How World Cup Fever Revived Flagging Cafes in an Israel-Arab Town

The advent of world soccer's premier event brought about a 100-percent increase in the number of cafes in a neglected village.

Roy Arad
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Soccer fans at one of the new Ara cafés. “When people here have some cash, they go to Hadera or Kafr Kara," says Jamal.
Soccer fans at one of the new Ara cafés. “When people here have some cash, they go to Hadera or Kafr Kara," says Jamal.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Roy Arad

Travelers in Wadi Ara, located south of Haifa, will these days discover flags of the soccer superpowers flying from houses along Route 65, which passes through the area. It looks as though – if Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman succeeds in his plan to determine under which sovereignty the Arab villages and towns prefer to live – many of them will find it hard to decide between Brazil, Spain and Argentina.

A case in point is the village of Ara, population 6,500. For many years two cafés operated there next door to each other, both with a meager clientele. But lately, ahead of the World Cup tournament everyone wants to watch, two new cafés opened – constituting an increase of 100 percent.

Café La Roja (The Red One) opened two months ago. Its name is an homage to the Spanish team, of which the proprietor, Mahmoud Younis, is a great fan. The café is decorated with Argentine and Spanish flags. Naturally, there is also a flat-screen TV, on which a shoe of the Brazil team is leaning. There are no customers when I arrive. At one point, a shy boy enters and buys a Brazilian flag.

“It’s going slowly,” Younis admits. “I have to work a lot of hours to approach a daily wage. Fortunately, people here like to watch soccer, though there are also dyed-in-the-wool fans who like to watch the games by themselves.”

When I ask just who the dyed-in-the-wool fans are that like to watch by themselves, it turns out that he is one of them. “When the Spanish team is playing, I’m not here – my brother fills in for me. I don’t want to be asked to do all kinds of things during the game.” According to Younis, the fondness for soccer in Ara is related to the village’s dire situation, after being neglected by the authorities for years. This has nothing to do with the wretched merger with the town of Arara, across the road, or with land expropriation.

“It’s all politics,” he says. “In Ara there is no community center, no library, not even a bank, no sports facilities, no swimming pool. So, what are people supposed to do? They can watch soccer in a coffee house. That’s good for me, but not a good sign for the village.”

Two weeks before the start of the tournament, another new local café also opened – this one in the heart of a lovely olive grove in the upper part of the village. When I get there, the manager, whose surname is also Younis (but he prefers not to tell me his first name), is sleeping on the floor, worn out from working until the wee hours, a piece of cloth covering his eyes. I am forced to wake him up.

“We’re far away from the houses in the village, so you can jump and shout when a goal is scored,” Younis says. He hopes that after the World Cup the café will fill up in the nights during the month of Ramadan, which starts at the end of June.

“We see this place as an experiment,” he tells me. “We didn’t invest anything. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, it’s going pretty well. This is the most attractive place for the young people here.”

On the other side of La Roja is a veteran café that belongs to Mahmoud Younis’ cousin, Jamal Younis.

“I’m not surviving, there’s no business here,” admits Jamal, 54. He’s delighted to talk to me – a rare guest from outside the village whose visit brings to mind the time a German tourist chanced upon the place a year ago. Jamal, who suffers from diabetes and was for years a successful women’s hairstylist in Paris, now works only a few hours a day. The café was empty when I arrived.

“When people here have some cash, they go to Hadera or to Kafr Kara. It’s only when they have nothing that they come for a cup of coffee,” he says, his voice oozing with disappointment.

“The village is in a pitiful state. There used to be a post office and a bank here, but everything’s gone. The only thing left is chaos. Sometimes I come to the café for an hour or two, see that there are no customers, and head back home.”

Across the road, in Arara, the Darna café and restaurant is under new ownership, and has expanded in honor of the World Cup. Its central section, in which the games are viewed, is fittingly decked out with flags of participating countries. Bader Kabha built the restaurant and sold it, but has stayed on as the chef and one of the managers.

“Since the new owners bought the place, they have refurbished it and business has improved,” he says, showing me photos from the opening party held shortly before the start of the World Cup, which are posted on Kafr Kara’s website.

“The soccer games were blocked [on television] for people who don’t buy a special converter, so people come to the coffee shops and watch the games together,” Kabha explains, showing me the menu – a combination of Arab, Italian and Thai cuisines, including kebab, fish and seafood. “It’s important for every person who comes here to have something to eat,” he adds, by way of explaining the commercial rationale behind the cafe.

As everyone calls out the name of his favorite team, Omar Shehadeh, a co-manager of cafe, says sadly, “I don’t like soccer and I won’t want to watch the World Cup. But I’m here, so I have to watch. What can I do?”

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