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Virtual Voyage to Palestine— No Visa Required

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 24.11.2006:

By Leyla Zuaiter

Dear All,

You are used to hearing about all my adventures and misadventures in this beautiful and intriguing country. Now, standing 359º east of Truth and 2º south of Cyberspace, I am about to embark on one of the most fascinating voyages to date. By the time you read these words, (PFN) will have finally been launched and set sail on cyan cyberseas for Diaspora shores to gather the sons and daughters of Palestine and bring them home. With them will be a few intrepid travelers who dare to tread where few have been-deep into the heart of Palestine. There to see it off will be the ship’s builder, James Prineas, flying in from Berlin at his own expense, members of the Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows (AEI)-PFN’s local partner-invited guests, members of the advisory board, and interested members of the public.

A few pioneering Palestinian men, women, and children will board the well-provisioned ship. As an invited guest, I’ll be traveling in style: no need to be a stowaway or travel in steerage this time. On, everyone is a VIP, from academics to children. The heritage of all Palestinians is equally valued, whatever their religious or ethnic backgrounds. Splitting hairs and “doubtful” categories are not for us: we celebrate the multiplicity of identities and backgrounds.

You won’t have to wait until I reach shore to hear about my trip, nor must you master Morse code or send out radio signals to contact me. With just 24 rapid taps on your computer can chart our course. While we are navigating the waters, you can navigate the pane on the site’s left side. I’ll give you a minute to get your computer. Hurry back! We’ll all be there-Im Fakhri with her grandchildren, the girl in the yellow pants, the man and his father in the keffiyehs, Abu Lutfi, and the Lettuce Boy. (Photography>Local>Modern Portraits) Notable Palestinians, living and dead, are with us as well. (People>Notable Palestinians)

Everything we need for our voyage is right on board. We’ve got plenty of maps from different eras in our history (History>Vintage Maps), such as this map made in Nuremburg in 1729. We have closets full of clothes and accessories. Take your pick of one of the tarbushes or thobs, or try on a silver choker for size. (Photography>Local>Miscellaneous) When it comes to food, we won’t have to swallow our pride, eat crow or humble pie-just take a look at all those mouth-watering recipes. (Culture>Food and Recipes) And if you don’t find the cure for what ails you here, check out the home remedies. (Culture>Customs and Remedies)

While we’re together, we will look at each other’s photo albums (Photography>Local>Vintage Portraits) and (Photography>Local>Vintage Landscapes) and while away the hours reciting stories and sayings, songs and poems (Culture>Stories and Sayings) and (Culture>Songs and Poems), or myths and legends (History>Myths and Legends). When we tire of life at sea, we can put our feet on the ground for a few minutes, (Culture>Land and Nature and Photography>Modern Landscapes) and when we get homesick, we will visit homes in the homeland. (Photography>Architecture and Interiors) We will have nightly performances, both traditional and contemporary. We might be regaled by the samer, or verbal duel (Photography>Local>Social Life), watch a contemporary dance performance-maybe even the new Palestinian circus. In a quiet moment, we might write letters or diaries, read other people’s letters and diaries (History>Letters and Diaries), or take a book off the shelf. (Community Resources>Books)

Yes, we are on a virtual voyage to the collective memory of Palestine, and we are collecting more memories at each stop. In the virtual valises of our cousins, whom we pick up at each port of call, will be old photos from Chile, the family tree of the branch of the family that immigrated to Honduras (Family Trees), and recipes from your great-uncle’s restaurant in New York. It will not all be smooth sailing, however. The papers these days are full of headlines about the difficulties faced by the sons and daughters of Palestine and their friends in getting ashore. But while we wait, we have important work to do: together we will write Palestine’s history-person by person, family by family, and village by village.

Meanwhile, dear All, as we prepare to launch our voyage, just across from us at the Nativity Church landing pad, the last alien spaceship of the day, full of what are known in these parts as “tourists,” will have landed. It’s not the “velocity” of their travel that’s in question: decades have been dedicated to perfecting sophisticated techniques-getting travel down to such a fine art that people can get in and out of Bethlehem without even knowing they were in Palestine, much less interact with any Palestinians. Not all of them have checked their brains, not to mention hearts and minds, at the checkpoint. Some have tried to navigate these virtual cyber waters to reach our shores before. But what is the virtual tourist to do when faced with so many squalls and shoals along the way? Burly bouncers at ports such as consult their lists, look up, shake their heads, and say, “Palestine? Never heard of it.” Travel agents book them in hotels in a place called Texas, on the other side of the world. Brand-name travel sites list Bethlehem under Israel, without any further qualification. And, of course, the waters are rife with dreaded red herrings such as “Arab Terrorism” or “Palestinian Terrorism.”

