It is four in the afternoon on Thursday at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. A small group of tourists gathers by the reception desk in the lobby, readying for an organized tour of the nearby Mahaneh Yehuda market. The guide is chef Ibrahim Yassin, 22, a resident of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. He acquired his professional culinary training by studying for two years at Jerusalem's Notre Dame Hotel and apprenticing at the American Colony and Crowne Plaza Hotels. He works as a reception clerk at the new guest house, and twice a week he gives organized tours of the Jerusalem market (alternating with another guide).
Today's small group includes, among others, Netanya from Seattle ("Netanya is the name my parents gave me," says the young American woman, who always gets the same questions from Israelis); heavily tattooed Ali from Leeds; Mike, a tennis coach from South Africa; and an assortment of other visitors who've converged on the Holy City from all ends of the earth.
First, the group climbs to the top of the tall building in the heart of the neighborhood's alleyways to see the market from above and listen to a brief history of the place, from the twilight of the Ottoman period until the present. Ibrahim points out the exact places where fatal terrorist attacks have taken place. Then the group wanders through the Iraqi section of the market. How strange and exotic the Oriental market looks to foreign eyes - the stalls selling fruit, halva sweets and organ meats; the shouts of the vendors; the clusters of arak-drinking cardplayers; and a bride and groom, dressed in their wedding finery, who came to have their picture taken with the peddlers at the market and are greeted with boisterous calls of congratulations.
At one of the vegetable stalls, the participants are given little pieces of paper with a shopping list written on it, in preparation for the meal that the group will cook together in the guest house's kitchen. One person goes off to buy potatoes and carrots for the makloubeh; others are tasked with buying tomatoes, green onion and bunches of herbs for the tabouleh salad. The charming guide is responsible for selecting ingredients worthy of the meal, for learned explanations about the ways of the market, and for imparting the necessary skills for bargaining and purchasing in the Levant. At the guest house's kitchen, to which the group repairs two hours later, Ibrahim presides over the cooking.
"I like internationals," he says. "It's all simple and uncomplicated, they don't think that Jerusalem is the center of the world and you don't have to talk politics all the time." How nice, if only briefly, to just belong to the cosmopolitan nation of human beings, one that can just get together to cook up a nice dinner and not get bogged down in labeling people on the basis of origin, religion or what neighborhood they live in.
The arak, generously poured into little shot glasses, also helps to grease new friendships and boost the friendly small talk, as more travelers pour into the guest house. Some are seduced by the intoxicating aroma and join the group preparing the makloubeh ("It's my mother's recipe, she was a legendary cook," explains Ibrahim. "I have two brothers who are also chefs, but none of us comes anywhere near her. She would kill me if she ever tasted the vegetarian makloubeh that I choose to make"); others set about preparing a meal of their own in the communal kitchen. Some sit at the bar to have a glass of beer, others listen to a lecture about walking trails in Israel, while others just lounge on the sofas and colorful beanbag chairs, or shoot some pool. On any given day of the week, the guest house's nightclub the place where guests assemble in the evenings, and the heart of the entertainment at this enchanting hostel.
The Abraham Hostel opened two months ago in Davidka Square, at the intersection of Hanevi'im Street and Jaffa Road. It has close to 40 rooms available at this point, and the occupancy rate is already over 85 percent. There are five partners behind this new tourism initiative. Two of them specialize in tourism for independent travelers: Maoz Yinon is the man who founded the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth and the Jesus Trail - a walking path that follows the landscapes once traversed by the founder of Christianity and his contemporaries. This wise and generous man has used his talents and hard work to breathe life not only into the tourism industry of the city of Nazareth, but also into other northern villages and accommodations and attractions along the Israel Trail and the Jesus Trail.
Gal Mor, who also spent many years traveling the world, opened the first Israeli branch of Sandemans New Europe - a European company that specializes in unusual urban tours - and six months ago he started Indie Travels, an information center for independent travelers that offers lectures and a wide array of tours and trips in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt.
"About 450,000 independent tourists and travelers come to Israel every year," says Gal, "but there is hardly any infrastructure in tourism services to cater to their special needs. Tourism in Israel has traditionally been directed at groups and Christian pilgrims, and independent travelers have been neglected. This is all the more true when it comes to accommodation. For the most part, entrepreneurs in Israel either build big hotels or small and expensive boutique hotels. There are hardly any high-quality and modern guest houses like those that have opened in abundance in Europe in the last few years, and offer the traveler comfortable accommodation, plenty of information, and interaction with other travelers, all on a modest budget."
This is the void that Maoz and Gal are seeking to fill, with a chain of guest houses starting with Jerusalem and ending who knows where - maybe in Damascus. "There was a reason we named the chain Abraham Hostels," the two explain with cheerful earnestness. "Abraham was the first backpacker. He roamed the whole of the Middle East and hospitality was a very important part of his life."
The first hostel in the chain, they admit, was opened in a very desirable central location, but in one of the ugliest buildings in Jerusalem. The peculiar trapezoid bloc of sooty brick, built in 1956 as an office building for the Jerusalem municipality's accounts department, was converted into a youth hostel and apartments in the 1990s, but in the past decade it stood practically empty. The extensive remodeling project covered 40 of the 85 rooms on the building's three floors; a new lobby with a cafe-bar and a tourist information center, a nightclub and a computer room in the gallery. The lovely roof and rear courtyard garden still await more sprucing up.
The rooms are simple and clean, the beds are standard-issue Jewish Agency beds with incredibly comfortable mattresses, but local and foreign guests, young and old - how nice to find that in this day and age, young people aren't the only ones strapping on backpacks and staying in hostels - will find everything that truly matters to travelers on a limited budget: Air-conditioning, free wi-fi in all the rooms, a wonderful information center that is open 12 hours a day, a great way to meet people from all over the world and, above all, a very inviting cosmopolitan atmosphere that the charming young team behind the place have succeeded in bringing to their project.
Abraham Hostel, 67 Hanevi'im Street (Davidka Square), Jerusalem (02) 650-2200. Dormitory prices: NIS 80-110; double room: NIS 260-400; www.abraham-hostel-jerusalem.com