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Aziz Abu Sarah is a tour guide for peace
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"One of the first things I started understanding was that, regardless of what people do to you, you always have the ability to choose a different path."
1 January 2013

Aziz Abu Sarah is a tour guide for peace

Interview by Patrick Pittman
Photography by Amit Sha'al

Patrick Pittman on Aziz Abu Sarah

Go back just over twenty years and find ten-year-old Aziz Abu Sarah in the chaos of East Jerusalem during the First Intifada. Tell him that he’s going to be a tour operator. Tell him he’ll be working with Israelis. Tell him he’ll be preaching peace.

Tell him this just as his eighteen-year-old brother has died. Tell him this as Jewish settlers march the streets of his hometown, taunting and destroying. Tell him this as he throws rocks in return. He’s seen martyred bodies laid out on the streets. Without ID, he’s smuggling himself from Bethany to Jerusalem every day, evading border guards so that he can go to school. He is a statistic, surrounded by statistics, in a state that doesn’t exist. In a couple of years, he will join Fatah as a youth leader and lead protests around East Jerusalem. Around him is war, writ in rocks and bombs and blood.

Tell him he’s going to be a tour operator. Watch him laugh. But here he is, at the Dead Sea, with the National Geographic executives. Here he is, with Israeli tour guides, and Palestinian tour guides, working for his tour company Mejdi, simultaneously telling the dual and competing histories of every contested site in the Holy Land. Imams and rabbis, academics and holidaymakers, pragmatists and ideologues; they all journey with him through their preconceptions on desert roads.

Here he is, a long way from where he started.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

PATRICK PITTMAN: Everybody I’ve spoken to in Israel or Palestine, be they a rabbi, an NGO worker, an academic or a taxi driver — they all have very different ideas of what peace could look like. What does it look like for you?

AZIZ ABU SARAH: I’m the wrong person to ask, because I’m a very pragmatic person. I don’t really have a strong opinion on which solution would work. I’m looking at which one will guarantee freedom, security and safety to all the sites. I’ve so far supported the two-state solution because it seemed to me to be a very pragmatic approach. But at the same time, that solution might fail with the realities on the ground.

I don’t have a romanticised idea that this is the only way it’s going to happen. If we end up with a one-state solution, that’s fine. If we end up with a five-state solution, I guess that would be fine as well.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

What matters to me most is that the current status quo of violence, conflict and occupation doesn’t continue.

Do you feel that some sort of solution is possible within the next few years?

I think if the two-state solution doesn’t happen really, really soon, it’s not going to be possible. I went on a tour with a settler group a while ago because I wanted to check what they teach and say — I also want to present their narratives. It’s really fascinating. They did this tour of East Jerusalem from a settler point of view, and they were explaining that they build in order to kill the idea of a two-state solution. That as they are building, this is in their conscience.

Some of the peace activists ignore this reality sometimes. I still think a two-state solution is possible. But, I think the chances for it are getting slimmer and slimmer. I talk to younger Palestinians who are no longer nationalistic. They think, Okay, we want our own country, our own state, but, we can’t get our state — obviously, it’s been twenty years of negotiation, I at least want my rights. I want civil rights. That’s a growing sentiment on the Palestinian side.

Realities are changing very, very quickly here. Politics are changing very quickly here. I think those of us who support the two-state solution will wake up at some point realising, if it doesn’t happen soon, it’s becoming a dream now. Not a reality.

You’re talking about building dialogue and understanding between people, building bridges towards peace. But it’s clear there are points of view that are never going to shift. That come from very far away places.

I believe everybody can change. Yes, there will be people who won’t. But to engage with and try to influence change you have to understand every narrative.

You don’t have to agree; obviously I don’t agree with the settler’s narrative, but if I don’t understand where they are coming from and why they think what they think, then I won’t be able to engage the Israeli community in general, the Palestinian community, or know what to do and how to move forward.

You can’t convince everybody to agree with you in politics. But you can figure out ways to build a social system, or you can work for incremental change, positive change, that can pressure a change in the whole community. I think the issue of settlers is going to be more of an Israeli problem — if there’s a two-state solution and they have to move out, it’s really going to be an Israeli dialogue and less of a Palestinian concern.

