Palestine Guidebooks Review

Copyright The Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 4, Autumn 2005, Pp 699-700.

"Palestine and Palestinians: Guidebook", Alternative Tourism Group, Beit Sahour, 2005, ISBN 9950-319-01-03, 435 pp., $32.

 "Palestine: A guide", By Mariam Shahin, Photography by George Azar, Interlink Publishing, Northampton, Massachusetts, 2005, ISBN 1-56656-557-X, 500 pp., $27.95.

Reviewed by Mazin B. Qumsiyeh

The late Professor Edward Said explained how colonial perceptions guide much of the literature written “about” other people (usually described as exotic or inferior). Western readers are led to selective historiography (ignoring 5 thousand years of history), romantic illusions, distorted images, and/or even outright racist characterization. My own memories of life in Palestine include encounters with American and European tourists carefully “shepherded” by Israeli tour guides. Their books and pamphlets included titles little relevant to a Palestinian teenager (e.g. “Israel: A guidebook”, “In the footsteps of Jesus” , and “A guidebook/travel guide to the Holy Land”). Little has changed some thirty years later. I went to our local B&N bookstore and found literature that openly “guides” visitors to a static (and imaginary) “Holy Land” whose natives are little mentioned and whose only redeeming value is as setting for (usually distorted) versions of the Old and New Testament events told from a perspective supportive of political Zionism. Since none of these books are written by the native Palestinians, readers are led to a fabricated image of a deserted “Holy Land” with selected historical sites: the Temple Mount, Masada, the Western Wall, Church of the Sepulcher, etc. Most of these authors being politically motivated discard the majority of Palestinian history (Canaanite, Philistine, Islamic) and ignore Palestinians thus boosting the myth of a desert made green by Zionist settlers. Two newly published books now shatter these illusions and bring English readers closer to the real, dynamic, living, and fertile Palestine. This is the Palestine that the current inhabitants and the displaced Palestinians love. It is also the country that readers of those two books will appreciate and fall in love with.

Published by the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), the first book is titled “Palestine and Palestinians: Guidebook” (hereafter ATG Guidebook). ATG authors Sabri Giroud and others distilled their experiences gained over many years of providing reality tours. The French version appeared in 2003 and the English version in 2005. Carol Scheller-Doyle and Walid Shomali provided the English translation and the text was edited and updated by Angela Godfrey and Jawad Musleh.

The book is organized into two parts: a) Introduction into the land, people, history, and current status, and b) “Itineraries” that basically provide classic guidebook information on various parts of Palestine. The first three chapters in the introductory part set the stage by covering Landscape (with subsections on Geography, Fauna and Flora, and Climate), History, and “Population & Society” (Identity, Palestinian Refugees, Society, Education, Economy). Chapter 4 of this part deals with culture including arts and food (including sample recipes). Chapter 5 and 6 describe the ramification of colonization/occupation of Palestine (including the segregation walls and barriers) on travel, accommodation, and access. Throughout the book, the political situation is dealt with realistically; neither creating excessive fear from a visitor nor glossing over the reality of occupation and colonization.

I think it was a good idea to include, throughout the book, selected Palestinian poems and short biographies of influential Palestinians (e.g. political leaders like Yasser Arafat and Mustapha Ali Al-Zabri, famed cartoonist Naji Al-Ali, and intellectuals like Hanan Ashrawi and Khalil Sakakini). Considering the scope of this book, I found very few mistakes; mostly things to be picked up by a good copy editor (e.g. on p. 27 Herod was given title of King on 40 BC not 40 AD and other minor spelling and typographical errors). Most of the photographs in the book are B&W and have no captions although their placement and nearby text can reveals what they are about. The book ends with a glossary and recommended books and websites.

The second book is by Mariam Shahin titled simply “Palestine: A Guide”. The text is a lighter reading than the ATG Guidebook and is lavishly illustrated by stunning color photographs from award winning photographer George Azar. The first part of the book succinctly covers history, people, geography, nature, culture, and politics of Palestine. The next three parts cover Northern Palestine (11 main locations/cities), Central Palestine (6) and Southern Palestine (7). Appendix I includes travel information (contacts for key organizations, museums, hotels, restaurants, car rentals, and travel agencies). Appendix II includes resources on refugees (Majority of Palestinians now) and Appendix III includes list of relevant UN Agencies. The book concludes with an index to places (Appendix IV)

Both books include very good maps and other graphics and are reasonably priced. The ATG Guidebook uses boxes and set-apart sections not found in Shahin’s book. Yet, both have good layout and design. Shahin’s book is a general introduction with superior contemporary photography and the AGT Guidebook provides a detailed and thorough text with a wide spectrum of photographs and images both contemporary and historical. Thus, the two books complement each other in many ways. The meticulous texts masterfully lay out the organic connections between land, people, and history. I highly recommend buying both books to read, enjoy, and give to others as a unique and fresh perspective very different from the guidebooks authored by non-natives.

These books help visitors move away from archeological tourism to a more encompassing cultural, environmental, solidarity, and contemporary tourism. But the non-traveler citizen also should read them. Citizens in the US especially need to know the reality about this crucial part of the world because we pay billions of our taxes to support Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians (with 0.1% of the world population, Israel gets 30% of US foreign aid). Our government also provides Israel with diplomatic immunity (e.g. US veto was used 35 times at the UN Security Council to protect Israel from having to apply International law and human rights). Finally our corporate mainstream media does a very poor job of informing us of what is really going on. Books thus provide an alternative source. Indeed, millions around the world are learning of the deception of the old colonial narratives. They want to know more and they want to act. These two guides will become a gold standard for both actual and virtual visitors to Palestine. They will also become an indispensable educational tool for human rights and peace activists.

Dr. Qumsiyeh served on the faculty at Duke and Yale Universities. He is a cofounder of and author of “Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle”.

  • Nablus Day Tour
    Visit the Samaritans and their holy temple on Mount Grizim. Hold a discussion with the Director of a youth organization in Balata Refugee camp. Explore the sights and sounds of the Old City of Nablus
  • Masada, Dead Sea & Southern West Bank
    An overview of the southern West Bank, the ancient Roman complex at Masada, a drive along the entire length of the Dead Sea, and an opportunity to dip in the healing sea waters.
  • Taybeh Village
    Come and explore Christian Palestine through the beautiful village of Taybeh located between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jericho.
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