Here's What Tourists Might See If They Were Allowed To Visit The Gaza Strip

Aug 7, 2019
Originally published on August 7, 2019 6:36 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now for a view of the Gaza Strip that few people get. It's what a tourist might see if tourists were allowed; they haven't been since Hamas militants took over Gaza 12 years ago.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Since then, they've been in repeated wars with Israel, and Israel and Egypt have blockaded the territory. But Gaza used to attract tourists to its ancient sites, busy markets and other delights. NPR's Daniel Estrin set out to recreate that experience.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is the market of Gaza. Look at these tiny carrots, grape leaves believes in a pile, rabbits in a cage, spices and my favorite store in Gaza.

SALEEM ELRAYES: Oh, hi. Come on in. Come on in.

ESTRIN: I'm in search of a different Gaza than the Gaza of violence and misery you usually hear about. I'm retracing the route the tourists used to take. I walk through the old city market to the antique shop Saleem Elrayes has run for more than 30 years.

ELRAYES: I got you what you want.

ESTRIN: Really?

ELRAYES: (Laughter) The hamsa, here they are.

ESTRIN: Beautiful.

I've been here a few times to buy these good luck charms. They're shaped like a hand and ward off the evil eye.

Do you remember that I came here and I was looking for a postcard?

ELRAYES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, postcard about Gaza. And I gave you one. You bought one. It was a very rare postcard.

ESTRIN: A vintage print from the late 1960s that an Israeli company put out to market Gaza to the world. It's with a collage of pictures of fishing boats and veiled women selling pottery, a relic from a different time after Israel captured Gaza in 1967. In the '90s after the Palestinian Authority government was formed, people did come.

ELRAYES: Many tourists used to come here from this street, lots of tourists, groups, all kind of French, Italian, British, American.

ESTRIN: But then came the deadly violence of the 2000s with the Palestinian uprising and Israeli reprisals. Israel bombed Gaza's newly built airport runway after a deadly Palestinian attack. And in 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza. Two years later, the Islamist Hamas took over. There's been cross-border violence and Israel and Egypt have kept their borders with Gaza tightly controlled. They allow foreign journalists and diplomats and aid workers to cross, not tourists. But we found a Palestinian tour guide from the old days to take us around.

Do you remember the last time you gave a tour in Gaza?

AYMAN HASSOUNA: It was before 20 years ago, you know.

ESTRIN: You're rubbing your forehead. You're trying to remember.

HASSOUNA: Yes. I remember, from Germany.

ESTRIN: Ayman Hassouna is now in his 50s, and he agreed to take us on the tour he used to give. He starts with the history.

HASSOUNA: Gaza is very important because it is the gate of two places.

ESTRIN: So Gaza was a crossroads.

HASSOUNA: Of ancient civilizations.

ESTRIN: More than 2,000 years ago, Gaza was the Mediterranean's port of call on the ancient trade route from Arabia to Europe. Behind this padlocked door is a palace a few hundred years old. Napoleon is said to have slept here.

It's beautiful here.

HASSOUNA: Yeah.

ESTRIN: Today, it houses relics from Gaza's ancient past.

HASSOUNA: Jars - these jars made in Gaza.

ESTRIN: Two long ceramic jars from the third to seventh century that travelled on ships from Gaza around the Mediterranean carrying precious liquids.

HASSOUNA: Oil or wine.

ESTRIN: You seem very proud about - of these jars.

HASSOUNA: Yes, and when I see these jars, I live before 1,000 years ago. Gaza have peace in this period.

ESTRIN: Gaza had peace in that period.

HASSOUNA: And have a good economic in this period. Gaza opened in that period of all the world. And now Gaza closed from all the world in this time.

ESTRIN: Gaza also has a rich religious history. In just a short walk, you can see a small building said to be the tomb of Samson from the Bible and walk into the traditional tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's great-grandfather and then wander around the Omari Mosque that's been in use for centuries.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

HASSOUNA: You want to enter?

ESTRIN: Yeah.

HASSOUNA: OK.

ESTRIN: Taking off my shoes. The carpet feels really nice.

HASSOUNA: Yes. Here, the nave of the church.

ESTRIN: He points out the architecture from when the building was a crusader church. We cross the street to the old Samaritan bathhouse originally run by members of the ancient Samaritan religion. Today, you can relax on the hot marble slab or get an olive oil scrub. Most of Gaza's city is filled with concrete apartment blocks now. But if you look closely, you can find what we did down an alleyway. It's a beautiful old stone home. Someone's restoring it.

Oh, wow. I wasn't expecting this. This is an old building.

HASSOUNA: The family want to save their roots, the grandfather home. And they pay to restoration the house. This is good idea.

ESTRIN: As we continue our walk, he snaps a photo of a wooden balcony that's at least 100 years old from the Ottoman era. He wants to try to have it restored. From there, we stop at a store that sells traditional clay pots made in Gaza and check out some fancy hotels near the beach that cater to aid workers and journalists but get no tourists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESTRIN: We end the day at the popular Abu Hasira fish restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

This fish was amazing, grilled and seasoned with hot pepper, parsley, onions, lemon, tomatoes - just delicious. And tell me about this.

HASSOUNA: Salat Ghaziweyeh (ph).

ESTRIN: He says the Gaza salad. What makes it a Gaza salad?

HASSOUNA: It is spicy. You can taste. It's got the spicy.

ESTRIN: Ooh. That's hot.

(LAUGHTER)

HASSOUNA: Gaza.

ESTRIN: Gaza.

Hassouna used to bring his tour groups here at the end of their excursion. That was before all these years of upheaval. If Israel and Egypt were to open Gaza's border for tourists today, he says he would not be able to guarantee their safety. But he says there's a reason he agreed to take me around.

HASSOUNA: Why? Because I believe that I must give a message that Gaza have the second face, the face of culture, the face of tourism. We want Gaza to be open for the people, for the world, only that.

ESTRIN: As we drove between tourist sites, my eyes were drawn to the Hamas militant bases, the rubble from an Israeli airstrike, the U.N. warehouses storing food for the poor, the young men sitting on curbs trapped in a place with few jobs and a bleak future. But my tour guide kept pointing out all the things you couldn't see - the Byzantine ruins and ancient port city that lay beneath the sands.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHADE SUMMERSET AND SOUL FOOD HORNS' "SUNFLOWER TEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.