The heart of Acre’s Old City is a warren of dim, arched stone passages where blue-painted doors open into tiny shops and dark courtyards. It’s eerily quiet.There are no street signs, only plaques with quotations from the Koran nailed to the walls. You must go on foot. The shabby, mostly empty alleys are too narrow to allow cars.Apart from a few tourists drifting around, I was alone in a totally Arab environment. I wondered if I were safe, but I trudged on, telling myself that no one was even giving me a second glance. Around every corner there was a sign with an arrow pointing to the Arabesque Hotel. Having gone past one sign and gotten lost, I backtracked and asked a shop owner for directions. He heard my accent and told me in English where to walk. I followed his instructions and halted in front of a large blue gate, pressing the doorbell, and entered a small world of beauty and peace.“Arabesque” denotes graceful, flowing lines in art, music, and ballet. It’s the word Evan Fallenberg – award-winning writer, translator and professor – chose to name the Ottoman-era house he rebuilt in Acre’s Old City.Fallenberg estimates that the house is around 300 years old. It was far from graceful when he bought it, after being abandoned for some 30 years, maybe longer, and was falling down. A neighbor had used one of the rooms to stable two horses. Others had installed workshops in the open courtyard.It had never known running water or electricity, but Fallenberg, seeking a new home with plenty of character, sensed potential beauty in the historical building. He built a stunning hotel inside the rough stone walls. Metro talked with Micha Fallenberg, the owner’s son and manager of Arabesque.“When I first saw the place, I thought my father was crazy,” Micha says frankly. “To buy property in Acre’s Old City – anything could happen here, I thought. It was a mess.“There was a huge crack in the ceiling. Someone once had a whitewash factory in the courtyard. People used to come in with their buckets and take them away filled with paint. The shop also rented extra-tall ladders.”He adds humorously, “Anytime you saw someone painting a wall, you knew where the paint and ladder came from: here. There was a carpentry shop in here, too. They probably made the ladders. Another time, a neighbor ran a boys’ boxing ring here.”Undaunted by the mess, Fallenberg brought in an architect who shared his vision and hired Arab and Jewish workers, deliberately creating a team of mixed cultures. It was the first step toward his larger vision of peaceful interaction between people.The team transformed the place into a hotel accommodating 12 guests in three exquisite rooms. As renovations do, it took much more time and money than Fallenberg expected. His own resources run dry, he set up a crowdfunding campaign to finish the work.“Acre is under the protection of UNESCO as a heritage site,” explains Micha. “We could use only specific, very expensive, construction materials in the renovation, and the workers had to build in a specific way that took a lot of time. And my father wanted every detail done right.”When the work was finished down to the last electrical outlet, faucet and bookshelf, Fallenberg realized that the place’s purpose was going to be different from his original idea. “It became clear that we had to rent it out to recover the investment,” says Micha. “But we had a unique concept of what this hotel should be. We wanted Arabesque to be a natural part of the environment, and it is.“You sit in the courtyard and smell people’s dinners cooking; watch their laundry blowing; kids waving down at you from next door. We’re almost family with our neighbors. It’s like a kibbutz here in the Old City; everyone knows each other and what everybody does.“You don’t know how often I’ve sat here expecting visitors, and a neighbor bangs on the gate: ‘Hey, I brought you your guests! They were lost!’“It’s not a matter of coexistence,” Micha continues. “It’s just existence. And yes, you’re safe walking around alone. People here expect to get along. They want to go about their business in peace. Go ahead, take a long walk through the town, you’ll be fine.”Before setting out on my walk, I drink a cup of excellent coffee prepared by Maharan, who co-manages Arabesque with Micha. He’s the son of the next-door neighbor and grew up running in and out of the property.I relax at the long table in the hall/dining room, admiring the mosaic floor, the baby piano, niches stacked with books (there are bookshelves everywhere, with books in at least three languages). The atmosphere of modern comfort blended with Acre’s ancient history makes me feel as if I’d stepped into a conveniently modernized