On the menu of Maha Suleiman’s cafe-bookshop in Nazareth there are only three items: labaneh, za’atar and honey, served with wholemeal pitas; manqish – a flatbread baked with olive oil and za’atar; and sweet, cold watermelon with labeneh or the soft, white cheese known as jibneh. It is the essence of simplicity and also the essence of pleasure.
“I want all the dishes to be like old-fashioned foods a mother would serve at home,” says Suleiman, who was born in Nazareth in 1959. She is a language and linguistics teacher who established a small press a few years ago. “I love the Arabic language and Arabic literature with all my heart,” she says. “When my husband died, I didn’t know how to cope with the loss and with a difficult life. I thought that realizing my old dream of a publishing house would help. I published six books but I found that there are few readers and it’s hard to market the books.”
Indeed of a publishing house, Suleiman began to think about a bookstore. “And if there’s a bookstore, she says, “then someone who comes in to buy a book can also sit and have a cup of coffee. From the moment I began looking for a place it was clear to me that I wanted the cafe-bookshop to open in the Old City market, a place anyone born in the city loves and is connected to. It’s heartbreaking to see the market empty and the iron doors of the old businesses shut and locked. When I was a girl it was the center of life. I remember going to the market with my grandfather every Friday. We’d buy everything there — vegetables, fruit, meat, clothing and shoes, wedding dresses and gold for the bride price and dowry. Back then there weren’t any other shops. Nearly everything closed in 2000 and for everyone who knew the good old days of the market, it was very difficult.”
Maha’s bookshop-cafe opened about a month ago on the ground floor of one of the large, beautiful houses that were built near the market in the second half of the 19th century, Nazareth’s Golden Age. In the space, under heavy stone arches are shelves of new books offered for sale and browsing (now in Arabic and in the near future, says Suleiman, in English and Hebrew as well), and handsome tables covered in old embroidered cloths. Freshly squeezed iced orange juice and tea are served by Mario and Samer, both of whom have Down’s syndrome.
“I hadn’t intended to have a social project here,” she says modestly, “but my soul is the soul of a teacher, so I asked a friend of mine who works in special education if there were people who need work. When they showed up, I simply fell in love with them.”
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Fauzi Azar Inn, located in the heart of the Nazareth market, celebrated its 13th anniversary last month at a cheerful, modest celebration in the inner courtyard and on the top floor of the handsome building. On the way there, guests could not help but notice iron doors painted in bright colors – new shops that have reopened after decades, replacing old stores that had gone out of business. The hostel, which Odette and Suraida Shomar opened with entrepreneur Maoz Inon in 2005, was one of the first places in the market to be given a new life. In the wake of its success, more than 10 new hostels have opened within a radius of a few hundred meters. The Fauzi Azar pioneers – and I hope that one day they will be awarded the Israel Prize for their activity – endowed the place not only with their human touch but also with their cosmopolitan spirit, which encourages independent travelers to explore the whole city and get to know its people.
“Most hostels operate on the upper floors of the old buildings or in inner courtyards hidden from the eyes of passersby,” says Sami Jabali from Cafe Liwan. “Few people have opened a shop or a cafe that has a facade with a presence on the street.” Two years ago Jabali, who started out as an employee at Fauzi Azar; his wife Silke, and Sally Azzam opened the pretty cafe located opposite Sibat al-Sheikh, not far from the White Mosque. Jabali, like everyone from Nazareth, talks about the Nazareth 2000 project as one of the major breaking points in the life of the market. That restoration project, undertaken in advance of the visit by Pope John Paul II, took a very long time and caused merchants and customers to leave the ancient alleyways.
“When we opened the cafe, we wanted to bring life back to the Old City and in particular, to bring back the residents of Nazareth, who had stopped going there. The Nazareth 2000 project screwed the whole city. The restoration was not authentic and the way it dragged on made people close their businesses, leave and never come back. Today people prefer go to the malls. It started to be dark here, not in the sense of actual light but rather in the sense of life. And when there is darkness, undesirable elements come in.”
The partners in Cafe Liwan – like the people at Fauzi Azar, and like Daher Zeidani, who restored his family’s home with his own hands to open the Alreda bar-restaurant – did everything on their own and with no help from official sources. “We didn’t want grants from the municipality or the state,” says Jabali. “In the past 20 years, they’ve only been interfering, and not supporting. Even the banks didn’t agree to give us a loan, so we did everything by ourselves and on a small budget. We painted the walls ourselves and we restored the old furniture that good people donated to us. When we opened the cafe a famous pianist who was born in the city donated a number of recital evenings, which brought in an audience and the press, and they were the first in the series of culture evenings and art exhibitions that are held at the cafe.”
A few steps from there is Lubna Lubany’s charming Tantana Gallery, whose name refers to the lace hem of a garment. Lubany, a former banker who became an interior decorator, is an enthusiastic collector with broad knowledge of decorative objects from the late Victorian period and the early 20th century. Among the lovely things she offers are lace tablecloths and gloves, antique suitcases, lampshades, furniture and enamel, porcelain and glass household items.
Ghada Boulos’ small shop, where local arts and traditional cakes are sold, moved several weeks ago from its previous location to a nearby place double the size, on the ground floor of an ancient mansion. The beautiful space, which had stood abandoned for 15 years, previously served as a carpentry shop and a store for building supplies.
“We’re feeling the momentum,” says Maha Suleiman, noting that most of the entrepreneurs involved in the reawakening of the market are women. One of them is building restorer Razan Zoabi, who opened her new offices recently in a prominent place in Sibat al-Sheikh. The owner of the Al-Kahla espresso bar she has painted the doors to her new offices in pistachio green and the walls of the ornate space in yellow. The bright colors, faithful to historic roots, add new liveliness to the market square, where most of the shops are open on weekdays from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. Following the good vibes of their success, these businesswomen recently decided to open on Thursdays from 4 to 9 P.M. as well.
Al-Maha Cafe and Book Store, Nazareth Market (past the Al-Mutran Guest House on the street leading to the market from Mary’s Well and the St. Gabriel Church), 054-492-8018
Tantana Vintage Style, Nazareth market (opposite Al-Maha Bookstore and Cafe), 04-877-2558
Cafe Liwan, Nazareth market (between Sibat al-Sheikh and Sibat Qawar), 04-628-3511
Ghada’s Place, Nazareth Market (two doors down from Cafe Liwan), 04-986-9116
Al-Kahla Espresso Bar, Al-Bishara Street, near the Church of the Annunciation