Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - RELIGION -

bar­rier is needed to pre­vent at­tacks, but the Pales­tini­ans view it as a land grab be­cause its route places al­most 10% of the West Bank on the Is­raeli side. Beth­le­hem it­self is al­most com­pletely sur­rounded by the bar­rier and a string of Jewish set­tle­ments.

The town’s predica­ment is on vivid dis­play in and around the Walled-Off Ho­tel, which was de­signed by Banksy and opened in 2017. The ho­tel looks out on the sep­a­ra­tion wall, which it­self is cov­ered with art­work, graf­fiti and mu­seum pan­els ex­plain­ing life un­der oc­cu­pa­tion. In­side, a num­ber of Banksy pieces are de­picted in a haunt­ing lobby, which this time of year is dimly lit with Christ­mas lights.

The ho­tel of­fers weekly per­for­mances by lo­cal mu­si­cians and daily tours of a nearby Pales­tinian refugee camp. Tours of Banksy’s pub­lic art­work else­where in the town can be or­ga­nized on request.

A dif­fer­ent form of alternativ­e tourism, con­ceived by Pales­tini­ans them­selves, can be found in the city cen­ter, just a few hun­dred me­ters (yards) from the church. There the municipali­ty, with Ital­ian aid, has re­stored an 18th-cen­tury guest­house and rented it out to Fadi Kat­tan, a French Pales­tinian chef.

The Hosh Al-Syrian Guest­house in­cludes 12 taste­fully fur­nished rooms rang­ing from $80-150 a night. At its Fawda Restaurant — Ara­bic for chaos — Kat­tan uses lo­cal in­gre­di­ents to cook up tra­di­tional Pales­tinian cui­sine with a mod­ern twist.

“My vi­sion was to say re­li­gious tourism will pro­mote it­self by it­self, it doesn’t need the pri­vate sec­tor to pro­mote it,” he said. “Let’s pro­mote ev­ery­thing else. Let’s pro­mote our food, let’s pro­mote our cul­ture, let’s pro­mote our his­tory.”

Kat­tan is es­pe­cially keen to pro­mote Pales­tinian cui­sine, which he says has been ap­pro­pri­ated by Is­raeli chefs and food writ­ers. As with nearly ev­ery­thing else hav­ing to do with the Mid­dle East con­flict, there are two sides: Is­raeli cui­sine owes much to Jewish im­mi­grants from an­cient com­mu­ni­ties across the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

The guest­house part­ners with a lo­cal group known as Farayek to of­fer food tours in which vis­i­tors wan­der through the lo­cal mar­ket, meet­ing farm­ers, butch­ers and bak­ers be­fore hav­ing lunch at the guest­house. An­other pro­gram in­cludes cook­ing classes taught by a Pales­tinian grand­mother.

“What I was hop­ing to achieve is to have peo­ple stay three nights in Beth­le­hem, to have peo­ple go to the fruit and veg­etable mar­ket, to have peo­ple meet the peo­ple of Beth­le­hem, not just the very short tour into the city,” he said.

When the guest­house opened in 2014, the av­er­age stay was one night, but now it has risen to three and a half, with steady oc­cu­pancy through­out the low sea­son, Kat­tan said.

A hand­ful of other re­stored guest­houses have also opened in re­cent years, in­clud­ing Dar al-Ma­jus, Ara­bic for House of the Maji, named for the three kings said to have vis­ited the manger af­ter Christ was born.

The guest­house is part of a wider ini­tia­tive by the Fran­cis­can Cus­tody of the Holy Land and a lo­cal as­so­ci­a­tion to sup­port the Chris­tian com­mu­nity. Beth­le­hem’s Chris­tian com­mu­nity, like oth­ers across the Mid­dle East, has dra­mat­i­cally dwin­dled in re­cent decades as Chris­tians have fled war and con­flict or sought bet­ter eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties abroad.

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