Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In Haifa, Liberal Palestinian Culture Blossoms


 At Elika, a bar in the Hadar neighborhood of this hilly port city, a 30-something psychodramatist rolled a cigarette and sipped coffee with her father, a well-known actor in Israel. The bartender poured tall beers for two women who wandered in for an afternoon pint. Nearby, a 22-year-old woman with a partly shaved head and colorful tattoos sat alone, working on her laptop.

They were among the many coifed, pierced and tattooed women and men who populate a slice of Haifa’s social scene that resembles that of the well-heeled hipsters of Tel Aviv. But here the cool kids are Palestinians, and they have unfurled a self-consciously Arab milieu that is secular, feminist and gay-friendly.

“Haifa is a center for Arabs, like Tel Aviv is a center for Jews,” said Asil Abu Wardeh, the Elika patron who practices a performance-based form of psychotherapy. “There is a cultural movement. There is a youth movement. There’s a kind of freedom here.”
“We have our own parties. Our own places. Our own discos. We dance. We drink. We do it all in Arabic,” she added. “This all began in Haifa.”

Arabs make up a fifth of Israel’s population of 8 million, and in recent years, Israeli Arabs have grown more assertive in expressing their Palestinian identity, allied with their brethren in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But their public life in Haifa is a striking secular counterpoint to the conservatism of many of Israel’s Arab communities, where sex before marriage is taboo, and single men and women rarely date and tend to marry at relatively young ages, in matches often arranged by their mothers.

Haifa’s relative liberalism is a product of its unique, cosmopolitan tradition. It is easy for young, single people to get out in this city, which is built on a steep coastal hill, with Jews tending to live on its heights and Arabs by the sea. The once working-class city of 280,000 has several universities and has embraced its diversity. The 30,000 Arab residents, around 10 percent of the population, include equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, and they are generally wealthier and better educated than Arabs elsewhere in Israel.

This makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians who want not only to escape the constraints of conservative Arab communities but also to be among their own people.
“If you are in an Arab neighborhood, you have a community. If you live in a Jewish neighborhood, you are a stranger, and that gives you freedom as an Arab woman,” said Fidaa Hammoud, 32. “There are many de facto couples, and older women living alone without having to hear gossip.”

Ms. Hammoud moved to Haifa in 2011 after studying speech therapy for four years in Barcelona, Spain. She and her partner live together in a Jewish neighborhood where they run a Palestinian cafe called Rai. “I couldn’t do this anywhere else,” she said.

Ayed Fadel runs Kabareet, a seaside bar off a four-lane industrial road, through an alley and down some stairs. He envisions his out-of-the-way speakeasy with its red painted walls and old Arab movie posters as a place where people can truly be themselves.

“We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them,” he said. “This is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for.”
That society was on display late last year, when some bars and cafes held screenings for Kooz Queer, the first Palestinian gay film festival. And Dar al-Raya, a cafe that doubles as a publishing house, recently published “The Book of Desire,” believed to be among the first volumes of modern erotica by Palestinian authors.

For some, the blossoming Palestinian scene in Haifa is reminiscent of the city during British rule, when a lively Arab cultural life flourished. Much of that ended in 1948 with the war in which Israel was established, when Arabs fled, or were forced to leave, their homes in many cities, including in Haifa, said Mustafa Kabha, a lecturer in Palestinian history at the Open University of Israel.

Haifa in the 1930s and ’40s, he said, “had clubs, cafes, hotels, theaters and newspapers” for Arabs, including the Sham Cafe, where Syrian and Lebanese workers met, and the Port Cafe, for workers from the city’s busy port.

“You feel that the place is returning to a very natural harmony; in an old Arabic house you hear Arabic,” said Bashar Murkus, who recently opened the Khashabi Theater in an old warehouse owned by an Arab merchant in an industrial seaside neighborhood.

The liberal Arab renaissance in Haifa began with the opening of Fattoush, a Palestinian restaurant, in 1998. The restaurant, which hosted cultural discussions and art exhibitions, was once a scandal to polite Arab society because men and women openly drank alcohol and flirted. Now, it is a tourist-friendly fixture on Ben Gurion Boulevard, Haifa’s main drag.

More Arab-owned businesses opened on that street in the years since, with signs welcoming all people in Arabic, English and sometimes Hebrew. Many of these bars, cafes and restaurants were crowded on a recent weeknight with couples strolling along teeming sidewalks decked with Christmas lights.

Back up the road at the Elika bar, Samer Asakleh was hanging out with a co-worker. A folksy Arab song about smoking marijuana played from the speakers, and posters tacked to the wall advertised a concert featuring an Arab ska band, Toot Ard.

“The people in Haifa, especially in these cafes, they are making revolutions,” said Mr. Asakleh, 23, his long hair tied in a messy bun. He moved here from his home village of Mughar, in Galilee, to study management and was initially surprised by the open, seemingly libertine attitudes and social mores of people he met. He said he had not encountered any openly gay people before moving here in 2011, and he used to excuse himself from parties when gay couples would show up because he did not approve of homosexuality.