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Communicating Palestine Through Tourism

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 28.03.2009:

Communicating Palestine Through Tourism: The Strategic Role of the Palestinian Family

Toine van Teeffelen

Paper for Inash al-Usra conference on the “The Role and the Future of the Palestinian Family”, El-Bireh, 20-22/3/2009


Some 20 years ago, I conducted a study about the image of Palestine and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in popular literature in the West. Think about the many thrillers, spy stories, historical novels and similar genres in which Palestinian militants are threatening Israel as well as the Western world at large. One finding that stood out in those books was the absence of functioning Palestinian families. Palestinian characters – not only the “terrorists’ – were typically free-floating, without roots, without commitments to their family or community. That actually underlined the threat they stood for. Rather than being rooted in family and community life, they themselves were pictured as posing a threat to rooted life. At the same time, the Israeli heroes in such books were very much linked to settled communities and families despite also having a romantic “lone wolf” image. In fact, in those books Israeli or Zionist adventure stories typically started from the familiar ring of family life, and those stories also usually ended in family life, when the hero returned home and joined or established a family.

In popular media, showing family life plays a strong role in bringing out people’s roots in the land, and showing a concern for basic values of caring, nurturing and community building. Disconnecting people from families or home life looks a powerful way of discrediting the values and rootedness of a people and nation, In addition, by doing so you don’t allow others to enter your stories from a familiar and universal vantage point, so important to establish meaningful communication. The starting point of my talk is therefore that bringing in the role and value of families can make an important contribution to communicate Palestine to an international audience.

Tourism and the Palestinian family

I want to apply this thesis to the field of tourism or visitor programs into Palestine. This for two reasons. First, visitor programs have a significant influence upon motivating people to support the Palestinian cause. In the same way as many young people in the 1950s and 1960s started their support for Israel through visits to the kibbutz and their small communities and families, the organized tours in Palestine nowadays are a constitutive experience for many foreigners who afterwards become more informed and willing to be active in solidarity work abroad. Secondly, Palestinians presently do yield some influence upon the development of tourism, even though also here much is in Israeli hands.

These considerations connect to present work in Bethlehem at the Arab Educational Institute where my colleagues and I are involved in the development of a visitor program focusing on families. Once a foreign visiting group told us that their stay with hosting families was highlight number one in their journeys. It was not so much the sites they visited that had a lasting influence, but rather the homeplace were they stayed, and the stories they heard and lived there. In a way, that was a humbling experience for us. We thought at the time that the involvement of hosting families was merely a means – a relatively cheap means of accommodation compared to hotels, and one which created some income for families – and not an end in itself. But staying with families turned out to make a deep impression, in fact sometimes much more than the visits to familiar or unfamiliar tourist places which we thought were more central to the program we offered. That made us think why.

What was the aspect of the family with which the visitors were most impressed? Actually, it was not so much a special aspect but simply family and home life as such, the Palestinian family culture, with its fluid structures and porous borders that often include neighbors and friends and the ongoing life and memories of a community. Homely space is often seen in the West as a kind of buffer, the family as a “castle”, a “heaven in a heartless world.” However, in the case of the Palestinian-Arab and Eastern or Mediterranean family the family boundaries are open and flexible, and show connectedness and networking capacity more than in the West. Its relative openness makes it easier for visitors to enter Palestinian family life.

We found that existing tourist schemes tended to regard family life as a marginal category. Of course this applies to the western church pilgrimages whereby the “dead stones” (the church buildings) and not the “living stones” (the communities) are visited. But also the more community-oriented forms of tourism which we should value in principle as journeys that expose visitors to Palestinian reality, do not tend to involve family life that much. This is true for solidarity visits, which are primarily politically oriented and involve meetings with spokespersons. It further applies to programs of cultural tourism and ecotourism, where the visits involve natural scenes, cultural and religious places, villages, desert, museums and outdoor celebrations. Even while there is significant contact with the population, these forms of tourism are still premised upon some kind of boundary drawing between the visitors and the people visited, upon tourist-specific hierarchies and exclusions. They almost always trigger the well-known tourist gaze. In the Palestinian context, a measure of distance towards the people visited is common to all these types of tourism. One participant-observer of a solidarity visit recently commented: “While encounters with Israeli [peace movement] organizations were characterized by informality, back-channel communication and individual contacts, meetings with Palestinian organizations were largely formal and polite” (Landy: 195).

