The New Sinai? Building Up a Poverty-stricken Paradise on the Mediterranean Sea

An unlikely pair is preparing to open a guesthouse in Jisr al-Zarqa, a stunning Arab town with one of the highest crime rates in Israel.

JISR AL-ZARQA – Ahmad Juha and Neta Hanien are an unlikely pair.

Juha, 43 and a married father of seven, lives here, in Israel’s poorest town. He is the descendant of an Arab tribe that settled in the region generations ago. Hanien, 34 and married with three children, grew up in affluent Ra’anana and lives today in Aviel, a pastoral moshav near Binyamina.

Juha scraped together a living as an electrician and coffeehouse proprietor before he opened Jisr al-Zarqa’s very own Ramadan tours – a business geared toward Israeli Jews keen on experiencing the rituals associated with the Muslim holy month. Hanien, a former scuba instructor in Sinai, was a criminal prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice before calling it quits two years ago.

Today, they are business partners.

If all goes as planned, in less than two months Juha and Hanien will open the first guesthouse ever in Jisr al-Zarqa, a 16-bed facility for independent travelers seeking budget accommodations and an off-the-beaten track experience.

In fact, it doesn’t get more off-the-beaten track than Jisr al-Zarqa. The town has among the highest crime and school dropout rates in the country and its 13,000 residents are considered outcasts in Israeli Arab society.

Jisr al-Zarqa is the only exclusively Arab community on Israel’s Mediterranean coast today. Sandwiched between two wealthy neighbors – Caesarea to its south and Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael to its north – it has few locally run businesses of its own; most of its residents work in menial jobs outside the town.

“Our idea is that as soon as travelers start coming here, that’ll help the few businesses that already exist and create an incentive for others to sprout up,” says Hanien.

As she and Juha like to point out, the location can’t be beat. There’s a rustic fishermen’s village on the beach, the archaeological ruins of Caesarea on one side, the Taninim Stream nature reserve on the other, and directly across the highway the historic town of Zichron Yaakov – a popular destination for local tourists. The Israel National Trail (Shvil Yisrael), the hiking trail that crosses the entire country, also happens to cut right through what might be considered downtown Jisr al-Zarqa – the street just below the site of the soon-to-be-dedicated Juha’s Guesthouse.

“A million and one nonprofits have been here, trying to help the local residents,” says Hanien. “Rather than hand out charity, what we want to do is serve as a role model for other entrepreneurs in the making.”

The former tough-talking prosecutor says she always dreamed of opening a guesthouse, having spent considerable stretches of time, both on her own and with her husband, backpacking around the world. She had her first introduction to Jisr al-Zarka about five years ago, when her mother, Ruth Frankel, was shooting a film about the town’s beleaguered fishermen, and she decided to tag along. Hanien immediately fell in love. “To me, it was a little piece of Sinai in the middle of Israel,” she recalls as she strolls down the relatively deserted beach, waving at some of the local fishermen.

Hanien decided to quit her job as a lawyer not because the work wasn’t interesting, but because it didn’t suit her nature. “To be a criminal lawyer, you have to be constantly suspicious of people’s motives,” she says. “That’s just not me. I like to put my trust in people, so I decided it was time to look for another adventure.”

She began her adventure here by knocking on doors. “I’d come down every day looking at properties I liked that I thought might be available and trying to track down their owners,” she recalls. “Ideally, I would have loved to find a place right on the beach but nothing was available.” After about a year of searching, she was put in touch with Juha, who happened to have a big apartment he was renting right above his coffeehouse that he was willing to make available for the venture.

“To me, the most important thing is to get people to come to our town,” says Juha, as he sits down for some strong Turkish coffee on the beach with his Jewish partner. “We have to change the image of Jisr, because now all that people know about this place are the bad things.”

Does he get a lot of flak in this traditional Muslim town for entering into a joint venture with a Jewish woman? “Not at all,” says Juha, his light-green eyes flashing against his dark skin. In fact, he confides, he’s always had a soft spot in his heart for Jews. “When I was a kid, my parents sent me to school in another Arab village, not far from here,” he recounts. “They treated me there as if I was an alien from outer space. I would come home crying every day until eventually my parents moved me to a joint Jewish-Arab vocational school, and I loved that place. Nobody made fun of me there.”

“Ahmad was exactly the sort of person I was looking for,” interjects Hanien, as she bums a cigarette from him. “I needed an entrepreneur with vision who was willing to sacrifice some revenues now and take a gamble on the future.”

Ever since they decided to take the jump together, Juha and Hanien have been mentored by Israel’s up-and-coming tourism guru, Maoz Inon – a partner in some of the country’s most successful independent travel ventures of recent years, including Abraham’s Hostel in Jerusalem and the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth. “Maoz is my role model and spiritual father,” says Hanien. “I’m hoping that the way he was able to revive the Old City of Nazareth with the Fauzi Azar Inn, we’ll be able to do the same here in Jisr with the Juha Guesthouse.”

Juha’s Guesthouse has already been approved for membership in ILH Israel Hostels, an umbrella organization for proprietors of independent travel accommodations cofounded by Inon.

A few weeks ago, Juha and Hanien launched a campaign on Headstart, the Israeli crowd-funding site, to raise NIS 60,000 – a sum they believe will help them get through the next few months. With more than five weeks to go, they’ve already reached more than half their goal.

The funds, says Hanien, will help pay for the renovations of the site, now under way. They plan to turn the space into a three-room guesthouse – one room a 10-bed dormitory, another with four beds and the third a private room for a couple. The facility will also have a fully equipped kitchen so that guests can prepare and cook their meals on the premises. Depending upon the room, says Hanien, the cost per night per person will be a very reasonable NIS 60 to NIS 80.

As with other crowd-funding campaigns, backers will be awarded prizes if the project reaches its goal, including free nights at the guesthouse once it opens. And those willing to contribute NIS 250 or more will be eligible for what the two partners are touting as the ultimate treat: a special cooking workshop with Juha’s wife, whose signature okra dish is reportedly to die for.

Ofer Vakhnin
Daniel Tchetchik