Israeli Jews walk a path to new tourism in Umm el-Fahm

With funding from American philanthropists, a bunch of Jewish artists and architects have hooked up with local residents.

umm al fahm park 298.88 (photo credit: Orly Halpern)
umm al fahm park 298.88
(photo credit: Orly Halpern)
As a group of visitors walked through the streets of Umm el-Fahm, some perplexed passers-by stared, some waved, and some said "Ahlan Wa'sahlan" - welcome in Arabic. "You'll see that people will look at us strangely," said Muhammad Rabbat, the head of the environmental department of the local municipality, told the group. "It's not because you're a Jew or they don't like you. It's because this has not existed until now. We are developing it as we walk." Indeed, it's not every day that a group of Jews tours this Arab city. After the fatal October 2000 riots and the beginning of the second intifada, Israeli Jews stopped visiting Arab towns for food and shopping. Now, with funding from American philanthropists, a bunch of Jewish artists and architects have hooked up with local residents, the municipality and the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery to bring Israeli tourists back to the mountainside city. "We are trying to plant the seeds of tourism in Umm el-Fahm," said Ami Steinitz, a Tel Aviv art curator turned tour guide, as he led a group around the steep narrow streets one recent sunny Saturday afternoon. "We want to inform the people of this country about the people of this land and about this beautiful city - which is not what they hear from the media." Steinitz is co-director with Rabbat of a project called "Environment Design in Umm el-Fahm," which brings together 50 artists and architects from around the country to create 10 special locations around the city. The artists' goal is to take a neglected area within the neighborhood and develop it into a beautiful public space by working with its residents. Each site will be a stop on the city tour, called the Hamsa Walking Trail. Hamsa, which means five in Arabic, stands for the five goals that need to be expressed in each site: social, environmental, economic, educational, and cultural. The trail begins at the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery, which is presently displaying its latest exhibition, "Fasatin," creations by five Jewish and five Arab female artists. Steinitz and Rabat walked the group through the city, past old stone buildings and breathtaking views of the Jezreel Valley, to the inauguration of the very first specially-made site on the Hamsa Trail: Hadikat al-Khalayel, or the Friends' Playground. In an area about the size of 1.5 Olympic swimming pools [70 meters by 50 meters] artists and neighbors turned a lot filled with four truckloads of garbage into a three-level park and playground. Kids of all ages played on swings or kicked a ball. Mothers dressed in hijab head coverings sat on benches and chatted while they kept an eye on their toddlers playing in the enclosed grassy area. Hans Pallada, an environmental artist living in Pardes Hanna, Yoav Meiri, an architect from Tel Aviv, and Muhammad Ali Diab, a neighbor who lives in one of the adjacent homes, who together had cleaned up the lot and designed and built the park, looked on proudly Meiri and Pallada got involved at Steinitz's request. "I'm not here for the politics," said Meiri. "I'm here because of the need. It's crying out." The project resulted in "a great chemistry" between Meiri and Diab, who have remained in touch since finishing the project. After the inauguration, Meiri went to Diab's home for lunch. The neighborhood children were also involved in developing the site. "We came after school, changed our clothes and began working on the playground," said Rami Taysir, 12, proudly. "We worked for two months." The idea was the brainstorm of Steinitz and Rabah, who got the wholehearted support of Mayor Sheikh Hashem Abdul Rahman and Saeed Abu-Shakra, director of the increasingly famous local art gallery, where Jews crowd the rooms on Saturdays to see the latest exhibits. But many Jews don't come to the city at all because they perceive it as "dangerous." It was to change that behavior and perception that the friendly mayor - who is a spokesman for the northern faction of the Islamist movement in Israel - put his full support behind the project. "I have been working already two and a half years on this project to bring back visitors to Umm el-Fahm," said Abdul Rahman, who gave the project whichever 10 pieces of municipality land it chose around the city. "There are already sprouts and they are blessed. We hope it will be even better," he said. But budgets are limited. The Friends' Park could only be completed because of funding it received from The United Jewish Appeal New York Federation through Sikkuy, The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, a Jewish-Arab organization that promotes equality between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Sikkuy is actively working to acquaint Jews in Israel and abroad with the country's Arab citizens and their status, by regularly bringing groups to Arab cities. Meanwhile, the other Hamsa Trail sites await more funding. The mayor hopes that once the new government is formed, the Tourism and Housing Ministries will provide funds to develop these sites. The city presently has very few public spaces for community use, and tourism infrastructure in Wadi Ara, the valley where Umm el-Fahm is located, is practically nonexistent. Even schoolchildren from the area travel outside for class trips, picnics and nature hikes. The valley, which is populated mainly by Arabs, also lacks proper sewage infrastructure. On Sunday, heavy floods killed one woman, and left numerous families homeless, after the valley filled with water, carrying away cars and destroying homes. The mayor has asked the government for emergency aid. Yaron Friedman came from Zichron Ya'akov to take the Saturday Hamsa tour with a friend. "I think the tour idea is fascinating," said Friedman afterwards as he enjoyed lunch at the local Grill and Taboon Restaurant. "I think the people in the center of the country don't know the Arabs and certainly don't know Umm el-Fahm."