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The Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows (AEI): Worthy Resource and Partner for Palestinian Tourism

Contributed by Paltour News on 18.03.2006:

submitted by Paltour News 02.03.2006

By Leyla Zuaiter

A few minutes from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Milk Grotto Street, is a veteran institution which deserves to be better-known. Its unique multi-stranded programs aimed at developing and communicating Palestinian identity, incorporate many activities allied to the fields of tourism and recreation. In the AEI’s view, every Palestinian should be able to serve as a guide to his home town or village—thus it was no surprise to find a workshop called “Guiding Bethlehem” on the schedule of its Summer School of Communication—just in time for the participants to apply to their visiting relatives from abroad. This Palestinian Diaspora figures in the AEI’s community-building programs as well. Excelling at Internet-based educational exchanges, the AEI was the first Palestinian institution to see the potential of Family History and Genealogy in strengthening Homeland-Diaspora ties as well as applications in many areas from tourism to art. While in the process of creating a website on the fascinating history and genealogy of Bethlehem’s families, it discovered that a group of students in Berlin were working on an ambitious, highly sophisticated site to accommodate the genealogy and family history of all Palestinians called (( They quickly established contact and are now one of the first contributors to this site, which has plenty of promise for the tourism industry—especially rural tourism. As a matter of fact the site’s founder, James Prineas, will be coming to Palestine for the Artas Lettuce Festival. You can read more about it in the article on that subject. Here I will describe just two of AEI’s unique programs. I am sure you will agree with me that the AEI is a natural partner in any tourism activities drawing on Palestine’s rich religious and cultural heritage, particularly those with an educational component.

Innovative Itineraries

“DiscoveringPalestine” (,a fascinating series of nature and heritage itineraries in the southern West Bank, jointly hosted by the AEI and the Artas Folklore Center (AFC) before the current Intifada, is the standard against which I will forever after measure all excursions. These trips, in which young Palestinians explored the natural, physical and cultural heritage of their country and presented it to outsiders by various creative means such as skits and poetry, was just what I had been seeking in vain for years. In enticing itineraries such as “Saints and Sufis,” “Heaven and Hell” and “Abraham and Lot, I walked from Battir half way to Tel Aviv, saw a modern-cave dwelling in Wadi Foukin, the imprints of Abraham’s knees in Beni Naim, the descendents of the Biblical Esau in Samoa, a charitable soup kitchen in Hebron, Bedouin women making labaneh in Eibediyeh and more. This and the “Sharing the Land: Moslems and Christians in the Holy land” Fieldtrips are the aspect of AEI’s work which I most enjoy. These multistranded, interdisciplinary programs can serve as a model for, and be adapted to a wide range of participants. While AEI’s groups and wide school networks benefit from such trips—and generate tourism to the areas they select—many more parties could benefit from AEI’s experience in setting up itineraries and culture and heritage activities to accompany them, whether for Palestinians or visitors from abroad. Interfaith groups, scouts, women’s groups, youth groups, nature and wildlife enthusiasts, artists, writers, journalists, peace activists and university students are only a few types of groups which could be targeted. Repeat visits to Palestine could be encouraged by providing a different experience each time. With AEI’s approach even die-hard pilgrims could enter “The Holy Land” and leave “Palestine.” Rather than importing western consumer values, the Palestinians should seek to preserve and even “export” their own traditional Palestinian values. The AEI’s Value and Identity Program takes the first step of identifying just what those values are. An exciting new plank of this program uses family history and genealogy to connect local and Diaspora Bethlehemites and to serve as a basis for a wide range educational and tourism activities. To know more about it, continue reading.

