Former Yachad intern, Jess Weiss, shares her experiences living in the city of Nazareth and the hope it brings for the possibility of a more peaceful future
“You’re going to Nazareth”, usually followed by a polite response and a smile. This was most people’s reactions when I told them of the first stage of my pick and mix gap-year programme. However what people were thinking was usually something one the lines of “Why on earth is she going there?” to which my mental response was “Why not?”. I know that in the Anglo-Jewish community Nazareth hasn’t been seen as a destination hot spot when on holiday in Israel. Maybe to spend a few nights but not seven weeks. I’m not a Christian and have no plans to convert anytime soon so my stay here is Nazareth is not of a religious nature and even though I’m a hiking enthusiast, the beautiful scenery of the Galilee is not what brought me here.
So why I am here, in Nazareth? Well a) it’s one of the largest Arab cities in Israel if not the biggest, which means I will get a very different experience living here for seven weeks which is something that I was looking for and b) I have an inherit habit of making things just that little bit more difficult for myself by not going on an organized programme like Birthright or Schnat.
The real reason why I came here was to volunteer at the Fauzi Azar Inn. The inn, which was open in 2005, was originally home to the Azar family, a wealthy Arab land owning family. The house was built in the late 1800s with high painted ceilings and Turkish marble floors and was home to this family for nearly 200 years. However in 1948 with the creation of Israel, much of the family sensing the insecurity of the times, and unsure of the future, left for Syria were many of them still remain to this day.
Except for one son. Fauzi Azar who never saw any of his family again remained in Nazareth to protect his family’s land and his home. Fauzi attempted, in the 1960s -70s, to regain much of the family’s land which had now been redistributed. He was told by the authorities that it was no longer available for his use and offered compensation. He refused it. Years passed by, he settled down got married and had a children who in turned grew up, got married and had their own children and the house once again was filled with the sounds of a family ruckus. In the winter of 1980 after filling up a petrol heater and not noticing a spillage of petrol, Fauzi Azar attempted to again protect his home by taking a rug which had caught on fire outside. He suffered from burns and later died from his injuries. His wife also died some years later, and due to the fire damage the house fell into disrepair, as did Nazareth. Crime went up, the local economy went down and the Azar family moved away but came back to check on the house once in a while.
Some years passed when a young Israeli man by the name of Moaz Inon who was searching for a place to build his dream hostel approached the family with an idea to make their Grandfather’s house into an inn for backpackers and tourists. He had on this year long travel around the world noticed a market for backpackers accommodation which gave people the ability to have home comforts away from home. At first the family refused, said it was a crazy idea and that they wouldn’t do it. Yet after some persuasion they agreed on a few conditions including that they would lease him the property to use, have input into the running of the Inn, and the family would still own the property. He consented and with help from one of Fauzi Azar’s daughter’s Odette, and granddaughter Suraida, who is now the manager of the Inn created what it is now today.
The inn and Nazareth has gone from strength to strength, winning awards left right and centre such as the 2011 Responsible Tourism Award. All are welcome and not just at the inn.The inn offers a free daily tour run by a wonderful volunteer called Linda which does not feature the famous churches but the local community instead. The locals and tourists are introduced to each other with advantage of seeing on this tour what Nazareth is all about. From the archaeological sites recently uncovered, to spice shops, the bakeries, fruit market and the local craftsmanship you see Nazareth’s past, present and its future course.
It’s compulsory for all new volunteers to go on this tour, which I am now thankful for, as I have met some lovely Nazareth locals who fast becoming my friends and I have got to know the city quite well. Although I still get lost however there always seems to be someone to ask for help. The local people are friendly ready to help and are always interested in your story. There’s no problem between the different groups in the city. Muslims, Christians and Jews talk to one another, go to 100 year old coffee shops play backgammon together and wish each other well on their weekly holidays and holydays. In my mind I’m not just getting a place to sleep and a free meal. I’m working on a peace project which is more valuable than working on any treaty or any internship in government or international body. The inn, tour and Nazareth is bridging that gap, that gaping hole between people. It’s finding the common ground among all. Through business and other means peace will eventually be achieved. Let’s hope Bibi will understand this a second time around.
Nazareth is at peace with everything around it and everyone in it. There is no tension at all unlike Jerusalem where there is a constant battle of wills, power-plays and a suffocating mass of people. I personally feel that those three things (maybe not for you this just my personal opinion) have destroyed the sanity and holiness of that ancient city. Here, in Nazareth, from the top of Mount Precipice, it’s quiet and open, a true city filled with peace. And great food.