Bohemia in Nazareth

Nazareth continues to entice visitors, not just for its religious attractions but also for its cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Even today, despite the town that has been built above it, Nazareth begins from below, at the busy intersection at the foot of the Church of the Annunciation. Most of the visitors to the town where Jesus dwelt stick to the line of the wadi, visit the Basilica of the Annunciation, eat at the fabulous Diana Restaurant and move along to the green shores of the Sea of Galilee. A few of them ascend to the second story of the Old City and walk through the lanes of the market that were renovated in the 1990s.

At the place where the market ends, between Mary's Well Street and the northwestern edges of the Old City, the art and culture district of the city has been developing in recent years. Though most of the population there consists of traditional families, both Muslim and Christian, among their homes cultural sites have been established that have a complex Eastern-Western tinge.

Wealthy families that lived in the market quarter for centuries in real palaces have abandoned the area during the past decade, leaving behind in the hands of art entrepreneurs a number of high-ceilinged buildings with decorative windows that are increasingly being used in creative ways.

"This neighborhood, which is called the Market Neighborhood, has always been lively," explains Hanita Caroline Hendelman, one of the directors of the Diwan Al-Lajoun Theater, perhaps the outstanding cultural institution in the area. "But over time, the wealthy left, in part because of the renovation work that was carried out here in the 1990s that paralyzed the commercial activity," says Hendelman.

The Diwan Al-Lajoun Theater was founded by actor Ghassan Abbas five years ago in Umm al-Fahm. In 2000 he moved the theater to Nazareth, in part because of the way his city of residence was becoming more strictly religious. Two years ago he found a new home for it in the front courtyard of an abandoned house on Sibat al-Qawar Lane and in some of its inner rooms. In Nazareth today there is no more inviting entrance than the staircase that climbs up to the Diwan. The entry way is adorned with a mosaic and at the top of the stairs a broad space full of red chairs is revealed.

The next production at the theater, which will be presented in Arabic and Hebrew, is currently in rehearsal; the place is buzzing with activity that befits its status as the cultural heart of a vibrant neighborhood.

Hendelman, who in the past established a school for storytellers in Tivon, made a connection between Diwan and the Circus School at Moshav Beit Yehoshua. For two months now courses are being held there in the art of the circus for neighborhood children, and the theater also hosts varied musical evenings and serves as a venue for the screening of films.

With all of this, the theater is still waiting for real flourishing. Nearly all the activities there are on a voluntary basis and external sources of support are few. Hendelman commends the French Cultural Center in Nazareth, which supports Diwan as just a small part of its activities to encourage cultural life in the city.

A stroll through the lanes of the Market Neighborhood indeed evokes a delicate fragrance of French bohemianism. On the desk of Muntar Abdou, the proprietor of the Alsibat Alsheikh Gallery adjacent to the theater is an artists' palette laden with paints alongside a bottle of red wine. At the Al-Beit Cafe near Mary's Well Street students in scarves and thin-rimmed glasses sit writing poems.

Cultural colonialism

These scenes bring up the question of Nazareth's cultural identity today. Is what is developing at the back of the market authentically Nazarene or a hodgepodge of cultural influences? Is this the result of importation by Nazarenes who have studied at universities around the world and returned to their hometown?

Some in the neighborhood are suspicious of cultural colonialism and are not at all interested in visitors from the outside. Osama Umri, the proprietor of the many-arched wine bar Casa Palestina (the locals know it by the name Beit al Falastini), which is located in what used to be the storehouses of one of the palaces in the district, does not welcome Hebrew-speaking guests.

"The Israeli government tells people to come to Nazareth, tells them that Nazareth is Israel," he explains. "They come here and look at us as though we were monkeys." But Umari is unique in his fanaticism among the business proprietors in the district. His neighbors welcome guests of any sort. Some of the sites in the area, like the cinematheque in the municipal Histadrut labor federation building will not even give rise to a feeling of strangeness in visitors who come from outside.

The Alsibat Alsheikh Gallery was, in fact, founded by a Nazarene who was education in these very alleys. In the 1980s Muntar Abdou worked as the apprentice to two Roman fresco artists who decorated the walls of the Church of Saint Gabriel. After some decades full of changes during which he worked as a goldsmith, he established the gallery in the neighborhood.

"People are astonished here," he says. "They see a gallery in the middle of the market, in an ancient place, and they don't believe it. It's like in Jerusalem, like in Tel Aviv." But Abdou, who displays his own paintings of nudes in the gallery, also tells of quarrels with his Muslim neighbors.

To those who do not object to him he is prepared to show the hidden face of the gallery. In a shop adjacent to it he runs a small workshop for woodworking and behind it opens a cave that used to serve as a secret passage between various Christian institutions in Nazareth.

"When I was a child we had a tunnel like this behind our house," says Abdou. "Once I went into it and I got as far as here, which is how I knew that it existed at all at the gallery." Nowadays the tunnels are blocked with concrete, but they serve as yet more surprising evidence of the many layers of Nazareth.

An especially lovely blend of cultural levels in the city is served up by the local Cultural Center and Writer's House in the heart of the neighborhood. Its library and the courses offered there express a unique mix of East and West. The Center is located in a splendid building that in the past belonged to a successful, childless lawyer. He bequeathed the place, in 1995, to the Orthodox community on condition that it convert the house into a "cultural place." Courses in Arab and Western music, plastic art and film are held there. The Writer's House, which is also located in the center, serves as a meeting place for writers and poets from the Galilee and its library holds no less than 25,000 books.

Only an audience is lacking

Khader Shama, head of the music department, points to the roof of the third floor of the building and relates that a hall will be built there that will serve as a theater and recital room. Two theaters in the same lane at the back of the market are no trivial matter. At present all that remains is to find an audience for them. Shama is bitter about the lack of interest in classical Arab music among the youth while the call of the muezzin washes over the roof and the other roofs of the neighborhood. The potential audience for culture that is hidden in Nazareth is trapped between religion and commercialization, between the Arab pop that is sold in the shops and the hymns in the churches and the suras in the mosques.

The ones who are mainly nurtured by the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood - apart from the tourists and chance visitors - are Nazarenes for whom religion is not attractive and whose world has not been flattened by pop culture. Some of them gather in the evenings at the Alreda Cafe, under the proprietorship and management of Daher Zeidani, one of the owners of the well-known Jan's Tea House in Jerusalem.

Zeidani, resplendent in a white mustache, stylish clothing and incredible warmth, has established what appears to be a place that is almost detached from the city. The bar is well-equipped and on the wall there is a framed picture of French poet Jacques Prevert. In fact, this is Nazareth in all its complexity. East and West are blended here both in the kitchen and in the dining room. In the afternoon, sounds of Bach resound here and in the evenings the voice of Syrian singer Ismahan can often be heard. On one table there is a traditional eggplant salad and on another eggplant in pesto. The clientele: liberal, cosmopolitan and happy.

"The free community of Nazareth didn't have anywhere to go," explains Zeidani. "Alreda is a meeting place for a very specific sort of people who don't have many possibilities here. The place is no longer a private matter. Let's say that if I get tired or despair and I want to close the place for some reason - this would be a very serious crisis, a psychological crisis for many people." This is also true of a number of sites that are on the ridge above Alreda but these, as noted, are multiplying, not the opposite.