We talk about narratives as Israeli versus Palestinian, but in reality it’s also narratives of the communities,

those in Tel Aviv and those in Kiryat Arba, and even those in the army. These communities will have to engage in and learn each other’s narratives.

This is the same on the Palestinian side between the different factions.

Let’s go back to your childhood, where your story begins. The First Intifada happened when you were very young.

I was seven years old when it started. I grew up in a very conservative Muslim house. My parents sent me to a religious school. I didn’t understand much about the conflict growing up. In school we never talked about it. At home I heard things, but I don’t remember understanding what the heck was going on until the intifada broke out.

Then, I still didn’t understand what was going on, except I remember watching people throw stones and thinking that seemed cool. It seemed cool just because I was bored, and where I grew up was… pretty underdeveloped, is an understatement. There wasn’t much to do except play soccer in the street.

So watching people throwing stones I thought, Oh, if this is acceptable, it’s on TV, I guess I can go and do it as well. So we went and did it, a few of my friends and I — all little kids — only to find out we were throwing stones at our own neighbours, which did not go well.

Eventually we figured out that there was a different road, a road that settlers were more likely to take. Again, we didn’t understand, but on that other road it was “okay” to throw stones. After a while, we hit a bus, and that’s when a lot of my perceptions changed, because we broke a window and somebody came out of the bus with a gun and shot at us. I realised, Okay, this is not just fun. This is actually dangerous. 

The politics were obviously vague then because you were young. What was an Israeli to you then?

Historically, I didn’t understand a thing about Israelis — it was not that clear. There were some settlements. But the confrontation was very limited. So I never really got it. The moment the intifada started, that accelerated my understanding.

We lived next to two settlements. Soon confrontation started with those settlements and in the evenings, once every few months, the settlers would come and march into our neighbourhood, break some windows, you know. Somebody had probably thrown stones at them, so they came for revenge.

Palestinians don’t always know, especially the younger ones, the difference between Jewish, Israeli — all those terms. So, to me, those were “the others”. They’re the ones to be afraid of. If you throw stones, they’ll shoot at you. But I didn’t understand why.

It took a little longer, until I was nine, when I’d just moved to a different school in East Jerusalem. There was a threat that some radicals wanted to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque to hold prayers. The Muslims said that they were coming to destroy the mosque so there was a call to go and defend it. I wanted to go, and I tried, but my parents wouldn’t let me. Through all of this my parents always got mad; I got spanked for this stuff.

That day, I think about twenty Palestinians were killed — one of those was a neighbour. In Islam, when somebody is killed like this, they are called a martyr. Martyrs do not get cleaned up before they’re buried, but everybody goes and pays respect, and you see them, as they are when they were killed.

Going in and seeing the guy who was killed, I got incredibly angry — very, very angry and upset. At that moment things were starting to get clearer. I became really interested in understanding.

I can remember going out the first time to throw stones out of pure anger, hatred, nationalism, all of that kind of mix — it was that evening. It got worse from there.

And it was with your brother’s tragedy that this hit painfully close to home for you. How much later was this?

It was very much around the same time. It was Ramadan; you fast from sunrise to sunset, but you wake up before sunrise to eat and drink a lot of water so you’re not dehydrated.

A group of soldiers broke in and came into my room, which I shared with my four brothers — we are seven siblings, two sisters and five brothers. They came to our room and talked to my brothers and decided eventually to arrest Tayseer, who was eighteen at the time. We didn’t know why. He was taken.

The first few days we didn’t know what was happening, or what the accusation was. On the eighteenth day, my Dad was able to visit him for the first time, and told us that he was in prison for throwing stones. Tayseer refused to admit it in the beginning, and he was beaten up so he would talk. He waited a bit too long, I guess, to do it. He was sentenced to one year in prison, but he got out a little earlier.

I got to visit him once. It was a full-day activity. It’s organised by the Red Cross, you have buses, loads of people going, you stand in line for half a day. There are two fences. On one side are the visitors; on the other side… He was on the other side. You have ten minutes to yell at each other with about one foot between you and the person. You have ten minutes. That’s the only time I saw him while he was in the prison.

