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The Second Birzeit Heritage Week: Building pillars for a sustainable rural-development vision

The Second Birzeit Heritage Week: Building pillars for a sustainable rural-development vision
By Raed Saadeh

Birzeit Heritage Week is not merely a cultural or heritage activity that stands on its own. It is part of a holistic approach to bringing sustainable development and prosperity to the Palestinian countryside. The Rozana Association has been diligently trying to advance the underlying concepts that are inherent in this vision. 

Competitiveness is determined by the productivity with which a nation, region, or cluster uses its human, capital, and natural resources. (Professor Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business School) 

Hence the questions: what are the resources that form the basis for Palestinian rural development, and how does the Rozana Association plan to network these competencies in order to instil significant productivity and competitiveness?

First of all, the Rozana is a Birzeit-based association, and its scope of work revolves around Birzeit as a centre for rural-development activities and as a leading example for others to follow in terms of understanding the competencies of their villages and the ways to incorporate them into efficient and effective productive efforts.

Birzeit possesses many resources:

 

1. Architectural heritage is evident in the historic centre of the town and needs to be preserved and rehabilitated according to a researched strategic master plan. A great deal of the planning has already been accomplished by the working team, which includes the Rozana as well as the Birzeit Municipality, Birzeit University, and Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation.

2. Human resources are apparent through the presence of the university, several elementary and high schools, and numerous skilled artisans.

3. The various layers of history and the monuments that are abundant in and around Birzeit open the door for all kinds of tour initiatives such as the course of Khans and Sufism, the path of Ibrahim al-Khalil, the village path from Taybeh to Birzeit, and many other hiking events that explore the diverse landscape of the area and the various harvest seasons that take place throughout the year.

4. Cultural heritage and cultural-exchange activities have been adopted and advanced by Birzeit. In this respect, the Birzeit Heritage Week has played an important role in fostering such an invaluable resource. During the Heritage Week of last year, nine countries participated in presenting their identities and heritage to the local community. This was a great opportunity for a firsthand encounter between these countries and the typical person-in-the-street. The Rozana received much positive feedback connected to these events. It was the first time that nine international flags were raised on top of the municipal building.

 

The Rozana’s mission is to network among these resources and others in order to realise its vision of a bustling historic centre in Birzeit, a centre that is linked with its neighbouring villages and the countryside in order to occupy a unique competitive position on the future tourism map of Palestine.

Hence, the Birzeit Heritage Week is not a stand-alone cultural event. All the music performances, the folklore presentations, the theatre plays, the children’s activities and games, the various galleries, the handcrafts and producer groups’ displays, and the many other activities are expected to increase income potential for the local rural community; encourage investment and diversity; promote the development of traditional artefacts; contribute to the sustainability of heritage and folklore activities; advance cultural exchange and networking; contribute to the expansion of tourism services in countryside; and encourage potential initiatives.

This year’s Heritage Week will take place in the alleys, courtyards, streets, and attics of the historic centre of Birzeit between 13 and 19 July, from 6 p.m. to 12 midnight. Two or three music or dance performances as well as a theatre play and a movie show will take place every evening. Children will have a lot of activities to diffuse their energy and to instil their creativity. Artisans, producer groups, and international communities will exhibit their products and displays. There will also be plenty of food and drink.

For more information about the event and the Association, visit our website at www.rozana.ps.

 

Raed Saadeh is chairman of the Rozana Association and vice president of the Arab Hotel Association.
Originally published in ” this week in Palestine ” issue No 123,July 2008 . 

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The First International Rural Tourism Workshop in Palestine A Platform for Development

The First International Rural Tourism Workshop in Palestine A Platform for Development
By Raed Saadeh

Is there a chance for Palestinians to realise their vision of statehood and for rural Palestine to prosper taking into consideration the prevailing circumstances and future scenarios?

The Rozana Association, in its attempt to provide answers to this question, took upon itself the mission to network with partners to promote rural tourism in and around Birzeit. In this endeavour, the Rozana adheres to a community-based, socially responsible approach to leveraging resources and capacities needed to develop the communities’ distinctive competencies in order to generate sustainable income and improve the quality of life and environment.

Hence, a partnership that includes the University of Torino, Birzeit University, Siraj Center, and the Rozana is organizing an international workshop on rural tourism in Palestine on 4 and 5 November at Birzeit University. Local and international scholars will present their papers and ideas in an attempt to deal with some of the questions, issues, and challenges set by the workshop organizers. Rozana is not new to such initiatives. Created in 2007 by a number of individuals from families who own houses, attics, and courtyards in Birzeit’s historic area, Rozana has already organised major events including Heritage Week, the Spring Festival and the Maftoul Festival.

The context of Palestinian rural tourism needs to be clarified in terms of the available and potential resources and capacities that will create the platform for its sustainability and progress. Yet the impact of such development on the community and the associated historic sites and shrines needs to be investigated and guidelines established and enforced to ensure proper progress. 

The workshop will discuss a number of issues that will foster awareness-raising, consensus-building, and a convergence of related efforts. The role and involvement of local communities are fundamental in the proposed discussions. Development depends entirely on the transfer of ownership to local stakeholders as their involvement will not only establish a genuine product, but will also generate the skills and local leadership needed to sustain and protect such efforts.

Other sessions will discuss the role of culture and environment in the tourism package, the potential to market and internationally brand Palestinian rural tourism, and finally the efficient and holistic incorporation of architectural heritage and village historic centres in the proposed development process.

To connect to the spirit of the workshop and to link to its proposed objectives, a number of exhibits will take place during the event to promote rural tour initiatives, rural cultural and heritage festivals, and Palestinian arts and crafts. Field trips will take place the next day to introduce participants and guests to nearby destinations and paths.

Finally, the workshop will coincide with Rozana’s Maftoul Festival to be held on 4 November at Birzeit’s Catholic Church Garden. The festival includes a performance by Artist Sana Mousa and a competition of the best maftoul dish overseen by a panel of Palestine’s best chefs. Bon Appétit.

Rozana and its partners (the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Birzeit University, Siraj Center, and the University of Torino) are confident that the workshop will be a first, but important, step to awaken people’s awareness of the importance of tourism, as both a source of economic growth and a means to enhance the countryside’s image and identity.

