Children of the Valley

As a child, Jihan Abu Abbas hated living in Wadi al-Siah, southwest of Haifa. She couldn't understand why her parents chose to live in this isolated place on the outskirts of the city.

"I was cut off from all my friends. There were no parks or public transport. I preferred to stay with my grandmother in Haifa," she says. Today, at 27, she wouldn't dream of leaving. "Ana bint alwadi," she says. "I'm a daughter of the valley.

The once neglected, desolate spot has become a popular destination for hikers, environmentalists and youngsters wishing to get away from it all.

In the bustling city, whose signature is the petrochemical plants' chimneys, beneath the Carmel's deafening pub center, lies a wild scenery gem reminiscent of a Greek or Sicilian village. Goats graze between the unpainted Abu Abbas home and the carob trees, the chimes of the bells on their necks pealing out. A spring flows down to an orchard of pomegranates, figs and citrus fruit. In pre-state days the resort home of the well-to-do al-Hayat family from Haifa stood here.

Over the years the orchard was neglected and dried up, mold covered the water pools and canals, weeds covered the spice gardens and the terraces and houses crumbled.

Wadi al-Siah stretches from the Carmel neighborhoods to the Mahane David Neighborhood and nearby cemeteries. Dr. Johnnie Mansour, a Haifa historian and lecturer in the Beit Berl Academic College, says that the wadi was named al-Siah, "the wanderers," in the 13th century, when the Carmelite monks wandered in the valley, living a life of seclusion and abstinence.

Many people believe that the Al Farj (Salvation) spring has healing powers since the days of Elishah the prophet, who, according to tradition, drank from its water. The Carmelites built a monastery in the wadi and used the natural caves as prayer sites, hiding places and burial sites.

The Haifa municipality is trying to raise funds to rehabilitate the wadi and turn it into a green resort site. The Gil-Greenstein landscape architects' firm made a plan to rehabilitate the wadi 20 years ago but the city has not found the budget to do so.

"The site has huge environmental, religious and recreation potential," says landscape architect Gil Har Gil. "It has a walking route, although it is not developed or attractive, but you forget you're in a city."

Gil's plan is to restore the wadi's entrances from east and west and the orchard. "It's a typical Mediterranean orchard. Farming here was based on medicinal herbs and spices, citrus and fruit trees that created shade and a pleasant place to sit in," he says.

"They had a meticulous, aesthetic irrigation system of canals and dams that carried the spring water to the orchard," he says.

Said Uda, 81, of the Ahmadiyya Kababir neighborhood overlooking the wadi, has been herding his goats here for 70 years. He remembers the summers he spent with the orchard workers under the fig and orange trees. "It was paradise. I passed many hours under the trees here. We ate fruit, the air was good from the sea, not like today," he says.

Charlie, Yuli and Benny, Haifa men in their '20s, sit around a water pool. They live in the nearby caves. "We've lived here for months," says Charlie. Every now and then they are joined by friends. "This is a main hiking route. People come and go, go off to be alone then come together again. Young people come to swim in the pool, eat rice and discuss spiritual matters," he says.

A religious young man arrives and asks us to leave so that he can dip in the pool. "This wadi's destination is to bring people together. People from all sects and communities come here. Muslims come from Kababir, Jews from Mahane David and Christians. And they all talk. That's the uniqueness of this valley," says Charlie.