NAZARETH, Israel — Salim Sharif and Winston are rare pair — though Winston might not know it. Sharif is one of just a handful of blind Arab Israelis who uses a guide dog, and the only one in his bustling hometown, Nazareth.
Winston has been a great blessing to Sharif. He’s a best friend as well as a pair of eyes for the 20-year-old, who lost his vision in eighth grade due to a problem with his retina. Sharif is calm, witty, sarcastic and perfectly trilingual. Arabic he learned from home, Hebrew, he said, from all the trips to the hospital as a young boy, and English from the vast amount of time he spends watching YouTube with Winston at his side.
And yet, for Sharif, who volunteers at a health clinic as part of a small but growing group of young Arab Israelis doing national service, the dog has also been a source of “suffering.”
“There is a difference between the Jewish and Arab communities, how they relate to blind people. You see this essentially when you walk around with something the Arab community is not used to: a guide dog. I feel it. I suffer a lot from it,” he said, speaking to The Times of Israel from his office in the health clinic recently.
Dogs are not a common sight in Arab towns. They are traditionally seen as impure in Islamic society, and ownership or contact with dogs is generally prohibited, though there are some individuals who choose to have a dog.
Sharif has a list of horror/comedy stories he tells about his trials as a guide dog owner. Mothers yelling at him for bringing his dog to work — a health clinic because it scares their children. Children who harass the dog, ignorant of the fact that the animal is helping Sharif get around. Massive men who refuse to get in the elevator with the gentle Labrador.
At his one of his favorite restaurants in the center of town — a shawarma joint — he is friendly with the owner, but still not allowed eat inside with Winston. It would scare away the customers. He sits at an outside table, though every few minutes he has to explain to passersby that it’s safe to cross the dog’s path.
“There’s a feeling that if you’re around a dog, you’ll get bitten. Sometimes I want to laugh. Sometimes I get mad, but I don’t want to show it,” he said.
In May, Hamas, the Islamist group in control of the Gaza Strip, banned dog walking in public areas of the Palestinian enclave. It claimed the reason was to protect Gazans from harm.
“In recent weeks, the phenomenon of young men walking with their dogs in the streets has widely spread. It is neither of our culture nor of our traditions. Children and women feel scared when they see dogs…Our duty is to maintain the safety of citizens,” a spokesperson for Hamas told the British daily The Telegraph at the time.
Sharif, who described himself as someone who acts “according to my religion, but I don’t pray,” explained that for him, there was no religious issue with his guide dog.
“In our religion, if you need the dog for a specific reason, then it won’t remain impure. You can live with a dog, but on the condition that it will have a specific purpose. My dog does have a specific purpose, so he isn’t impure,” he said.
Sharif has taken the initiative to educate his community, and especially children, about guide dogs.
When Winston first arrived at his side, Sharif said not a single restaurant would let him enter. Now, he said, many do. He said he visits schools in the area and lectures students of all ages.
“I teach them not to interact with the dog at all while it’s working,” he said.
“There’s been a meaningful difference. But we still need to do more,” Sharif said. “I’m trying to open doors that haven’t yet been opened.”
Abbass Abbass, the founder of Almanarah, the advocacy group for handicapped Arab Israelis, said of Israel’s circa 250 guide dog owners – out of an overall registered blind population of 27,000 – he believes only three are Arabs, two of which he can name offhand.
Abbass, who is also visually handicapped, decried what he calls “double discrimination” due to a lack of governmental services to Arab municipalities as well as cultural attitudes that create obstacles for the handicapped. Sharif, for his part, said he didn’t feel he was lacking any services from the state.
“Arabs with disabilities are challenged within their own Arab community. We suffer a lack of awareness, lots of stigmas, stereotypes, negative attitudes,” Abbass said.
Abbass said that he has conducted training sessions with students and teachers, imams and bus drivers, explaining “that the guide dog is a medium for access, improving and developing access for people with visual disabilities.”
“I’m still optimistic, but there’s still a huge amount of work in front of us,” he said.
Sharif said he wasn’t afraid of dogs before getting Winston. But at the beginning of the training together, he said he found it a “weird to wake up with a dog in the room in the morning.”
As for his family, Sharif said at first his mother was “in shock that there was a dog in the house. She was afraid of him.”
But currently, it seems, the tables have turned.
“Now, it’s almost like she loves him more than me. They are ready to kick me out and leave him in the house,” he said.