'Druze Tel Aviv' in Northern Israel Rebrands Itself as a Thriving Cultural Hub

Once priding in high army enlistment rates, Daliat al-Carmel now wants to showcase its artistic scene

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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'Daliat al-Carmel is the Druze Tel Aviv,' says local council head Rafik Halabi.
'Daliat al-Carmel is the Druze Tel Aviv,' says local council head Rafik Halabi.Credit: Rami Shllush
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

There is a wide smile on the face of local council head Rafik Halabi. “Daliat al-Carmel is the Druze Tel Aviv,” he says. “You may not see it, but we’re a genuine cultural center. There’s no discussion about violence here. There’s a different kind of talk here: about art, painting, literature, music, photography and education.”

Halabi says that declaring Daliat al-Carmel a cultural center is his own whim, but it has a broad and deep foundation. He says that the percentage of local writers is the highest in Israel. “The town is bursting with culture,” he adds enthusiastically. “Don’t forget, this is the village of Salman Natour [a Druze writer, journalist and playwright], of [poet] Nazia Khir, of [writer and journalist] Musabah Halabi.

Daliat al-Carmel. 'The town is bursting with culture.'Credit: Doron Golan / Gini

“Wonderful artists live here, such as Salah Alkara and Sam Halabi. There is a tremendous flourishing of photography, with young and talented photographers such as Jadir Natour Kayouf, who is now documenting women in local society.” Halabi falls silent for a second and immediately continues: “We’re Tel Aviv in other senses, too – the percentage of divorces here is relatively high for Arab society, and the percentage of college-educated women is the highest in Arab society – 80 percent of the college graduates in the village are women.”

He quickly mentions Dr. Kamela Badria, who finished her doctoral studies in the field of aeronautics and space, and Dr. Yarin Hadid, who is involved in genetic research. “Trailblazing women,” Halabi calls them. “You, the Jews, insist on relating to us as a hamula [clan]. We haven’t been there for a long time. The time has come to progress. Cultural events in the village, which are designed first and foremost for the local residents, will attract guests from outside too, and will make our place and our identity clear.”

He details the rich offering of cultural events in Daliat al-Carmel, which reaches a climax every year in May during the week-long local cultural festival, which next year will be devoted to young people. The town will hold three other festivals in addition to that one.

I belong to the place

Daliat al-Carmel is the largest Druze community is Israel, with 17,000 residents. All of the local council’s publications underscore the idea of the village as a cultural center, and as Halabi says of himself, “That’s what interests me. I’m already 73 years old, and I’ve had my fill of politics and nonsense. I don’t want to go to the Knesset. All I want is to leave behind me a different community, the opposite of the one where I grew up – an open, modern and young place.”

School pupils in Daliat al-Carmel.Credit: Rami Shllush

He is well aware that these adjectives don’t easily conform with the image of Druze society, which for decades was seen in Israel as reclusive, traditional and conservative.

Halabi was elected to his position six years ago, after a long career in the Israeli media. He started out as the assistant of Teddy Kollek when Kollek was the mayor of Jerusalem, and later worked in Israeli television for many years, as a reporter in the territories and as the editor of the nightly news program “Mabat.” It was for his work there that he won the Sokolow Prize for journalism.

In the 1980s he participated in the founding of the weekly newspaper Koteret Roshit, and taught communications at several universities. In 2013 he was elected as the head of the regional council in Daliat al-Carmel, his hometown, for the first time. Five years later, he was elected for a second term. Both times he received a large majority of the vote, about two-thirds of the residents.

Daliat al-Carmel. 'We’re becoming more Druze. Local patriotism is intensifying.'Credit: Rami Shllush

Speaking to him in his office, it’s very clear that now he feels liberated. On the one hand, he is proud of his hometown – a quintessential local patriot – and on the other, he is very angry at Israeli society. A year and a half has passed since the Knesset passed the nation-state law, and the insult still stings. It comes up in every conversation with Daliat al-Carmel residents.