And then what happened when he was released?

When he was released he was already throwing up blood. He was in a lot of pain. We took him to a hospital right away, where he went through tests and stuff and they figured out that he had liver failure, and a lot of other health complications. He needed surgery to save his life, so he had surgery, but it was a bit too late.

I remember the doctor came and asked my Mum if she had any more sons, and when she answered, “Yes,” he said, “It’s good, because you’re going to have one less very soon.” Which, sure enough, a few days later… My sisters were living in Egypt at the time, and so we had to call them. They made it barely in time before he passed away.

What changed in you at the moment of your brother’s death? Obviously you felt grief and intense mourning. But did you feel something change?

Oh yeah. I’m the youngest of my brothers and sisters, at least nine years younger than all of them. I’m the “oops” child. In that situation, the parents don’t really spend as much time with you. The person who’s just older than you becomes the person in charge of your life, and Tayseer was the brother just older than me. So your first day in school, for example, your parents take you to school. That’s the common thing. On my first day of school, my parents didn’t show up, it was Tayseer who took me. When I had any problems at school, fights with neighbours, with kids, with whatever, it was him that came. He was really the main person involved in my life.

When this happened, the thing that was clear to me right away was that it wasn’t a natural death. All I could remember were the soldiers who took him in. I was pretty mad, I was pretty angry. My life shifted completely at that moment, where I felt the beginning of my duty to revenge. There is no choice in that moment. It’s what you have to do.

Somebody punches you in the face — and I felt punched in the face — and the first thing you want to do is to punch back, and to hit hard.

Not many people, when they’re punched in the face, say, Oh, let me take a step backward and think about this logically, what is the right thing to do?

And how did you punch back?

Oh. I got involved in politics. I mean I couldn’t do it right away; I was too young. But I became a very devout student of politics. I was about thirteen when I became active in Fatah, Arafat’s party. I kept throwing stones and all of that. But I got more careful too, because I didn’t want to get arrested. I didn’t want to end up in the same place my brother ended up.

Also I felt pretty bad for my family. The whole dynamic in my family changed with Tayseer dying and my parents becoming way, way too overprotective — I knew they couldn’t take another big hit. So I was a lot more careful, but a lot more active.

By the time I was sixteen, in high school, I became one of the youth leaders of Fatah. It had a very strong youth movement in Jerusalem. My job was to mobilise protests and things like that. I was given the youth magazine to edit. I wrote a lot of articles. I wrote a couple of articles every week that were very, very angry and bitter, very much anti-Israel, anti-peace, all of that. There were a few other events that happened around about that time that also didn’t help.

For a while I was denied my ID. At that time if you were from Jerusalem and ended up living in the West Bank, you would lose your ID. Because the West Bank is not part of Israel, you weren’t a resident of Israel anymore. We were living in Bethany, which is a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem. For a few months I had to sneak my way into school. It was a pretty adventurous few months crossing the border, until my parents decided to rent an apartment in Jerusalem so I could go to school.

At a couple of the protests we organised, we had three students who were killed from our school. There were a few major things that happened during Bibi Netanyahu’s term — the opening of the exit in the Arab Quarter of the Western Wall Tunnel, settlement building. We were very active in protesting those. The results were pretty awful.

So you were full of anger and rage. How do you get from there to here?

Completely by accident! When I finished high school in Jerusalem I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, even though it was mandatory. Being involved in politics and so on, I managed not to. But when I finished high school, I realised if you don’t speak the language, you can’t get by. I started looking for places to study, and I found the best place to study was an ulpan, which is where Jewish immigrants and newcomers to Israel learn the language.

I was the only Palestinian sitting in a classroom with mainly Jewish students, Israeli citizens. In the beginning, it was incredibly hard. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had this plan that, I’m going to go there, learn the language—because it’s important for my future and education and work and all of that—but I will not talk to anybody. A really stupid idea if you want to learn a language!

I did that for the first few days before they put us into small groups of two or three people.

They make you ask questions, and eventually, as you ask those questions you get to know the people. And as you get to know the people, things start changing, and stereotypes start changing.

