The other face of Shfaram

Michel and Hanan Namourah's custom-built Galilee home overlooks 'Little Rome,' with Haifa and the Mediterranean visible on a clear day.

Shfaram, the Arab city in the Galilee, is often in the news because of outbreaks of violence among the different groups living there - Muslims, Druse and Christians - and other unpleasant events. But on a recent visit we saw a very different side of Shfaram, the home of accountant Michel Namourah, his wife, Hanan, and their two children, Taghred, 15, and Shadi, 11. This little taste of paradise sits on a high hill in the city of 35,000, looking down on the golden domes of the mosques below and with Haifa and the sea clearly visible on a clear day. In fact some sources record that Shfaram is built on seven hills and is sometimes called Little Rome. The house, like several others nearby, was built for the Namourah family by Shouki Aboud, a talented Bezalel-trained architect who is a member of a long-established firm of architects, Giora Ben-Dov, in Ein Hod. Hanan, tall, slim and elegant, welcomed us to her spotlessly clean home one sizzling day in June and, together with her daughter Taghred, showed us around. The house is enormous, built on two floors, plus a basement and roof. Hanan is one of those obsessively clean women who can't abide anything out of place or the smallest evidence of dirt. For her the Arab custom of keeping one kitchen virtually unused and just for show and another, smaller one for actually cooking and cleaning up, makes perfect sense. The "show" kitchen has an expensive gas range which has never been turned on, a large stainless-steel refrigerator which is used occasionally, impeccable work surfaces and sink units which are rarely used. "It's an accepted tradition," explains Hanan. FOR VERY big dinner parties she doesn't even make much use of the smaller kitchen, but hires a chef who brings his own utensils and cooks outside while his wife cleans up in the small kitchen, which I suppose one could call a scullery, as in Victorian days. Hanan explains that when Arab families move into a new home, it's the custom for friends, family and neighbors to drop in any time in the first year, usually bringing good-quality gifts. A box of chocolates or a potted plant just won't do. There's a gift shop in the town where it's even possible to maintain a gift list, as a bride and groom might for their wedding. All the crystal vases and bowls, and the bronze ornaments decorating the house, came as house-warming gifts in this fashion. Parking our car in the wide driveway, we enter the house through a heavy oak door over which a small unobtrusive cross is fixed. The door, which is very decorative, was designed by Aboud and sets the tone for what is to come. One is struck immediately by the interesting choices of textured color on different walls - some in silvered jade, others in apricot, others in brown flecked with gray and gold - which stand out next to the off-white of the main color scheme. It is all very tasteful and blends together seamlessly. The lowered ceilings set with hidden halogen dimmers are very aesthetic, but Hanan doesn't like them. She's too aware that they are dust traps and there's no way she or the three-times-a-week maid is able to get up there and clean. Likewise, the stunning double layer of curved windows following the rounded wall and staircase which look out onto the pool and garden. No one can ever get to the top of these windows to clean the dust accumulating there, and she finds this very frustrating and tries not to think about it. THE SALON is furnished with a camel-shaded striped velvet suite and cushions picking up the various colors. Many touches of gold enliven the basic neutral shades, and gold-edged white lace runners sit beneath many of the tasteful ornaments. All the woodwork was done by a family member who is a carpenter, like the cherry-wood room divider filled with small ornaments and the kitchen table and chairs where we sat to drink strong, sweet black coffee and taste baklava dripping with honey. Taghred tells me she should be studying for her history matriculation exam, but when she needs to relax she goes down to the basement and plays her drums. She's a very keen drummer, inspired, she tells me, by her adulation of Ringo Starr. When she hears that I am from Liverpool and went to the same school as John Lennon, her excitement is almost tangible and her soft brown eyes shine with delight. "You are the nearest I've ever been to the Beatles," she tells me. The bathrooms are all decorated in brown-and-cream mosaics and the guest cloakroom is exceptionally pretty with carefully chosen towels and other accessories - a delightful fragrant room. Out in the garden we inspect the pool and admire the pergola which Aboud designed, consisting of a wooden umbrella and circular handmade wooden trellis with the tendrils of climbing plants beginning to creep up. The umbrella casts a shadow on the ground below as the sun beats down on it. The stonework is for sitting on or just to give a finish to the colorful flower beds. Here family and friends swim, barbecue and sit and enjoy the view. In the vast basement are a gym, billiard table, computers, games and storage - and a very professional looking set of drums. "We always wanted a house with plenty of space," says Hanan. They certainly seem to have achieved that wish.