I am sorry to tell you, dear All, that even travel sites under the heading of “Palestine, Middle East,” that feature tantalizing travel categories in the navigation pane, in fact serve up stories about the political conflict and feature sponsored links to Israeli and Jewish sites rather than Palestinian ones. What is most likely to stand out after reading the entry on one sophisticated, attractive site with a section entitled “Authentic Tourism” is the bloggers’ disrespect for the beliefs and holy places of the people of Bethlehem. And the queries of those looking to volunteer in Palestine remain apparently unanswered-probably because few Palestinians know about or would have cause to visit such sites.

Now, my dearest All, by now you are surely at sea when it comes to planning your trip to Palestine. I know that my letters are long on adventure but short on practical details. Here comes the most exciting part of our virtual voyage as far as you are concerned: you can not only take a virtual voyage but a real trip to Palestine via In fact, it holds great promise to the Palestinian tourism industry and would-be visitor alike. Under “Community Resources,” there are three particularly relevant sections: “Sightseeing,” “Where to Go,” and “Where to Stay.” Tourism providers can enter descriptions of their programs in these sections as well as submit entries to other relevant areas of the site. This is a great boon to those without the human or material resources to create or maintain their own websites. Because boundaries between tourism, pilgrimage, culture, and other categories-including family history-particularly overlap in Palestine, the site can be of use to institutions ranging in scope from education to the environment.

The technical sophistication and visual appeal of the site is one that any institution can be proud of, allowing it to bypass lengthy deliberations about design and content, given the once-and-for-all nature of conventional websites. Since the site has no central webmaster but relies on submissions from the public, an institution can take advantage of valiant volunteers to make the submissions. In a land where the situation on the ground changes daily, they can immediately update the information and not await the often infrequent ministrations of the webmaster. And they can get their messages across in up to seven languages: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Greek. is already being used to reach out to tourists. For example, few tourists (or Palestinians for that matter) realize that less than ten minutes from their landing pad lies the enchanting village of Artas, with rich and varied tourist attractions. But by partnering with PFN, Artas Folklore Center, keeper of the village heritage, earned the right to an externally accessible subsite of its own ( in return for helping to build up the main site. Information about the Artas Folklore Center itself is gathered in one place on this subsite, whereas over 110 entries in 21 categories, placed on the main site by Artas Folklore Center and others, can be accessed by going to “Places and Regions>Artas,” or chanced upon by people exploring the site. Turathuna ( is another institution that has formed such a partnership, which is available to other institutions as well.

Paltournews, a newsletter of the Palestinian tourism industry put out by the Arab Hotel Association, has also found PFN. In fact, in writing for Paltournews, I have discovered a way to extend the experience of curious readers and kill two birds with one stone. After reading an article about my adventures in Wadi Khreitoun, at the Artas Lettuce Festival, or on the Feast of St. George, they can then continue exploring a photo-essay with up to 36 pictures or view a set of captioned photos on PFN. The photo-essays stand by themselves, for those who do not enjoy reading to discover the site, along with the article submitted in the name of Paltournews. Many entries have been made in the name of This Week in Palestine (, which has much to offer tourists as well as Diaspora Palestinians interested in their roots, and which is helping to distribute the beautiful PFN postcards taken by PFN’s founder James Prineas. And visitors to a not-yet-launched Bethlehem tourism website will find themselves frequently directed to Palestine-family net. Travel writers-as well as other writers-can use PFN to get ideas, material, and contacts for articles.

As for virtual visitors to Palestine, they will be able to get an insider’s view of the sights and sites of Palestine-both on and off the beaten track-and read about recommendations or experiences of previous visitors. And for those who want to go even deeper into Palestine, through AEI, they can arrange to join the ranks of those who volunteer for the fascinating mission of going around to collect family histories or Palestinian heritage material from individuals, families, and institutions to put on, whether on the ground or as virtual volunteers. Where will those other institutions we mentioned above find volunteers? Why, on the message board (Message Board), of course!

But offers more than just virtual tours. In cooperation with its main local partner, AEI, it will soon offer real tours to the Bethlehem area-including Artas-and Jericho, journeys deep into Palestine and its families. (

In the meantime, my very dearest All, you don’t have to pass checkpoints or have permits to pass from one village to another in Palestine. You don’t need a visa to enter the country. You don’t even have to wait for the next port if you want to send a postcard or letter. You can select one of the beautiful photos or articles and e-mail it right from the site. cultural archive and Collective Memory of a People-now that’s something to write home about!



Leyla Zuaiter is on the editorial board of She can be reached at For more of her articles on family history, heritage, culture, and tourism, see: or


This Week in Palestine

November 2006

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