Lessons From the Holy Land

Growing up Palestinian in Jerusalem, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah carried onions to repel the effects of tear gas and—after his brother died from prison beatings—stones to throw at Israeli soldiers. When he was 18, taking a Hebrew class with Jewish students reset his path toward peace.

A Muslim, he works with an Orthodox rabbi as well as a former banker to give dual-narrative tours of the Holy Land with their company, Mejdi, and with National Geographic Expeditions. His approach has earned praise from diverse travelers—whether church groups or executives—and even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Abu Sarah shares some of his experiences in the Holy Land in his own words:

On Lessons:

Sometimes the bad experiences make you who you are. Growing up angry, only wanting to push my story, made me realize how harmful not wanting to learn about anybody else is.

On Perspectives:

To get to the Jewish parts of archaeology, you have to dismantle other layers—Ottoman, Byzantine. So, is archaeology political?

On our tours, we tell a story that few do about why, according to Jewish tradition, God chose the mountain behind the Western Wall to be the Temple Mount. Then we explain that it’s also a Muslim story. At the mosque, we make connections between the Prophet Muhammad and the Bible. With two guides, we’re able to do nuances.

On Boundaries:

A rabbi said to me, “We’ve been visiting Israel for years. This time, I want to stay with Palestinians in their homes. How about a refugee camp?”

I thought he was nuts. But we set up in the Bethlehem area inside a camp. Two days later, people were hugging, kissing, even weeping as they parted. This was the first time I saw Palestinians crying that a Jewish person was leaving their home.

[That being said,] we still want people to have fun. We’ll take them clubbing in Ramallah, a Palestinian city, and then in Tel Aviv, which is Israeli. Residents of Ramallah and from Tel Aviv cannot cross borders like that. Visitors, in some ways, become the connecting point.

On Approaches:

To see a town, I’ll hire a student, a professor, an engineer — not somebody who memorized what to tell you.

There’s a great poem by an Israeli, Yehuda Amichai, called “Tourists.” To paraphrase, he says he was standing next to a gate when a tour guide said, “See that man? Above him is a Roman arch that is 2,000 years old.” Amichai explains that his wish is for a guide to say, “See that Roman arch? The man standing under it is what matters.”

Travel is the best intercultural exchange that can happen. I’m not saying people need to agree, but [I am asking them] to open their minds.

Katie Knorovsky is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter @TravKatieK.