This week in Israel, a local Muslim family will have an engagement party in the stone courtyard of an Ottoman-era house recently purchased and renovated by a Jewish writer in the old coastal city of Akko. Since the family’s nearby home is too small to host such an event, Israeli-American writer Evan Fallenberg, at the request of the family, offered up his space. Fallenberg’s Akko home is central to a project he’s calling “Arabesque”—the house will serve as an artists’ retreat, exhibition space, bed-and-breakfast, and general hangout for Akko’s residents and its visitors.
The engagement party is exactly the sort of authentic, organic gathering Fallenberg—who is among a new group of Jewish buyers to this largely Arab neighborhood—is seeking to foster at the Arabesque arts and residency center. Events at the venue will be advertised in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, and the managers of the property will be Fallenberg’s son, Micha, along with an Arab neighbor, Maharan Abu Stelly. But Fallenberg will not call this a coexistence project. “When people say “coexistence” it’s doomed to failure,” Fallenberg told me. “I am kind of shying away from that agenda. But underneath it all it’s really important to me. I want to appeal to everybody.”
Three years ago Fallenberg bought and began renovating a 300-square meter house, which had never had running water or electricity, from a man whose great-grandfather had come from Turkey in the 19th century and lived in it when the Ottoman empire controlled what is now Israel. Fallenberg, an award-winning novelist and translator, hopes Arabesque, where he will live part-time, will allow for an exchange of ideas through hosting artists, tourists, cooking classes, art exhibitions, Arabic immersion classes and more.
So far Akko has not experienced the ongoing stabbings, shootings, and other acts of violence that Palestinians have carried out against Jews mainly in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Tel Aviv. Fallenberg says he feels no need for a security guard at Arabesque, which is among a handful of new Jewish-owned properties in the city.
“None of us want to change the atmosphere of the town,” said Fallenberg, who also lives in Tel Aviv and teaches writing at Bar Ilan University. “It should remain exactly as it is today, a town that is clearly Arab, Muslim and Christian, with a small Jewish presence.”