Subscribe to Print Edition | Fri., October 10, 2008 Tishrei 11, 5769 | | Israel Time: 01:42 (EST+7)
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For love of Acre
By Yoav Stern
Tags: Israel, Acre

There's a phrase in Arabic that goes Ya huf akka min hadir al bahar, more or less - Acre's fear of the murmur of the sea - meaning something that doesn't exist. Everyone knows that in fact Acre loves the sea, otherwise it would not have stayed there for so many years. A group of young Arabs from Acre is expressing its devotion to the city in the spirit of the saying. Al Akkawiya, they call themselves, The Acre-ites - A Project of Culture and Identity.

Their first step was to open a Facebook group and post there challenging posters, in spoken Arabic. "The clock tower is for sale! In any case it has stopped or is slow," is written in screaming red against the background of the city's landmark tower. Another poster shouts: "The sea is for sale! It is full of sewage and there are no fish in it at all." And also: "The mosque in the port is for sale! After all, the Al-Jezzar Mosque is big enough."

Acre is undergoing profound demographic change. Arabs constitute about one-third of the population. Arab public figures relate happily that in the old Mandatory area near the Old City, Arab residents already have a majority near 70 percent. However, some of them complain about efforts by the authorities to Judaize the city.
The young people in Al Akkawiya believe that the establishment is trying to expel the Arab residents from Old Acre in ways such as encouraging the purchase of properties by Jews from abroad, encouraging the infiltration of right-wing elements into the city and neglecting the Arab school system.

They deal with this phenomenon by holding extensive social and cultural activities. And no, this is not at all connected to the approaching elections, they say. The activity is nonpartisan. The group's first activity was held recently. A cultural evening called - in free translation - Granny Tales, was held at the city's Al-Laz Theater, near the port. Two grandmothers were there: Jamila Hathout and Siham Minsah.

Surprisingly, a great many young people showed up to hear them - teenagers and parents who came with their children.

Grandmother Jamila still remembers when the Khan of the Columns caravansary was still operating: Tourists from abroad would come, leave their things downstairs and sleep upstairs. Today it is in ruins. Much of what she had to say concerned the hammam - bathhouse - where the Municipal Museum is now located. As in all the region's towns, the hammam was a municipal social center back then, for both men and women. Jamila, her mother and sisters would go there to shower every Friday.

Grandfather, when he was still a child, got lost. After a whole night of searching the city, he was found inside the locked hammam. It turned out he had gone there with his mother, hid in a pile of clothing and fell asleep. Jamila's sister gave birth right after a visit to the hammam. Because the bathhouse is the "pleasance of the world," she named her daughter Na'ima (Pleasance).

Grandmother Siham related how as a child how excited she was about the person tasked with waking up Muslim believers for the pre-fast morning meal during Ramadan, before sunrise. "I was 9 years old. We waited for him during the night, and we grabbed his hand to accompany him to the end of the street. He would sprinkle floral oil around himself," she said.

The events of 1948 and relations with the Jews also came up in the two women's stories, though on the margins. Jamila said she had worked as a seamstress and people brought her clothes that had been looted from the homes of refugees. At first she hesitated to mend them, but afterward she gave in to the pressure.

Siham told about life in Acre during the war. All the inhabitants gathered in the churches and mosques in the Old City, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and stealing bread from whomever they could. "This is where I met Mahmoud Darwish when he was 13 or 14 years old, and today they are saying that the Arabs are stealing Acre," she said. "They are feeding the Jews hatred and lies."

Only about 15 percent of Acre's current Arab population descends from families that lived there before 1948. Today the city is a magnet for young couples from all over the Western Galilee. Ayad Barghouti, the moderator for the evening, is the son of an Acre family on his mother's side. For three years he has been living here with his wife, out of choice.

"The people here are darwishes - simple, life-loving people. There aren't poseurs like in Haifa, there isn't sectarianism like in Nazareth. There isn't class consciousness. This is a city that is easy to live in," he says.

There are 600 members in the Facebook group. One of them, a descendant of Palestinian refugees from the city who is now living in Spain, wrote that she thinks the word "return" should be added to the group's name "so that we, the Acre-ites in the diaspora, will make clear once and for all our determination to return to our home, to Acre."

Her suggestion has not been accepted. At least not in the meantime. "We support the right of return and return itself, but this is not part of the current project, maybe the basis for something in the future," says Barghouti. "We are not against Jews living here - let there be no misunderstanding - we just want to preserve our identity, so we are against projects that exclude people from here. For us, the Arabs in Israel, the ideal is to survive, to stay."
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