Sumud tourism

In our effort in Bethlehem to develop a new kind of family-oriented tourism we detected the meaningfulness and relevance of a central Palestinian concept – sumud. We thus dubbed the new tourism sumud tourism, calling the program “spirit of sumud.”

What is sumud? Literally steadfastness, holding to the land, persistence or resilience. While sumud may be simple in its basic meaning as steadfastness it is also complex because it acquires different shades of meaning when applied to different societal fields, including politics, non-violent resistance, development work, and also tourism. Relevant for the field of tourism and our discussion here is the association of sumud with homely, daily life which is the setting in which people’s ties with the land and environment are preserved. As developed by Raja Shehadeh in his diary “The Third Way” (1981), sumud in the Palestinian context of life under occupation is about holding on to daily life while being tested to the extreme. In present-day terms one might say that sumud is protecting oneself against a situation of what the Italian philosopher Agamben calls “bare life,” in which a subject is fully exposed to the violence of state power. Sumud is not a liberation strategy towards a positive solution but rather defensive strength – keeping the culture and structures of the society intact, refusing to negate your political and national rights, cultivating the ability to prevent an imposed solution. Further, it is about keeping the relationships and networks that are protective factors in maintaining people’s resilience. The last factor explains why family life is so important for sumud.

In communicating the Palestinian experience to foreigners, sumud is first of all valuable in bringing the spotlight of attention to the positive values lived in a concrete family and neighborhood context: the strength and social resilience in what has become typically Palestinian contexts of border life near checkpoints, Walls and settlements. Because sumud foregrounds people’s agency rather than victimhood it is easier for others to share the values of sumud and take on a Palestinian perspective. In other words, sumud tourism as proposed here is also valuable for a perspective-related reason. It allows the visitor to move from an outside, formal perspective to approach an inner, informal Palestinian perspective. Sharing Palestinian family life facilitates authentic human contact, and from there the entry into Palestinian stories.


The notion of authenticity, which helps to explain this shifting of perspectives, is a somewhat loaded word that can lead to misunderstandings. For instance, “authentic tourism” may refer to the western tourist’s longing for pre-industrial community life sometimes projected into Palestinian village scenes or objects in a traditional Palestinian home folklore museum. There is in fact a body of literature which critiques the consumption of decontextualized ‘authenticity’ in which the memories of real life contexts of the past are lost.

Here I understand authenticity from a different, hermeneutic point of view, whereby the visitor is momentarily able to approach the viewpoint of others so that the possibility of what is called a “fusion of horizons” opens up. An authentic perspective keeps the dialogue with the other open; it does not submit to the temptation to close it off; appropriate the other’s voice, or categorize it in a stereotypical way. The engagement in an authentic dialogue with the other opens up and respects his or her uniqueness and perspective. More than any other setting, entering family life creates this authentic spell needed for shifting the visitor’s perspective.

There is an important practical condition here. The family visit should not be a fast visit. Fast visits trigger the use of easy, stereotypical frames of interpretation which close off the other’s voice. Rather, it should be a visit that draws the visitor into the fullness of life characteristic for informal family settings like a dinner or family conversation. The visit should involve shared meaning-making on issues of daily life, the concerns of which are largely familiar to most people in the world. After all, the home matters very much, wherever you are. One enters very intimate conversations in a previously unknown family precisely because of universally shared concerns like how to deal with health and illnesses, the celebrating of birth and marriage occasions, or thinking about the dilemmas of bringing up children. Authentic communication creates familiar vantage points out of which the visitor can open him/herself to the stories that depart from the familiar such as the family’s sumud stories in which extreme circumstances or challenges are faced.


This entrance into authentic family life is much facilitated by a unique feature that is important for the tourist experience of Palestine: Arab and Palestinian family hospitality. Visiting a home is coming in as a guest. As a guest you tresspass a border and enter a story. Palestinian or Arab hospitality is not only about eating, even though that by itself of course helps much in opening up the flow of conversation and the fusion of perspectives. Rather, hospitality is offering shared social space. In the case of family-oriented tourism, hospitality further creates deep emotional contrasts that leave their mark in the guest’s impressions of Palestinian family life

First, the story of arrival. After the airport questioning and the experience of traveling through the Wall and checkpoints the visitor is comforted by homely intimacy. The family atmosphere and its hospitality stand in stark contrast with the dangers usually associated with visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The story of homely arrival is repeated during the daily journeys when in the evening the visitors return to the Palestinian home after the traveling difficulties and other unsettling experiences during the day.

