Sitting at a picnic table by a Wadi Ara gas station, Amna Kanana admonishes her secular Jewish Israeli flock to finish their drinks and snacks — conveniently purchased at the tempting next-door Aroma coffee bar — and begin their symbolic Ramadan fast.
“From now on, you are no longer eating or drinking until sundown,” she says with a half-smile. “Anyway, if you eat more now, you won’t be hungry for dinner — and that’s too bad,” she adds, sounding like any mother, anywhere.
With a black jalabiyah over her zaftig frame and sheer white hijab covering her hair and neck, Kanana looks the epitome of the conservative Muslim woman. However, as the founder of Awareness 4 U, she is also an activist promoting the status of women from her Kafr Qara home.
This tour, one of many Kanana leads as part of a touristic/coexistence initiative called Ramadan Nights, brings two of her life’s missions together: to raise awareness about the status of Arab women, and make peace with her Jewish neighbors.
Under the auspices of peace organization Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, these coexistence tours began in 2006 in Umm al-Fahm as a way to bring Jewish tourists to Arab cities and towns to change the image of the Wadi Ara region. The area — also called “the triangle” due to its geographical contours — would hypothetically be used as a land swap or “transfer,” were head of Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman to have his way. While only some 35 kilometers southeast of Haifa, the region is viewed by many Jewish Israelis as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and unrest.
On its face, Kafr Qara is as average Yusef as could be — not particularly attractive, with plenty of shops and narrow sidewalks along the winding, mostly residential streets.
But a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for Kafr Qara explains part of the reason for the Ramadan Nights tour here: Called literally “the village of the pumpkin,” back in 1945, it was an agrarian village of a mere 1,500. However, following the foundation of the State of Israel until today, it has blossomed to a disproportionately highly educated town of 18,000, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. A 2007 Haaretz article proclaims the town “holds the national record for the number of physicians relative to the population — twice the average for the Western world.”
Notable natives include the head of the Arab political party Balad, Jamal Zahalka; the first Israeli Arab to serve in a government cabinet, Nawaf Massalha; and Ali Yahya, the first Israeli Muslim ambassador. It also is home to the prize-winning Hand in Hand school, Bridge Over the Wadi, which opened in 2004 with a mixed Muslim and Jewish student body.
But this is only part of the picture. Amna Kanana and her down-to-earth, compassionate look at her society’s charms, foibles, and fallacies, puts the spotlight on everyday real life. During Ramadan, for Arab women, real life means getting ready for the evening feast, while smack-dab in the middle of an arduous fast.
Outside of the second of three sweet shops we visit in an orchestrated attempt to illustrate how Muslim women prepare for the Ramadan meal — and bring them tourist shekels — Kanana begins an extemporaneous riff on the plight of her society.
“We used to eat healthily. We used to be as thin as Barbies,” she says, back when people were tied to the land and cultivated their own vegetables. Now, diabetes is rife and people have no connection to the soil, she laments. (A recent 2017 study called, “Adult Arabs have higher risk for diabetes mellitus than Jews in Israel,” explores the explosion of diabetes among Israeli Arabs.)
She bemoans the fact that, despite the almost fantastical figures accounting for an extreme number of doctors, engineers, dentists, and nurses, some 75 percent of the town’s 18,000 population are unemployed.
“Kfar Qara has 300 doctors, 300 lawyers, and 300 engineers. It’s the most educated village in Israel. But on one hand there is education, and on the other, unemployment,” she says. The worst job prospects, she says, are for the highly educated women who, despite their qualifications, cannot find work near home. One teacher, she says, commutes to the Negev Bedouin city of Rahat — a two-hour drive each way.
“I am worried about the status of women,” Kanana says. “More women learn, but it is harder for women to find work.” And, being highly educated makes it even more difficult for a woman to find a suitable spouse.
Visibly shaking off her funk, Kanana jokes that the meal isn’t going to prepare itself.
‘We educate our children with love’
The group is sent to a nearby mosque to be debriefed on the tenets of Islam. There, a youthful-looking, middle-aged sheikh in stocking feet and dark jeans named Aied Zed cracks jokes about his modern appearance and lack of a flowing white beard.
