Terra Incognita: An undeveloped cultural resource

Many of Israel’s Arab villages have much to offer tourists.

Christian Galilee (photo credit: Courtesy: Israel Images)
Christian Galilee
(photo credit: Courtesy: Israel Images)
Every few months there is talk about bringing tourists to some forlorn Arab village. The latest involves Bueina- Nujidat, located on the side of a hill overlooking the flat plain of Beit Netufa, not far from Nazareth. Once a small village of a few hundred people, including a few Christians, it is now home to more than 8,000, some of whom are Beduin from the Nujidat tribe.
The latest tourist venture was the brainchild of local women. In his article “Putting Bueina-Nujidat on the map,” Eli Ashkenazi described how the women approached a local council head, who turned to the tourism ministry, and so on. Now the middle- aged women are creating crafts which they plan to sell. Other villagers hope to open a bed and breakfast.
THIS RECENT hol ha-moed found me in the Galilee on a day-long tour. Driving wildly on Route 65, I sped past the turnoff to Bueina; I can’t recall even seeing a sign, although undoubtedly there is one. My girlfriend and I were focused on getting south to see Mount Tabor, Nain and Nabi Dahi before the sun got too low. Nain is an Arab village not far from Afula which was on the route of Christian pilgrims. In 1878 the Catholic Church purchased land there reputed to be the place where Jesus revived a widow’s son. A photo in 1914 shows the miserable village, which was entirely Muslim, with the newly constructed church in the background. Now there is a mosque next to the church.
Nabi Dahi is another village near Afula and the resting place of a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The tomb is pretty and, oddly, decorated in the same blue and white common to the rabbis’ tombs of the Galilee. Next to it is a lookout tower that provides an excellent view. The village itself, while the people are very friendly, offers no real interest, as there doesn’t seem to be a place to park, have a meal or do anything.
The idea that Arab villages present an untapped tourist resource is not new. Umm al Fahem, whose name means “mother of the coal,” has long attracted attention as a potential touristic investment. The huge sprawling “village” lines Route 65 as it weaves its way from the Jezreel Valley toward the coastal plain, and is home to 50,000 people. The 65 is notorious as a place for accidents, and the site of Arab riots in October 2000. And yet this is supposed to be a cornerstone of tourism. In 2008, more than 70 Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists from the US wanted to visit to see an Islamic pharmacy and promote social projects. They were met with a boycott. Plans for a museum of Arab art have gone forward with much fanfare. The 2006 idea envisioned a 15,000 square meter facility costing $25 million. Esther Zandberg, the architecture correspondent for Haaretz, notes that “The planning process is underway now, and documentation and materials are already being collected.” Hadassah magazine spoke of “rebranding” the village.
But the truth is that the plans are progressing slowly. Maybe that is typical of Israel in general, or maybe the museum and any tourism in Umm-Al Fahem are just smoke and mirrors. For most Israelis, the people there are known more for stoning cars and voting for the Islamic Movement than for welcoming tourists.
The main problem facing many villages is historical. Not all the Arab villages in Israel have a great cultural heritage. Several dozen offer something in the way of historical interest because of the presence of old Christian communities or connections to the story of Jesus. Kafr Kana, for instance, is where Jesus turned water into wine. Several villages may offer tourists a glimpse of minority communities. Kafr Kama and Rihaniya both are home to Circassians. Kababir, a suburb of Haifa, is an Ahmadiya Muslim community. Shibli, at the base of Mount Tabor, has a museum for Beduin culture, and is quite welcoming.
Some villages offer interesting connections to Jewish history. Dabburiya, which is not an inviting village, is connected with the prophetess Deborah. Jish, a Christian- Maronite village, is the ancient Jewish town of Gush Halav. Shefa-‘Amr is definitely worth a visit, as it contains an old synagogue and was one of the places the Sanhedrin convened after the destruction of the Temple. However it is a very large town and hard to navigate.
A few villages have interesting forts and ruins. Mi’iliya not only provides access to a hike to the Crusader fortress of Montfort, but also has a small Crusader fort of its own. The “port” of the Beduin village of Jisr-al- Zarqa near Caesarea contains antiquities.
BUT MANY villages are neither ancient nor particularly interesting. Kabul, aside from sharing the name with a place in Afghanistan, doesn’t offer anything. It is perhaps unfortunate, because the village’s main road has been redone with a delightful jogging and exercise track along it. No one would probably ever want to visit Feredeis, Taybe, Tira, Qalansuwa or Wadi Ara. Khawalid, Umm al Ghanem and Tuba-Zangariya – all Beduin villages – seem to offer little for tourists. Ras Ali, a beautiful hamlet perched on a bend in a river, is next to an old mill named Nazarim, but the mill itself bars tourists.
From a standpoint of access, almost all the Arab localities of Israel, except those such as Abu Ghosh, Acre Hurfeish, Peke’in and Nazareth (that already cater to tourists) are not easy to find, have little public transport and less parking. Nevertheless, the Arab towns and villages certainly are an unexplored cultural resource for Jews, Arabs and foreign tourists. An effort to put this sector on the tourist map could yield benefits, but would take the commitment of more than just a few pluralist dreamers or academic theorists.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.