It’s after midnight and Umm al-Fahm is buzzing. Children scamper in the narrow windy alleyways as shops do a brisk business with their parents. A stunned group of 50 Hebrew-speaking visitors are welcomed by friendly honks and cheery cries of “Salam Aleikum” from locals out on the town after their family feasts marking the end of another hot summer day of fasting in the month-long observance of Ramadan.
“During Ramadan, days are turned into nights and nights into days,” laughed Shireen Mahajna, an Umm al-Fahm resident and guide for the Ramadan Nights tours.
Mahajna and her counterpart Udi Volichman make for an odd couple roaming the northern Israeli Arab city’s streets. He, a 50-something, tall, secular Jew, and she, a petite, head-scarfed, 38-year-old Muslim, guide visitors on at least three weekly experiential tours of the city during Ramadan each year for an organization called “Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.”
The organization was founded in 1991 to promote more interaction between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations, and to advocate for equal rights and opportunities. The seeds of the “Shared Regional Tourism” initiative — initially aimed at bringing Jewish tourists to Arab cities in towns — began in 2006 in Umm al-Fahm, and was funded by USAID in 2012.
The Ramadan Nights tours began as a “crazy idea” to change the image of the Wadi Ara region — viewed through newspaper headlines as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and unrest — by inviting Jewish tour groups.
“The townspeople laughed and said, ‘What?! Where Jews don’t go during the day they’ll come for tours at night?'” said Mahajna.
The answer, it turned out, was yes: Three groups had been planned for that first year; in the event, seven went out.
For the past 10 years, thousands of Jewish Israelis have since visited Arab towns on organized tours during the annual evening Ramadan celebrations. According to Volichman, a nearby Katzir resident who has led tours for the past five years, Thursday night’s group was representative of the mix of people who participate.
The motley group ranged from 20-something foreign activists to retired Israelis, with the majority in their 40s and 50s, and with a predominantly left-leaning political slant. In some ways, as one participant wryly said, the tour guides preached to the choir. But the choir was evidently happy to hear them.
The common thread between the participants was a desire to get to know the city and its people beyond the headlines: Umm al-Fahm is the hometown Raed Salah, leader of the outlawed northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and has seen its share of residents who have either committed terrorist acts, or attempted to join the Islamic State group. For some Israelis, their presence here meant overcoming stigmas — and even a bit of fear.
“I’ve lived nearby for the past 40 years and I’d never entered,” said one woman in her 60s. “I’m sure I will return.”
The tour began in a local mosque, where participants removed shoes and sat cross-legged on the beige carpeting. Mahajna, in fluent Hebrew and a booming voice belying her small stature, quickly explained the five pillars of Islam, concentrating on Ramadan and the various traditions associated with the month-long observance.
From there, the tour took a roller-coaster ride through the city’s sharp turns to stop at one of the city’s market streets and learn about traditional foods for the nightly break fast, and morning meal prior to sunrise.
Back in the mini-buses — standard sized buses are too large for the extremely narrow alleyways of the older section of the 800-year-old city — the tour proceeded to a stunning lookout where all could “bid goodbye to the sun,” as Mahajna said prior to eating a date and drinking some water after her all-day fast.
Assembled in a courtyard outside a brand-new stained-glass mosque — one of 35 in the city — the group learned more about the goals of Sikkuy as a few men on their way to prayer murmured words of welcome.
“Why don’t people know about this initiative more,” wondered one 50-something Tel Aviv resident over dinner at our next stop where Volichman briefed participants about coexistence programs in the area, including a flourishing Arab-Jewish school at the Arab town of Kfar Kara called Bridge Over the Wadi, which this year won an award from the Ministry of Education. “Why don’t we hear about such partnership programs in the media?” she asked, as a television crew filmed the meal.
The food, prepared and served in the home of Muhammed and Manal Karaman, was thoughtfully put together with a predominantly vegan menu, aside from a few pieces of meat kebab on each table. From traditional rice maqluba, to stuffed grape leaves and a light orange lentil soup, the dishes were satisfying while not overly heavy. (After quickly dispatching with their rations, the 20-something Israel Project fellows liberally poached more plates of kebab and rice from less ravenous participants’ tables.)
“Light,” however, is not a word to describe the almost sickeningly sweet Ramadan dessert of crushed almonds inside a buttery pancake-like dough. Heaven.
After another trip to Umm al-Fahm’s amusement-park hills, valleys and hairpin turns, the group spilled out onto the city’s streets again to feel the festive Ramadan vibe.
The core of the whirlwind tour was Mahajna’s nuclear-reactor strength energy. A doctoral student in archaeology, her path is hardly representative of her city’s conservative mores. But with a charming smile and steel determination, she is embraced by her city, as evidenced by the multitudes her greeted her, as well as her desire to remain there with her new “imported” Jordanian husband.
Matter-of-factly explaining customs and local history, including a chapter praising Salah’s longtime stint as Umm al-Fahm mayor, Mahajna’s charisma goes farther in changing the image of her city than the tour through the windy roads.
“I come to Umm al-Fahm twice a week for business and tonight I saw sides I’ve never seen,” said one Jewish “neighbor.”
A young woman, swept away in the last moments of the tour — or by the sugar dose consumed at the local bakery — implored everyone to “Tell everything that moves about this initiative. And a friend will tell a friend. Everyone needs to know.”
Another equally entranced Jerusalem-resident participant chimed in, “I want to invite Umm al-Fahm residents to my home for Friday night dinner.”
But in the silence following the group’s laughter, a formal invitation was not yet forthcoming.
The writer was a guest of “Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.”