Backstory: Extreme vacation
Hospitality Club sets up travelers with holidays off - way off - the beaten path.
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Still, why - out of the whole world - would a traveler turn up on this grim, albeit hospitable, doorstep? It's important to experience local life from the "inside," say some travelers like Paul Gabriner, a retired English professor from the Netherlands who stayed with Haj. "The world would be a better place if regular people across the world met each other regularly ... there would be much more international understanding," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Most who visit the Haj family are intrepid souls. "But they're scared to be here alone," says Haj, "because they think the Palestinian Territories are unsafe. People have ideas that Palestinians are thieves, terrorists, and killers.... And being with a friendly local makes them feel safer."
Though he doesn't automatically tell guests unless they ask, Haj admits his own record of youthful "terrorism," having thrown stones at Israeli soldiers, burned tires, and sprayed anti-Israeli graffiti. At 15, he was thrown in Israeli detention for two years for cutting a hole in an Israeli fence encircling the camp. (On the issue of host-guest security, Mr. Veit notes that HC requires passport number exchanges to make a reservation. "Risk is relatively small," he says if a host has been rated well on the website by several guests.)
But regardless of his personal history, which might be enough to immediately send some guests packing, Haj's visitors keep on coming.
Israel's "security wall" is the biggest photo opportunity near Haj's apartment, and the cuisine, though hearty and home-cooked, isn't exactly a gourmet's delight. Some, like Mr. Gabriner, volunteer for a few days at Al Haj's Karama center to complete the experience.
"There aren't any up-to-date guidebooks, so people don't know where to go," explains Roel Forceville, a Belgian development worker in Palestinian East Jerusalem and one of nine HC hosts in the Palestinian Territories. As unlikely as it sounds, there's actually a lot to see when vacationing in the West Bank - especially with someone who knows the region. Beside Bethlehem and Jericho, there are many impressive monasteries in the countryside. And, Mr. Forceville and Haj both suggest, the West Bank is a relatively safe destination for foreigners. Suicide attacks and bombings usually take place in Israel - not in the Palestinian Territories. Visitors, they say, arrive scared of what they'll find on this side of the wall - and leave realizing the threat lies just as much on the other.
Guest Gabriner agrees that before and after impressions are poles apart: "When I thought of a 'camp' I thought of ... something impermanent. But it's not: it's a permanent slum, still called a camp because people living there need desperately to believe that they're not there for good."
This balance - seeing beauty through the decrepitude, and finding that danger doesn't always lurk where it is expected - says Haj, is central to the visitor's experience of "Palestine."
When Haj's weary mother enters the living room carrying another tray of coffee and fruit she hands her son a cellphone, worriedly relating how her brother has just been arrested by Israeli troops for illegally trying to cross the border into Israel.
"He was trying to get to Jerusalem, to look for work," explains Haj. "They might let him go with a fine, or he may go to prison. I'll see what I can find out," he says as he starts a string of calls.
To a Western Hospitality Club vacationer, able to walk in and out of the West Bank with relative ease, this might be an exciting, thought-provoking vacation moment; to a Palestinian at Deheishe Camp, it's just a regular day.