It’s amazing, because I grew up in Bethany but I went to school in Jerusalem. We’d moved and by then I was living in East Jerusalem. From my high school to the next Jewish school, there were maybe two, three hundred metres — it’s not really that far. But we never had any contact with each other.

People talk today about the wall between Israel and the Palestinians. The barrier that exists today, as bad as it is, is not the worst. Because in Jerusalem there was no physical barrier, but we’d never had any contact with each other. So hatred and anger and fear created the actual wall that separated us — this barrier of ignorance. Suddenly, I found myself being able to get behind to see what was on the other side, and it was very surprising. I had all these stereotypes that I’d built — not out of imagination, out of life experience — but they did not represent the whole community.

I’m sitting in this classroom meeting people, and slowly we’re becoming friends, we’re getting to know each other, we’re studying the same language and we’re going to drink coffee together. We always disagreed which coffee to drink — Israelis believe that Nescafe is a good coffee!

We’d built these contexts where, you only see the worst of the other: the settler, the soldier, who, as nice as a soldier can be — and some of them are very nice — is still carrying a gun. You can’t have a normal conversation with somebody carrying a gun. He’s in power. He decides if you pass, you know. You can’t see the good in the other side. You can’t see anybody on the other side.

You start dehumanising and demonising those on the other side, and that’s what I’d done, based on my experience. It starts to change, but not suddenly. It’s not a magic conversion where you say, ‘Wow, I see the light, I’m saved at this moment.’ It’s more complicated, but something starts shifting. It’s a long experience of getting over one thing at a time.

One of the first things I started understanding was that, regardless of what people do to you, you always have the ability to choose a different path.

That was very important to me, because I always felt that my choice was to follow that same path of the person who killed my brother, that in some way, my choice was not really mine. I was prisoner to that soldier, to that person, to whoever killed my brother. I wasn’t making my own decisions.

It was very liberating to think, You know what? I can’t necessarily control other people actions, but I can always control my reaction. I still have the full power to make my own choice, to make my own decision, not to be dragged into the same circle of violence, of killing, of murder, and of hatred. That was one of the biggest revelations of my life. I normally describe my work as trying to find cracks in this wall that separates the two sides.

How did you try to do that, before you started the tours?

I did a lot of stuff. This was in 1998. So it’s been quite a long, long journey. One of the first things I actually realised was how little I knew about the Israeli community, the Jewish community.

One of the things I knew zero about was the Holocaust.

As a Palestinian you don’t learn about the Holocaust. You don’t even learn to deny it.

We learnt nothing about it. You assume there’s something wrong with it because you are taught that Israel uses it politically, but you don’t know what the heck it is. I came to the conclusion that if I’m going to be engaged, I need to learn this narrative.

I kept hearing about the Holocaust from all the Israelis I was meeting — often they’d bring it up. So, I decided to go and learn about it. I got on the bus and went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It was very, very hard. Walking in, I had that Palestinian mentality of, if I understand the pain of the other, of the Israelis, if I sympathise with them, does that take away from my rights? Does that make me weaker? Does that justify whatever Israel does to us?

But slowly, as I walked through, I forgot that whole argument. Instead of labelling the “Jew”, the “Israeli”, the “enemy” or “friend”, you start seeing the people. Years later, I wrote an article about my experience at Yad Vashem. It was published in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. It was fascinating; I started getting all these emails from Israelis and Jews saying, ‘I was really, really impressed, and couldn’t believe you did this, and since you were willing to do this I feel it’s my turn to do the same thing. What do you suggest I do to learn the Palestinian narrative?’

We often try to push our own stories so hard, describing what we went through, why we are right and how we suffered, that we are surprised when the other side doesn’t hear us. Both sides have this feeling. By saying, ‘You know what, first I want to hear your story,’ we can understand each other.

Later, I joined the Bereaved Family’s Forum, to help establish the Palestinian side of the organisation. I was eventually elected as the chairman. I worked for the organisation for a few years, mainly on an education project, which was also focused on narratives; sending two people, one Israeli, one Palestinian, together, to Israeli and Palestinian schools and communities telling their own stories. Trying to tell the stories together and saying, ‘Look, we lost our family members. If we work together, then everybody else can.’

