It is on our walk up to what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims the Noble Sanctuary that things start getting a bit testy.
“Even though we Jews consider this our holiest of holies, we are not allowed to pray here,” our Israeli guide notes, seemingly trying to get a rise out of us. “Don’t you think we should be able to?”
But our Palestinian guide won’t give her the pleasure. Before any of us has a chance to respond, he has already snapped back “No!”
Dual narrative tours, by definition, are supposed to raise and explore contentious issues. All the more so when their subject is the most hotly contested city in the world.
About 15 of us are participating in this first-of-its-kind dual narrative tour of Jerusalem – including a Jewish family from Minneapolis, an American woman based in Liberia and a mother-and-son pair from the Netherlands.
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The starting point for this five-hour tour – offered once a week on Mondays – is the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. Since this will be only the tour’s third outing, it can rightfully be considered to be taking its first baby steps.
There would seem to be few cities in the world that lend themselves so perfectly to the dual narrative tour model, given Jerusalem’s history and newsworthiness. So what took so long?
The fact that both the Israeli and Palestinians guides requested that their names not be published may hint at some of the challenges involved in getting such a project off the ground. The biggest of all may be in finding Israeli and Palestinian guides willing to share a stage with one another. Palestinians, in particular, are under mounting pressure within their community to avoid any partnerships with Israelis that might be perceived as “normalizing” the occupation.
So it took an unconventional sort of guy to rise to the challenge. Meet Aziz Abu Sarah, the co-owner and executive director of Mejdi Tours, a company that sees travel as a means for creating social change. These days, however, he is probably better known as the first Palestinian ever to consider running for mayor of Jerusalem. Abu Sarah announced his candidacy in September but ultimately withdrew his bid a few weeks later, facing both opposition within his own Palestinian community and various legal obstacles in Israel.
“The problem with most tours,” he tells Haaretz, explaining the philosophy behind his new pet project, “is that there is usually only one guide – and that one guide tends to shape your whole view of a place.”
The goal, he says, is not to “tell people what they should believe, but to get them to understand that there are multiple stories.”
A key difference between dual narrative and conventional single narrative tours, he notes, is that in his preferred model, the guides are not only lecturing but also active participants in the conversation.
Mejdi Tours was founded in 2009 by Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper, his Jewish-American partner based in Florida, where the company is headquartered. Over the years, the company has launched and experimented with various types of dual narrative tours in Israel and the West Bank – including one that brings travelers to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and the nearby Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
This is its first attempt, though, to apply that model to Jerusalem and offer it to independent travelers (until now its tours were available only to private groups).
Abraham Tours, a Jerusalem-based operator popular with independent travelers, offers a dual narrative tour of Hebron that brings participants to both the Palestinians and the much smaller Jewish section of the West Bank city. But because Palestinians are not allowed to roam freely on the Israeli side, and vice versa, the two guides never appear together before the group in that duel narrative tour.
Duel narrative tours tend to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, since two guides need to be paid. That could explain why this tour, running at $59 a head, is relatively pricey compared with other options.
After the last of the participants to sign up arrives, our Israeli guide explains by way of introduction that this is not going to be a typical city tour – in other words, not one chock-full of facts and figures with questions that get answered. “If you are confused by the end of it all, then we’ve done our job,” she says. Speaking on behalf of her Palestinian partner, she adds with a wink: “We’re also confused.”
The tour covers most of the city’s classic religious sites: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa compound, weaving its way through the Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters of the Old City.
But that’s where the similarities with conventional tours end. Soon after we have passed through Jaffa Gate, we get our first taste of the dual narrative in action. Our subject is the 101-year-old British document that paved the way for the future creation of the Jewish state: the Balfour Declaration.
“There you had Lord [Arthur] Balfour sitting in his office in London deciding about dividing up countries that weren’t even his,” our Palestinian guide laments, making his sentiments perfectly clear. “And what [President Donald] Trump did by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is the same thing, as far as we Palestinians are concerned,” he adds. “It was a very dangerous move. For us, it was a second Balfour.”
According to his explanation, the Balfour Declaration came about because Britain’s then-foreign secretary wanted “to return a favor to Jewish organizations and financiers.”
Our Israeli guide, though, has a different take on the British move: It was part of a broader policy, she says, of addressing “the rise of nationalistic movements in Europe, among them Zionism.”
It never gets nasty on the tour, as it might in real life when Israelis and Palestinians happen to cross paths. Maybe that’s because this is the first time these two particular guides are doing this tour together and seem to be taking pains to keep the conversation civil. When they do take digs at one another, it’s generally in good spirit. When she mentions King David’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1010 B.C.E., for example, he responds in jest: “So you admit you were conquerors?”
When she retrieves a time line of Jewish milestones in Jerusalem, she warns us with a wink, as she waves it in his face: “You can be sure this is going to offend him.”
When he points out a building in the Muslim Quarter that was recently purchased by right-wing Jews in order to “make a point about who rules here,” she recalls that her paternal grandmother was born and raised in this same Muslim Quarter before she was forced to flee by her Muslim neighbors. And when she explains that the reason Jews like her grandmother had to flee was because of threats and attacks from their Muslim neighbors, he challenges her.
“The Jews were never attacked,” he says.
“Never?” she retorts.
The tour draws to a close, rather symbolically, at the Al-Aqsa compound – a spot long identified as the key flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As participants take a few minutes to photograph themselves at the iconic Dome of the Rock, the two guides – by now deeply engaged in a conversation of their own about what we can only imagine – mosey ahead to our final meeting spot.
“Now that you’ve heard everything from both sides,” our Israeli guide says, delivering her parting words, “maybe you people have some ideas for a solution.”
“And if you do,” she adds, “please let the two of us know.”