Early summer means wedding season in Jisr az-Zarqa. Cars race through narrow and windy roads, blasting their horns in celebration, and colorful fireworks send loud booms throughout this seaside Arab-Israeli town.
Jisr az-Zarqa is the last remaining Arab town situated on Israel’s coast. Wedged between affluent Caesarea, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a home, and the well-established Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Jisr az-Zarqa is a place of starkly apparent isolation and poverty.
Separated only by an earthen wall, yet worlds apart, Caesarea appears like a Malibu on the Mediterranean, dotted with private pools and well-manicured lawns, while only 200 meters to the north lies densely populated Jisr az-Zarqa. Haphazard buildings compete for limited space and are constantly expanding upward to accommodate the rapidly growing population. In this town of 13,000 — where 50% of its residents are under 19 years old — children rule the streets for lack of lawns to play on.
Few Israelis have probably ever heard of Jisr az-Zarqa, except for maybe headlines of a fatal rock-throwing incident during the Second Intifada, and even fewer foreign tourists would consider including the town on their itinerary. However, that negative image is slowly changing with the help of Neta Hanien and Ahmad Juha, two enterprising partners — one Jewish-Israeli and one Arab-Israeli — who recently opened Juha’s Guesthouse.
Hanien, who traveled the world as a scuba-diving instructor and then became a disenfranchised lawyer in search of a career change, says she fell in love with the town’s mixture of culture and the sea.
“Like many Israelis who travel, I always had a secret desire to open a hostel. I first came to Jisr with my mom who was making a film,” she recalls.
Where others saw a poor town with a high crime rate, Hanien saw a unique culture situated along a beautiful stretch of beach. Jisr az-Zarqa, known locally as Jisr, is located along the Israel National Trail, making it a prime location for hikers and backpackers to stop by.
“Originally, I didn’t come here for a political or coexistence agenda. It just seemed like a perfect location for backpackers,” notes Hanien.
Hanien found herself knocking on doors throughout Jisr in search of a local partner. Her quest went on for around six months, but most locals were highly skeptical. Residents associated tourism with “big hotel resorts,” and the idea of backpackers visiting for local culture was unimaginable.
The Arab of Ghawarnah
Hanien was eventually introduced to businessman Ahmad Juha, who had already partnered with tour guides to bring Jewish-Israelis into Jisr for Ramadan festivities. Juha, with broad shoulders and a contagious smile, seems like a natural entrepreneur. He was born and bred in the town but — unlike most residents — he envisioned Jisr’s potential for tourism.
“The village is like an island,” Juha says. In fact, it is isolated not only from its Jewish neighbors, but also from other Arab-Israeli communities that have stigmatized the town due to its Bedouin origins and collaboration with the Zionists prior to the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Juha experienced this firsthand when he left town to attend high school in another Arab town. Students called him the “Arab of Ghawarnah,” referring to the rural Jordanian tribe that had settled in Jisr.
Juha approached Hanien’s idea with caution. Although he had operated many other businesses — including a wedding hall and a grocery store — he was unsure if the concept of a backpacker’s hostel would be successful. To convince him, Hanien took him to a similar-style hostel, the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, which renewed tourism to the city’s old quarter.
Maoz Inon, the owner of the inn as well as the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and founder of the Israel Hostels network, is convinced that backpackers are the grassroots of tourism. “After they adopt a destination, everyone else follows,” he says.
The Fauzi Azar Inn was the only guesthouse in Nazareth in 2005. Now there are 12 in the city, all owned and operated by locals. After the visit, Juha became convinced that a hostel could work in Jisr and offered one of his properties in the village center for the project.
Hanien and Juha were brought together by Eran Ben-Yemini, director of the Institute for Democratic Education, which has been contracted by the Israeli government to improve education in Jisr az-Zarqa. Ben-Yemini admits that there was a “cultural gap” between the two. Hanien, trained as a lawyer, wanted formal contracts to solidify the partnership. However, Juha and Jisr az-Zarqa in general operate in a far less-formal manner.
Hanien admits that “neither had a reason to trust each other,” yet she “had to jump into it and trust him, and make him trust me,” she explains. Through dialogue and commitment to the business, they were able to overcome these hurdles.
