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Birzeit‘s Maftoul Festival: Empowering Palestinian women, promoting rural tourism

By Lien S. - October 20, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [birzeit] [Food and Culture] [Maftoul Fesitval] [Tourism]

Photo by Lien S.

On Friday October 11, the 6th annual Maftoul Festival took place in the West Bank village of Birzeit. Women from 15 different Palestinian villages prepared couscous dishes in their own traditional way and were judged by a jury of professional chefs as well as last year’s winner. 

The annual festival highlights traditional Palestinian food, empowers women in the countryside and promotes development and tourism in rural Palestine. The Rozana Association for Development and Architectural Heritage organizes the festival each year, in partnership with the Palestinian Circus School, Palestinian Ministry of Culture, Birzeit Women’s Charitable Society, Palestinian Chefs Association, Heritage House and Birzeit Club. 

“Women are half of the society, so they need to be involved in development plans,” Terry Boullata, one of Rozana’s volunteers, explains. “Events like the Maftoul Festival are important for the visibility of women and to show society how they can contribute to the development process. This way we empower women in the decision making process as well.”

Uniting women from different villages is also a strategy to fight “the division Israel is trying to install with its isolation policies” according to Terry. The Rozana Association organizes capacity building activities for women and tries to create a market for their village products. “By allowing the women to meet and coordinate, they can learn which type of produce is needed,” she adds. 

“Color and dynamism”

Stalls with rural produce and embroidery, accompanied by juggling and acrobatics from the Palestinian Circus School (PCS) welcome the festival visitors. “We’re a very active local organization that adds color and dynamism to Birzeit’s panorama,” Jessika from the PCS explains. Whenever its students and trainers participate in a festival, the school receives a lot of positive feedback from the audience. By providing circus education, the PCS aims to empower Palestinian youth to become constructive actors in society. 

16-year old Hazar is one of the performers. “My specialty is the trapeze, but tonight I’m walking on stilts,” she says. Hazar loves performing, teaching beginners’ classes and being part of the circus family. “What we’re doing is unique here in Palestine, so I feel like I’m doing something special.”

Circus has been a big part of Hazar’s life while growing up. “When I first came to the circus six years ago, I was a shy, little girl, but I’ve changed so much over the years. Being part of the circus has made me more open to people, change and different ideas. It has shaped my personality,” Hazar relates. “In Palestine, men can do anything, while women are limited. By making circus, I want to show people that girls can do the same things as guys.”

Photo by The Palestinian Circus School

Remembering traditions and connecting with other women

While the performers of the Palestinian Circus School entertain the visitors outside, the women put the finishing touches to their couscous dishes. “We heard about the festival through the local women’s association in our village and wanted to share our cooking experiences,” Ghada from Dirghassani village explains. “It’s great that young people can learn about their culture here. It empowers us in our Palestinian traditions.” 

Rana from Jama’een village is a first time participant this year. “It’s good to remember our traditions, to meet women from different villages and connect with them. This way we can learn more about each others’ lives and share our cooking skills.” 

Meanwhile, the jury observes the techniques used by the women. “We judge based on different categories: preparation, taste, presentation and creativity,” chef Joseph Asfour explains. 

Fair tourism in the holy land

By organizing the Maftoul Festival, the Rozana Association also aims to promote rural tourism in Palestine. The organization delineates nature trails and organizes home stays. “This way tourists can experience the typical hospitality and drive rural development,” Terry Boullata explains. 

Every year, the holy land attracts busses filled with pilgrims from all over the world, who visit holy places such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Unfortunately, most tourists miss out on visiting the real Palestine and learning about the Palestinian reality. “If only 5% of the tourists who visit Bethlehem would also visit rural areas, that would already change a lot,” Terry relates. “Instead of only spending their money in Israeli markets, they could be spending it in the marginalized rural areas.” 

Fair and engaged tourism could bring economic and political benefits to Palestine and lead to an increased international understanding of the Palestinian cause. Yet many tourists are scared off by the idea of checkpoints or by the negative image that is often portrayed of Palestine. 

“The political context of the Israeli occupation means that the vast majority of tourists in the 'Holy Land’ only see Palestinians through the window of a tour bus, as they dash in and out of Bethlehem for a couple of hours,” journalist Ben White concludes.

Photo by Lien S.

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