religious and national ties to Jerusalem, consider recent tensions, and ponder the city’s future.

– Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, 4 Quarters, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, rooftop views, historic markets, meet shopkeepers, delicious snacks –

9:30 – 14:30

$65 BOOK NOW

Discounts available – email Aaron : [email protected]

MONDAY, JULY 16

Jerusalem: Dual Narrative Tour – ½ Day

Featured by National Geographic and TED, this is first time the originators of the Dual Narrative Tour (TM) are offering this unique day tour to the public! See Jerusalem presented by one Jewish Israeli and one Palestinian guide in tandem. Understand deep religious and national ties to Jerusalem, consider recent tensions, and ponder the city’s future.

– Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, 4 Quarters, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, rooftop views, historic markets, meet shopkeepers, delicious snacks –

8:00 – 12:30 OR 13:00 – 17:30

$54 BOOK NOW

 

WEDNESDAY, JULY 18

Bethlehem: Between the Lines – ½ Day

Go where only a local guide can take you – discover hidden corners of the bustling marketplace and Nativity Church, hear hymns of ancient sects, and stories from a refugee camp. Discussion begins with the Bible but moves through Muslim-Christian relations, Palestinian memory, traditional ‘dabke,’ and much more. Tour concludes with tea and lunch/dinner* at a local family home.

– Geo-political overview, Shepherd’s Field, Syriac church, Manger Square, Peace Center, Nativity Church, Aida Camp, marketplace, home hospitality –

9:00 – 14:00 OR 14:30 – 19:30

$70/86* BOOK NOW

 

SATURDAY, JULY 21

Beer & Wine in the West Bank: A Palestinian Tradition – Full Day

Learn the traditional craft of wine and beer making from producers themselves, visiting small towns and hillside monasteries along the way. Travel south from Jerusalem, then north towards the Ramallah area along a scenic route offering views of ancient agricultural terraces and rows of grapevines thought to produce some of the most delicious fruit in the world.

– Visit two local brewers and one wine maker, guided journey & full transport to Palestinian areas in south and north West Bank, tastings included –

9:00 – 17:00

$89 BOOK NOW

This post was brought to you by Jocelyn G and Bruce M…

Today we left Tel Aviv and drove north along the coast to Atlit.  Atlit was a British detainee camp that was established in the late 1930’s to prevent Jewish refugees from entering British Palestine. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees were interned at the camp during and after WWII.  Though little of the original camp remains, the museum had constructed a series of life sized dioramas (a processing shed, a barrack, a transport ship) to try to convey the experience of fleeing the Nazi camps and ending up detained on a similarly looking camp run by the British.

From Atlit we spent late morning touring the Jewish artists colony in Ein Hod and enjoying an overly abundant lunch in the  Arab Ein Hawd.  Between the two Ein’s we tried to tease out the story of how the Arabs had abandoned the village, the artists had started their colony, and the Arabs had established a new village higher up in the valley. Is it an “abandoned” village if the Israeli army attacked it three times?  Do you leave an Arab village alone during the civil war if there is shelling of the main coastal road from the hills?  What does it mean to be an unrecognized village?  Why does it take 40 years to get a road and 50 to get electricity?  And not to diminish the previous troubling questions, we left wondering how the HaBayit restaurant could release a cookbook so we could revisit their cooking.

Our last stop of the day before leaving the coast and heading inland to Nazareth was Juha’s Guesthouse and Tours in the Arab fishing village of Jisr az Zarqa. Juha’s Guest House is a social business begun by Ahamad Juha, a Palestinian living in Israel and Neta Hanien, an Israeli Jew. Upon our arrival,  we were introduced to two people: the student leader Mahmoud and Genevieve Begue, the Educational Manager of the “Youth Leaders”– the youth leadership program in Jisr az Zarqa.  Youth Leaders empowers local kids by teaching them English and training them to guide tours in English in the village.

Early in our discussion, Genevieve explained that Jisr az Zarqa has been a community isolated from other Arab communities that stigmatized the town due to its Bedouin origins and collaboration with the Zionists prior to the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. The years of isolation from other Arab communities and surrounding wealthy Jewish communities left residents despairing of the possibility of new economic opportunity.  Juha’s Guesthouse has become the center of a web of new community energy and new relationships and opportunities for the village – drawing in international hikers walking the Israel National Trail, Israelis wanting to enjoy the beautiful stretch of beach and groups like us interested in learning about models for Palestinian-Jewish relationship building.

