In 2017 Ala Hlehel published “Au Revoir Acre,” a cruel and marvelous fictional account of Napoleon’s siege of the city. In the middle of the book (Battle 18), he writes: “It seemed as if all the people had conversed among themselves and decided to disappear all at once from the streets and the cafés. The port had never emptied so quickly of the last of its workers. ... The market was also completely empty, to the great joy of the dogs and cats who became masters of the alleys.”
Hlehel was describing April 1799, during Napoleon’s failed siege. It lasted 54 days, and ended when his army withdrew back to Egypt. Some 222 years have passed since that bloody war. During a visit to Acre’s empty market last week, I started to tear up.
We stood in a large souvenir shop in the middle of the market. I chose gifts for family members who were having birthdays, and gave the money to the proprietor. The woman, an Arab in her 50s, looked at us for a long moment and then said quietly, “I want to tell you something. The money is important, but more important to me is that you came today. Thank you for coming. My husband didn’t want to get out of bed. He said there’s no point opening the store; no one is coming anyway. In the past few weeks we haven’t sold anything. In the end I persuaded him to come and open and look, you came, as if from heaven. Thank you.”
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I left the store because I was embarrassed by my tears. My partner remained a bit to talk to the owner and said afterward that both of them had cried. The proprietor had spoken at length about her son, who was supposed to go to university but then, after a year in which there were no tourists, foreign or Israeli, came the terrible chaos of last month. Now everything is ruined; her son has gotten a factory job and who knows if he’ll be able to study at all.
The market was empty, pretty but sad, as in Hlehel’s book, just like the days of Napoleon’s siege on the city. The market is wonderful because it’s still in the middle of things – it has fish and produce stalls, alongside souvenir and other shops aimed at tourists. It has spice shops and clothing stores. There had been times in the past when I could hardly make my way through the throngs. The market twists along several alleys from the Al-Jazzar Mosque, named for the Ottoman governor who resisted Napoleon’s invasion, toward the Pisani Port and the sea. Last week everything was empty, almost abandoned.
Two years ago, while accompanying a visiting journalist from Moscow, we stood on line for half an hour for a table at Hummus Said, in the middle of the market. We eventually gave up and ate somewhere else. We promised our guest similar hummus, but it wasn’t true; Said’s is better, some say the best in Israel. Last week, 15 of Said’s 20 tables were empty; all the patrons were local Arabs. There were no Jews. The waiter said that it had been this way for a few weeks; there was nothing to do about it, that’s how it is and it will get better. Thanks, and come again.
I stopped at a small café. A moment later, the owner sat down next to me. He also wanted to talk. He told me he was 80 and had been through “all the wars,” and still, he’d never seen anything like this. “Once the Jews would come back after a day or two. Then sometimes it would take a week or two. This time it will apparently take longer.”
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Why do you think the Jews aren’t coming?
“They’re afraid. I can understand that.”
“Stupid kids. They’re bored. Maybe criminals. People who anyway have nothing. Maybe people who are trying to get stores to pay protection money. Idiots.”
Is it scary here now?
The old man looked at me and smiled. “Do I look scary to you? So tell your friends to come.”
I tried several times to ask whether the market was so empty is because Jews are afraid to come, or because they are punishing Acre’s Arab residents for “bad behavior.” None of my Arab interlocutors was prepared to admit to the second possibility. What are you talking about? They’re just afraid.
A lot has been written in recent weeks about the importance of Jewish-Arab coexistence. A lot has also been said to the effect that coexistence doesn’t mean eating hummus in Arab shops. That’s true, but when times are hard, one visits those having a hard time. Things are tough in Acre now, and it’s important to visit there, particularly now. Sometimes even eating hummus can be a demonstration of fraternity and friendship. There aren’t too many places in Israel as beautiful and fascinating as the Old City of Acre. There aren’t too many places where Jews visiting Arabs now is more important.