GAZA CITY: Abdul Aziz Al-Balbisi, a 19-year-old Palestinian university student, has launched an initiative called “Gaza Tales” to encourage young people in the Gaza Strip to learn more about the history of their city.
Once a week, between 30 and 50 young men and women gather in old Gaza for a 2 kilometer walk, during which they learn about ancient landmarks and buildings, an experience the participants describe as most enjoyable.
Al-Balbisi launched the initiative on social media in October and said that while he had hoped it would prove popular with Gazans, even he has been surprised by how much interest it has generated among young people from various parts of the Gaza Strip.
He began learning about old Gaza and its heritage and antiquities during childhood from his father, a specialist in history, whose dedication ultimately inspired Al-Balbisi to launch his own initiative with his dad’s help.
“Gaza Tales” aims to preserve knowledge of places and landmarks that are part of Gaza’s deep-rooted history by introducing the younger generation to the stories behind them, he said, so that Palestinian youths are informed about the past and have the knowledge to “confront Israeli allegations and schemes to falsify history.”
In the Old City, an area covering about 1.6 sq. km that was historically the beating heart of Gaza, there are dozens of ancient buildings, including mosques, houses, shops and a Turkish bath called Hammam Al-Samra, along with tribes (a narrow arched passage between two houses). Some of these are under threat from urban expansion and are at risk of disappearing for good.
“Gaza is a city rich in antiquities, information and secrets,” Al-Balbisi told Arab News. “Many people live in it and do not know anything about it. I am trying to bring back what we lost in time about this ancient city and introduce young people to their history.
“There is a great interest on the part of the young generation to participate in learning about the landmarks of this beautiful city, with its old buildings and streets, and my father provides me and them with a lot of information on every trip we take.”
Al-Balbisi, who is studying cyber security engineering at university, suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs during the 2008 war that force him to rely on crutches or an electric wheelchair to get around. During his tours, which begin in the morning, he and his father tell the stories of 25 buildings, some still standing, some destroyed. Along the way, breakfast is provided.
“Young men and women from different regions of the Gaza Strip have participated with us,” said Al-Balbisi. “Some of them live abroad and were on a visit to Gaza.”
Many of them are surprised by the information they receive as they are often hearing it for the first time, even those who have lived in the Gaza Strip their whole lives, he added.
Al-Balbisi described Gaza as “a city that is unlike any other city in this world, with everything in it … with its peace and war … with its contradictions, events and people … even in its history and heritage.”
He added: “There are so many stories and secrets in Gaza that no matter how much you thought you knew, you will be surprised that you knew so little.
“Under each of its stones, there is a story that talks about people who passed through and built a civilization and they left their traces that tell their story.”
This is what prompted him to call his initiative Gaza Tales, Al-Balbisi explained.
“In the stories of Gaza, we will tell the stories of who were and who passed, who built and who destroyed,” he said.
“You will stand in awe before the nobility of Gaza, which we are all ignorant of, and you will hear information that you did not receive before.”
In the short time since the launch of Gaza Tales, word about it has spread quickly and it has grown in popularity. Currently, it covers only the Old City but Al-Balbisi said that in the spring, he intends to offer tours of other parts of the Gaza Strip.
Ahlam Hammad, from the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, took one of the Gaza Tales tours and said it performs an important role for Palestinians.
“Knowledge tourism is important in the struggle of awareness with the occupation,” he told Arab News.
“The young generation is in dire need of such knowledge-tourism paths in light of the huge amount of misleading information broadcast by the enemy in order to falsify the history of the Palestinian land.”