Surge of Muslim visitors during Ramadan emphasizes Acre's Arab identity

Id al-Fitr, the joyous holiday ending the fasting month, starts Sunday

A view of Acre harbor (photo credit: SHELLEY BRINN)
A view of Acre harbor
(photo credit: SHELLEY BRINN)
Acre’s Crusader history receives the most emphasis as the government tries to turn it into a magnet for more foreign tourists. And as far as local residents are concerned, Jews outnumber Arabs two to one and control the municipality.
But during the evenings of Ramadan, which ended on Saturday, Israeli Arabs from all over the north of the country reclaim Acre as an integral part of the Arab world, packing its Old City’s Khan Shwarda area. That is an Ottoman courtyard transformed in recent years to a mecca of competing cafés serving up snacks and offering nargileh water pipes with sweet apple tobacco.
Israeli Jews were nowhere to be found in Khan Shwarda and no Hebrew was to be heard there, giving it an abroad feel. Those in the square were relaxing and recovering from the hardship of fasting – the fourth pillar of Islam that underlines the added sanctity of Ramadan, during which according to tradition the Koran was revealed.
“We like the Ramadan atmosphere in Acre, it’s a real festive feeling,” said Adeb Hawari, a plumber from Nazareth. Before coming to the khan, his family broke their fast with the traditional iftar meal at a fish restaurant and also went on a boat excursion. Ramadan falls on a different month every year.
This year, fasting was challenging because of the long days and the heat. “The fast is not easy but it’s meaningful,” said Sawsan Fakhouri, also from Nazareth.
Samia Jabareen, a nurse from Umm el-Fahm, said: “It’s not hard to fast because God helps you.”
Then she added: “Anyway you have to do hard things to get into heaven.”
Hawari’s wife, Zina Haloumi, said: “It is a month of worship, religion and charity. It’s serious and happy at the same time.”
It’s also the month when the best shows are on television. On Thursday night, the whole square was watching on giant screens a Saudi satellite station showing Bab al-Hara, a series with a Syrian star, Abbas Nouri, that is set during the French Mandate in Syria.
There were still people in the square at 1:30 a.m. Some of these same people sleep for less than two hours, waking at 3:30 a.m. to eat breakfast before the day’s fasting starts. Then they go back to sleep.
“There is no sex during the day and no eating. It’s the same rules as Yom Kippur but it’s for a month,” said Mizhar Haloumi, the brother of Zina who works at Intel in Kiryat Gat. “If you control eating, drinking and sex you can control everything. Ramadan teaches you how to control your soul. That’s the meaning of Ramadan.”
For the café owners it also has another meaning: their most profitable month. “I make about 50% more in Ramadan than in other months,” said Manar Khalaila, owner of the Burj Restaurant.
“When it isn’t Ramadan, not enough people come,” he said.
“We want guests all year round, not just a month. We want more Jewish tourists from the center of the country. There’s good food, antiquities, a lot to see, it’s safe and the residents love to host.” Khalaila credited city hall with building up tourism and “supporting both Jews and Arabs.”
Asked about communal violence in Acre in 2008 after an Arab drove into a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, he said: “That was a long time ago and it was pinpointed.”
Sami Manar, owner of El Khan Café, said his business and Khan Shwarda are struggling despite the Ramadan evening turnout: “On a normal day you won’t see anyone here. The situation is difficult. The government doesn’t encourage foreigners to come here. The development is for Jews.”
Acre will also get a surge of Muslim visitors over the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, which starts on Sunday.
It is the most joyous festival in the Muslim calendar, coming after the lifting of the Ramadan strictures.
For the holiday, people wear new clothes, visit and give presents to each other, and go to relatives’ graves. The family of Nivine Fakhoury, 36, from Nazareth, holds a barbecue. “It’s sad that Ramadan ends, but we look forward to it next year,” she said.