Commerce and coexistance

Ignoring reports of extreme Islamic groups gaining influence in the city, Jews flock to Tira’s weekly Saturday market,

Tira town square (photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
Tira town square
(photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
At the southern entrance to the Israeli Arab town of Tira, a long convoy of cars lines the main thoroughfare, which has come to resemble a makeshift parking lot every Saturday – the day on which shoppers from as far as Haifa come to patronize one of the most recognizable open-air markets in the country.
Limor Levi, an insurance saleswoman from Kfar Saba, has come back to the shuk after a lengthy absence.
“It’s time for me to move into another apartment, and the things they sell here are cheaper,” she says.
When asked about the treatment she receives from the residents in Tira, she has nothing but praise.
“I work in business with Jews,” Levi says, adding sardonically, “Trust me, the people here are better than the Jews.”
The area itself offers little in the way of aesthetics. Route 554, the main roadway connecting Tira to its wealthier, larger neighbor Kfar Saba, is a narrow, two-lane strip of concrete that has statistically been a killing field for drivers. A billboard visible on the southbound side of the road gives the number of motorists who have been killed in accidents over the years. The absence of a divider allows reckless drivers to switch lanes with impunity and risk colliding with oncoming traffic.
Once within the city limits, however, one finds Tira bustling with activity.
Restaurant waiters have trouble keeping up with the frenzy of orders as diners line up to order fresh dishes of shwarma, humous and vegetables.
Mechanics have barely a minute to breathe between the drivers pulling up in local garages for tune-ups and oil changes. Street vendors sell cooked corn and pretzel-shaped bread dashed with hyssop for NIS 5 apiece.
“We like having people come here,” says a corn vendor who mans a tin shack just outside of the market. “We need to make a living, and bringing people here is how we do it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Life is good.”
INSIDE THE market on this recent visit, it isn’t quite business as usual. In deference to the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, which celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, half of the vendors at the open-air market are absent. That doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the Jewish and Muslim shoppers who are spending their Saturday afternoon browsing the huge selection of household appliances, two-for-one clothing deals, NIS 10 plastic toy guns and Druse-style pita breads. Cheap perfume that one vendor mixes on the spot piques the interest of the female patrons, while music fans can get bargain deals on pirated CDs from a collection that ranges from Zohar Argov to Adele to Umm Kulthum.
At first glance, Tira is a model of Jewish-Arab coexistence. Instead of politics, commerce is the preferred language. Orli Levi, a longtime resident of Petah Tikva who comes to the shuk on average once a month, has brought her three brothers and their mother.
“I don’t think there would be any point in maintaining this market if it weren’t for us [Jews],” she says. “Here in the market, we don’t feel any tension.
Perhaps if we were to travel deeper into Tira’s interior, it might be different.
But here you have so many people.
There’s probably about 70 percent Jews and 30% Muslims in the market. The treatment we have received is incredible.”
None of the Jewish shoppers seem aware of media reports last month claiming that Tira is quickly becoming a stronghold of the Islamic Movement.
One report indicated that a marital spat between a religious man and his wife resulted in violence, which triggered rumors in the press that Tira was veering toward religious extremism.
While nobody denies the religious hue of the economic capital of the Triangle, the notion of a fundamentalist wave sweeping the local citizenry seems comical to visitors.
Akram Ganin, a devout, middle-aged Muslim man, frequents the market in Tira once a month, making the trip from his home village of Zemer.
“The religious pray in the mosques and then go home afterward,” he says.
“There’s no coercion at all. They may donate to certain charitable organizations, but that’s the extent of their activities.
People just mind their own business.”
He adds that “Islam teaches us to respect other people and to help them.
Sure, there are disputes between husbands and wives, but if there’s violence, the wives call the police. Trust me, the men are more afraid of the women than vice versa.”
Fadi Mansour is a software engineer and journalist who is well-connected with officials in city hall and the city council thanks to Eltira, a popular news site he founded that reports on the latest local developments. Having earned a degree from Ariel University Center, Mansour speaks fluent Hebrew while listing an extensive roster of friends and acquaintances both Jewish and Arab. He is hopeful that Israeli Jews will not form misconceptions, following the Army Radio report, about the devout Muslim community in Tira and the active network that supports it.
“The Islamic Movement here is ready to help other people irrespective of their religious leanings,” he says. “If there are families in financial difficulties, then they can request assistance from a charity that is active in helping people. They also have food collections, and they donate money to the poor during the holidays.”
A self-professed communist and supporter of Jewish-Arab party Hadash, Mansour insists that Tira is a model of religious-secular coexistence – a reality reflected in the town’s political power structure. City hall is run by an unlikely coalition of Islamists, independents, Hadash communists, the Arab nationalist Balad party and the Islamic Movement.
“I wouldn’t serve as deputy mayor in a city in which the Islamic Movement was taking control,” says Dr. Walid Nasser, who is not affiliated with any party. “I am in favor of Islamic values and culture, but I do have disagreements with the religious figures on other issues. You can’t say that the city is being controlled by them.”
Nasser cites the significant economic activity in the city, pointing out that Jews have even opened up businesses here. Nonetheless, any visitor to Tira can easily notice the numerous Koranic verses inscribed on store signs and placed near town squares. Green Islamic Movement flags emblazoned with religious text hang visibly on tree branches.
Restaurants and local shops adorn their counters with donation boxes that feature an image of al-Aksa Mosque. Every few hours, the muezzin’s calls to prayer stream out of any one of the nine mosques within the town limits. There is a devout, sizable Sunni population here, but residents deny that the city has been gripped by fundamentalist coercion.
“To say that women are forced to wear head coverings in Tira is just not true,” says Abir, a 36-year-old mother of three who works as a saleswoman in a home appliance store owned jointly by her husband and brother-in-law. “I even know the daughter of a sheikh who walks around without a head covering.
People who aren’t religious do as they wish here. If there’s any religious coercion, it takes place inside the home, but not out in the open. The Islamic Movement has never ruled here in Tira.”
Eli, a 44-year-old electronics engineering from Kiryat Ono, says he comes into town three times a month to service his car, run errands and do some last-minute weekend shopping.
“I get treated well here,” he says.
“There’s a good atmosphere here. I don’t run into problematic incidents here. It’s convenient to come here to do our shopping, and we are always treated with friendly service from the locals.”
STILL, TIRA residents do seem acutely sensitive to how they are perceived. A photographer from The Jerusalem Post snapping pictures of city streets met with angry shouts from residents, one of whom accosted the photographer and asked to see the photos. Another Tira resident inquired of the Post as to the nature of this story and how it would reflect on the city. Beyond the commercial and economic links to Jewish Israelis, there seems to be an undercurrent of suspicion that inevitably bubbles to the surface whenever cross-cultural interactions are in play.
Nonetheless, Mansour insists, “We’re just like any other city in Israel. There are poorer people, and there are wealthy people. There are also extremely wealthy people. I can assure you... that there is more poverty in Bnei Brak and in any other Arab city in Israel than there is in Tira.”
He adds, “We’re good people, we’re not bad people. Living in Tira is a great deal of fun.”