Northern Exposure
Tue, 11/23/2010
Israel Correspondent
Church of the Annunciation courtyard, above. Arched windows of Al-Mutran Guest House.
Church of the Annunciation courtyard, above. Arched windows of Al-Mutran Guest House.

I never wrote the story, but I was surprised to find in Nazareth’s Old City a charming guest house, a cozy pub and a cosmopolitan feel that left me with the feeling that something was afoot in the largest Arab city in Israel.

Ever since, when hanging a right-hand turn at the T intersection on Highway 65 outside of Afula en route to the Upper Galilee, I would get a momentary urge to go left toward the ascent to the city that is known worldwide as the childhood home of Jesus.

A couple of months ago, with the car stereo loud and without the kids, my wife and I made that left and chugged up the mountains to Nazareth. We had booked ourselves into a bed-and-breakfast just a 10-minute drive away, and the tentative plan was to spend the afternoon in Nazareth.

As always, the first order of business was food, a traditional draw in this city of churches for Jewish Israeli tourists. We found our way to the A-Sheikh restaurant, an eatery that draws a clientele both local and country-wide for its top-grade hummus. I ordered the hummus-ful (baked fava beans) and my wife ordered the “masabaha” hummus. True to form, A-Sheikh did not disappoint on either dish.

A short walk away, the Old City beckoned. The municipality spruced up the stone alleyways of Nazareth’s core back in 2005. The souk is lined with shops that offer the antiques, souvenirs and food one would find in the old cities of Jerusalem and Acre. But in recent years the Old City has also been a magnet for young entrepreneurs who want to open up cafés, restaurants and guesthousess.

We passed the entrance to the Church of the Annunciation — Nazareth’s best-known tourist site — in search of the Fauzi Azar Inn, the guest house opened by two Jewish brothers from Tel Aviv in 2005.

The hostel, which is geared to backpacker tourists, has been flourishing. After ascending a steep flight of stairs, a visitor emerges into a salon built by a Nazareth aristocrat: a high ceiling bears an ornate classical painting and a trio of arched windows stretches almost from floor to ceiling.

Maoz Inon, who moved from Tel Aviv, rents the compound from the Azar family and operates the guest house with the granddaughter of the namesake. Back in 2005 he saw unrealized tourist potential in the city, referring to it as a “sleeping beauty.” He said Israeli Jews are gradually discovering the city’s cultural and hip side.

“It’s very easy to miss Nazareth. It’s off the main highway and hidden by the mountains — there is no branding for the city like Tel Aviv, Haifa or Tiberias,” Inon said. “It’s an opportunity to visit a different culture and a different lifestyle from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It’s becoming more trendy for Arabs to open their own restaurants in the Old City, and for Jews to come in for the evening to dinner or for coffee.”

Even if you aren’t staying at the inn, it’s worth a visit to order a coffee and sit at its patio bar with a view of the Old City rooftops and the horizon beyond. Soon, the Fauzi Azar will add four more suites in a neighboring villa.

Inon is also a partner of Al-Mutran Guest House, which is housed in a nearby villa and boasts the same old-world aura of high ceilings, high windows and large airy spaces. Al Mutran is big enough to accommodate several families travelling together.

“Many people come from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to stay over night — it can be couples and families,” he said. “There’s great architecture and great food. You get a rich cultural experience.”

The tourism jewel of Nazareth is the Church of the Annunication, reputed by Roman Catholics as the site where it was revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. The shrines on the site date from the fourth century. The current basillica was completed in 1969 and is the largest church in the Middle East. The modernist concrete style of its dome is a stunning contrast to the medieval and classical aesthetics of more famous European cathedrals. Similarly, bold frescoes and murals mix traditional Christian motifs with modern touches.

Beyond the holy sites, the Old City houses several art galleries and cafés. But much of the area’s contemporary culture is wrapped up in the intellectual and political trends prevalent among contemporary Israeli Arabs.

“They are all strongly interrelated,” said Elie Rekhess, an expert on Israeli Arabs who teaches at Northwestern University.

The winds blowing across Israel’s one-fifth minority are both multi-layered and contradictory. Arab nationalist and Palestinian sentiment is on the rise even as the city’s young generation is well-versed in the culture of Israeli Jews. Islamist groups are also growing stronger.

Nazareth was one of the flashpoints of the pro-Palestinian rioting in October 2000 that left about a dozen Arabs and one Jew dead. Arab newspapers, radio stations and political parties are based in the city.

Demographic trends in the city of 65,000 have made Christians the minority after they were the dominant group in the middle of the last century. Islamist mayoral candidates were defeated by narrow margins in the elections of 2004 and 2009. Still, local Israel tourism surged by nearly 50 percent in 2008, to 166,000.

Beyond hummus joints, Nazareth is known for restaurants featuring Middle Eastern fare. The Diana restaurant is reputed to be one of the best for lamb kebab and other meat dishes. It recently relocated from Paulus VI Street to a nearby hotel. We hit it on an off night, because the salads were better than the meat.

I regretted that we hadn’t searched the Old City for one of the spots favored by the Arab yuppies.

“These are the sort of places that if you were blindfolded, and I were to drive you around, and I put you in one of the bars, you wouldn’t know the difference between Nazareth and Tel Aviv,” Rekhess said. “They’re very Israelized, modern and Western but at the same time” distinctly local.