Arab Guest Houses in Israel Thriving Under the Radar

Many entrepreneurs driving this growing trend are not only motivated by the additional source of income; they also seek to help their communities.

Gil Eliahu

KAFR KANA – Marwa’s Inn doesn’t appear on any tourist maps of northern Israel. Nor does it have a proper address with a street name and number.

But first-time visitors need not get overly frustrated. Marwa Taha Abu Rany, the 29-year-old proprietress of this brand new guesthouse in the Galilee, is more than happy to deliver the following helpful instructions over the phone: “When you arrive in town, just give me a call and I’ll direct you.”

It’s as easy as that, and after a few twists and turns off the main road, the sight of a woman dressed in a long embroidered dress waving from the second-floor porch of an otherwise inconspicuous building indicates that the visitors have arrived at their destination.

Marwa’s Inn is the latest addition to a growing list of charming guesthouses to open recently in Arab towns around Israel. For the entrepreneurs driving this trend, many of them women like Abu Rany, the motivation is not only creating an additional source of income for their families, but also, helping their communities. “I wanted to put this town on the map,” asserts Abu Rany. “There are lots of tourists who come here to visit the religious sites, but they’re in and out of here. They don’t stay overnight, so there’s no real benefit for the local economy.”

Kafr Kana, believed by Christians to be the town where Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine, has long been a destination for pilgrimage tours to Israel. In recent years, it has also become a stop on a new hiking route in the Galilee known as the “Jesus Trail,” making it popular among independent travelers as well. But until Abu Rany opened her guesthouse here three months ago, there was only one other small inn in town able to accommodate overnight visits.

Marwa’s Inn. Photo by Gil Eliahu.

It was the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth that blazed the trail for her and other Arab entrepreneurs drawn to the tourism business. Opened 10 years ago, Fauzi Azar was the fruit of an unusual business partnership between a Jewish man and Arab woman, who together took a decrepit old mansion owned by her family and turned it into a stunning guesthouse. It has since won numerous international awards and helped spawn a revival of the Old City of Nazareth.

In the past two years, reports Maoz Inon, the Jewish partner in Fauzi Azar, about half a dozen other guesthouses have cropped up in its wake. A founder of ILH – Israel Hostels, a network of more than 30 independent hostels around the country – Inon has played an instrumental role in promoting similar ventures in other Arab towns.

Sophisticated yet affordable

One such example is Juha’s guesthouse, which was opened close to two years ago in Jisr al-Zarka, Israel’s poorest town. Like Fauzi Azar, this seaside inn is also run by a Jewish-Arab team.

“All these new guesthouses cater to a more sophisticated independent traveler looking for an opportunity to live among locals and have a more authentic experience,” says Inon. Many of them are also budget-conscious, he notes, travelers looking for a place to sleep that will cost them less than NIS 100 ($25) a night rather than the exorbitant fees charged at hotels.

Most of the new facilities offer breakfast, but for dinner, guests are encouraged to have meals with local families, who have begun providing such a service for a modest fee.

Simsim Guesthouse in Nazareth. Photo by Gil Eliahu.

“These are guests who are less concerned with facilities like elevators and flat-screen TVs,” notes Inon. Marwa’s Inn, for example, takes up the entire story of an existing residential building that sits above a small grocery store. The investment in renovations, she says, was minimal thanks to help she received from her family. A mother of three, Abu Rany was born in Kafr Kana but today lives in her husband’s hometown of Nazareth. It was while working as a housekeeper at Fauzi Azar, she says, that she began fantasizing about setting up a similar business of her own. “It was Maoz who planted the idea in my head to open a place in Kafr Kana,” she says.

The rented property that serves as Marwa’s Inn contains five bright and airy rooms, including one private room for a couple and a dormitory room that sleeps five. Altogether, it can accommodate 20 guests. In addition to the sleeping rooms, there is a common kitchen where guests can prepare their own meals. Walking distance from the town’s two main churches, Marwa’s Inn is also a short stroll from several of Kafr Kana’s renowned candy and sweet shops.

Sitting on the outdoor veranda overlooking the hills of the lower Galilee, Abu Rany can hardly conceal her excitement on this warm spring day. The previous night, she reports, she hosted her first Israeli Jewish guests: three residents of a nearby kibbutz taking a break from their hike on the Jesus Trail to spend a night in Kafr Kana, their first in an Arab town. She proudly shows off the gushing praise they’ve written in her brand new guest book. Until last night, she explains, all her guests had been foreigners, among them travelers from Germany, Canada, Argentina, the Netherlands and the United States.

Simsim Backpackers in Nazareth. Photo by Gil Eliahu.

Simsim, a recent addition to the Nazareth lodging scene, is divided into two separate facilities standing right near each other. Simsim Guesthouse, in the mansion owned by the first mayor of this city, offers five renovated rooms suitable for couples or families, whereas Simsim Backpackers, with its bright, bold colors and hippyish feel, caters to more budget-conscious travelers not averse to sharing a room with total strangers.

The two facilities are operated by Nazareth native Sami Jabali and his German girlfriend Silke Wanner. “I’ve worked in hotels and restaurants and managed a souvenir shop in the Galilee, but I always dreamed of doing something like this,” says Jabali, as he settles down for a drink at the end of the day in the garden courtyard of the guesthouse.

Bedouin mud house

Down south in the Bedouin village of Lakiya, Amal Abu Karen is also determined to breathe new life into an old place. That old place is the Huriya Palace, a huge mud house built by her ancestors, who were spice traders in the area more than 200 years ago. “It was the first permanent structure in the Negev,” boasts Abu Karen, an oncological nurse by profession who began dabbling in the hospitality business a few years ago.

Amal Abu Karen in the Huriya Palace in Lakiya. Photo by Amit Schejter.

With its arch-filled rooms, the house, built around a courtyard, was inhabited until 1990, when it began serving as storage space. A few years ago, Abu Karen emptied out the rooms and repurposed the place to serve as a center for Bedouin crafts and culture. “I wanted to show people that there’s more to Bedouin life than tents,” she says.

Her next move is to make the rooms available for lodgers. “There won’t be proper beds, but we’ll have mattresses on the floor,” she explains, as she gives a visitor a peek into the rooms. “It will be for travelers looking for an authentic Bedouin experience.”

A mother of four, Abu Karen is married to a neurologist on staff at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. But these days she’s begun thinking that one spouse in the medical profession is more than enough. “Nursing has become very draining for me,” she acknowledges. “What I love about the tourism business is I get to talk to people about happy things.”

And just then her phone rings, and it’s an Israeli Jewish woman on the line. “Yes, we can provide the kids with schnitzel and hamburgers,” she says. “But you should know that we also offer authentic Bedouin cuisine.”