One of my main partners was a guy named Rami Elhanan. We always stuck together. His daughter was killed in a suicide bombing on Ben Yehuda Street, and he’s gone through the same kind of transformation. He had every right to want revenge and to be angry with the Palestinians.

We would come in and tell the students, “Look, our tears are as bitter and our pain is the same, and our blood is the same colour. This is the reality even if you don’t want to believe it.”

The amazing part is, every school we would go to, we would ask, “Who here has met a Palestinian before?” If it was Israeli, almost nobody would raise their hand. And when we went to a Palestinian school, almost none of the students had seen an Israeli or a Jew who wasn’t a soldier.

How did the Mejdi tours start?

Early on in my peace work I realised non-profits were very unsustainable. I didn’t want to depend on my income from working for non-profits, so I studied tourism. I started bringing tourists to a small business I set up to do just a few tours a year; to make a little bit of extra income so I could do my peace work without having to worry whether somebody would give us a donation or not.

I did that until 2008, where I got a job with George Mason University as the co-executive director of the Centre for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. I was mainly doing Middle East projects.

I started brainstorming with some people I’d met there, and quickly we realised that we wanted to do something a bit different in peace-building. A lot of the conflict resolution, and peace work is, ‘Let’s bring some Israelis, some Palestinians together, and get them to know each other.’ Kind of the work I was doing. We felt that to do peace-building and conflict resolution on a massive level, it had to become part of major existing structures.

Tourism was something I had done, and was very interested in, so we thought about starting this business, Mejdi, where we would combine tourism with conflict resolution. We chose tourism because over a billion people travel internationally every year; it’s one of the largest cultural exchange programs in the world.

That’s how we came to the dual narrative approach, where for every group, you have two tour guides — one Israeli, one Palestinian. We use politicians, academics, peace activists — a lot of our tour guides are peace activists, and we pay them above the market price. Whenever we have people speak from organisations, we make sure they get donations to help their organisations.

We also encourage our tourists to shop fairtrade, or “fairwages” we call it — places where they can influence the economy in a positive way. We built something that is conflict resolution related, but it’s a business and it’s sustainable.

The tours are a great way of bringing peace building into a commercial dialogue. Have you seen them change people?

Absolutely. This is not an easy thing to operate. Bringing tour guides together is really hard. We work really hard in training people to work together, in building relationships. The fact that the tour guides are not competing or fighting but working together really impresses people. It turns a switch in those who are on the trip.

I’ve even seen people from the Far Right on our trips. It’s a mix. Even if people come with a certain political view and they leave with a certain political view — we might not change that — at least they leave with more understanding of the reality on the ground and are able to constructively engage with the conflict.

If you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, that’s fine. What are you able to do to help make a difference?

What are you able to do to engage with that community if you care about it? It’s not about hating; it’s about helping both sides to come up with an end to this conflict.

It’s a very confusing trip. If you’re coming for clarity you’re totally on the wrong trip. If you’re coming to understand how confusing things are, it’s a good, good trip.

It’s the nature of the land that it’s going to be confusing. I think that’s what I’ve learnt most of all in Israel — just how much I don’t know.

Well, it means you’ve had a good trip. A lot of people come here and they think they will leave with clear answers for everything. And there are things that are clear—rights and wrongs—but if you want to engage in making a difference, there are so many complications that you have to understand.

Over the years, as you’ve realised your mission, obviously hatred lessens and withers and understanding builds. But does the anger ever go away?

No, the anger doesn’t go away, and the pain doesn’t go away. It stays. I think the way you channel it can change. Instead of channelling the anger and pain for destruction, for hatred, or into more negative energy, you can channel it into positive energy and say, I’m mad, and that’s why I don’t want anybody else to go through it. I know what it means to be in that situation.

I know what it means to lose a family member. I know what it means to suffer. And that’s why I don’t want anybody else to go through it. Every day I read the newspaper, and I’m mad still. But, instead of becoming part of that circle, I channel my anger toward, Okay, what can I do to make a difference? What can I do to change this reality?

Patrick Pittman

Patrick is a writer, editor, broadcaster, former editor of Dumbo Feather and one-time nightshift carer of a supercomputer. More at patrickpittman.com

Photography by Amit Sha'al

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