As published in the Jerusalem Post , April 2008
By Maoz Inon
When I first walked through the streets of Nazareth’s Old City three years ago, it was like a fantasy turned into reality: the paved narrow streets, the colorful markets, the haunting aroma of Arabian coffee, the sounds of the church bells mixed with the prayer from the mosques. But above all, there were the people of Nazareth – friendly, hospitable and proud of their own culture and heritage.
My trip to Nazareth began in 2004 when my wife and I left our yuppie life in Tel Aviv, quit our jobs and went backpacking around the world. Born in Israel, we decided to start our journey at home on a 40-day hike along the Israel National Trail (Shvil Israel). We experienced our native land’s nature sites, people and culture in a way that made a great impression on us both.
From Israel we traveled to California and hiked 1,000 km along the Pacific Crest Trail. Then we spent another six months in South America, visiting places such as the Galapagos Island, Machu Pichu, Bolivia and Patagonia. All those beautiful and famous places convinced us that Israel had a lot to offer in terms of culture, religion and scenery.
This land, where the Bible stories unfold among the hills and valleys, the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where Abraham, King David, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lion Heart, Napoleon and many others explored – what more could you ask from a tourist destination?
Still in South America, we started thinking about opening our own guesthouse in our homeland. But the big question was “Where?” We wanted it to be along the Israel National Trail, so we made a list of all the possible locations. When the name Nazareth came up, we instantly knew that should be the place.
Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, is centrally located in the Galilee, a short distance from Mount Tavor, Acre, Haifa and the Sea of Galilee. It is the birthplace of Jesus and is the city of the annunciation. It is an hour and a half drive from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben-Gurion Airport. Could one ask for more? Apparently, yes.
A vision come true
Returning to Israel after a year of traveling, I decided to pursue my fantasy and seriously looked into opening a guesthouse in Nazareth. After the great first impression my wife and I had on our first visit, I started looking for a property.
When I entered the courtyard of the Azar Mansion, I knew my search had ended almost before it started. The Azar Mansion is built around an open courtyard, replete with Ottoman arches and architecture. The upper level, built in the the mid-19th century, had the typical wealthy style of that era, with frescos, a high ceiling, marble floors and three enormous arched windows overlooking the Old City and the Basilica of the Annunciation. The moment I saw the house, I knew it could be one of the best guesthouses in the world.
The mansion had been empty for almost 15 years. Mr. Azar and his wife died in the 1980s, and their five daughters moved out of the Old City. I approached one of the daughters, Odette Shomar, the family representative. It took several long evenings of discussion, while drinking strong Arabian coffee, to make her my strongest supporter and a true believer in my vision.
From my experience as a traveler, I know that a guesthouse can be a driving force that can transform a neglected and deteriorated area into a thriving tourist center. It creates job opportunities, supports restaurants, cafes, guides, attractions and various types of other business. It draws new people and can raise the self-esteem of the local community.
Surprising as it may seem, there were no guesthouses or hostels in Nazareth. For an Israeli to come and stay overnight in the Old City was unthinkable; the seamy area had a bad reputation even in the eyes of the local population. Most of the people in the tourist industry, as well as friends and the people of Nazareth, considered me a weirdo or insane when I started. And being born Jewish didn’t make life any easier…
Supporting each other
Before beginning my enterprise, Odette gave me two pieces of advice: Respect people and they will respect you in return. And be “clean” and accept only “clean” people as guests.
For the past three years that advice has become a way of life for me and my wife. Our guesthouse, the Fauzi Azar Inn, is now becoming well known to Israelis and foreigners. We are doing our best to give our guests the opportunity to interact with the local community and with other fellow travelers. We work closely with local businesses and the community, supporting each other. For us, each guest is the most important; and while giving high-quality service, we try to let him be part of our vision where Christians, Muslims, Jews and others can work and live together, share ideas, thoughts and lifestyle with respect to each other’s differences.
Now, at the beginning of 2008, there is an air of prosperity and optimism in Nazareth as perhaps never before. Many guests are making reservations months in advance. Local shopkeepers are doing better than they have done in 10 years. Nazareth has become a national culinary center, and investors are looking into turning other abandoned mansions into guesthouses and boutique hotels.
Nazareth is a sleeping beauty that is waking up. Everyone is welcome to explore the city and be a part of it.