Dual narrative tour exposes the complex political realities of Jerusalem

On a rainy autumn morning, small groups of tourists slowly filtered into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound square.

There was a chill in the air and the cobblestones were wet as they walked to get a closer look at the ornate tiles and gleaming gold roof of the Dome of the Rock shrine, possibly the most recognizable monument in Jerusalem.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex, also known as the Temple Mount, is the third holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism, and is only partially open to non-Muslims for visits during certain hours. Due to its dual heritage, the complex has long been a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps there is no better place, then, to take a tour exploring the complexities of Jerusalem’s history and tense political reality.

Abraham Tours has undertaken this seemingly impossible task with enthusiasm.

Since Israel officially reopened to international visitors on November 1 for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abraham Tours has revived its Dual Narrative Tour of Jerusalem. After such a prolonged dry spell, Palestinian tour guide Husam Jubran and Israeli Jewish tour guide Sharon “Morgie” Morgenstern were excited about the prospect of tourists returning.

“Inbound tourism basically died completely,” Morgenstern, a professional tour guide and educator, told The Media Line during a visit to Al-Aqsa.

“It has been a very difficult time,” he said.

Jubran, who has been a tour guide for 23 years, noted that the pandemic hit tourism in the area even harder than the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000. “I used to receive at least one group every two months. ”. during the Second Intifada, he told The Media Line. “With the pandemic there is nothing. Now almost 19 months have passed and not a single group has arrived. We couldn’t do any kind of tourism-related work, ”Jubran said.

“We hope things start to change, but we can’t count on that … it’s horrible,” he said.

While Jubran has been able to weather the storm thanks to his work in civil society organizations, including Hands of Peace, others in the Palestinian tourism sector have not been so lucky.

“The people of the West Bank were not compensated at all,” Jubran explained, adding that, unlike the Israelis, the Palestinians have not received any financial aid from the Palestinian Authority during the pandemic.

“I and other people collected some money and gave it to some guides because they did not have food in their houses,” he said.

Israeli police clash with Palestinians in the complex that houses the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)

The dual narrative tour progressed from Al-Aqsa and its open square to the famous narrow alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, beginning with the Cotton Market, where Muslim worshipers have walked for centuries on their way to or from the mosque. We finally arrive at the Western Wall, where Jews from all over the world come to pray due to its proximity to the Temple Mount. The wall, built by Herod the Great about two millennia ago, forms the western boundary of the Al-Aqsa complex.

Both Morgenstern and Jubran wove relevant historical data and personal anecdotes about all the sites as the group walked, explaining the nuances of what Palestinians and Israeli Jews believe in relation to each location.

“I think that’s the way you can make the switch,” Morgenstern said of the dual narrative tour. “Hopefully, you can get people to understand or at least listen to a different perspective and maybe just open up a bit to consider things that are not with the preconceived notions that they came with. [They can] understand a little more the complexities and challenges that the people who live here have to face every day ”.

Unlike standard tours of the Holy Land, which often focus on a single religion, Abraham Tours gives visitors the opportunity to learn about many different perspectives and stories simultaneously.

“When they have the opportunity to listen to two tour guides, they have the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone,” Jubran said.

Along with the Jerusalem excursion, Abraham Group currently offers a variety of dual storytelling experiences across the country. These include visits to the Gaza border, as well as a tour of the West Bank city of Hebron.

For Yaron Burgin, co-founder and CEO of Abraham Group, one of the goals of the tours is to foster change in the way people view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think people are very curious about that,” Burgin told The Media Line. “A growth [number] of Israelis are curious to understand more, especially beyond what they see on the news. “

Abraham Group operates four hostels in the Israeli cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Eilat. While the company had previously targeted primarily foreign visitors, the pandemic forced a shift in attention to domestic tourism.

“We were over 200 staff members before COVID started,” Burgin said. “After the first lockdown, we supported 100 people and realized that for the foreseeable future there would be no work for the rest, so instead of keeping them on paid leave, we had to let them go.”

“Most of them have not returned to us,” he added. “We lost a lot of knowledge with those people.”

Despite this mass of layoffs, Burgin is optimistic that tourism will pick up and return to pre-COVID-19 levels in mid-2022 if things continue on their current positive trajectory. Hostels have already started to see an increase in bookings, mainly from Europe and North America.

“We are working on launching tours in Sinai and then Egypt,” Burgin said. “We believe in cooperation with the people of the area; let’s put politics aside because we all live here and we need to be able to live together ”.


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