Originally Published in ” this Week in Palestine ” Issue No 150, October 2010

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Seasonality: Is It the Ultimate Fate of Tourism in Jerusalem?

Seasonality: Is It the Ultimate Fate of Tourism in Jerusalem?
By Raed Saadeh

Jerusalem’s classical tourism has always depended on Christian heritage, and this will no doubt continue. Regardless of the benefits that this tourism has brought to Jerusalem in the past, however, its seasonal character and the increasing overhead costs to maintain a tourist establishment in the city are raising the toll on the potential sustainability of this type of business.

The Israeli separation Wall has deprived Jerusalem of its suburbs. It has choked every possibility to develop and improve its domestic tourism and business potential. The Wall’s impact on the city has not been only to deter people from entering the city and using its services, it has contributed to shifting the centre of Palestinian life to neighbouring cities, particularly Ramallah. This factor has negatively affected both Palestinian local tourism and foreign expat business potential in the city. 

International pilgrimage to Jerusalem is in increasingly greater competition with that of Bethlehem, where hotels offer better rates and newer establishments. At the time when the number of Bethlehem hotels tripled after the Oslo agreements, “East” Jerusalem’s room capacity was cut in half due to the political circumstances. The Palestinian hotels in Jerusalem have yet to endure the fierce competition imposed by the Israeli hotels to attract guests. The number of rooms in Israeli hotels has grown to over ten times the number of rooms in Palestinian hotels since 1967. Their establishments are newer and their management is much more aggressive.

Among st what seems to be a dire tourism crisis for Palestinians in Jerusalem, is there hope on the horizon? Is there any possibility to convert the crisis into an opportunity for Jerusalem to reinvent its tourism product, programmer, and identity? The first thought that could come to someone’s mind in this respect would be that any potential growth in tourism would require new products and new channels. Jerusalem is a rich and diverse city historically, demographically, and culturally. It possesses an array of untapped resources that could be packaged, repackaged, and developed to provide a more diverse offer that targets a similar array of discerning guests. Examples of such attractions may include Sufi schools and zawiyas, the heritage of influential women in the city, the water systems of Jerusalem, and ethnic and cultural diversity, just to name a few. What makes this opportunity viable is the fact that the tourist is changing. Experiential programmers that promote further linkages with the local community attract more and more discerning tourists. The growing partnership and cooperation trends among the Mediterranean countries enhance such an opportunity and the availability of new technologies provides a growing capacity to lead a more competitive platform to access potential business.

In theory, this might sound appealing, but in practice it needs a great deal of innovation to sail in the right direction. Bridging theory and practice should maintain two elements: the first is to generate new ideas that make money, and the second is to maintain acute sensitivity to the local community, keen programmers to ensure its involvement, and new channels to link to its culture, traditions, and heritage. Tourism in Jerusalem should not only be about making money but about fostering cultural exchange as well. Indeed, this is a recipe for the future resilience of Jerusalem’s tourism. It is a call to make the best of what exists, to manage it as a community initiative, and to inject it with a lot of emotions and enthusiasm. Hence, creating local, regional, and international synergies are prerequisites for innovation in tourism and a tool to discover and attract new interest. The more Jerusalem innovates as a community, the less its residents may feel the impact of the growing crisis. 

Innovation, partnerships, synergies, and new products are not straightforward elements. A unified community vision and a holistic approach are necessary to set and design a proper action plan that could benefit the Jerusalem community at large. One of the most interesting approaches and one that may actually prove to be ideal for Jerusalem as a community under siege would be to innovatively adopt cluster economics as pioneered by Professor Michael Porter of Harvard University; in particular, the way his theories apply to the community’s mobilisation of its resources and capacities. Indeed, this is only the first drop of rain. Such an endeavour requires a lot of research, and the knowledge it generates should be well disseminated into the community. It should promote the exchange of good practices, the creation of an innovative brand for Palestinian tourism activity in Jerusalem, and the linkage with the appropriate quality labels that could foster the city’s tourism development. It is about the appropriate strategic positioning for the city, a positioning that integrates the various sectors that exist in Jerusalem that are directly or indirectly linked with the tourism industry such as the commercial, the cultural, the religious, the educational, and the community-based sectors.

Tourism remains the main factor of growth in Jerusalem. The developmental approach should make the city attractive, accessible, and friendly. It should maximise the potential of supporting sectors that include culture and heritage activities and programmes, provided that proper integration take place within the tourism sector. It should include cultural itineraries, gastronomy, and fashionable cooking, and it should provide sustainable energy solutions, mobile applications, and social media tools, again to mention only a few.
In order to improve demand, Jerusalem must improve its supply and its service package. This requires that the members of the Jerusalem community depend on each other and co-create across the value chain. The key for this to happen is to foster networking activities, to maintain a bottom-up approach, to diversify the offer, to create profitability for smaller operators, to attract and develop the best talents and skills, and to be sensitive to the intelligence of the market. 

Seasonality will continue to control the Jerusalem tourism industry until the city is able to reinvent itself.


Mr.Raed Saadeh is the co-founder and chairman of the Rozana Association for Architectural Heritage Conservation and Rural Tourism Development based in Birzeit. Mr. Saadeh is also the owner and general manager of the Jerusalem Hotel, a boutique hotel in Jerusalem, the current president of the Arab (Palestinian) Hotel Association, and the co-founder of the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organisations.

Originally Published in ” this Week in Palestine ” Issue No 187, November 2013.

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My Mother-in-law and the Wedding Yeast

My Mother-in-law and the Wedding Yeast
By Raed Saadeh and Raida Farhat Odeh

In a sudden suspension of time, everyone’s eyes turned and focused in the direction of the stairs leading to the main entrance of Odeh’s family house in the Ein Elhamam area in Birzeit.

A huge crowd of people had gathered around the bride dressed in angelic white, and her beauty stole the hearts of everyone who laid eyes on her. Proudly standing beside her was her distinguished mother. With keen and careful steps, her mother moved slowly and gracefully up the stairs in her folkloric dress, carrying the thoughts and spirits of those who stepped up these stairs before her. The intricate stitches and traditional colours of red and green reflected the crowd’s longing and heartfelt memories of their ancestral stories and legacies. The mother’s head was covered with a long white veil that lay behind her in a spirited pose, arranged over her delicately piled and lightened hair. Numerous golden bracelets adorned each of her wrists, and a large golden necklace made of Ottoman coin draped her delicate neck. 

