In Nazareth the muezzin’s call to prayer is echoed by church bells. In that way, it reminds me of Lebanon. But it doesn’t feel like Lebanon or look like Lebanon. In fact it doesn’t look or feel like any place I’ve been.
I’m in the Jewish state of Israel in the largest Arab town in the country that was once Christian but is now predominately Muslim. It is where Jesus was from and the site of the annunciation – where the Angel Gabriel(le) allegedly appeared to Mary to tell her she was to give birth to the Son of God. The mosque right next to the Church of the Annunciation has a sign condemning Jews and Christians as infidels. In English! And yet, everybody here speaks Hebrew and most speak English as well, and there is ample evidence of good relations everywhere you look.
The Fauzi Azar Inn, the lovely little guest house where I stayed, is a business partnership between an Jewish Israeli man and an Arab Israeli family.
At Diana, the restaurant headed by famous Arab Israeli kebab chef Duhul, the guests are mainly Jewish Israeli, although there are definitely Arab families there too.
By the White Mosque – where people of all faiths are invited to view prayers – a local peace project is about to be launched. Initiated and funded locally, the school will educate students of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths and will be staffed by teachers of all three faiths as well. Another local peace project is the Mary Centre, where locals teach about the importance of Mary in all three faiths.
These are ambitious projects for the Old City, which locals say was a no-go area just 10 years ago. When Maoz Inon told Suraida Shomar-Nasser that he was looking for a building in the Old City that he could open as a guest house she thought he was insane.
‘I wouldn’t even go in there alone, and I’m a local,’ she tells guests of the Fauzi Azar Inn during her daily lecture about the history of the 200-year-old mansion, which belonged to her grandfather before he died during a house fire there in the 1980s. The house had remained shuttered since, until her chance meeting with Maoz, who later managed to convince her mother and aunts that going into business together would be great for them and great for Nazareth. The Fauzi Azar Inn opened in 2005 as the first guest house in Nazareth. There wasn’t even a hostel in the area before then but now the area is flourishing, with new restaurants opening up monthly and business is booming.
I spent my days in Nazareth eating delicious kebab at Diana, snacking on fresh cake made twice daily for guests of Fauzi Azar and exploring local cuisine in restaurants that have never seen so many tourists. Yes, I spent my time eating, of course, but I also made it to the Sea of Galilee, where, among other things, Jesus is said to have walked on water! (No comment.) I was lucky enough to meet some really nice people there, including two pretty inspirational women, and so there was no shortage of conversation over our many meals together.
Nazareth is definitely worth the trip, even if only to stay at the Fauzi Azar Inn and experience its magic. The staff and volunteers are incredibly helpful and kind and the old mansion has an enchanting atmosphere that seems to will you to dream good dreams. Oh, and the free tour is pretty good too (not to mention the fresh tea and cake!). But it’s a place that seems to attract interesting people who are also nice – two things that don’t necessarily always go together.
What’s more, I got a free night because of my daredevil tactics of visiting Iran and Lebanon. Any guest who can show stamps from Iraq, Iran, Syria or Lebanon in their passports gets a free night’s stay. I call that a bloody good deal! It worked, because my one-night stay extended to a three-night stay in a place I wouldn’t have otherwise visited.
Well done, Fauzi Azar Inn and well done Nazareth.