During our discussion, Genevieve shared that her graduate studies in Peace and her experience over the last four years in Jisr has made her realize that the concept of coexistence was not working as a construct to resolve Jewish-Palestinian conflict. A better focus is relationship building– it is more important and effective to focus on getting to know one another by listening and building commonalities— and when disagreements arise, we agree to disagree”

After a walk from the guest house to Jizr’s beautiful stretch of beach, we watched the sunset and then boarded our bus to Nazareth.

For More info on Jisr az Zarqa, see Neta Hainen’s TEDx talk at:https://youtu.be/ZdNcOy_eAB0

Bruce and Jocelyn

This post was brought to you by Susan K…

Today was a rich and full day.  We started the day with a tour of the Old City of Nazareth led by Ramzi.  Nazereth is primarily an Arab city, with Muslim and Christian inhabitants.  As it was the home of Jesus for much of his life, and is the site of the Basilica of the Annunciation, it is a very popular destination for Christian tourists.  Along the way Ramzi showed us powerful street graffiti, demonstrating Palestinians’ sorrow and anger over destruction of villages and loss of many Palestinian lives (termed martyrs) during the process of the creation of the state of Israel, as well as current mixed feelings of anger, loyalty to their people, and hope.

We toured the grand and striking Basilica, which, in the Catholic tradition, was the site of the annunciation of the birth of Christ and also housed the site of Mary’s home.  Although the exterior was completed in 1969, the interior contains stunning and and spiritual tributes to Mary from a wide range of time periods, including beautiful artistic tableaus contributed by countries across the globe.

We next met with Shireen, a self-possessed and very accomplished 23 year old Muslim student at the Technion who is instrumental in staffing the NGO Founders and Coders, which teaches coding and hi-tech skills to local and international students in an intensive four month program.  She answered our many tough questions with integrity, depth, and honesty–regarding her mission to promote accessible and pragmatic education and skills, and also her identity as a non-traditional Muslim woman making her mark on the world.  She impressed all of us with her maturity, inquisitiveness, warmth, and drive.

We explored the winding streets of Nazareth rich with scents of spices, kanafeh (extraordinary sweet cheese-filled pastry), and plentiful markets.  After lunch we headed to Haifa, where we met with representatives with Bet Hagefen, an established organization dedicated to multiculturalism and understanding among the city’s Arabs and Jews.  We learned that in Haifa there has been a pattern of Jews and Arabs working and living together with less tension than in other parts of the country–at least partially related to the fact that the city is more secular than cities such as Jerusalem–without the holy sites that have been a source of such struggle.  We learned about programs that Bet Hagefen is doing bringing Arab and Jewish children and teenagers together–although we learned that by and large they remain in separate public schools.  We were reminded  of how people can remain committed to their own narratives–our speaker mentioned that the socialist foundation of the country mitigated the impact of income inequality, when in fact extreme income inequality has become a major social problem in Israel in recent decades.  If someone is attached to a particular mission and belief structure, it may be challenging to broaden one’s perspective.

We toured upper Haifa and enjoyed an overlook featuring the city, the bay, and the spectacular Baha’i gardens, learning more about the history and geography of the city and the region, as well as a bit about the unique Baha’i faith.

We next traveled to Isfiya, a predominantly Druze village high in the Carmel mountains near Haifa.  We learned about the Druze faith and culture from our knowledgeable and spirited guide Ha-el.   The Druze have lived in the region which is now the Israeli Galilee, Lebanon, and Syria for hundreds of years.   Their language is Arabic and they share cultural similarities with Muslims of the region, but their faith is distinct from Islam–it combines elements of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and a spiritual essence similar to Buddhism.  Their faith and practice is in many ways secretive–one cannot convert to the Druze faith, and adolescents make a decision whether to practice a religiously observant or secular path.  They believe in reincarnation, and that one is obligated to lead an honorable life to pave the way for the next life.  They have a strong sense of family and community, and cluster in  mountaintop villages. Distinct from some Arabs we have met, who have identified themselves as Palestinians living in Israel, Ha-el described that the Druze hold loyalty to both their faith community and their nation–he clearly calls himself an Israeli.   Also, the Druze have made a commitment for their men to serve in the Israeli army, which can be particularly challenging if Israel is in a conflict with another nation which may have Druze serving in their army as well.

The village was stunningly beautiful atop the mountain, and we were treated to a delicious feast in a traditional Druze home–along with fabulous music provided by a local Oud player/singer and drummer.  We all relished the hospitality, and were sated with the flavorful food, music, and spirit.  Rumor has it that our rabbi did a bit of a dance routine which was captured on video and may be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

We had discussion and debriefing from Ramzi and Gal on our way home–a beautiful day of learning, relishing, and bonding among our group and very knowledgeable and generous guides.