The bride’s mother-in-law also stood at her side. Her velvet dress and her high hairdo brought a shadow of authority and control to the entire scene. She persistently commanded the next step like an impatient stage director whose only concern was the final curtain call.

The crowd’s entire concentration followed the bride’s movements in theatrical enthusiasm as she extended her hand to receive her ultimate test for her future happiness. Her mother-in-law pulled out a little package wrapped in a green grape leaf. The package contained the “Wedding Yeast,” which is, essentially, flour dough that the bride is supposed to paste against the stone frame of the entrance to her home-to-be, just like glue, in order to hang the grape leaf on it. The green leaf represents optimism and the yeast is a symbol of the growing of the family. The bride cautiously grabbed the package and rearranged it with anxiety and apprehension. Indeed, this is a nerve-racking moment, particularly if the dough does not have the right texture to hold the leaf against the wall. The wide-eyed stares in the crowd’s eyes reflected the symbolism of this moment: the belief that the bride will adhere to her home in the same way that the dough sticks to the stone frame of the entrance. 

In Palestine generally, and specifically in the rural areas of which Birzeit is part, the dough is a symbol of blessing and virtue as historically this is the basic element of the peasants’ food – the source of bread. Hence, the bride’s entry to the house should bring blessing and virtue when she manages to paste the dough against the wall. 

The “yeast custom” is the final stage of the wedding-day ceremonies before invited guests regroup for the wedding party and dinner. Earlier in the day, Birzeit streets became inebriated with the voices of the town’s young men as they sang and danced their way carrying the groom on their shoulders, or hopping around him, waving their canes in tireless, yet skilful steps passed from one generation to the other, as they marched to receive the bride. In this custom, known as zaffeh, the groom is often escorted on a horse, reminiscent of the footsteps of the great grandfathers while the stones of the old buildings of Birzeit and its olive and fig trees attest to their legacies, songs, and laughs, as well as their concerns. As the zaffeh passed by the houses, people threw rice and sweets at the procession as a gesture of hope and good will for the anticipated union.

Another traditional wedding custom is the henna ceremony. In the old days when the bride and groom were not allowed to see each other before the wedding day, the search and choice of the bride was the personal endeavour of the mother-in-law. The henna ceremony would precede the wedding day. It is when the bride’s hands are dyed with henna to prevent her family from switching her with another girl. This ceremony is still practiced today with a lot of enthusiasm and zealous singing and dancing. 

Popular and folkloric songs also distinguish a Birzeit wedding. These are often composed by local poets and they depict the psychological status and social traditions of the local community. They are the heritage that is inherited from the ancestors, but their lyrics reflect the status of the current setting.

The folkloric songs connect the past with the present. They portray the Palestinian’s link to the land, the love for his/her village and keenness to protect its heritage and culture. The local character, emotions, and concerns are depicted in the local dialect. The poems praise the men of the village and the lineage of its women. Although there are many common poems and songs among the different villages and towns, such as the infamous dal’ouna and zareef attoul, there are still many Birzeit-specific verses and themes. For every ceremony, there are several pictorial images embedded in the familiarity of the various songs and dances. A common instrument that accompanies the folkloric dance (dabka) is the nay, which is made from bamboo and requires a certain skill and a decent musical ear to produce the range of tones and sounds needed to dialogue with the moves of the men and women who eagerly join the dance arena. Many young and old men and women indulge themselves in a competitive frenzy to show off their skills, talents, and personal moves.

Birzeit is one of the Palestinian villages where men and women dance side by side. The person who leads the line waves his or her scarf, arranges the order of the dance moves that others repeat, and entertains the dance space with agile and lively steps that encourage the other cousins and guests to follow suit.

Village weddings, in particular, are about specific traditions. Customs that don’t seem to have much meaning these days are still practiced because they preserve the identity of the local culture and strengthen its roots in the land and the progression of its community’s historic presence. What seem to have prevailed, though, are the influence, authority, and power of the mother-in-law.

Raed Saadeh is chairman of the Rozana Association, and Raida Farhat Odeh is executive director of the Rozana Association.
Original Published in “this week in Palestine ” Issue No 143, March 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Rozana Association.
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Experiential Tourism in Palestine

Experiential Tourism in Palestine
By Raed Saadeh

“Abu Samer welcomed us warmly and his family prepared a village chicken speciality that is called musakhan for us. We spoke of many things and we told each other stories of life and humanity. We laughed a lot and then went together to visit the women’s association in the village. They explained to us what they were doing and showed us some of their handicrafts. Insaf, the director of the association, was a great and knowledgeable person. She took us on a short stroll through the historical area of the village, where we visited the old oil press as well as the old flourmill. She told us some of her childhood stories, such as when she escorted her father to bring their olive harvest to the oil press and described the excitement of the villagers over their harvest as they got together at the oil press…”

This is an excerpt from a letter that we received from one of our guests after he visited a village next to Birzeit. The excited tone of the letter, which went on and on, shows the type of interaction and exchange that experiential tourism can generate. This leads to the questions, is there experiential tourism in Palestine, what is its added value, and how does it relate to alternative tourism and the private and public sector efforts? 

The term “alternative” has confused people who work in the tourism industry. But, to a large extent, many seek a different type of experience from the prevailing pilgrimage tourism that currently exists in Palestine. Today, there is a Palestinian initiative that brings together a number of specialised civil society organisations that collectively represent a foundation for experiential tourism in Palestine. The initiative is called NEPTO.

