A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian Walk Into a Bar... in Northern Israel's Nightlife, That's No Joke

Christian Arab villages in the Galilee have recently become hotbeds of nightlife – and the birthplace of a new culture of coexistence

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A bar in Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the northern Galilee.
A bar in Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the northern Galilee. Credit: Rami Shllush
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

The bar Shahin Music in Tarshiha, the Arab part of the Jewish-Arab town of Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the northern Galilee, wasn’t full when I got there at 9 P.M. recently. But that’s only because it was too early. Shahin, the owner, was already too tipsy to answer my questions, so she suggested that I speak to the clients. So I asked Alias, who’s 22 and in the foreign-exchange business, to explain why a village like Tarshiha, population 6,500, has no fewer than six active bars.

“People in Tarshiha drink lots of alcohol,” he said. “A higher percentage of people drink here than in Tel Aviv. On weekends I start drinking at nine and finish at one or two in the morning. I start here, go on to the Barbar bar and sometimes finish up at Top View.”

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Doesn’t that add up to a very expensive evening?

“It’s expensive, but we don’t have families, we don’t have anything. We work hard and then have a good time over the weekend.”

The bar at Eagles Cliff, on the edge of Mi’ilya village.Credit: Rami Shllush

Only Christians?

“There are also Muslims who drink and don’t care – others abstain. All the Christians drink and everyone hangs out.”

His cousin S., who’s also in forex, is proud that when he goes out he polishes off “one bottle of wine, minimum.” Sitting behind them was Lama, 23, who’s a dentistry student in Tel Aviv and a regular at Shahin Music. Very elegant, fingernails done in white polish, wearing a yellow blouse, she’s an unabashed local patriot.

“Tarshiha is a large, leading village, and not just in terms of bars but in many areas that attest to quality of life,” she said. “It used to be that to go out at night we had to go to Nahariya or Haifa. These days people come here from the entire region.”

When I asked whether the liberalism and attraction to nightlife were linked to the fact that around half the village is Christian, Lama took umbrage. “Whether you’re Christian or Muslim isn’t a relevant question. How do you even assume that I’m Christian? I’m simply an Arab. In Tarshiha that issue doesn’t touch us in the least.”

Mention of the new law that declares Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people agitates her. “It’s a disturbing, humiliating law that makes us feel like fourth-class, even zilch-class Israelis,” she said.

One love

Christian villages in northern Israel have recently become hotbeds of nightlife. They provide entertainment for young Israeli Arabs, of course, but also for Jews who want to relax over a beer but not at a gas station.

In the Christian village of Mi’ilya there’s a bar at the lookout point at Eagles Cliff, and bars have also recently opened in Fassuta and Kafr Yasif. But Kamun in Tarshiha is the best known of the area’s bars and was perhaps the breakthrough venue of the Christian scene in the Arab villages of the Western Galilee. It’s just a whiskey bottle’s throw from Shahin Music, but the crowd is solid and older. If Shahin had hardly any Jewish clients and the music was slam-bang Arab, in Kamun the Jews are the majority and the music is classic rock.

“What difference does it make – Christian, Muslim or Jewish? We’re communists,” 46-year-old Semim Bishara, the owner, said jokingly – or not – as he greeted us, a pirate bandana wrapped incongruously around his bald head. He’s a cousin of the more famous Bishara – Azmi – a former Knesset member now in self-imposed exile.

His T-shirt was emblazoned on one side with “Kamun” and on the other with “One Love.” Like many of the bar owners in the area, the word “colorful” describes him well. Bishara has a long history of trying to improve Tarshiha’s nightlife. In 1997 he opened a bar called Noah’s Ark, which lasted two years.

“I got married and wanted a job, so I’d have something to live on,” he said. In 2003 he did a reboot, this time with Kamun, and it caught on.

“Each of the bars in Tarshiha has its own style,” he said. “Here the concept is to be together. There’s good food and good drink, but the story of Kamun isn’t just about drink.”

He said there are so many nightspots in such a small community because locals “want to have a good time. Pubs is a culture thing, and people come here to get their supply. This is a village of open people. The main places in the area have always been in the Tarshiha-Acre-Safed triangle. In the north you have different ties between Jews and Arabs than in the rest of the country.”

What are you getting at?

“There’s more coexistence here. And the location helps create that vibe. We’re creating a culture and continuing together, period. Drink is always a connecting force, and beer is something that does people good. Can you imagine a world without alcohol? A world of sharia.”

