Anne Morrison was literally a woman on a mission when she went to the Kingdom of Jordan last November. As one of five student winners of the King Hussein International Peace Through Tourism Award, she went to Amman to attend a four-day Global Summit on the subject.
She has been working in the tourism business for the past seven years and arranges tours of the Middle East, Africa and Turkey. The company she works for, Wildland Adventures, promotes tours that let people come into contact with the natural environment and to get to know the local people rather than concentrating on “seeing the sights” and staying with people just like themselves.
Morrison said she found out about the contest and its sponsor, the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, almost as a fluke. “I actually heard about the contest from a friend of mine who sent me a clipping about it from The Jerusalem Post. I don’t really know that much about the organization.”
The competition offered five $1,000 scholarships, with one winner selected from each of five areas around the world. Morrison, who has an 8-year-old daughter here who goes to the Seattle Jewish Community School and another living in Ireland, spent five years living in Israel and is currently taking distance learning classes at North Seattle Community College. She plans to transfer later this year to the University of Washington to pursue a B.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, with the possibility of adding a minor in Jewish Studies.
Morrison is no stranger to the Middle East, having lived in Israel for a total of almost five years in 1983–84 and from 1988 until 1991. The times she spent there were among the most turbulent in the recent history of the region. “I was there from the beginning of the first Intifada through the Gulf War. I was in Jerusalem at the time, so I felt this kind of protective glow around the city — no one was going to target Jerusalem. I came back [to the U.S.] after the Gulf War was finished for personal reasons that had nothing to do with what was going on there,” she said. Even before that, Morrison said, she had traveled extensively throughout the area.
While she was living in Israel, Morrison said, she came to know a number of Palestinian and other Lebanese women, thanks to her volunteer work in a home for disabled children.
“It was a real mix of people working there,” Morrison recalled. The home was run by Catholic nuns and she estimated that about three-quarters of the children were Jewish and one-quarter were Arab.
“Everybody had to stay together, so I got to know quite a few of the Palestinian women who were working there,” said Morrison. “All the people who were working there on staff were Arabs — they were Palestinians or from Lebanon. Then there were international volunteers who came from all over the world who would stay for a month or for six months. Then there were Jewish Israeli teachers who would come in.” In contrast, she noted, most Israelis have little chance to get to know even the Israeli Arabs who live in neighboring villages, and vice versa.
“It’s certainly the minority of people who have anybody they are even acquainted with from the Palestinian [community] because everything is all so separate. Israeli schools are all in Hebrew and they’re all Israeli kids. Palestinian Arab Israeli schools are all in Arabic. The average Israeli knows very little about the Palestinians and the average Palestinian knows very little about the Israelis,” she said, “except what they see in the conflict as the stereotype of ‘the oppressors’ — both sides see the other as oppressors, and both sides feel they are victims. There’s a lot of ignorance and a lack of perceiving the other side as being human.”
That sort of isolation between cultures was the focus of the conference, which Morrison described as having created in microcosm what they were hoping to encourage in the larger world.
“The conference itself was very international,” she said. “It had a lot of people from Africa, some people from India, a lot of people from North America, a lot of people from Europe and Eastern Europe, a few people from Russia and the former Soviet Union and other parts of Asia, not many from South America — a really nice collection of people.” Educators from university programs on international tourism, peace and international studies, members of the news media and students were all included among the 300 to 400 people there.
“It was just a really interesting group of people. I didn’t know anybody there, so at each meal I sat with somebody else.” Unfortunately, Morrison said, the eruption of violence just before the conference started meant that there were no representatives of Israel attending.
Even though the meeting was designed to talk about how tourism could be leveraged to promote peace and understanding and was being held a short way from the Israeli-Jordanian border, Morrison said the people there harbored no illusions that the deep divisions that wrack the Middle East could be solved by tour groups.
“Everybody there certainly felt things had gone way beyond peace through tourism in the Middle East,” she said, “There really isn’t much you can do with tourism until there’s more openness between different people on the sides of the issue.” Even though some of the first projects Jordan and Israel did together after signing their peace treaty were tourism projects, she said, there is a host of issues that have to be dealt with to make anything like that succeed.
“It’s hard to create something in tourism as a tour operator,” she said. “So much of it depends upon the individual’s sensitivity to the other people, both on the side of the tourist and on the side of the host. If you have a tour guide in Jordan who doesn’t like Israelis, it’s not going to work, and vice versa. And if you have a group of Israelis who want to go to Jordan because they want to see Petra but they don’t care about the local people, then it’s not going to work either, because they’re not going to create a good impression of Israelis on the local people.”
One reason for the lack of understanding that she said was talked about during a session on the impact of the media was that “the Israeli newspapers and the Arab newspapers almost never write human interest stories about people on the other side. That itself would help people to bridge this gap between them — if they could just sort of get more of a sense of just the average person or some things that are going on on the other side that have nothing to do with the conflict.”
Although she remains hopeful, Morrison said she is at a loss, at this point, to say what will happen next.
“I think until there is actually a Palestinian state formed, I don’t think there’s much chance of tensions easing to the point that you can really do something with tourism to promote understanding,” she said. You have to agree that we want to get to know these other people before you can recognize that they might have something of interest to offer.
“I feel like both sides are so polarized, I feel they are so far apart in the way they are thinking and perceiving of the other side, there’s no way I can predict what will happen,” Morrison said. “I think it’s really, really a sad situation.”