NEPTO stands for Network of Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organisations. The emphasis is on experiential and not alternative. Alternative for NEPTO, as was decided by all of its members, does not describe the entity or its activities. “Experiential” tourism applies to all kinds of tourism, including pilgrimage tourism. The distinction is that experiential tourism takes a community-based approach and employs interpretive methods in design, planning, and implementation. For the time being, there are hardly any private sector initiatives in Palestine that use the above concepts. NEPTO consolidates the efforts of 18 different civil society organisations. Their areas of interest, knowledge, and skill produce an interesting representation of experiential tourism in Palestine. Some organisations are involved in designing a number of thematic tours and paths throughout Palestine, such as the Nativity trail, Masar Ibrahim, and the Sufi trails. Some are involved in advancing community encounters and explorations, such as a number of one-day trips to Hebron and Bethlehem. Others are involved in organising rural, cultural, heritage, and agricultural festivals. There are also a number of organisations that advance fair trade, environmental and wild life protection, and the rehabilitation and preservation of architectural heritage, particularly in rural Palestine. Many programmes employ local guides and incorporate home stays into their itineraries.

The development of Palestinian tourism should be a collective, holistic, and horizontal effort. All tourism organisations and stakeholders, including the private sector, have a role to play, and the accrued result is a two-pronged effort. First, are the private sector organisations, such as the Arab Hotel Association and the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association. Governmental laws, regulations, and incentives are also vital to promoting business investments. Second, are the community-based efforts and practices. Experiential tourism does not only link the community to its potential economic drivers in tourism, it advances the whole sector by investigating different types of tourism activity such as ecological, cultural, historical, and solidarity tourism. Both private sector initiatives and experiential tourism efforts are important. This does not eliminate the role of the public sector. Indeed, the support that the government is willing to offer the tourism sector remains a key factor in advancing both related investments and experiential products. 

Historically, the Palestinian private sector has been static, lacking research and development efforts, and shying away from any potential crisis. Experiential tourism, on the other hand, connects to the local community and helps create an enabling, welcoming, and involved environment that is empowered and willing to advance the entire tourism sector, thus securing its sustainability. Experiential tourism organisations have invested heavily in research and development, seeking a specific identity for the Palestinian tourism product. This distinction or differentiation is what Palestine needs in order or compete with other regional offers and in order to expand the market it attracts. A public, private, and civil society partnership is needed to advance collective efforts and opportunities to create dynamic and proactive tourism in Palestinian. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has acknowledged and supported the role and the added value generated by experiential efforts and has recognised the representative role that NEPTO plays in this respect. 

Experiential tourism is a worldwide phenomenon, and, through it, Palestine has succeeded in branding its specialised products. This is a great opportunity to indirectly brand Palestinian initiatives. Networking and partnerships are effective strategies and ideal ways to promote specialised products, such as experiential tourism. Local endeavours can find their place on global sites by seeping into similar international project sites and references. This is a bottom-up approach to branding Palestine. A top-down branding scheme would be to promote Palestine as a destination, along with all its potential products and activities. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are complementary branding initiatives. Palestine needs all the channels and means possible to improve its image as a safe and exciting tourism destination.

Experiential tourism should benefit communities and help protect the natural and cultural heritage of the local people. Without a thoughtful approach to the development of tourism activities, tourism can damage natural areas and create problems for the local communities nearby. 

Experiential tourism development should begin with the intention of helping a local community. Therefore, local people must be involved in the planning and delivery of the experiences, even if government or NGO partners are providing support for the programme. 

Experiential tourism encourages the employment of local community guides and helps to train them. Local people understand and can better communicate the feeling of the area to visitors. The activities in a community-based experience can be as simple as engaging visitors with the local food, beautiful scenery, and daily activities, such as agriculture and storytelling.

Using an interpretive approach to communication with visitors deepens the value of a tourism experience. Although interpretation includes information, it requires more than simply giving details or facts about the geographic area or local culture. When an interpretive approach is taken, the tourist experience becomes more enjoyable and fulfilling, encouraging people to return and to tell others about their discoveries. They are more likely to bring others along on future visits. As their knowledge of the community grows, they are more likely to look for positive ways to be involved in the community, such as helping build a needed hospital or school, or even helping to preserve important cultural sites or natural areas. Using an interpretive approach that connects visitors with the place and local people and establishes lasting relationships can help achieve the beneficial results a community needs and avoid any negative results that might occur.

Handicrafts, traditional clothes, local products, local food, and other similar items are of great interest to experiential tourists. If tourists make a strong cultural connection with the community, these items also make the perfect souvenirs, a way to carry a small piece of the experience home.

Interpretation has always been a part of community life. When an elder helps a young person understand the traditions of the community, he or she is interpreting the culture. When songs, dances, or stories are shared, that is also interpretation. They help community members connect with the past and understand their own culture. This is where the essence of intercultural exchange starts. Tourists come from very different backgrounds. Local communities need to understand their visitors in order to help them appreciate local community resources. 

In 1957, Freeman Tilden, an American playwright, wrote a book entitled Interpreting our Heritage. In it he wrote, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” Interpretive communication helps people understand and appreciate their resources so that they become inspired to protect them.

Raed Saadeh is co-founder and Chairman of the Rozana Association for Architectural Heritage Conservation and Rural Tourism Development based in Birzeit. He is the current president of the Arab (Palestinian) Hotel Association and owner and general manager of the Jerusalem Hotel. His current efforts are focused on developing the concept of an East Jerusalem tourism cluster intended to maximize economic returns and benefits for the local Jerusalem community. He is also one of the main leaders and co-founders of the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organisations.

Original Published in ” this week in Palestine ”  Issue No 173, September 2012 . 

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A Sparrowhawk’s view of Palestine!

A Sparrowhawk’s view of Palestine!
By Raed Saadeh

What is Palestine? Every time I hear this name, I can’t help but think of all the perceptions created about it. This is not a small matter when thinking about promoting Palestine. How can all the perceptions and stereotypes be dealt with in order to convey the true face of Palestine?

When I went to Syracuse University in upstate New York, I had a discussion about perceptions with my economics professor who was originally from Czechoslovakia. He told me, “Beware of the media; the most accurate piece of information is the weather report, which is only 85% wrong.”

Having said that, I still believe that Palestine has a lot to offer. This is not only true in the traditional tourism sense, but also in the globally growing field of experiential tourism. When I think of Palestine, I imagine the Sparrowhawk. It is a resident bird of Palestine. It is a small bird of prey, but it is quite capable. It is one of my favourite birds and I used to go out into the Palestinian landscape just to get a glimpse of this great bird riding the winds and commanding the skies. For me, it is representative of Palestine. It is small but capable. Indeed, Palestine is a small country, but it possesses a diverse and varied product in terms of landscape, climate, culture, people, stories, and history. I would like to present some of this diversity that Palestine can offer its visitors, both domestic and foreign. In my capacity as the chairman of the Rozana Association, and because of the nature of work we do in rural tourism development, I will focus on the experiential Palestinian tourism potential, rather than restating the well-known pilgrimage travel package.

