The Israeli village of Jisr az Zarqa has all the ingredients for a successful tourist destination: a dreamy location on the shore of the Mediterranean not far from the ruins at Caesarea, plus proximity to the Taninim nature preserve, the artists’ village at Ein Hod, and the Zichron Yaakov colony, one of the first Zionist settlements in Palestine. The Israel National Trail, a cross-country trail that runs from Dan in the north to Eilat in the south, passes through the middle of the village, putting it in the path of tens of thousands of hikers a year.
But all of the above tells us only half a story. The data of the other half are pretty bleak. Jisr is the poorest village in Israel, with 80 percent of its families living below the poverty line. A third of the local residents are unemployed, crime rates are among the highest in Israel, and the percentage of college graduates is among the lowest in Israel’s Arab population. That, and the general distrust between Jewish and Arab Israelis, explains why most of the Israelis drift to the far lane whenever they drive by Jisr on the nearby Haifa-Tel Aviv highway.
This situation is what Neta Hanien and Ahmad Juha are trying to change. This month, the pair will open the town’s first hostel, with the aim of attracting tourists from Israel and beyond to Jisr. If it succeeds, it could turn this small strip of neglected beach into a destination for travelers and help close, even just a bit, the huge gap between today’s reality and the village’s potential. “A lot of people ask me how come I’m not scared,” said Hanien, who is Jewish. “But if we keep sticking to the stigmas about Jisr, we won’t accomplish anything.”
The connection between Hanien and Ahmad Juha is far from obvious. Hanien lives in Avi’el, a Jewish town a few miles from Jisr. She is 34 years old, a lawyer by training, married and a mother to three kids. Juha is a 43-year-old Muslim who lives in Jisr, married and a father of seven. He made a living as an electrician before getting into the hospitality business, catering to travelers looking to do family stays during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
The original idea for the guesthouse was Hanien’s. An avid backpacker and former diving instructor in the Sinai Peninsula, she had long dreamt of opening a business even as she worked as an attorney in court. In 2008, she accompanied her mother, Ruth Frankel, a filmmaker, to Jisr on a shoot for a documentary about the local fishermen. Hanien fell in love with the place and the people and decided it was the place for her to fulfill her aspiration of opening a guest house.
She went knocking on doors and eventually found Juha, who had apartments he was looking to rent above a coffee shop he runs. “In the past there were a lot of real-estate moguls that came to Jisr and tried to do things of this sort,” he told me. “They ultimately failed because the locals resisted their plans; they didn’t want to make them rich at our expense.”
Jisr’s poverty is especially striking because it is sandwiched between two of the country’s wealthiest towns, Caesarea and Ma’agan Michael. Before 1948, the village’s Arabs worked with Jews to help develop the area. “The Baron Rothschild coined the term ‘Arab Work’ about my grandfather,” Juha said. “We were called the ‘slaves of Binyamina.’ ” After the Arab-Israeli War, the villagers were allowed to stay put—the only Arab village left on the coast. “For the Jews, we were considered cooperators,” Juha went on. “The other Arabs never forgave us for that, and we stayed an isolated island in the center of Israel.”
During the Second Intifada, there were several instances of stones being thrown from Jisr onto cars driving on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway, which only reinforced popular ideas of Jisr as a slum by the sea. Today, Jisr has about 13,000 residents. “Jisr exists under impossible conditions,” says Sami El-Ali, the chairman of the People’s Committee for Jisr az Zarqa. He rattled off problems: high population density, high unemployment, high dropout rates. “The people know what cards they are holding, but they don’t have the education or the initial capital to start a business, nor the ability to raise the capital needed, or the knowledge of how they skip over the bureaucratic hurdles.”
Nevertheless, in recent years, village leaders have tried to improve the face of Jisr in the public eye. “People came here to study Arabic,” said Mohamad Hamdan, the director of the local council’s youth department. Then came Juha’s Ramadan homestays, and now, finally, the new backpacker hostel. “Interest is growing,” Hamdan told me confidently. “The village is attracting attention.”
To get their hostel off the ground, Hanien and Juha started a crowdfunding campaign using the Israeli site Headstart. Their goal was to raise NIS 60,000—about $17,000—but instead they managed to raise NIS 90,000 from 400 backers. When it opens, the hostel will have a total of 32 beds in shared rooms, the largest of which will have 10 bunks. It is located on the main street in the village, three minutes from the beach.
“We dream about a kind of guesthouse that backpackers who have traveled in Nepal or South America are longing to visit,” says Hanien. The idea is to offer travelers an authentic Israeli Arab experience. Hanien laid out an itinerary for visitors: fresh fish from the market, tours of the village, visits to a planned art gallery. “Our truly real success will be if this endeavor will start moving the needle on other projects that are going on in the village and increase the sources of income for the locals,” Hanien said. “Let this thing be the jump board for this village.”
She and Juha have benefited from the guidance of Maoz Inon, who developed the “Jesus Trail”—a walking tour that traces the movements of Jesus and the disciples—and also opened the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, which hosts travelers on the Jesus Trail and also coordinates volunteer programs for them in the local community. “When I heard about this project, I immediately saw the financial potential, but also the meaning it has to a place like Jisr az Zarqa,” Inon said. “To the people of this place it is a game-changer even now before it is officially opened.”
Juha says he hopes that one day, Jisr will be a destination. “In my opinion, this could be a lifesaver for this village,” Juha told me. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when tourists start arriving, but I do want to believe that the citizens will be smart enough to know this is their opportunity to turn Jisr az Zarqa into what this place is meant to be.”
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