Routes and Roots

If this name were not reserved for another of AEI’s innovative programs, it might be ideal for a possible spin-off of the Genealogy and Family History Project currently in development. Perhaps the Palestinian tourist and other industries will find out what their counterparts in other countries have already discovered: the study of genealogy and family history does more than provide interest to the hobbyist, more even than to strengthen personal, cultural and national identity: it creates all kinds of new markets. The second largest use of the Internet in the United States, genealogy not only keeps millions of people happily occupied, it also generates sales in computer software, cameras, special scrapbooks and albums, filing cabinets, bookshelves, and more. It also provides employment for photographers, writers, computer programmers, software developers, archivists and a host of other people. It stimulates interest in local historical/heritage societies. It can be used in school projects from language, history and arts classes. And it gives people a burning desire to visit the places associated with their ancestors.

Focused on the Bethlehem area, AEI’s Genealogy and Family History Project may not only increase interest among local Palestinians in exploring their heritage—thus stimulating domestic tourism—the AEI trip to Mazra’a featured in our last issue came about partly due to a workshop in Family History offered to its women’s group—but also the Diaspora. One feature of this webpage worthy of note is that it does not merely link to—but actively highlights and promotes the work of authors, heritage centers, and educational programs in the Bethlehem area of relevance to people interested in their Palestinian roots. It makes it easy for people to know more about written resources and to purchase them through annotations, links to reviews, and sales outlets—especially local ones, thus stimulating sales of books, and local revenues. Careful and creative development of its fledgling Family History, Genealogy and Heritage page and targeted contacts in the Diaspora could lead to special tours for those wanting to explore their roots. Some of these persons, such as those in Chile, where those of Palestinian descent may have been living for over a century, may not know to whom they are related, and may not speak Arabic. They are prime candidates for special short-term and long-term visits and tailor-made language/culture programs.

Locally, workshops can be given to villages such as Mazra’a al Qibliyeh and Artas as well as other parties, in how to preserve the genealogy and oral history of their village using genealogy software, which can later be drawn on in developing heritage centers. The genealogy of Artas, for example, was studied in detail by Finnish Anthropologist Hilma Granqvist and updated by Musa Sanad, founder of Artas Folklore Center—and highlights many interesting marriage practices, and the towns and villages to which Artas is bound to by marriage. In Mazra’a al Qibliyeh Mayor Sa’eed Shraiteh was able to orally recite hundreds of years of genealogy, now entered into a database, while another villager is busy collecting village documents and artifacts.

At the moment, historic buildings in several villages surrounding Bethlehem are being renovated for use as cultural centers. A genealogy and family history project—closely allied to local history—would at once offer an immediate activity in the center and itself help gather documents and artifacts to put in the center, which could be of interest to visitors. Note that many of these planned cultural centers are in the very areas for which the AEI has developed itineraries, offering even greater potential. By using resources such as those on Palestine-family-net (see next article) AEI will be able to do one of the things it does best—create interesting and attractive educational/tourist games and activities, such as treasure hunts or “magical mystery tours.”

While the genealogy software on the market today is very useful, I would like to see a software developed specially tailored for Palestinians, which makes it easy for all Palestinians to record–and document– their family history. The AEI is willing to work with interested parties to develop and nurture this potential market and the educational and tourism programs associated with it. For a case in point about Family-History based tourism continue to the next article


Learn More about Palestinian Family History and Genealogy and the Arab Educational Institute

For more about Palestinian Family History and Genealogy, and the breakthrough represented by AEI’s Family History and Genealogy Page and Palestine Family Net, see Paradox, Perversity and Promise: A Journey into Palestinian Genealogy in the February 2006 issue of This Week in Palestine .

Be sure to explore AEI’s Genealogy and Family History webpage at: . The site is not “finished” and needs some cosmetic work, but it has much content. If you are in a hurry, at least check out: Applications of Palestinian Family History and Genealogy (Under the heading Genealogy, Family History, Heritage and Palestine.) for some examples of income-generating activities in the tourism, recreation and other sectors.

For more information about the Arab Educational Institute itself see:

Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem;

Windows to Palestine, Windows to Peace: The Arab Educational Institute

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