“The subject of identity is problematic in Israeli society,” asserts Halabi. “It’s more problematic for Arabs than for Jews. Tel Aviv is an identity more than a place to live. It’s clear to all of us that there’s now a battle over the image of Jewish society and Arab society. The Jews have a strong messianic and reclusive tendency, and along the way they’re causing a breakdown of statesmanship.

“It affects us, the Druze, as well. How? We’re becoming more Druze. Local patriotism is intensifying. But only 12 percent of the residents are religious. We have a strong and long-term Israeli identity, but after the legislation of the nation-state law, we’re hearing statements like ‘I belong to the place’ or ‘My blood is from Daliat al-Carmel.’ That’s the effect of the racist law.”

To explain the local change, Halabi displays photos of the two entrances to the village. At the entrance from the direction of Yokne’am, the traditional Druze star symbol is on display. At the second one, on the other side of the village, there’s a large hashtag alongside its name, a symbol that he says signifies the modernization that’s happening here.

Part of the significant change in Druze society, he says, is related to the fact that its most prominent identifying characteristic until now was military service. The nation-state law dealt a mortal blow to that, and now the direction has changed to involvement in local culture and academe. Identification with the Israel Defense Forces has lost its luster, explains Halabi, who decades ago served as an officer in a reconnaissance battalion.

The ancient core

At the end of our conversation, Halabi urges me to go for a walk around the village. Inbal Maklada, who is in charge of tourism in the local council, and Alon Maklada, a tour guide, accompany me. (“We’re members of the same family and we were both born in the village,” they say, without explaining further. Later Alon, 30, explains that his parents named him after Israeli politician Yigal Allon).

We walk about a kilometer in a northwesterly directly, from the local council to Oliphant House, in the old core of the village. On both sides of the street, on the walls of the houses we pass, there are photographs portraying people from the village, local events, buildings and well-attended demonstrations. Paintings adorn some of the buildings; on others, there are ceramic works of art.

Sam Halabi, a 30-year-old artist who says he began working as an artist at the age of 12.Credit: Moshe Gilad

I’m happy to see that the village still looks like a place where people live rather than a tourist site. In the past, bombastic declarations describing a place as a cultural center or an “Artists’ Quarter” (in Jaffa, Mitzpe Ramon or Safed) have claimed victims and turned neighborhoods into ghost towns. That hasn’t happened yet in Daliat al-Carmel. The number of falafel stands, shawarma restaurants and cafes is still far greater than the number of works of street art.

Oliphant House, which is being renovated, is part of the Yad Labanim complex, a memorial to fallen Druze soldiers and one of the most interesting sites in the village. Its story attests to the complex relationship between the locals and their surroundings over 100 years ago.

British writer and traveler Laurence Oliphant, who lived in Haifa for several years, built the impressive house in the late 19th century as a summer home. Its construction cost him $800 and was concluded in 1884. The view from the house is amazing. The slopes of the Carmel, Nahal Bustan, Ein Hod, Kibbutz Beit Oren and the Atlit coastline all contribute to the charm of the place. Regrettably, most of the orchards and trees that grew there in Oliphant’s time were uprooted – and yet, the place is still pretty.

Rafik Halabi. 'There’s a different kind of talk here.'Credit: Rami Shllush

Poet Naphtali Herz Imber was Oliphant’s secretary. He lived with him and his wife Alice in their home in Haifa and in the summer home in Daliat al-Carmel. According to one of the local legends, it was right here, in the stone house at the edge of the village, that Imber wrote the words for “Hatikva,” the song that became the anthem of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. According to reliable testimony, the poem was apparently written six years earlier and in another place, but the residents of Daliat al-Carmel who love their village are convinced that “Hatikva” was written right here.

