A cultural mosaic

Umm el-Fahm, the country's largest all-Muslim city, is becoming a center of art, education and tourism

Umm El Fahm 521 (photo credit: Maurice Picow)
Umm El Fahm 521
(photo credit: Maurice Picow)
The El-Baboor restaurant in the Wadi Ara city of Umm el- Fahm is nearly always jampacked on weekends and holidays – most of the diners being Jewish Israelis visiting from as far away as Ashkelon and Tel Aviv.
In addition to a number of “Middle Eastern” restaurants, this bustling Israeli Arab city of more than 60,000 residents also boasts the new, modern Abed El-Latif shopping mall; and what is being billed as the only Israeli Arab gallery of contemporary Arab art, founded in 1996.
“Umm el-Fahm has had a stigma as a place you shouldn’t go to, a dangerous place,” says Said Abu Shakra, the museum’s founder and curator. “We believe prophecies fulfill themselves. If people say it is dangerous, it will be. If people say it is a place of art, it will be.”
This is the same Umm el-Fahm that seems to get ongoing bad PR from the media. It was from here that violent protests erupted following the Israeli commando boarding of the Turkish Mavi Marmara “aid” ship on May 31 last year. Protests recurred in October when right-wing Jewish groups came to the city to demonstrate in favor of Jewish sovereignty in the West Bank.
Umm el-Fahm is also the city where rallies in support of the ultra-conservative Islamic Movement have filled the city’s central sports stadium.
Despite these issues, with more and more Jewish Israelis visiting the city, it now appears that Abu Shakra’s second prophecy may have become the more relevant one.
“When I tell people, ‘Let’s go visit Umm el-Fahm,’ they often look at me like I want to take them to Jenin in the West Bank,” says Carl Perkal of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel. “In reality, Umm el-Fahm, Israel’s largest all-Muslim city, is one of the friendliest and most hospitable places you can imagine.”
Perkal is director of the non-governmental organization’s resource development department, whose goal is to advance equality between Jews and Arabs. The idea, he says, is to find ways to bring regional Arabs and Jews together.
It began soon after October 2000, when 12 Israeli Arabs were killed by security forces during riots and demonstrations in a number of Israeli Arab towns and villages in Galilee.
“The regional cooperation idea received a big boost when Ilan Sade of Moshav Ma’anit, head of the Menashe Regional Council, established a forum with then Umm el-Fahm mayor Sheikh Hashem Abed Alrahman. Together with Sikkuy, they began to look for ways for the minority Jewish population of Wadi Ara – around 20 percent – to work together with the majority 80% Arab population. Both Sade and Sheikh Hashem have worked together since 2003 on this regional cooperation project, which is divided into three areas, the first being the establishment of a new Wadi Ara industrial zone, for which the Menashe council has already allocated land.
The second area involves working together on environmental issues, including setting up the first clean air monitoring station in Umm el-Fahm. The third involves working together for the advancement of tourism in Wadi Ara.
“Previously, Arabs were excluded from the establishment of industrial zones, resulting in their having no other choice than to create cottage industries in their own communities – often as part of their own homes,” Perkal says.
The tourism project has resulted in the establishment of the all-volunteer Marvad Yarok (Green Carpet) organization, whose purpose is to expand sustainable cooperation between Arabs and Jews throughout the area.
THE FIRST stop on our visit to Umm el- Fahm was the El-Ahalya High School for gifted children, part of the ATID advanced educational program founded by the David Navon Foundation that specializes in the fields of science and technology. Each year approximately 25,000 children and young adults are enrolled in 20 schools and eight colleges that prepare gifted students for professional careers.
Metro met with Dr. Samir Mahamid, principal of El-Ahalya. The school in Umm el-Fahm is the only one of its kind among Israel’s Arab population, he says. Its curriculum comprises four main matriculation categories. A fifth is being added.
“Our school tries to establish a link between the school curriculum and the parents, who are often involved in choosing the subjects taught here.
Students come to the school from communities like Shfaram in the North, all the way to Dimona in the South, which includes Beduin students. The students rent rooms in town and go home on weekends,” Mahamid explains.
Presently, there are 599 students enrolled in the school – 62% of them girls.
The El-Ahalya School started seven years ago and during first year, all the students achieved a bagrut matriculation.
They have to study five levels of Hebrew in addition to Arabic and high levels of English.
The school also prepares students to take the pre-university psychometric exams. In April, 142 students took the preparatory courses and 85 received an exam score of at least 600 out of 800; 29 scored above 700.