Bishara’s mention of sharia law brought to mind the nation-state law (again). But he said of it: “It absolutely doesn’t interest me. I could convert to Judaism tomorrow.”

Convert tomorrow?

“There’s no difference between Jew and Arab. I don’t believe in politics and borders. An Irish journalist came all the way here to ask me about that law. I told him the politicians can decide what they want, just so they drink a little arak, a little beer. What can I tell you? Life is short and you have to live.”

What’s Tarshiha like in terms of relations between men and women?

“We’re liberal. The world has become globalized. Religious folk, both Muslims and Jews, are scary. I believe in live and let live.”

And there are no conservative elements in Tarshiha?

“The former site of the bar wasn’t far from the mosque. I met the worshippers going there every morning at three, and I always said ‘Good morning’ and they answered back. In this village there’s respect. People here live peacefully.”

From the end of the bar, Ayala, a child psychiatrist from Mitzpeh Hila – one of the “Galilee lookout” communities established on hilltops above Arab villages – waved to me. “Tarhisha is the cultural center of the region, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “Which means Kamun, Shahin’s bakery [a different Shahin] and the supermarket. That covers my needs.”

Spending time at the bar in Kamun in Ma’alot-Tarshiha, where the crowd is solid and the music is classic rock.Credit: Rami Shllush

I told her that people in the center of the country would find it odd that people go to an Arab village for nightlife. She laughed.

“For me and for people who live in the Western Galilee, it’s obvious. It’s not odd for us at all to come to an Arab village to drink, or that an Arab village is our center. You Tel Avivans have some very peculiar notions. It’s not an issue for us,” she said.

“When it comes to bars, people here immediately think about places of Christians. And Tarshiha is an exceptional place altogether, cosmopolitan, even compared to other communities with a Christian population. That’s the feeling. You know, this pub could just as easily be in Prague or on the outskirts of Paris.”

A couple of around 60, faces flushed with drink, directed me to the Top View Bar, which is located on a rooftop at the entrance to Tarshiha. They recommend the seafood, and promise that I’ll enjoy it.

“I used to construct buildings in Tel Aviv and I wanted a little freedom,” said the bar’s owner, Hatem Maeky. “I came here and was bored,” he went on, recalling the early days.

“I saw the roof and wanted to install a Jacuzzi and live there. It looked like a terrific corner. At the same time, I distilled arak for the fun of it. So six years ago I said, ‘Let’s build a bar already.’” At which point Maeky spilled his arak onto the counter and took out his lighter and ignited it proudly.

Previously, he wandered abroad for about 20 years, living in France, Britain and Scandinavia, earning a living as a mechanical engineer. “I studied a little, rubbed elbows a little, got married a little and fathered a few kids. It was an interesting journey.”

Meaky feels that there are a few too many bars in the area. “It’s a small region with a small population, and the situation in the north isn’t so good,” he said. “There’s uncertainty here all the time. Every day you hear something else in the news. One time it’s shooting, another time bomb shelters. That nonsense affects the place. After all, we’re on the border. Even if it’s quiet now, people aren’t sure what will happen tomorrow.”

The conversation was interrupted because people were shouting “Bibi” at us from the other side of the bar. Meaky urged me to interview the Likudniks who are regulars at Top View.

“Here there’s pure love between us and our Christian cousins,” Shimon Tal said. “Hatem is like our brother. We live in coexistence – with or without the nation-state law. So we’re all Likudniks here. Unqualified Likud. But here it’s family; we’ve been here since the day he opened.”

“There’s no politics here. No Bibi, no Regev, no Sara,” Meaky shouted, referring to Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, and in between, Culture Minister Miri Regev. “People come here to enjoy themselves.”

Jerry Dakwar, the owner of the Grandfather House in FassutaCredit: Rami Chelouche

Song of Prague

I visited Grandfather House, the first bar in Fassuta, with a friend about two months ago. Christian and pastoral, population 3,000, Fassuta isn’t far from Lebanon, and in fact, there’s a map of Lebanon hanging in the packed bar.

Alas, during our visit, disaster struck: The arak ran out.

Jerry Dakwar, the owner, poured me a pastis glumly. “I was a soldier and I needed money, so I thought I’d open a bar for a week and then close it,” he said when I wondered how he had the courage to start a business like this in such a remote location. He and his friend Nader built the place with their own hands.

