From fasting to feasting

Tours of Arab towns and villages that come to life as the sun sets during Ramadan.

Delicious fried treats to celebrate the end of the fast each day (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Delicious fried treats to celebrate the end of the fast each day
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
We Israelis are very proud of our Jewish and national holidays, but sometimes we forget that some of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish.
Currently, Israel’s Muslim community is celebrating Ramadan, so I decided to put aside our political differences and experience Muslim hospitality firsthand. This year, Ramadan ends on July 5, so there are still a few days left to venture out and visit tourism options provided by our Muslim neighbors.
Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, and the Shared Tourism Forum, which is funded by USAID, have joined forces and created a series of events called Ramadan Nights. There are tours and activities in Arab towns and villages, all of which are geared towards introducing the Israeli public to Arab customs. During Ramadan, for example, day and night are reversed, and so tours take place in the afternoons and evenings when the streets come to life.
I participated in a fascinating tour of Kafr Kasim, which is located just north of Rosh Ha’ayin off Road 5. The tour of the city, which residents still refer to as a village, was led by Shuwaket Amar, a high-school teacher from one of the village’s most veteran families. Twenty-five thousand people currently live in Kafr Kasim, an Israeli Sunni village, 15,000 of whom are from the original families and 10,000 of whom are Beduin from the Beersheba area, or Palestinians who were considered collaborators or who married women from the village.
The tour begins at the entrance of Kafr Kasim and continues on to the city’s main street where there’s a monument in memory of residents who were killed in 1956 by Israeli border policemen. The monument tells the complex story of the Israeli Arabs who live there and how they simultaneously want to memorialize those who died, and to live in peace with their Jewish Israeli neighbors. As we were listening to the story about the monument, the nearby Shuhada Mosque was filling up with worshipers coming to say the special Ramadan prayers.
If you’re like me, you’ll agree that one of the most interesting parts of a tour anywhere in the world is sneaking off for a few minutes into the tiny neighborhood shops. On the main road, I found a small spice shop called Baharat Yehye that’s been in business for 16 years that sells traditional medicinal herbs. Yehye, the owner, who considers himself a pharmacist of sorts, is happy to explain to customers what each spice, herb and oil can do to heal or protect us. Yehye is a specialist in preparing medicinal oils and herbal compounds and can recognize every herb by smell. In addition to the herbs, when you walk in his shop you can also smell his freshly ground coffee.
And since it’s impossible to visit an Arab village and leave with an empty stomach, the next stop on our tour was Muna’s Catering. Muna is an amazing woman who hosts guests in her home (on Road 24) and serves authentic Arabic cuisine (take-away is also available). Among the dishes Muna prepares are meat and tahini, roast chicken, a variety of soups, seasoned rice, salads and desserts. If you happen to be visiting the area, you can always stop in to pick up provisions for a picnic and then continue to the nearby Rosh Ha’ayin forest.
Tel: (03) 525-4276, 054-871-1528.
One of the greatest surprises during our tour in Kafr Kasim was meeting Lalya, an embroiderer and story-teller. A special education teacher by profession, Layla uses her expertise and love for embroidery to break down the barriers among her students. In addition to being a mother of four, Layla volunteers with Magen David Adom, where she teaches CPR.
Two years ago, Layla began embroidering on clothing and jewelry and just about any object she put her hands on. After a while, she realized she had amassed quite a collection and so she began selling her wares at the Ramadan market and at markets in Nazareth.
Beside providing her with additional income, embroidery has become a way for her to instill in young people pride in their heritage and culture. She loves teaching embroidery – and especially its significance in the traditional Arab wedding ceremony – to her children and anyone else who wants to learn.
In previous generations, brides wore traditional robes that were specific to the region in which they resided. There was complex embroidery on each dress, and it took about a year to complete a wedding dress, even with all the female relatives helping out. Wedding dresses were passed down from generation to generation, and Layla has a dress that has been in her family for 90 years. She has other dresses, too, on display in her home that are so incredible they could easily be found in a museum.
Tel: 054-910-6337.
During the tour of Kafr Kasim, we also entered one of the older neighborhoods where we saw a house that was built in 1918 – almost a hundred years ago – that belongs to the Sarsur Family. From the structure, you get a sense of how traditional Arab families used to live. Multiple branches of the extended family lived within the structure, with each nuclear family receiving a different room. The patriarch of the family lived on the top floor, with the single men and boys in an adjacent room, while the women and girls slept on the ground floor. The family pets would sleep near the fruit trees in the courtyard. Up until the 1980s the extended family all lived in the house, but slowly married children decided to move into their own more spacious homes with their new families. Currently, only one nuclear family remains in the house, and they’re trying hard to keep the house standing.
The last place we went on our tour was to the local food market. Every year during Ramadan, a market spontaneously sprouts up in the late afternoons so that people can purchase provisions for the post-fast meal each evening. Customers can choose from an assortment of local Arab delicacies, such as kanafeh, kataif, falafel, fruit and pickles. Interestingly, I only saw men in the market, and when I asked why that was, I was told that the men would be going home to prepare the nightly feast, not the women. At any rate, I recommend stocking up on some nice treats before the end of your tour.