time warp.Maharan opens the door to the shaded courtyard. Comfortable chairs are set here and there among orange trees. A tiled wall tap drips into a ceramic basin, making a soothing burble. Geraniums hang from wall pots. You can pick a sprig of the mint or fragrant micromeria to put in your tea.My room is called the Peacock Room. A bronze chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling. The air conditioning is already on and feels great on this hot day. There’s plenty of antique furniture, including a writing table whose drawers all work.A coffee corner with an electric kettle and the usual array of coffee, tea, and sugar stands at the entrance. There’s a small refrigerator, a big-screen TV, and a bookshelf containing many books. The shining-clean and modern bathroom has Armenian tiles depicting a peacock in full display. This luxurious suite, incredibly, was the horse stable.Micha recounts that, when they dug the floor out, they discovered Crusader arches underneath. The place echoes with history, but no ghost disturbs my peaceful sleep that night. Maybe my long walk around the exotic market place has something to do with that. And although the Muslim call to prayer undoubtedly echoed through the surrounding alleys while I slept, I heard nothing.I ask Micha about the special events noted on the Arabesque website.“We’ve already hosted several events here,” he says. “We had a summer camp for Jewish and Arab children who’d lost family members through political conflict. It was wonderful to watch them interacting, making friends. We didn’t charge the organization; it was our contribution. Then we’ve had paid wine and culinary evenings for groups that rented the whole facility.”He then reveals Fallenberg’s long-term dream for Arabesque.“Eventually, we’ll have an arts residency center here. My father is now sourcing funds to organize creative writing retreats and a variety of courses, including Arabic classes for visitors, and English-language classes for locals. We’ll host culinary workshops with chefs from local restaurants, and musical events with local musicians and artists. Our dream is to create interaction and dialogue through the arts.”In the meantime, Arabesque is a dreamy place to stay for tourists.“Our guests love staying here, because we offer a different angle on life here from what they get reading the news,” Micha says. “They meet me, the Jew, and Maharan the Arab. They ask questions about Israel, politics, everything.
“We don’t have an agenda; not Left, and not Right. But whatever we touch here we do it with respect, and people respect us for it. For example, we sell beer and wine, but in order not to offend Muslim visitors we placed the wine cooler in a little corner and don’t display bottles on the kitchen bar.”The Fallenbergs go out of their way to accommodate their guests’ needs. The breakfast Micha serves is generous and varied. Although Arabesque’s kitchen isn’t kosher, they keep separate cookware, utensils and plates for kashrut observers, plus a Shabbat hot plate and hot-water urn. Strict kashrut observers may prefer to buy ready-made food in Haifa or to bring their own.There are two kosher restaurants in the new city. Those not concerned with kashrut have a choice of seafood restaurants located along the beach front.
Micha, a former tour guide, knows the prices and schedules of all the local sites. He’ll open his laptop and sit with guests, showing the relevant websites and giving advice for the best touring experience. Before they set off on their explorations, he hands them a map of the Old City.The one caveat about Arabesque is arriving there. Outside the Old City, no one knows the address, which is 11/270 Elharizi Street. The taxi driver I hailed at the train station was puzzled when I told him the address. “Lady, I’ve worked in Acre 20 years, but I’ve never heard of that street,” he said.And no wonder. The street name and the house numbers are simply scrawled on the doors, so you follow them up and down the winding alley, hoping you’re going in the right direction. Keep Arabesque’s phone number handy – Micha or Maharan will tell you where to go if you get lost.The Lighthouse parking lot is where you can park or get dropped off, then you must penetrate the Old City on foot. But don’t fear: Once you’ve oriented yourself at Arabesque, it’s easy to find your way around when you go outdoors again. If you keep your eye on landmarks – the grocery store, the mosque, an eye-catching door – you won’t go astray for too long.Anyway, you can always ask a friendly neighbor. They all know the Arabesque.Arabesque Hotel 11/270 Elharizi Street, Acre 054-835-6518 www.arabesqueinacre.com and on Facebook