The school keeps track of the students after they leave. Some go to colleges and universities in Israel while others (around 25%) go abroad to countries like Germany, Jordan and Moldova.
Study majors include engineering and the medical professions, as well as teaching.
“The medical-related professions are very popular. Many students also complete special projects at schools like the Technion,” Mahmid adds. Half of El- Ahalya’s student body comes from Umm el-Fahm. “The idea is not to weaken the school systems of other locations by absorbing too many of their smart students,” says Mahamid.
There are four high schools in Um el- Fahm, of which three are mixed. The traditional lifestyle of many girls does not infringe on their studies, Mahamid says.
The modern school building was built at a cost of NIS 22 million, all funds coming from the Islamic Movement.
Nothing came from the government, says Mahamid, who is a plant geneticist and not an educator by profession.
“The El-Ahalya school is based on the state curriculum and focuses on preparing students for the matriculation exams. The Arab population realizes that higher education is the way to advance,” says Mahamid.
“When I invite my Jewish friends to see the school, and they see the subjects being taught here, they tell me they would like their children to go to this kind of school,” Mahamid says.
Perkal brings up the idea of bringing native English-speaking volunteers from both Israel and abroad to live in Umm el-Fahm for four months and work with schoolchildren on improving their English language skills.
“I would like you to think about this idea,” he urges Mahamid. “Maybe we can develop a project to do this in cooperation with the American, Canadian or British embassies.”
Metro’s tour of the school includes classroom visits. All the classes are coeducational, perhaps laying to rest many people’s impression that Arab schools, especially in a conservative Muslim environment, are all segregated.
OUR NEXT stop in Umm el-Fahm is the art gallery. Curator and director Said Abu Shakra explains that it began “from a small room of 100 square meters” in 1996. Its purpose was to bring artists and others together in an effort to change the situation in the town and create a multicultural center for people of all religions.
“Umm el-Fahm was not a place for all persons to come to. Now, thanks to the gallery and tourism efforts of Marvad Yarok, more people want to come here.
As a result, the city has become a center of culture,” says Abu Shakra.
“Previously,” he says, “Umm el-Fahm was considered a place where much of the population was poor. Jews came here to show sympathy and didn’t think that the town [now a city] had any cultural base.
“Now we have an archive center with photographs and recorded testimonials of people who lived here years ago, and visitors come to be enriched. The city has gained respect through having the first Arab art gallery in Israel.”
The gallery mounts four annual exhibitions featuring local Arab and Jewish artists, as well as some foreign ones.
These last include a number of Arab artists living abroad who have captured their impressions of scenes in European and other countries. The quality of some of their paintings has been said to rival that of the French impressionists.
The gallery also has a section devoted to art created by women and children. The displays include pottery, paintings and special creations like family trees, where children place the names of family members on the tree’s leaves.
“It is very important to get children involved in art projects because then they become more appreciative of art and culture as adults,” says Abu Shakra.
In addition to children from Umm el- Fahm and other Wadi Ara communities, volunteers already come from abroad to work with the children.
“We have living quarters for these people here at the gallery,” he adds.
The gallery’s archive center, headed by Asraf Mahagareh, photographs and records the life histories of Wadi Ara’s elders. These people have retold the history of their families and events going back to pre-statehood days, when the British Mandatory authorities controlled the region. Their stories, together with photos and news footage from the period, are being preserved on computers and other electronic equipment for future generations.
“So far, more than 500 people have been photographed and their stories recorded by our archives here,” says Mahagareh, adding that until a few years ago, most Jewish schoolchildren did not know what terms like Nakba (the “Catastrophe” of 1948) and Naksa (the “Setback” of 1967) meant.
A new project for the gallery is a contemporary art museum now being planned; and judging from an artist’s sketch on display in the gallery’s main foyer, the new building will be very impressive when completed. The museum’s first phase will cost $13 million and will be located on a 4,000 sq. m.
piece of land donated by the Umm el- Fahm Municipality for this purpose.
“In this way, the culture and history of Umm el-Fahm and the rest of Wadi Ara will be preserved forever,” says Abu Shakra.
GALI KEDAR, a Jewish volunteer for Marvad Yarok, talks about joint tourism events her organization is involved in to promote Jewish and Arab tourism in Wadi Ara. Tourism efforts in the area began in 2004 with the help of Sikkuy and the United Jewish Appeal- Federation of New York, which provided funding. In 2008, Marvad Yarok became an official NGO.