Dakwar is a Catholic, one of about a hundred Christians countrywide who volunteer to serve in the Israeli army every year, even though they’re not obligated to by law. In our conversation, the subject of the draft came up in almost every reply by Dakwar.

The property on which the bar stands belongs to Dakwar’s aunt. Before thrusting himself into the nightlife business, Dakwar was a barber. One of his favorite clients, an elder of Fatussa, lived where the bar now stands. Hence the name Grandfather House. “He was like a granddad to me,” Dakwar said and went on to reveal that he still cuts hair, but only for regular clients, and in their homes.

“The standard of living here is high, but I wanted to introduce something the village didn’t have. A lot of village families came to the opening. That gave me a great deal of support. As if they were telling me, ‘Keep going, don’t stop,’” Dakwar said.

“My goal isn’t money but for people to come together and meet one another. Locals come here, English people, Jews, soldiers, people from UNIFIL. People are now coming from Be’er Sheva, from Arad,” he added, visibly moved about these visitors from far away. “Little by little – it’s by word of mouth.”

Is it by chance the bars are in Christian villages, not in Muslim and Druze locales?

“It’s a cultural thing. Take Hurfeish – you’re not allowed to open [a bar] there because they’re Druze. But Majdal Shams [in the Golan Heights], which is also a Druze community, has good bars. With the Christians, they’re used to alcohol, there’s no problem. But I’m pals with everyone – Muslims, Druze, Christians, Jews. I love peace.”

Do you rely mainly on people from Fassuta?

“The truth is, some people in Fassuta have a problem with the prices here. For example, they want a shot of Black Label for 20 shekels [$5.40], which is a price I can’t sell at. You know, I pay property tax, rent, employees. But whoever comes in leaves the place satisfied. At the moment, 60 percent of the clients are Jews, 30 percent are from the village and the rest are Muslims and Druze. People here are very high-quality.”

Fulfilling a dream

Unlike the bars I’ve mentioned so far, the bar at Eagles Cliff, on the edge of Mi’ilya village, offers a different style and isn’t based only on alcohol. There’s also the view of Nahal Kziv, a stream that flows throughout the year.

The bar is the initiative of Murad Furan, 33, aka DJ Zuka. He launched the place five years ago on farmland belonging to his family, in an old reservoir built by his great-grandfather, a vintner. The family cultivates an olive grove in the area, but according to Furan, nightlife and camping are more lucrative than olive oil.

Ashraf Saks, co-owner of Brinji Bar in Kafr Yasif. Credit: Rami Shllush

“For years I was a DJ in Mi’ilya and I was also a musician in Haifa and Nazareth, mostly world music,” he said. “But all my life I dreamed of having a bar. I was especially influenced by bars I saw in Prague. The crowd comes from Mi’ilya but also from Nazareth, Shfaram, even Ramallah and Bethlehem. People reserve a B&B in the village and come here for a good time. I feel that I’m strengthening the region because people come to sleep here, thanks to us.”

Kafr Yasif is known for its hummus places and a few overdesigned fish restaurants. Like Tarshiha, it’s half Christian and half Muslim, with relations quite good between the groups. Two and a half years ago, the Brinji Bar opened in the village in a stone building that, according to the owners – Walid Michael and Ashraf Saks – is about 300 years old.

If I understood correctly, brinji is the Turkish equivalent of the Hebrew ahlah (which in turn comes from Arabic) – great or terrific. “That’s what our old folk said, ‘brinji’; it stayed with them from Turkish times,” Michael said. Most of the clients are Arabs, he noted, but added that Jews are now discovering the bar.

Where did you have the wherewithal for such a big bar?

Grandfather House, the first bar in Fassuta. In fact, there’s a map of Lebanon hanging in the packed bar.Credit: Rami Shllush

Michael: “The whole business was a hefty investment. Some of the money we already had but we also took a loan. We started from zero. My partner worked as a bartender in Haifa, in Fattoush [a Middle Eastern restaurant]. I did occupational therapy. Before that I worked for 10 years at a restaurant in Acre. And we saved up.”

Weren’t you afraid to be the first to open a bar here?

“This whole business is scary. But the feeling was that we wanted to do it. There are restaurants and cafés here, but we were the first to create the possibility for nightlife. And it’s very satisfying when people come to you from bigger cities like Haifa and Nazareth.”

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