Palestine’s experiential tourism takes into consideration a number of underlying principles that makes it unique. Palestine offers visitors a code of ethics that forms the platform necessary for people from different cultures to get together, to indulge in cultural exchanges and to experience the details that formulate Palestinian daily life. The code of ethics is essentially a document that came about as a result of an initiative led by Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) to summarize what is expected of both the visitor and the host in responsible tourism. Packages are designed to expose the multiple historic layers, to promote socio-economic development, and to meet the local community. Most importantly, however, Palestine provides a safe, secure, and enjoyable encounter.

Father Sigrist, from the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem is a righteous, wise, and knowledgeable man. He has had a lot of experience taking people on special mosaic, tombs or nature tours. He has often reiterated to me that in Palestine, we need to offer visitors silence. By that, I believe he means that Palestine has the potential to offer visitors a spiritual experience. This is taken into consideration in the experiential tourism package, and considerable attention is given to travel dynamics, space and landscape assimilation, and shrines and monuments integration. 

Shrines, historic monuments, and castles are spread all over the Palestinian landscape. They are great venues to visit as many command beautiful hilltops, contribute to the wealth of local popular stories and link people to the thousands of years of history that runs in their veins. Many of these monuments belong to Sufi traditions or are Byzantine mosaics, caravansaries, or Roman tombs to name a few. The Rozana Association has embarked on an endeavour to delineate a number of Khans and Sufi paths and trails. 

I have just returned from the Adventure Travel World Summit that took place in Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. Different countries had many packages to offer. A considerable number of these offers take into consideration sustainable, socially and economically responsible packages. Some others bragged about their mountain ranges and diverse ecosystems. I thought to myself again, Palestine is small but capable; we command the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea located next to Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Jericho, which is celebrating its 10,000 birthday this year, is part of one of several ecosystems that exist in this small country. The Jordan Valley offers a unique climate and a diverse flora and fauna system because it lies 300 meters below sea level. Palestine also offers part of the mountain range that runs through Syria and Lebanon. The Palestinian mountains are ecologically and geographically different from the Jordan Valley. Most of Palestine’s rural network is scattered all over the mountain range. Hiking through the landscape, which is typically commanded by the famous olive tree, one may encounter fresh water springs, Ottoman water mills, Roman water canals and harvest watchtowers commonly known in Palestine as “palaces”.

The Palestinian desert, although perceived as arid and harsh, conceals in its topography many desert palaces, Byzantine monasteries and Sufi shrines. Desert hilltops are likely locations of ancient Canaanite kingdoms or Roman garrisons. Still, somewhere in the desert skies, a Sparrowhawk would be quietly circling the landscape with effortless stature and keen overview.

Organized desert excursions include sleeping in Bedouin tents, walking the landscape, and drinking tea mixed with herbs picked directly from the rock cracks. A vital part of the experiential tour package and an important pillar in differentiating the Palestinian tourism product remains to be discovered. Palestine possesses a rich and varied culture. Fortunately it has found many venues to reach out to visitors through the various rural festivals that take place throughout the year. Some rural festivals coincide with certain harvest seasons like the olive, the apricot and the lettuce harvests, while others package the available resources and capacities to offer the visitor a unique and rich experience like the Heritage Week in Birzeit or Sebastya Festival.

Once I asked my doctor for a vitamin supplement. His immediate reaction was: why? I was a bit puzzled when he said I don’t really need it as Palestine offers a healthy and organic cuisine. This is not surprising, being part of the Mediterranean; the landscape provides a lot of herbs, produce, and fresh fruits throughout the year. Palestine’s cuisine is exquisite and varied. Different towns and villages often offer different versions of the same dishes characterized by the addition of special herbs, texture, and content.

I am often confronted with the question, “Are Palestinians Arab?” I used to think so without giving it too much attention. However, after thinking about it more, it strikes me that Palestine is a melting pot. Indeed, the prevailing culture is Arab and Muslim, however, how do we categorize the Armenians, the Assyrians, the Gypsies, the Africans, the Moroccans, the Kurds, the Indians, the Turks and so on and so forth? In fact, the cultures of many of these ethnic groups are strong and evident. A walk in the wondrous Old City of Jerusalem with all of its fragrances and colourful shops, or a short trip to any Palestinian city can expose a lot of the demographic mix to the discerning eye. I personally see this as strength and an added value to the Palestinian fabric. We are able to offer a diverse and varied culture in such a small country like Palestine. 

Hence, I think of the Sparrowhawk: small yet capable, which is how I would like to promote Palestine-keeping in mind the great potential of resources and capacities that have yet to be incorporated in the tourism package.

 

Raed Saadeh is the chairman of the Rozana Association in Birzeit, and founder and board member of several art, cultural, tourism, and fair-trade organizations.

Original Published in ” this week in Palestine ”  Issue No. 151, November 2010 . 

 

 

 

 

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Being Rural

Being Rural – By Raed Saadeh

One of the unforgettable memories that seems to accompany my few morning moments most days since I was a child is the smell of taboun bread stuffed with spinach saturating the air as it mixed with the first dawn light outside my grandparents’ house.

I would watch my grandmother’s hands blend into the darkness of the taboun oven as she fiddled with the bread back and forth before laying it to rest on the stone bed in the bottom of the oven. My grandmother did this sacredly every day as part of the breakfast preparation ceremony.

I guess I developed a connection to the countryside of Palestine guided by my grandmother’s passion for the fields, the fig trees, the apricots, and the sage or mint herbs that we picked to prepare tea. We would wait for the rest of the family to get up to prepare breakfast under the grape pergola. My grandmother made everything herself: the jam, the labaneh balls dipped in oil, the olives, the pickles, and the zeit and zaatar. Her kindness taught me to care for the little things around me; the sound of the birds, the small vegetable garden, the chickens running around in the coop, and the olive terraces leading down into the valley through a set of intertwined narrow paths where shade is abundant during hot summer days. My grandmother’s generosity was an enlightenment and a stone-engraved lesson in rural hospitality and graciousness. 