Second, a guest experiences hospitality offered during informal and cosy settings of family storytelling – during meals and occasions, visits to family members, conversations at the courtyard or veranda. During such moments the needs of the guest are all too often put above the family’s own needs. From the guest’s perspective, this generosity deeply contrasts with the stories that he or she hears at those moments and which are about the mountainous obstacles people face in their daily life. In such stories, a sense of normality, home and hospitality look more like a remarkable achievement than a familiar routine. Here hospitality elicits a feeling of admiration and deep appreciation, and also embarrassment – as the visitor feels humbled at the same time.

Third, there is the contrast and tension between the visitor’s role as a tourist-observer and as a guest participating in family life. Hospitality makes the outsider live the family stories, especially when the hospitality encourages the guest to enter celebrations like feasts. Hospitality creates a feeling and reality of participation while the visitor initially came in as an outsider. This too supports a process of entering into the other’s perspective.

Family picknicks and enactments of weddings

Out of the familiar setting of home life, sumud tourism can go into different directions. I give here brief examples.The visitors can join journeys together with Palestinian families. A family picknick in a beautiful natural environment is an unforgettable experience, which all the more brings home the message that this environment is on the way of being lost due to settlements and the Wall. The program can include women and men re-enacting traditional wedding scenes. While there is much documentation of the rich Palestinian wedding customs, tourist programs still barely include this part of the heritage, except the silent observation of traditional wedding clothes in a heritage museum without lively context, dramatizations or story-telling.

Family journeys into the past

A family journey can also be a journey into the past. Why not joining a family who obtained a permit during a feast day to go to Jerusalem, to visit the homes and houses from where they originally came from? The very fact of needing a permit to go to your place of origin is a revelation for visitors, as is the actual journey through the checkpoint itself, whereby of course the hosting family is treated differently than the visitor. I remember myself as a foreigner witnessing a conversation between a Bethlehemite from ‘Ein Karem, who went back to that village for the celebration of the Christian St John’s day, and the Jewish family now occupying their former house. There is no better way for a visitor to shift perspectives, and render the right of return concrete, than observing such a new-old story.

Family journeys into the past can also be staged. With the Turathuna Center of Bethlehem University it is agreed upon to show visiting groups a university student playing to be a grandchild of an older citizen of the area, who tells about family life in the past, including 1948 and 1967. Foreigners are not at all aware of the deep roots of Palestinian families in the cities and the villages. They often think that Palestinians immigrated recently into the area, in accordance with traditional Zionist myths of Palestine as an empty land. Families telling about their old family photos can reveal changes of life, and provide depth to a visitor’s perspective. The telling of family diaries by a storyteller on the spot where it all happened leaves more traces in a visitor’s memory than reading such a diary abroad. For instance, as for Bethlehem, there are the beautifully written memories of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra about his childhood (“The First Well”) during the British mandate time in extremely poor conditions. When we want to convey more recent history, we may read at Baab al-Der from a diary of a teenager girl who wrote her diary while being closed up at home during the curfews of 2002-3.

Journeys to sumud places

An obvious type of sumud tourism is visiting families who live in beleaguered places where they try to protect their home and land against expropriations and settlement or Wall building. Daoud Nasser of the Tent of Nations in Nahalin tells his family story of resistance against expropriations in an intimate cave because he is not allowed to build on his land. There are many such stories of course. More than any other place visitors feel here the contrast between the hospitality offered and the roots and values shown, on the one hand, and the ongoing process of the killing of peole’s livelihoods, spaces and memories as a result of Wall and settlement building on the other. Such experiences leave a real impression not in the last place because Western visitors, especially older ones, unconsciously still associate Israel with a place that is besieged rather than Israel besieging the Palestinian people.

