Looking down the unpaved road, you see the Mediterranean’s turquoise water at the fishing town Jisr al-Zarqa. When I visited this month, a small boat lay in these shallow depths, with a man nearby trying to catch fish with a net. On the beach, not far behind, stands a structure that looks like an old warehouse, or maybe a broken-down beach restaurant.
When you get nearer, you notice the bustle. These are the new beach inhabitants, not fishermen but people bent over their laptops, coming from all over the country.
A sign in front of the structure reveals its identity – it’s Beachub, one of the world’s “digital nomad villages,” a workspace on the beach. Beachub opened last month – after the building was finally connected to the power grid.
“There’s the saying ‘give me a fish and I’ll be full for a day, give me a fishhook and I’ll be full for many years,” says Nimer Jorban, a partner in the enterprise. “Well, times have changed, and so has the equipment.”
Behind this digital nomad village, the first in Israel, stands a Jewish-Arab partnership that is evident everywhere.
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The founder, Moran Stiassny-Shemesh, lives in Nesher near Haifa, the big city 41 kilometers (25 miles) up the coast from Jisr al-Zarqa. She didn’t wind up at the fishing town by chance, she says. For years she roamed the Galilee and other nature spots looking for the right location.
The costs of building this workspace were covered by crowdsourcing, with more than 130 participants. “People come here to work, but also to be exposed to the culture and place that’s right in our backyard,” she says.
This is what separates the place from similar workspaces like those in the office towers of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. To get there, you have to navigate bumpy and winding roads, a chance to both see and feel the neglect.
For the locals, it’s a source of revenue and hope. The space was built in a former warehouse belonging to Jorban, a local fisherman. He says his family has owned the warehouse since the days of his grandfather, the town's mukhtar.
For years it stored fishing equipment, which is now in the harbor. Jorban says he’s looking for a different way of making a living, and a way of sending a message. Whereas most of the visitors are Jews, he hopes Arabs come in the future, too.
“When young villagers walk by and see people working here, they realize something is going on, and this motivates them to come here,” he says. “I’m sure my grandfather, who didn’t live to see the digital age, is proud of me for making this move.”
Beachub is still a pretty modest place. Unlike high-tech workspaces in large cities, there are spots only for 15 people, who change throughout the day. Some come for longer periods, from morning to night and even beyond. Veterans know that you better call in the morning and ask about availability.
Among those who occupied a spot during my visit was Iris Yogev, who came from Kibbutz Hahotrim near Haifa. The drive to Jisr al-Zarqa, on the area’s beaten roads, left its mark. “The difference between the entry into the town and the workspace is striking,” she says. “It’s like an oasis.”
The pristine strip of beach motivated another entrepreneur, better known as the actress Nataly Attiya. She knows that Tel Aviv has beaches, but a visit to Jisr al-Zarqa is like a visit to the beauty of Sinai.
“Something in this place’s simplicity is magical,” she says, making her first trip to the place. “This enterprise tweaked my interest. It sounded like an inspirational place.”
Indeed, Jorban and Stiassny-Shemesh hope that more than the sea sustains Beachub; they aim for it to be a great place to connect people.
As an educational psychologist who chose the place for marking students' papers puts it, “Part of what I’m looking for is a place that doesn’t look too accessible. But when you get here you realize what a treasure it is, including the interesting people you’d never meet anywhere else.”
Along with Jorban and Stiassny-Shemesh, another key figure is Ahmed Joha, even if his involvement is more indirect. Joha, who opened a guesthouse in the town a few years ago, brought together Jorban and Stiassny-Shemesh.
“I always try to have a local resident as a partner in new projects because I know this will provide a livelihood to other people here,” he says. Just when he thought he couldn’t make a living through fishing, this opportunity came along.
“There are no fish,” he says. “This hub is an escape and a solution to a dire need.”
But Jorban believes the place is still a long way from fulfilling its potential. He markets the site using various methods, including word of mouth. “Sometimes people drop by to take a look. It’s a process,” he says.
Stiassny-Shemesh remembers how she struggled with the problem of bringing a modern concept to a place where even connecting to the power grid was no trivial matter.
“It was very conceptually challenging to implement this idea,” she says. “On the other hand, it happened at an accelerated pace – there was a good connection with local residents.”
Virtual and literal surfing
This has been expressed both in new partnerships and existing initiatives, where all sides have profited. For example, Ahmed Jorban, Nimer’s brother, has a surfing club, and Beachub provides him with potential customers. In the morning, before a day of virtual surfing, visitors rent a board and take a lesson with Ahmed.
At lunchtime there are orders from a nearby restaurant run by Hanan Jorban. The women there are part of another project that has grown out of Beachub: a plan to set up a restaurant at the hub.
“We established the culinary group with 10 other women,” says Leila Joha, Ahmed’s 59-year-old sister. “I mainly like preparing vine leaves. Everybody loves them.”
So far this group has operated mainly at food fairs in the town and nearby, but it’s getting ready to operate at the hub.
“This promotes the hub’s vision,” says Michal Sadeh, who helped set up the project. “It involves setting up a bridge between Jisr residents and the surrounding area.”
Genevieve Begue, another partner in establishing this group, says the women’s ties with the hub are strengthening.
One participant in the cooking initiative is Dalia Jamal Jorban, who for years saw how the decline in fishing affected life in the town.
“We grew up with the sea; we’re used to our lives revolving around it,” she says. “Seeing so many new people now is wonderful.” She dreams of setting up an open kitchen on the beach so that everyone can use it, just like a workspace.
She’s aware of changes taking place in the gastronomical world, not just the tech world. “With all due respect to the digital world, we take food from nature that’s the healthiest, using all sorts of plants like hyssop,” she says.
She knows that the hub won’t solve all of Jisr al-Zarqa’s problems. “The place is rated low on the socioeconomic scale and there is violence in the streets,” she says. “This place is isolated, which is why this small place gives some hope for something different.”
In the meantime, people at the hub face another approaching threat – winter. They’re trying to find a way to operate then, too, during Israel’s rainy season. One option is to open the hub only on days when the weather forecast is promising. That sure is better than closing down until spring.