Palestine Pulse

History graduate shows West Bank off the beaten track

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Article Summary
Mohammed Abu Hashhash's trekking guide of 144 routes aims to combine information on natural and cultural landscape with local stories.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The culturally rich landscape of the West Bank has long attracted local and international hikers, but Mohammed Abu Hashhash, a history graduate, wants to cast the spotlight on 144 lesser-known routes that showcase the natural and cultural landscape of his country.

For the last seven months, Hashhash has been working on a guide book that he plans to call “An Expert Trek Guide of the West Bank," hoping it would be instrumental in boosting eco-tourism in the region.

The guide will contain information on the length of each trek, difficulty level and even routes for emergency exits. Information on the natural landscape, flora and fauna, and heritage sites along the routes will be included with photos taken by Hashhash himself. The guide will cater to a large audience with different abilities and interests. Hashhash suggests the trek of Wadi Qelt, a biblical route of 19 kilometers (12 miles) between Jericho and Jerusalem on a rocky terrain, for adults who are in good health and fit. For groups with children, he suggests trekking into the picturesque town of Deir Qaddis, 16 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of Ramallah.

Hashhash’s passion for trekking in nature began in 2013 when he was a graduate student at Dar al-Kalima University's College of Arts and Culture. The courses on history, geography, successive civilizations and religions of Palestine included several field trips to archaeological sites. During those visits, he would jot down everything he learned, including the stories he heard from the locals in the villages he visited.

After graduation, these trips came to an end as he took up a job with the Ministry of Social Development. “Then one day I saw a Facebook ad on an organized trek to Deir Ghassana [a village north of Ramallah with numerous ruins],” he told Al-Monitor. “It was not a very successful trip — the guide lost his way to the place and did not seem very familiar with the area.”

It then occurred to Hashhash that a comprehensive trekking guide might come in very useful, not only to people who want to discover Palestine, but also for guides themselves.

Two years later, he joined Rihlatouna (Our Journey), a team of amateur hikers who use local guides to discover different sites in the West Bank. Trekking with the group, Hashhash was amazed by the wealth of information he could learn from the local guides. He discovered that the area around the town of Tubas — part of a 13-kilometer (8-mile) trek amid beautiful plains — was an important defense zone of the Arab Salvation Army in 1948, and that the Convent of Hortus Conclusus, also known as Al Banat Monastery or the Enclosed Garden of Artas, south of Bethlehem, was designed and built by two Palestinian siblings, Ibrahim and Morcos Nassar, in the late 19th century. The founding stone of the convent was laid down by Bishop Marino, archbishop of Uruguay, during his visit in 1894.

Hashhash carefully noted lesser-known routes and sites, taking detailed notes on the everyday life around the villages where the sites are located. His notes became compact records of the regions’ natural landscape, history and archaeology, as well as the local cuisine and other modern cultural elements. Working with local guides, he learned about the local folklore, symbols and oral history of the cities, towns and villages. To get history right and confirm the stories of the locals, he dived into the archives of the Ministry of Culture, including the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation.

“The routes [in my guide] are only located in the West Bank, That's why I think my work is incomplete as it does not include trekking routes in the Gaza Strip,” he noted. “I was not able to [write about] Gaza’s treks because of the security measures imposed by Israel.”

“When I started working with the trek team, I found that organizing tours was not easy as it requires collaborating with local guides and visiting the sites beforehand. This booklet would come in handy for those who want to organize treks or go on a solo adventure,” Kawther Taha, coordinator of the Rihlatouna team, told Al-Monitor.

The Ministry of Tourism has also been promoting trekking and eco-tourism. Ahmad Nairat, head of the ministry’s tourism department, told Al-Monitor that they are working on an official guide for hikers. The book will cover 30 of the best-known treks, including one along the Gaza Valley. The ministry's guide includes walks in Jerusalem’s Old City and in Battir, west of Bethlehem, which is on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Nairat said that trekking and eco-tourism was also explicitly named as a priority in the new tourism law that was drafted last year, adding that the ministry works with the organizers of trekking tours to ensure that they abide by safety regulations such as using a licenced guide to accompany trekkers, having a first aid kit ready and avoiding dangerous routes. 

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Found in: Tourism

Aziza Nofal is a journalist from Nablus. She lives and works in Ramallah as a freelance reporter for Arab and regional websites. She graduated in 2000 from the department of media and journalism at Al-Najah National University and received her master's degree in Israeli studies in 2014 from Al-Quds University. She now works in the field of investigative journalism in Palestine and in cooperation with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), an organization based in Amman, Jordan.

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