Virtual tourism

Other examples fall under the rubric of newly upcoming “virtual tourism.” Visitors taking a walk along the Wall near Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem might in the future be able to upload stories of families living there and hear those stories through headphones. It will not take much time before it will be possible for school youth abroad to look on-line into a camera that shows a guide telling about life of families here. The website of the British Christian Aid organization presently offers a day-by-day program into Palestinian reality, including prayers and meditations, which one can follow from the computer. Palestinian students from Bethlehem and students from a village in the south of the Netherlands have been building a website called “Sharing Homes” in which the virtual visitor can enter reconstructions of Palestinian and Dutch homes. By clicking on objects in the rooms one learns about each other’s family life. These examples give a taste of upcoming changes in the widening field of tourism, and the inclusion of “home experiences” in them.

Such visitor options should be supported by a digital documentation of family stories, oral histories, biographies, family videos, stories of customs. In our program, the support base is, a so-called wiki website, that allows registered visitors to the site to upload and share their own Palestinian family stories, documents, videos and photos. There are nowadays perhaps thousands of rather isolated Palestinian family websites, including sites with family trees, that invite coordination and mutual linking. In fact, visitor programs building on family stories should be part of a broader story movement which aims to communicate Palestinian identity and reality in an accessible way, facilitating a visitor’s shifts in perspective.


Finally, which objections may be raised as to an expanding role for the family in Palestinian visitor programs?

1. First the practical questions, very briefly. Are visitors at all interested in family life and homes, or do they rather prefer hotels for reasons of privacy? One colleague with a travel agency told me that guests interested to meet Palestinians often prefer joining an evening long family dinner rather than staying the night with a hosting family. Both are good options. Other practical questions pertain to the availability of Palestinian hosting families and suitable homes and the economic feasibility of involving whole families in a group itinerary. My financial colleagues say that things can be worked out as long as there are no expectations of professional fee levels. The main issue is good and timely organization.

2. Then a few more principled and theoretical questions which are more relevant to this paper. Is the family not made into an ideal in such a program? Are we not raising too high expectations about the Palestinian family which cannot be met? No – actually it is quite possible that visitors of families will experience ugly family conflicts and boring moments. The point here is that nobody expects family life to be heroic. Precisely because no visited family will be ideal, the visitor’s experience will be all the more authentic. (In fact, the notion of sumud does not refer to heroic deeds, except perhaps for the silent heroism of families succeeding in somehow meeting the demands of daily life under impossible circumstances).

3. Another objection: Is family life the only entry into the authentic life stories of Palestinians? Obviously not. In Bethlehem we once had visitors who after an unspectacular visit to the Nativity Church started to cry when visiting a school in the village of Artas. Entering a school class with small girls doing their very best in learning, and talks with teachers, created a strong resonance. Authentic interaction is more expected in family life but there are other spaces and moments as well.

4. On a moral level, one may ask whether we should bother families struggling with pain and loss – how are they affected by visits of uncommitted guests who do not always show the right and respectful attitude? This is a real dilemma. In general, our experience is that civilians and families who are struggling to keep their lands, homes and daily life are encouraged by interested visitors – even though it is sometimes true that residents feel exhausted by a continuing stream of visitors unable to positively influence their situation. It would be useful to learn here from experiences in South Africa, where during the Apartheid regime visitors and tourists used to have homestays in the townships.

5. Finally, when giving more space to Palestinian families in tourist programs, one may raise the question whether the Palestinian family perspective is not too limited and subjective, too much about stories and not about the objective political geography of colonial settlement that visitors need to know about. The previously quoted observer of a solidarity visit in fact mentioned that visitors associated the Palestinians they met with localized and subjective story-telling, and representatives of Israeli peace organizations with providing a broader objective perspective.

Two points here. When visitors become familiar with a range of different family and community stories they do build up a broader, what we can call inter-subjective perspective. A perspective which is built up from many interlinking stories is more than just local or subjective. It provides a frame for a deep and human understanding of broader developments. At the same time, there is by itself certainly a need to improve the provision of objective information by Palestinians, and not to leave this, as often happens in present visitor programs, to international or Israeli peace organizations. But that is a question for another paper and discussion.


Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998.

David Lendy, “Authenticity and Political Agency on Study Trips to Palestine.” In: Ronit Lentin (ed.) Thinking Palestine. Zed Books, London and New York, 2008.

For more information about the spirit of sumud program, see www.spiritofsumud,ps

Dr Toine van Teeffelen has a PhD from the University in Amsterdam in discourse analysis. He is presently the development director of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem (

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