Jisr al Zarqa – Date With the World by Genevieve Begue

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In the past few weeks, our Peace and Conflict class has evolved into a closer group. As we began defining ourselves through our Study subject, a few projects were born aiming at learning more about each other or at joining efforts towards a common goal; this despite different views and opinions. I believe Ran’s class on Leadership in Conflict impacted us most; surely it had a great impact on me. In the past couple of weeks, I became closer to one of my classmates, Muhammed. Half Turkish, Muhammed is an Israeli-Arab and he partly grew up in the village of Jesr az Zarqa, known as the poorest village in Israel. He spent a number of years abroad, studying both in Turkey and in the US where he earned a first Master’s degree, and he is now finishing his MA in Peace and Conflict Management Studies. We spent some time together lately exchanging about our background, lives and hopes, and discussing about conflicts.

PictureOn Friday morning, Silvia and I met at the Hof HaCarmel bus station: Muhammed would pick us up at the Beit Hanania bus stop to begin our first field trip. We reached our destination and got off the bus: like many bus stops in Israel, it looked like we were left in the middle of nowhere, a feeling I came to really enjoy in my traveling. We jumped into our friend’s car shortly after and crossed the moshav of Bet Hanania before engaging in the road to Jisr az Zarqa.
We first crossed the village to reach the beach, I was struck all along by the obvious potential of the village and by the enormous gap between the possible and reality. As usual in poorer neighborhoods, beyond the lack of maintenance of the buildings the place was made even worst by being dirty. No trashcan were in sight and the large land separating the village’s first houses from the beach was trashed as well.
Muhammed stopped the car and we walked to the beach: one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in Israel! Jisr az Zarka sits between Caesarea and Zihon Ya’akov, South of Haifa, and is the only Arab village standing on the coast of Israel. I was struck by the view: yellow sand, crystal clear water and large rocks framing a natural spot inviting swimming. The beach appeared unused and was left fairly clean. Muhammed poured the coffee he had brought for us while Silvia and I couldn’t help but taking off our shoes for a little dip. The three of us went on about the potential this place had to attract tourists or simply locals willing to enjoy a cup of coffee or a smoothie in a nice setting. We touched on the cultural resistance such a development might encounter as we kept walking towards a small fisherman area.

As we noticed a terrace set with tables and chairs, Muhammed recalled something about a coffee place he heard had opened recently; we went on to check. Under the pergola a young woman and a man were sitting at a table, around them were more tables and sitting areas with pillows and carpets. We introduced ourselves and inquired about the place: the man quickly disappeared to bring us fresh coffee while the woman introduced herself as Neta and confirmed that the place had opened recently. We found out that we were in a fish restaurant and, as we looked at the brand new menu Neta came to drop, she told us about the project she was starting in the village: the first hostel in Jisr az Zarqa. Now in a partnership with a local resident, Ahmad, Neta described her goal to attract travelers to the village and to develop responsible tourism to benefit the local businesses and encourage new ones, while offering tourists an authentic experience.
By the time we shared that we were students of Peace and Conflict, I wanted to know more about Neta: I was wondering how a woman, moreover Jewish, had come to the poorest Arab village in the country to help its residents with an initiative she would have to convince even the locals with.

Many questions came to our mind, some practical, others concerning our involvement in this project and touching a deeper part of ourselves. I could not ignore that only an hour before we were walking on Muhammed village’s beach wondering how to bring the locals and the site’s potential together, this right before we ran into Neta with her energy and enthusiasm! Her initiative sounded meaningful to me in many ways, and only even more as it concerned my friend’s village. As well, I could not consider lightly that her project was already well engaged. For the past two years, my involvement went mostly towards new initiatives, I started much from scratch and learned the associated cost! Here a young woman had already knocked-off some of the most time-consuming parts of the project: Neta had partnered with a local, togetherthey already raised money, found a structure for the project and began the remodeling process!
As Neta took us for a tour, we quickly decided to reach out to Ran, our Leadership in Conflict professor. I called him and just as we thought he would, Ran was encouraging and showed interest in our finding. I briefly explained where Silvia, Muhammed and I were, summarized the hostel’s project and asked him to consider welcoming Neta in our class to present her initiative to our group, hoping that some might show interest, get involved, and even consider choosing this project for their practicum next semester. Ran invited Neta to contact him to find out more about the Jisr az Zarqa Hostel project and know as well if and how this project could fit in our class.
We visited the future guesthouse located in the center of the village and sat outside for a drink, chatting a little more. We learned more about Neta: a mother of three, she was also a lawyer for a number of years as well as a scuba diving instructor before that! We thought about involving our friend Isis in the artistic painting of the hostel’s walls and briefly approached some of the cultural blocks that may need to be dealt with in the future. For instance Neta’s partner thought about opening a café for women as the idea of a coffee place welcoming women and men might sound a little premature in Jisr az Zarqa at the moment…
Neta invited us to join a tour of the village organized for some of the benefactors who allowed the project to go on, but we were to visit the nearby Nature Reserve and to meet and eat with Muhammed’s family later on. Thus we left Neta to visit the Crocodile Stream Nature Reserve right outside of the village. There we found a neat, peaceful park in total contrast with the village’s chaotic look! I had a great time walking through and admiring the ruins of the low Aqueduct which used to conduct the water to Caesarea during the Roman period. We then proceeded to Muhammed’s house, literally looking like an oasis behind its closed gate, in the middle of the village. We had a welcomed  lunch with his family and enjoyed a break before hitting the road to Caesaria. As shabbat was coming in, we headed back to Haifa for a drink and chat on Masada street before Muhammed dropped us home. I was exhausted and happy, one more meaningful encounter and experience in Israel, I had to write that one down…

Links:
Juha’s Guesthouse in Jisr a Zarqa
Facebook Zarqa Bay – Juha’s Guesthouse

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