Samir Abu Ali sells fruit in season. In a world where signs of the seasons have all but disappeared, his makeshift stand by the entrance to the Acre shuk serves as a handy reminder. In the fall, it’s piled with pomegranates; in late summer you find local varieties of figs; and right now it’s time for the sabras, or prickly pears. Atop an overturned wooden crate sits a large blue plastic bowl filled with ice cubes and sabra fruits – in shades ranging from pale yellow to bright orange (the baladi type picked in the last uncultivated areas around the city) to red (“the ones that come from the moshavim”).
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Business seems to be brisk, even on a weekday when there aren’t so many visitors to the shuk. Whoever does pass by, be they tourists or locals, is drawn by the beauty of the fruit and their promise of icy sweetness. The friendly fruit-seller peels off the prickly skin with a sharp knife and serves up the sweet fruit inside.
The door to the new eatery Shatira (“sandwich” in Arabic) is right near Samir’s fruit stand. Chef and owner Dan Smulovitz comes out to buy sabras for the refreshing summer cocktail he makes by combining them with arak and mint. Meanwhile, his friend and business partner, Ohad Horvitz, prepares a Campari with soda and gin (“You have to balance out the sweetness of the Campari a little”) for another customer.
Diners sit in the high-ceilinged space under stone archways typical of the Ottoman style. Before them are open-face sandwiches of brisket cooked in beer and served with caramelized onions, horseradish sauce and melted Emmental cheese; arayes – a pita toasted on the grill and filled with specially seasoned kebab; or wonderful bruschetta with liver pté and radish salad. The large variety of sandwiches on the menu are served up simply, on a platter covered with paper, and accompanied by homemade spreads and pickles.
The two young chefs, who both grew up in the north, opened Savida in Acre’s Turkish Bazaar in 2013. The small restaurant, seating no more than 30, serves nothing but fresh fish from the area, with a variety of salads and meze. There are days when the sea gods bless the menu with a spectacular selection, and others when the city’s fishermen are not as fortunate, and their nets come up empty.
Smulovitz and Horvitz decided to embark on their new adventure a year ago; they spent nearly seven months remodeling and beautifying the space they rented. It was formerly used by a shoemaker who practiced the trade handed down from his father and grandfather. When he died, his sons, Farid and Zuzu, rented the place to the restaurateurs.
“We wanted to be more accessible than in Savida,” says Smulovitz. “We wanted people to be able to eat well for 50-60 shekels, including a drink. This place is mainly meant for local residents who’ve found they don’t have the money to eat out in a restaurant where it costs 100-150 shekels per person. It really makes me happy to see all kinds of local people – Jews and Arabs, as well as students who come from Tel Aviv or Haifa – in the few weeks since we’ve been open, coming almost every day, sitting down or taking a sandwich to go, and so pleased that they now have a place to go out to in Acre.
“We really wanted to do something creative, though, too,” Smulovitz adds. “We want people to come from afar for our special sandwiches. Not just for the roast beef, but for the ones that are the utmost in simplicity and made from regional ingredients. I dream about sandwiches made with locally produced goat cheese, yellow grapefruit and pickled black olives; and also sandwiches with a more local orientation, like hummus salad seasoned with roasted peppers and lemon confit.” And of course one awaits some tasty fish sandwiches – as befit the chefs of a top fish restaurant – like a Turkish-style balik ekmek (charcoal-grilled mackerel in a soft bun with onion and tomato). But the sea has not been very generous in recent weeks. The hot season is always a slow time of year for fishermen, and the total chaos in the local fishing industry is only making things worse. Fitfully and unequally enforced laws intended to halt fishing during the mating season did not completely prevent fishermen from going to sea, but did reduce the selection of fish in the markets. Despite this, “There will be fish sandwiches,” Horwitz promises. “We already did one experiment with shrimp, which was a big hit, but we’re waiting for a catch of local shrimp.”
Old City blues
Then there are the problems endemic to Acre’s beautiful and beloved Old City. “No matter what, somehow the city never manages to develop,” say Smulovitz and Horwitz, who are thinking of moving Savida out of the Turkish Bazaar to a larger location closer to the Old City walls. “The Bazaar is not taking off, and we’re taking on a crazy risk, but ultimately it’s only private initiatives that work. The authorities, including the Acre Chamber of Commerce, aren’t able to really change the situation. We don’t come from affluent backgrounds, and we haven’t made a lot of money with Savida, but now, in addition to the seven people we employ at Savida, we also have responsibility for a new place. But we’re obsessed with this place and with cooking, and God knows what will happen it if doesn’t work.”
Less than 50 meters from the door to Shatira, a lovely new visitors’ center opened up a few months ago that provides information about the Old City of Acre and the Galilee. Run by the JNF and the tourism organization Zman Galil Ma’aravi (Western Galilee Now), the center is located on the first floor of an Ottoman-era building that served as a hotel 120 years ago and has been impressively preserved and restored. From what we saw, the information at the visitors’ center appears in Hebrew and English only. We saw nothing to guide independent tourists to Arab-owned businesses.
“Of the 35 tourism operators who are members of the organization, five are not Jewish, and many of our tours go to non-Jewish places,” says Michal Shiloah, director of Zman Galil Ma’aravi. She also says that translation of the texts into Arabic is a top priority. “By the end of 2016, or early 2017, it should happen. We’re getting bids on that now. The translations have to be really good.”
Anyone walking through Acre’s Old City in recent weeks would have seen signs in Arabic urging locals not to sell buildings to Jews, evidence of the current struggle in Acre and other cities to preserve Arab ownership of properties and to maintain the character of the old cities.
“We’ve never had any problems with how we’ve been treated here,” says Smulovitz. “Maybe because in the past three years we’ve made ourselves part of the local landscape. We live among the people in the Old City, we’re helping to provide them with a livelihood and they’re helping us in return.” On the day we visited, on the bench across from Shatira, Jews and Arabs were sitting together.