The hungry tour group, fresh off the bus from Jerusalem, eagerly waited to be fed dishes of Hebronite cuisine. An organizer hurried to find extra meals, apologetically explaining that the crowd of visitors had already devoured most of the feast.
Among the city’s ancient archways, stalls of over forty specialties were laid out for the Hebron food festival. Favorites included Musakhan: a traditional meal of chicken with sumac and other aromatic spices served on flatbread, and the less famous Fawereh: a spread of sheep head and stuffed intestines.
In the sweet department were flavorful pots of congealed rice milk, grape juice and flour, and the renowned Nablus Kunafe: a heady mix of fine vermicelli-like pastry, syrup and cheese. Nearby, the drama of Zalabieh unfolded: pebbles of sweetened dough launched into sizzling vats, reemerged as golden-crisp fried balls, dripping in oil and syrup.
The food festival is just one of many activities being organized by the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC). The organization, endorsed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, seeks to revive the old city’s commercial and cultural life.
The intention is to preserve Palestinian cultural heritage and bring Hebronites and tourists back to the area, says Emad Hamden, Chairman of the HRC.
An "Olive celebration" and "Heritage day" are among the events that were held so far.
After the Second Intifada in 2000, military curfews in the old city crippled local businesses. Locals said that shops remained closed for five months at a time, many of the streets remained empty, and rows of closed shop doors were emblazoned with the Star of David and other graffiti.
Hebron is home to over 500 Israeli settlers, and 165,000 Palestinians. The former protected by the Israeli army, the old city is a maze of barriers, closed roads, and checkpoints, separating the army-controlled areas from those of the Palestinian Authority.
The festivals are intended as “a big show for locals and for those from outside," says Dr. Samir Abu Znaid, Governor of Hebron. “Holding the festivals in the heart of the old city is important to show people our culture and provide a sense of security to people who live in the area.”
The strategy appears effective. At the food festival, Sudqi Motawe, chef of Hebron’s Al-Quds restaurant, stood smiling behind rows of empty terracotta pots. His 10-shekel stew of chicken and vegetables, cooked in a Foahara (fire-oven), sold out in a little over an hour.
Within two hours of the opening ceremony, the feast had vanished, leaving only a wasteland of empty stalls strewn with the crumbs of satisfied customers. Estimates put the number of visitors at over 1,200 people.
But two hours after the festival had finished, the area once again fell silent and empty.
Hamden believes that both locals and foreigners remain wary of visiting the area. “Shops have closed here because there is no demand; there is still the reputation that this is a dangerous place.”
Indeed most visitors come via a prearranged tour with non- governmental organizations. A plethora of Israeli organizations, such as Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, amd B’Tselem, all run visits.
“Our focus is taking people to see the impact of the restrictions on Palestinian communities” says Sarit Michaeli, Communications Director for B’Tselem.
The Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) brings nearly 130 groups per year to the area. Visitors are largely students, politicians and journalists who come to witness the political situation. However for most, Hebron still remains firmly off the tourist trail.
The HRC is combating this with longer-term projects. Since 1995, the organization has embarked on an ambitious restoration project the old city.
Thus far the committee has renovated over 900 buildings in the area, many of which date back over 1000 years. The intention is to have the city included in UNESCO’s World Heritage site.
The organizers say that the inclusion in the site would raise the city’s profile and highlight the tourist gems that the city has to offer.
Hebron is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews. It was once also famous for its glass blowing enterprise and its ancient architecture.
“These streets used to buzz with tourism, people from across the West Bank and Israel would come here and the shops would make thousands of dollars,” says Walid Abu Al Halaweh, Public Relations manager of HRC. The hope for the HRC and Hebron’s residents is that this may soon be the reality once again.
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