What does rural Palestine offer beyond this affability? A diverse landscape, a commanding series of olive-tree-covered mountains, and a historically immersed serene Palestinian village are some of the first thoughts that might come to mind. In my involvement with organisations such as the Rozana Association for Rural Tourism Development working from Birzeit, NEPTO (the Network of Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations), Masar Ibrahim, and others, I have been active in promoting community-based rural tourism throughout the West Bank. All our work is based on a simple platform idea that aims to identify the resources and capacities that exist in rural areas and that are able to add value to and benefit the local community. Needless to say, resources in the rural areas are abundant and include elements of architecture, handcrafts, environment, nature, food, culture, and heritage. Consolidated together these elements not only form attractive packages for visitors and guests, they also contribute to the building efforts of a differentiated Palestinian identity. I used to think that people who are as connected to the land as my grandparents could convert everything they touch into gold, given that they were able to create many things seemingly from nothing. The lands in rural Palestine can provide for the well being of our people. They are our food basket and our heritage. Our villages are immersed in history and they tell the story of an ancient people whose roots reach beyond time and civilization. 

 


 

Beyond the diverse landscape, the commanding olive mountains, and the historically immersed serene Palestinian villages, the Rozana Association is engrossed around the clock in its efforts to offer visitors and guests a bundle of educational, cultural, and community-based activities and initiatives. These include the Birzeit Heritage Week, the Maftoul Festival, the Abraham Path, and the Sufi Trails, as well as an enticing holistic rehabilitation of village historic centers, shrines, madams, Byzantine churches, and other historic sites, and the opportunity to meet and stay with the local communities in order to engage rural Palestine in socio-economic and cultural development.

 


 

The question remains: How do we move forward beyond this potential? All organisations that are involved in community-based tourism supported by a strategic cooperation within the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities have been converging towards a holistic vision that reflects the shape of the Palestinian rural-tourism product. The vision is based on a network of thematic trails and paths and a number of centres for local culture, all of which are linked together and developed in harmony and synchronisation, building and sharing synergies, resources, and capacities. One of the main pillars is a long trail that runs through the West Bank from Rummaneh in the north to Hebron and its vicinity in the south. This trail is locally called Masar Ibrahim and is essentially a cultural trail that zigzags between villages, fostering the Palestinian culture of hospitality, friendship, and kindness. National Geographic recently ranked this trail as the number one new trail in the world. It forms a spine as it crosses the entire West Bank. Masar Ibrahim intersects with the Nativity Trail in several areas as it connects between Bethlehem and Nazareth. Both trails also link with a network of Sufi trails, led by the Rozana Association. The Sufi trails model is based on a network of hub villages that operate as centres from which a number of trails originate. These are also cultural trails that attempt to promote local resources, history, heritage, landscape, environment, and an opportunity to meet and benefit the local rural communities. 

 

A center of local culture can be a village, a cluster of villages, or even a historic site. Its structure requires a consolidation of all stakeholders that operate within its center in order to form a unified management that grows into an attractive and beneficial destination for local and international visitors. There are many places in Palestine that can become centers of local culture. One such example is Battier, west of Bethlehem. The inhabitants have succeeded in attracting people to visit their Eco-museum of historic terraces and agricultural irrigation ducts. Efforts are under way to nominate Battier as a World Heritage site. 

 

Creating trails, paths, and centers of local culture is only the beginning of a rural-tourism development endeavor. As people visit rural attractions and sites, intermingle with the local communities, and buy their products, the interest grows in understanding and appreciating what can be developed and improved. On this level, interventions and future initiatives include the rehabilitation and transformation of village historic centers. It also includes the rehabilitation of shrines and historic sites and considering whether to convert them into community parks. Such interventions might result in creating and improving village community centers, interpretation centers, handcraft production, capacity building, and training of community guides as well as home-stay managers. Signage, services, and infrastructure need to be addressed as well. This type of activity is not only about attracting visitors to rural areas; more importantly, it is about the protection of the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental balances. 

 

One main element that should never be bypassed is the role of the local rural communities in planning and deciding their future. This starts with a coordination visit with the municipality and local references, identifying local experts, connecting with the local organisations and working in partnership and synergy to develop rural Palestine.
No matter what I dream about or wish for, a visit to any rural community or village has so far not failed in enticing my imagination and fulfilling my inner peace. It is within this inner peace that I constantly remember my grandparents and silently thank them for my rural self. 
Mr. Raed Saadeh is the co-founder and chairman of the Rozana Association for Architectural Heritage Conservation and Rural Tourism Development based in Birzeit. Mr. Saadeh is also the owner and general manager of the Jerusalem Hotel, a boutique hotel in Jerusalem, the current president of the Arab (Palestinian) Hotel Association (AHA), and the co-founder of the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations (NEPTO). 

Article photos by Emile Ashrawi. 


NEPTO, the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organizations, is an umbrella coordination organisation that brings together many NGOs whose work and activities advance the concepts and purpose of experiential and community-based tourism in Palestine. Some partner organisations are involved in developing tour packages, trails and paths in rural areas, and eco, cultural, religious, and solidarity tourism. Others organise cultural and heritage festivals in villages around the country, while still others are involved in fair trade and local production, environment and wildlife, and architectural heritage preservation and rehabilitation.

 

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Birzeit Heritage Week Development

 Birzeit Heritage Week- By Raed Saadeh 

Is an event organized by the Rozana Association, in cooperation and partnership with a number of other Birzeit organizations, in order to promote the preservation and development of the old town’s fabric of houses, attics, courtyards, and alleys. As one of the programmer implemented by Rozana, Birzeit Heritage Week is an integral part of its promotional strategy.

In the future, when the Rozana realizes its vision to develop the old town of Birzeit into a bustling centre of business and activity, this strategy will continue in order to guarantee the sustainability and success of all stakeholders. Connecting Birzeit with its neighboring villages, particularly those lying on the Jericho route through Taybeh Village, is another part of the jigsaw. This should ultimately put Birzeit on the heritage and rural tourism map of Palestine.