If you build it, they will come
The guesthouse’s big break came through a crowdfunding campaign that raised upwards of 92,000 shekels ($24,000), mostly from Jewish-Israelis. Hanien admits that this support was essential not only in starting the hostel, but in getting Jisr residents to realize how much outside support exists for the community.
“The big issue here is self-stigma,” states Hanien. Juha agrees that people in Jisr did not think their town has anything worth visiting. “They looked at me as if I were crazy when I wanted to bring tourists to Jisr,” reminisces Juha.
To the surprise of many locals, tourists have, indeed, started coming. A local grocery shop owner, for example, was so excited to see tourists that he originally refused their money. Now the hostel is receiving a steady stream of visitors, with around 60% foreigners and 40% Jewish-Israeli.
On a recent weekend, a group of around 30 Jewish-Israelis who were hiking the Israel National Trail stayed the night in Jisr. They were treated to a traditional Arabic meal prepared by Juha’s wife, Haifa.
Daniel Vaknin owns the tour company that guided the hikers along the trail. He says he enjoys exposing his participants to Arab towns like Jisr, because he believes that most Jewish Israelis “don’t know the Arabs. They think they do, but they don’t know the language or the culture.”
Taglit-Birthright Israel, which gives young Diaspora Jews a free, educational trip to Israel, sees tential in Juha’s guesthouse as a model for coexistence, and they are launching a pilot program of taking 10 Birthright groups to Jisr. Dr. Zohar Raviv, the international vice president of education for Birthright, says “it is essential to expose participants to the non-Jewish narrative within Israel and allow them to wrestle with serious questions of coexistence, challenges in the education system and challenges in the welfare system.”
Raviv goes on to say that Birthright is “bringing participants to one of the poorest villages in Israel. We want them to experience an authentic landscape of Jewish and Arab partnership that is not devoid of challenges.” Raviv has no doubts that the program will succeed and hopes to take many more Birthright participants to Jisr.
Hanien and Juha are hoping that more tourists will overlook Jisr’s negative stereotypes and also come spend a night or two. According to Juha, if people come visit they will see the beauty of the town and that “residents here live normal lives.”
Just your everyday beach town
On a busy Saturday, the vibrancy of Jisr is on full display. The streets are packed as cars weave their way through a game of soccer and men huddle around tables drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
The beach is crowded with families and the smell of barbecue intermingles with the yelps and cheers of children who frolic in the water. The fisherman have tied up their boats and are relaxing in beachside houses, while teenage horseback riders gallop down the coast.
A stray Israeli rides his bike along the beach, but fails to stop at Jisr, instead heading onward toward Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. Eventually, Hanien and Juha hope bikers and hikers will take a break in Jisr, even if just for a quick coffee or juice.
Visitors to Jisr first and foremost head to the beach. It’s a great place to lie back in the soft sand, enjoy the town’s festive atmosphere and eat freshly caught fish at Musa’s Restaurant.
Other than the beach, Jisr lacks other typical tourist activities. But a stroll through the town — one can walk the length of it in approximately 15 minutes — is a great way to engage with locals, who are happy to talk with visitors; invitations to drink coffee are not unusual.
There are many reasons to be optimistic for Jisr — tourism is on the rise for the first time in the town’s history, and new businesses are opening. Eran Ben-Yemini, who has been working in Jisr for four years, says that the cycle of poverty and dependence is slowly being broken.
Still, Jisr faces a host of obstacles. Infrastructure is severely lacking and the town is inaccessible from the highway, forcing visitors and residents to traverse a narrow, one-lane bridge underpass to enter the town. There is no public transportation into Jisr, and there are a number of environmental issues such as the need for proper trash disposal and beach conservation.
Social businesses like Juha’s Guesthouse must tread a fine line in attempting to encourage tourism and improve the standard of living, while adhering to local culture and tradition. Juha wants residents to be “more open-minded,” but adds that “tourists should see Jisr in its original state.”
Juha sees a bright future for his hometown and hopes the guesthouse is the catalyst for developing the community. “I love the village and I want to change it for the better,” he exclaims. “I want people to see the positive aspects of Jisr… it’s my dream.”