A public announcement cuts into Zed’s lecture, loudly proclaiming the times when buses will leave town for the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. As the sun recedes in the sky, Zed’s wife phones to ask when he will be coming home for the feast.
Following his accessible Islam 101, Zed explains his motive in participating in the tour. Referring to extreme groups such as ISIS, he says, “People who are ignorant are using Muslim slogans for their own twisted purposes. We educate our children with love.” He emphasizes repeatedly that Jews and Muslims worship the same god.
“I want to bring the community to a dialog with Jews that we don’t have today. We are often too busy dealing with nonsense, so I volunteered to bring this message to the ‘other,'” says Zed. “We see much in the Jewish Israeli society that we can learn from, but if we don’t learn learn each other’s languages, we won’t be able to bring ourselves closer.”
Back at the homestead
Most men and women work their regular long hours at their jobs during the sunrise-to-sundown fast. But women are also expected to put together celebratory meals — with an already-noted emphasis on desserts — during the month-long holiday. Nights are for family visits, play, and shopping as stores remain open late into the wee hours.
Seated alongside a long row of red-checked folding tables, Kanana’s guests await the muezzin’s deafeningly loud blessing upon the conclusion of the fast. Kanana has excused herself to eat with her three sons who pop in and out of the patio, and presumably her husband, who does not make an appearance.
Just Jews again, we eat simple, plain-cooked fare to the soundtrack of prayer and roaring motorcycles. Upon the predominantly vegetarian meal’s conclusion, we are told by our resident den mother Kanana that everyone must help clear the tables, or they won’t get dessert.
In the darkness, Chinese sky lamps float next to the illuminated local mosque while we are settled into an attentive, intimate circle of chairs. Kanana relaxes and makes jokes as she sips her coffee and eats the long-awaited katayif (filled with almonds, but with an unmistakably dominant baking soda flavor amid the cinnamon).
Hunger sated, Kanana begins to ruminate on the meaning of Ramadan for women.
“Everyone is waiting for this month — it is a month of mercy and compassion,” she says. In recompense for their sumptuous feasts, women receive blessings from God — and many presents from their relatives. It is an obligation that every male must visit his female relatives and bring gifts, she says.
“A woman feels very appreciated,” she says.
But she insinuates that this is not always the case, when speaking about why she founded her organization, Awareness 4 U.
“Apparently deep inside I have something that rebels: I need women to get their own status,” she says wryly, with a friendly slap to this reporter’s leg.
In her organization, Kanana and other like-minded volunteers teach young women that they must become educated and have a career prior to marriage.
“In the Quran there is equality,” Kanana says, but the Muslim tradition has come to depress women.
“I tell women, ‘The future is in your hands. Don’t be housewives, you’ll be dependents,'” but she admits that in the fall, her 23-year-old son will marry a 19-year-old.
Kanana says she understands why women continue to marry so young. There is a deficit of potential husbands due to a variety of factors: foreign brides to those who studied in Eastern Europe (“They came home with a degree — and a blonde!”), as well as a fair number of Jews who convert to Islam for their husbands.
For all of her support of coexistence, she is staunchly against intermarriage.
“It is fun to live as neighbors, but very difficult to intermarry,” she says, citing many obstacles on both sides that prohibit adjustment into a new culture.
At the same time, she says that becoming better neighbors starts from emphasizing what is the same between Jewish and Muslim Israelis. Since her initiatives are for women (often surrounding food workshops), she said they speak about pregnancies, birth, and their shared ancestor Abraham.
“Why are you afraid?” she says she asks both sides in her groups. But for us, she supplies a partial answer. “I am stronger than the Jews. I know their language; I ate their kneidelach. When will Jews learn my language?”
Until that time, through the Ramadan Nights tours and other social activism, Kanana appears ready to serve as translator of all things Arab.
“My life’s work is to build a cooperative society,” she says.
“A lot of blood as been spilled. For what? Land? There is enough room in this land for both of us,” she says. “For religion? We are praying to the same God.”
The writer was a guest of “Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.”