In order to realize this vision, Rozana has identified several goals, in addition to that mentioned above. First, advocacy and lobbying efforts need to be exerted in order to legally protect the architectural heritage fabric that exists in Birzeit. Second, a preventive renovation programme will be implemented in order to preserve the exterior of old buildings. This is necessary if further investment is to take place. Finally public, private, or civic intervention may be initiated to instil life and activity in each building according to a pre-set urban master plan. The essence of this development is to maintain a wholesome approach throughout the various stages of the project to ensure its sustainability and the empowerment of its stakeholders.

Based on the above, a group of people who represent families that own properties in the old town of Birzeit teamed together to establish the Rozana Association. Today, this original group makes up two-thirds of Rozana’s membership. In addition, the Birzeit Municipality is represented by the mayor and another council member. The reason behind this structure is to ensure transparency and networking during decision making and implementation.

The Event

Birzeit Heritage Week events will take place on July 26 and 27, 2007. This is expected to become an annual event and will include a variety of Palestinian and international exhibits and presentations such as traditional handcrafts, food, drink, and music. Guests will walk through the old town’s designated streets towards the backyard of the Catholic Church where folkloric dance and music performances will be held. Exhibits are expected to open from 5pm-10pm every night.

Participants

Partner organizations, many of which are Birzeit based, will provide services according to their core competencies. Local partner organizations include the Municipality, the Greek Orthodox Scouts, the Birzeit Club, the senior citizens’ club, the agricultural development youth, Roses Association, and Juhood Association. 

Heritage handcrafts and food production are an integral part of the heritage week and will include calligraphy, copper-designed products, wood carvings, embroidery, saj bread, hinnah, and more. Needless to say, the popular makers of falafel, bread, pastry, hariseh, etc., will take their rightful place among the other exhibitors. Local drinks, such as tamer hindi and almond juice, will be available. Local farmers will also be on hand to sell their wares.

One of the more eye-catching participants will be the glass makers from Hebron. They will bring their ovens and sell or distribute their glass as they make it. 

International participation will be coordinated with the Representative Offices. A number of countries will display their handcrafts, promotional materials of their cities, and other items that are representative of their cultures and traditions. 

Art exhibitions will also be part of the festivities. The virtuoso Palestinian and the son of Birzeit artist, Suleiman Mansour, will be exhibiting some of his paintings during the event. Other art exhibitions, displaying the works or collections of promising Birzeit artists, will complement the continuity and growth of the artistic traditions of the town. 

Mr. Mousa Alloush and Dr. Munir Nasser are two of the most prominent historians of the town of Birzeit. Their participation will offer an added value to all those who would like to listen to the stories of the origins of Birzeit and the legacies of its ancestors. 

A backgammon competition is planned to allow local residents and others to experience the game that has become inherent to Palestinian culture.Maximum popular and organizational participation is crucial for the success of this event. It is intended to empower participants and stakeholders alike and is designed to lead the way for future development projects that will contribute to the survival and steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their economy.

For more information about the event and the Association, write to raed@rozana.ps or call 054-569-6220.

 

Raed Saadeh is chairman of the forming board of Rozana Association and president of the Arab Hotel Association.

 

Photos by Christine Alloush.
Maps prepared by Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation.

 

 

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Trails and Health

Trails and Health: A Promising Partnership
By Raed Saadeh

In the beginning, my interest in trekking and trails was to use them to enrich the potential tourism package that exists in the countryside of Palestine. Visiting and walking along the trails near Palestinian villages is not only a beautiful and serene activity, but it is also culturally enriching.
Sufi Trails By
Rozana Asscoiation

community, who have incredible secrets to reveal about the land and local traditions. Exploring the relationship between the local community and the environment is an enticing activity for a discerning visitor. The fact that local communities have lived continuously in rural Palestine for many centuries has created a wealth of knowledge about the indigenous plants and shrubs that grow nearby and the many uses and benefits they offer. It is not uncommon to meet people from nearby villages picking plants and shrubs along rural trails to make food or medicinal treatments.

However, as I became more familiar with the trails of Palestine, I began to see the significant health benefits of walking as well. Walking is proven to control weight and high blood pressure. It helps to reduce the risk of heart attack, colon cancer, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and arthritis pain, and even helps to prevent osteoporosis. Adopting lifestyle changes that incorporate walking outdoors is proven to have long-term health benefits for both

Photo by Yiota Kutulas.

individuals and communities, provided it becomes part of their daily routine. Hence, establishing trails becomes a worthy initiative that offers a good opportunity for regular physical activity, while at the same time offering opportunities to explore and discover the secrets that our surrounding villages, neighborhoods, and unspoiled landscape have to offer. This leads to an interesting partnership. On the one hand, walking trails nourish tourism in nearby villages and neighborhoods, while on the other, they enrich visitors by encouraging physical activity and allowing them to explore the ancient history, beautiful landscape, and flora and fauna of this area. As a result, the trails promote social cohesion, and positive economic and cultural impacts. And this is only the beginning. The promising partnership between trails and health can lead to a healthier society overall, something that insurance
companies and government agencies that are responsible for paying numerous medical bills should keep.
Shubruq “Ononis Spinosa”.

Hence, the benefits of trails and walkways should attract the interest of various stakeholders, including governments, private health services, planners, philanthropists, and businesses. Together, these stakeholders could develop initiatives for improving health through nature-based physical activity. With some investment, walking trails can make our communities more liveable, enhance the economy through local and international tourism and civic development, encourage the preservation and restoration of open spaces, provide opportunities for people of all ages to improve their physical and mental health, and support the interdependence between nature and local Palestinian communities that has existed for centuries.


Tayyoun “Inula Viscosa”.

I would like to take you on a tour of the Deir Ghassaneh Sufi Trail, which was developed by the Rozana Association (www.sufitrails.ps). The trail passes a number of sites and shrines before it brings you to the edge of a 3 km trail that ends at a remote Sufi shrine called Al-Majdhoub, which means “the attracted” in Arabic. This shrine was built in honour of Ibrahim Al-Rabi, a Sufi scholar who lived at the site more than 200 years ago. The trail is not only interesting for visitors who are fascinated by the Sufi story, but also because of its connection with the local community and its links with the multi-layered history of Palestine. There is also a diverse variety of indigenous plant species that seem to sprout up in the most unlikely places along the path. Palestine’s geographical location, its topography, climate, soil diversity, and centuries of agriculture all contribute to its plant

Qurus Anneh “Eryngium”.