“We are all volunteers, and there are presently between 20 and 30 Jews and Arabs involved in these projects,” she says.
During the past three years, Marvad Yarok has initiated more than 50 Wadi Ara tourist projects involving Arabs and Jews, and has gained the recognition and participation of local municipalities and national government offices. Among the organization’s upcoming cultural projects is the annual Ramadan Nights (Leilot Ramadan), where non-Muslim visitors are invited to participate in the evening Iftar festivities occurring during the month-long Ramadan holiday. This year’s Kolot ha-Wadi (Voices of the Wadi) music festival, organized together with the Umm el-Fahm municipality, will include a classical music concert sponsored by the Arthur Rubinstein Concert Series and held in the city’s Al-Waha Club. This event will be part of the October “Sweet Festival.”
Another event is a monthly bazaar featuring locally-made products, including food, clothing and handicrafts.
Jewish municipalities in the Wadi Ara area will also participate in these festivals, which are divided into two parts for people from all over Israel as well as for those living primarily in the Wadi Ara area.
“The Leilot Ramadan festival will take place during Ramadan from August 1 to 30,” says Kedar. The festival started four years ago and includes the “largest meal in the city,” which takes place during the evening “Iftar” feasting. The Sweet Festival, on October 16, coinciding with Sukkot, will invite both Arabs and Jews to enable them to get acquainted with one another,” Kedar adds.
“Tourists come before sunset to see how people get ready for the Iftar and other festivities. It enables non- Muslims to see its joyfulness and how it is celebrated,” says Muhammad Rabah, Umm el-Fahm’s first licensed tour guide, who completed a special course offered at Bar-Ilan University.
Rabah, an ecologist and director of the municipality’s environmental department, adds that the Iftar festivals are special for Muslim women, who invite guests into their homes to eat special sweets that are prepared for these events.
“All the streets empty during the Iftar as people are celebrating either in their homes or in restaurants,” Rabah adds.
RABAH TAKES Metro and Sikkuy’s Perkal on a tour through the “Old City” of Umm el-Fahm up to the city’s highest point, 300 meters above sea level. The Old City is divided into four major areas, Rabah explains, each controlled by one of four extended families or “hamulas”: Egbaria, Gebarin, Mahagna,and Mahameed.
“In other parts of the city, especially the lower areas, these families are mixed together. But here in the Old City, each hamula has its section,” says Rabah. There are 23 natural water springs in the city, he explains, and residential sections are named after particular springs, from where people drew their water in the past. The spring with the most history is Ein el-Nabi, or Spring of the Prophet.
Umm el-Fahm has 25 mosques; and while the dominant ethnic group is Sunni Muslim, there are small minorities of Sufi Muslims (belonging, Rabah explains, to a branch of Sunni Islam) and of Hagar, related to Shi’ite Muslims living in the disputed border village of Rajar between Israel and Lebanon.
Most of the commercial center, including its banks, was originally located in a section called Meidam, above the Old City, Rabah says. Then “about 10 years ago, the commercial center was moved to an area near the entrance to Umm el-Fahm because there wasn’t enough space, especially parking in the Meidam area.”
At the highest point, Jabel Iskander, an observation deck has been created on the rooftop of a private home that is also a bed and breakfast hotel.
“In addition to facilities like this B&B “zimmer” hotel, authentic Middle Eastern meals with private families are available,” Rabah says.
The observation point allows a near- 360-degree panoramic view that includes Jordan to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and a view of the border “fence” to the south that indicates how close the city is to the Palestinian-controlled section of the northern West Bank.
“This is the so-called Green Line that separates the Palestinian area from Israel,” Rabah says.
Asked what the residents of Umm el-Fahm would prefer if a Palestinian state was created, Rabah replies: “A survey of the residents was taken.
More than 86% of those interviewed said they would prefer to live in their own town on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
“We all hope that a solution will be found regarding the situation [with the Palestinians]. It simply cannot continue as it does now,” says Rabah, pointing to the wall that separates Israel, and Umm el-Fahm, from the northern West Bank.
More information on tourism and cultural projects for Umm el-Fahm and Wadi Ara can be found on the website of the shared Arab- Jewish NGO for tourism, Marvad Yarok: www.wadiara.org.il/index.asp , and the website of the Umm El-Fahm Art Gallery: http://www.umelfahemgallery.org/galleryen/