From time to time, usually ahead of a holiday, a resourceful magazine editor tries to find out which culinary institutions have survived the test of time. Usually he lands at Beit Lishansky in Metula, which has been around for 80 years, or at Shmulik Cohen in Tel Aviv, in existence for 78 years. I was therefore surprised, while on a guided tour in Nazareth, to discover the Abu Salem café, which has been around for 102 years.
The café was established by Andreus Abu Salem in 1914, when he was 14 years old. It is currently managed by his grandson, Wissam Abu Salem. Wissam, who is 38, is a graphic designer and DJ. The café still hosts its veteran customers, now in their 80s, who started drinking coffee there when they were 18. All the café’s customers are male.
“Every day the same people come by, playing cards and backgammon. Some tourists also arrive with their guides,” says Abu Salem with pride. “It’s important for me to preserve this place – the building is 400 years old. The tables and chairs are the original ones, and we still maintain the atmosphere of yesteryear.”
In addition to the impressively maintained tradition, the café takes pride in an excellent and unique beverage called “inar,” a cinnamon drink with ground nuts that I highly recommend – it may have some magical medicinal value. “It’s very famous and very tasty,” says Wissam, who also recommends a rosewater drink. “Everything is natural, it’s something special. The person who loses at backgammon pays for the drinks.
“When the café was established Nazareth was a small town, including only the old city and market, and everyone came here,” relates Wissam. “During the British Mandate it was a restaurant-bar that attracted English customers as well. We sold labaneh (Lebanese-style cream cheese) and arak (an anise-flavored alcoholic drink). In 1948 it stopped providing liquor and became a café. I won’t go into politics, but things changed.”
One of the things that turned out to be detrimental to the old part of the city was, surprisingly, the extensive renovations done ahead of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000. These blocked the entry to many businesses for several years and the area around the city’s central spring has only recently recovered. “We had an old wooden sign for the café and when renovations were done 20 years ago it was thrown away. Today I’d like to reconstitute it,” says Abu Salem. The café currently has no sign at all, and you need the help of passersby to find it.
In his youth Wissam worked at clubs such as Lima Lima and TLV in Tel Aviv. When he took over the management of the café in 2007 he tried to bring the fun spirit of that city to Nazareth. His customers, however, remained the same old-timers. He therefore chose to maintain that character, leaving in place the traditional café that is open only until the afternoon hours.
At the same time, more modern bars and cafes for the younger crowd were sprouting all around. “My dream is to further open this area and bring in some night life, turning the café into a bar after 7 P.M., with the pensioners coming here during daytime hours,” he says. “For them the café is a home, like a school one goes to every morning. It’s part of their lives.”