There are 114 overall plant species in Palestine and more than 2,700 individual types of plants, which is a proportionally large number compared to the size of the country. Many of these plants are well known to the local community, and have been used throughout history to provide medical relief for a number of symptoms and sicknesses. An inquisitive look along the trail is sufficient to discover a number of these species. Some of them find their home at the edges of terraces, like shubruq and tayyoun, while others live in solitude between the cracks of the rocks, like ourus anneh, and jaadeh. These are just samples of what nature is providing for humanity. The rest is waiting to be explored and enjoyed along the trails that crisscross Palestine. Join us along one of our trails to celebrate good health and Palestine’s natural resources.

Shubruq (ononis spinosa): This plant is a small shrub rising 20 cm above the ground. It has a woody stem, rosy flowers, and oval-shaped fruit. It is often used to heal ulcerations in the mouth and teeth. It can be boiled, soaked, or extracted for both internal and external use. 

Tayyoun (inula viscosa): This plant is a shrub that grows to 50 to 100 cm. It has yellow flowers and its leaves look like spears. It is known to help break up kidney stones, heal liver pains, and cure urinary infections, and is prescribed to help control weight and prevent obesity.

Qurus anneh (eryngium): When green, this small plant can be finely minced and eaten as a salad with a bit of olive oil and lemon added to it. When dried, it becomes a thorny blue-coloured plant. Throughout the ages, this plant has been used for many medical treatments, such as stomachaches, liver problems, and cramps. 

Ja’deh (teucrium polium): It is about 35 cm tall and pale green in colour with soft white fur balls. This plant is generally associated with curing ulcers and other stomach and abdominal pains.

Kharroub (ceratonia si liqua): This tree has existed in the Mediterranean area for at least 4,000 years. It is known to cope well with dry, cold weather and strong winds. It is usually satisfied with an average of 30 cm of rainwater every year. The fruits of this tree are used to help relieve stomach acidity, diabetes, and diarrhoea.


Mr. Raed Saadeh is the co-founder and chairman of the Rozana Associationfor Architectural Heritage Conservation and Rural Tourism Development based in Birzeit. Mr. Saadeh is also the owner and general manager of the Jerusalem Hotel, a boutique hotel in Jerusalem, the current president of the Arab (Palestinian) Hotel Association (AHA), and the co-founder of the Network for Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organisations (NEPTO). Raed originally trained as a mechanical engineer with a BSc Summa Cum Laude from Syracuse University, N.Y. and a MSc. at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.

Original published in ” this week in palatine ” Issue No .  185, September 2013 .

 

 

 

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Birzeit Heritage Week

A cultural forum where the past comes to life

By Mary Sayej, Technical director for Birzeit 7th Hertage Week

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time, to when your grandmother and grandfather lived? Walking down the alleys and tight streets of an old town, gives you a thrilling feeling of being connected with your past. Visions of the precedent livelihood of our mothers and fathers, the smell of sage burning around a hearth made to boil a pot of tea, flashbacks of stories you heard about cooperation during olive picking season, the taste of freshly baked Mana’esh and a simple life founded on sharing the laughs and sorrows!

For the past six years, Al Rozana Association has opened this chance of communicating with the essence of the Palestinian heritage through the activities held during the Heritage Week at the houses, attics, courtyards, and alleys of the old town of Birzeit.

Birzeit Heritage Week is not simply a cultural or heritage event, rather it is an experience to be lived. For 5 consecutive days and nights, the old town of Birzeit will become vibrant with life, lightened up with children voices as they run through the alleys, and heart opened for youth dances to the sounds of dal’ona, and dabkeh. Birzeit old town will stand in pride to shake hands with its guests and visitors coming from different Palestinian cities and abroad. It will rejoice to the chats of men and women longing to meet each other and to glorify its beauty and charms.

Guests and visitors wait this countryside event from one year to another; there have been incidents where Palestinians in the Diaspora arranged their visits to Palestine during the time of the event, to be able to share this experience with their families and connect their children with their homeland. In fact, this year’s Birzeit Heritage Week is overlapping with the activities of the 12th National Convention for Birzeit Society in Diaspora to be conducted in Birzeit for the second time… a memorable family reunion to be.

“My Country … My Heritage”…a vow that we kept for the past 6 years whereby we invited  other nations to share and to exchange with, seeking a ceremony of world cultures to promote coexistence, tolerance and humanity. This year, a Euro Mediterranean exhibition from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia and Jordan will be another icon of Heritage week corners besides the International Hosh area.  The Souq booths will be filled again with women and artisans’ productions from surrounding rural areas extending from Sabastia in the north to Hebron in the South. Golan Heights cherries and apples will be carried fresh from the mountains despite checkpoints and Walls. The Souq theatre will flourish with Dabkeh dances of surrounding villages as well as with children plays and clowns’ activities. Birzeit heritage week Character “Amti Touteh” an old Birzeiti lady in traditional Thob will glow through all heritage week media productions and publications, as she will be entertaining our guests during the Palestinian traditional wedding Zaffa at the opening ceremony. Amti Touteh will also sponsor the 2nd year tradition of  Zahret Reef Competition “The Flower of the country side” where young girls representing countryside families and villages compete with their Palestinian dresses and knowledge of their heritage during the 2nd day of the heritage week.

Birzeit 7th Heritage Week will take place between the 23rd and 27th of June, 2014; in cooperation and partnership with a number of Birzeit and other Palestinian community organizations, not forgetting our Palestinian communities inside 48, including Nazareth, Ramleh, Ara and Arara with their artistic groups and arts productions, all in commitment to rural development in Palestine. Birzeit Heritage Week, a building pillar of Al Rozana Association vision has tailored a well functioning Palestinian cultural festivity in the old town of Birzeit; aspiring to become a renowned model for other rural communities to follow for sustainable development based on available cultural and architectural heritage…a model that deserves nomination as the capital of Rural Palestine.

On this land there is what deserves to be lived for, come and join us…your presence among us will fulfil our joy

 

 

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