On the way back, on a parallel street, we stand in front of the site sacred to the prophet Abu Ibrahim, where Maklada explains several of the tenets of the Druze faith, and in particular dwells on the belief in reincarnation, which always sounded to me like an intriguing idea with potential (when my soul is reincarnated, who will I want to be?).

Burning ground

Salah Alkara is one of the most senior and important artists in the village. His gallery is full of fascinating paintings. Many of them are hanging on the walls and others are leaning on one another. It’s very tempting to look through them. I find the paintings wonderful, and even before we sit down I compliment his work.

Alkara serves me my fourth cup of coffee of the morning and goes on the attack: “A cultural center should develop naturally, and we have a serious problem. In the past 50 years nothing has developed naturally here. The external change in our lives is tremendous, but on the inside we haven’t changed at all.” Alkara also says that “In Dalia, there isn’t a house without someone who is connected to art. The people of Dalia originated in Aleppo [in Syria], and that’s the art city of the Middle East.”

Photographer Jadir Natour Kayouf, who is now documenting women in local society.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Alkara explains that he lives in two worlds – here, in Dalia, and in Tel Aviv – where his works are on display in several galleries. He describes his unique technique as follows: “I paint without brushes and make a lot of use of spatulas and builders’ tools. I spread colors and begin to add and remove layers. This way it’s never possible to know what will be revealed.”

Less that half an hour after we met and without my asking, he starts talking about the nation-state law. It’s simply burning inside him: “It’s a clear case of unrequited love for the State of Israel. One day it turned out that we’re your best friend, but you left us outside the fence. I’m an old-timer, and I’m still fighting to receive recognition and identity. It’s not an easy battle. The general attitude is that all the culture belongs to the Jewish people and you’re allowing me to learn something from you. Well, thank you very much.”

A moment later he gives me an invitation to the opening of an exhibition at the Chagall Artists’ House in Haifa. It’s a joint exhibition with artist Ruth Segal and is entitled “Burning Ground.” Alkara points out the speakers at the opening: Rafik Halabi and Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, the mainly Arab party. “Now you’ll understand what a crazy place you live in. We invited the mayor of Haifa and she couldn’t come, but people said to me, ‘There’s no balance here. How can it be that the speakers are only Arabs?’ What balance? Why does there have to be balance at the opening of an art exhibition?”

Alkara doesn’t hesitate to criticize the village of his birth as well. “An artist like me feels like a foreigner both in the village and in the eyes of those who come from outside. I’m treated well in Dalia, but I would like to talk to the residents much more about my art.”

Salah Alkara. One of the most senior and important artists in the village.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Several times during the conversation, Alkara repeated his opinion that there should be a municipal gallery in Daliat al-Carmel. Local artists would be exhibited in such an institution, and there would also be changing exhibitions of artists from other places. Such a gallery, he says, would place Dalia in the in the respected place it deserves in the Israeli art scene.

Today there are several artists’ galleries in the village. One of them belongs to local artist Buteina Halabi, who in the past decade has been painting images of Jews during the period of the Holocaust and in the concentration camps. One of her paintings in on display in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and she started a museum to commemorate the Holocaust in Daliat al-Carmel, where she has organized many visits for Druze and Jewish students. She has also participated in the March of the Living in Poland.

In another gallery I met Sam Halabi, a 30-year-old artist who says he began working as an artist at the age of 12. His paintings are very colorful. In most of them there is a large tree that he calls the “Tree of Life.” Sam Halabi explains that there is nothing more natural than declaring Daliat al-Carmel a cultural center. “There are so many young people here who want to express themselves, who have talent, and it’s clear that in the end they will receive recognition all over the country.”

Progress scares him a little. There are too many distractions, and it is actually the traditional values of the village that bring out the best in him, he says. “I’m not budging from here,” he explains. “I love the place and my roots are here. These are precisely the things I need for my art.” When I leave his studio, I understand that the idea of Daliat al-Carmel as a cultural center is not so far-fetched after all.

A street in Daliat al-Carmel.Credit: Rami Shllush

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