'The good, the bad and the ugly': Inside Palestine's best budget hostel

Bethlehem’s Habibi Hostel has been named the best budget accommodation in Palestine. Owner Nidal Abumaria is excited about what that could mean

Looking out from Habibi Hostel in Bethlehem, Palestine. Courtesy Habibi Hostel
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Surrounded by craggy rocks, every 20 minutes or so, fresh water spurts out of a spring, collecting in a pool below. According to legend, the water comes from the efforts of two jinn who live deep below the spring and are embroiled in a constant battle between good and evil. When the good jinn is winning, water comes gushing out of the stream. When the bad jinn takes the lead, the flow of water slows to a trickle, and the pond level drops. This is Ein Fawwar, a place that locals consider lucky. It's located in Wadi Qelt, a valley that begins near Jerusalem and runs all the way to the Jordan River near Jericho and the Dead Sea.

Ein Fawwar is a legend-steeped spring in Palestine's Wadi Qelt. Courtesy Bawadi Tours

It’s also one of Palestine’s must-visit sites, says Nidal Abumaria, owner of Habibi Hostel in Bethlehem. His recommendation also comes with expert tour ­guiding, a plethora of history and a deeper insight into life in Palestine, and it’s these qualities that have earned the proprietor a “Hoscar” award from one of the world’s leading online accommodation booking platforms.

Scooping the Hoscar

The Hoscar hospitality awards are distributed by Hostelworld every year, based on data from the average 1.2 million annual reviews that the platform receives. This year, the site has more than 36,000 properties listed across 170 countries, so competition for the much-coveted awards is tight. Abumaria, however, hadn’t thought anything about them until he received an email from Hostelworld informing him that Habibi Hostel had been named the best lodging in Palestine.

"I knew we had a high rating online, but I didn't know about the Hoscars. I was ecstatic," says Abumaria, who has lived in the region his entire life.

In 2017, he realised his dream of opening a guesthouse. Located about a 15-minute walk from Bethlehem’s Old City, in an unassuming white brick building, the hostel is basic, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in charm. Almost every single review on both Hostelworld and Booking.com mention the excellent service, great atmosphere or super-clean rooms.

Guests liked Habibi Hostel's apartment feel, which made travellers feel at home. Courtesy Habibi Hostel

“I felt more like I was staying with a friend in this really nice apartment than at a hostel,” said a woman from Costa Rica in her review on Hostelworld. Another traveller from Singapore echoed the sentiment: “Nidal and Kristen were fantastic hosts, who did everything from giving us tours to bringing us to the best bar in the area to buying a late-night kunafa snack. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay, not to mention how much we learnt on our tour and from our conversations. The beds and rooms were comfy, too.”

'Most guests are keen to learn'

That level of comfort is something that’s important to Abumaria. “Our hostel takes pride in its ability to share traditional Palestinian hospitality with all its guests. We like to make everyone feel at home and even our set-up is similar to that of an apartment. The common area is great for conversation and we love to share about life in Palestine; the good, the bad and the ugly,” he explains.

Habibi Hostel is located in a complicated place, but instead of trying to paper over that, Abumaria and his staff, which consists of friends and family, prefer to share what they know. “Most of our guests are very keen to learn more about the situation here, and we answer any questions they may have. Bethlehem is regarded as the birthplace of Jesus, which draws in many tourists, but we also get lots of questions from people who fear it is unsafe.”

Neighbourhood views in Bethlehem. Courtesy Habibi Hostel

Taking it upon himself to show visitors all sides of the city, tour guiding has become second nature for the ­hostel-owner, who often spends his days taking guests around the region. He has conceptualised a variety of tours, but the most popular one is a historical walking tour around Hebron, aimed at those who want to better understand the political situation in Palestine.

For Abumaria, it’s essential viewing. “You have not truly seen Palestine if you do not visit Hebron. On our tour, we explore the old city, which is split between Palestinians and a settlement protected by the Israeli military. The tour incorporates politics, religion and culture.”

Serving tradition

When guests aren't out exploring, they can tuck into traditional Palestinian dishes served at Habibi's. While the kitchen is modest and the dining area relatively stark, when breakfast is served, the room becomes a hive of colour, smells and tastes. The day starts with lashings of hummus, labneh, baba ganoush, olive oil, eggs and zaatar, all served with fresh-from-the-oven Arabic bread. Dinner is no less impressive. "We serve maqloubeh. It's a famous Palestinian dish that includes rice, chicken, cauliflower, eggplant and traditional spices. We also make a version using only vegetables as we have many vegetarian guests," Abumaria says.

From Habibi Hostel, guests are a short walk from Manger Square, one of Bethlehem’s biggest attractions. On one side of the square is the Grotto of the Nativity, which, according to the Bible, is where Jesus was born. Christmas is celebrated here three times a year, on December 25; January 7 for Orthodox festivities; and January 19 for Armenian traditions. It’s also where Pope Francis performed mass to more than 8,000 people on his visit to Palestine in 2014.

PALESTINE, NABLUS - APRIL 14 : The old souk of the city of Nablus on April 14, 2014 in Palestine. (Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

As well as taking a trip to the springs at Wadi Qelt, Abumaria has endless recommendations for things to see and places to go. "There are so many amazing natural sites such as Battir, Mar Saba and Sebastiya. If you are looking for beautiful old cities, there's Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus. For a fun night out, I'd recommend Ramallah."

For Abumaria, the Hoscar award is “nice”, but what’s more important is spreading the word that the hostel exists to a growing number of ­travellers – and showing people the reality of living under occupation. “Western media does not portray Palestine ­positively and a lot of misinformation exists out there. The more people that come to our hostel, the more we can show the true Palestine.”