Photos and Text by Lydia Aisenberg
Within the framework of their studies, Intensive Arabic Semester students visited a very special project – and to date not very well known about – in the Old City of Acre whereby two enormous derelict buildings are being brought back to their former glory and intended to become a boutique hotel in the near future.
Bringing back to life much of the opulence of years long gone was the dream and brainchild of local restaurant owner Uri Yermias whose URI BURI restaurant by the Old Lighthouse and port of the city is almost a legend of its own.
In an atmosphere filled building constructed in Acre by master builders of the Ottoman Empire, the Uri Buri restaurant dishes up culinary delights with a large portion of exotic blast from the past.
With the light-house across the road and the sound of waves crashing over rocks and ancient sea wall just meters away, the fish restaurant on the edge of the Old City of Acre, offers a simplistic but attractive natural and truly authentic décor and one cannot but help ponder over who lived and possibly dined there hundreds of years before.
In the late 1980s Uri Yermias, a self-taught master chef, opened up a restaurant on the beach at Nahariya, eventually moving to the Acre port in 1997. A larger than life character with a flowing white beard, Uri Yermias is equally acquainted with history and archaeology as he is with producing mouth watering dishes that have earned him and his restaurant a solid reputation not only among Israelis but also folks from abroad.
Down the road, around the corner and through a narrow alleyway from the restraint is a true adventure down the backstreets of Acre history – what were the remains of the impressive buildings known as the Abdul Pasha Palace that Uri Yermias is bringing back to life.
A team of 10 Italian art restorers spent months of meticulous and back breaking restoration work on intricate, colorful and breathtakingly beautiful ceiling and cornice designs incorporating themes of nature and fine design. The ceilings of the high arched spacious rooms and halls, balconies and stairwells have ones eyes darting from place to place, and mouthing 'wow' every few seconds!A huge, incredibly detailed painting of Istanbul from 1878 has been remarkably restored by the Italian specialists from Venice who have successfully brought back to life the paintings and decorations of the sumptuous buildings.
Menachem Shani, the project manager for the restoration, told the Intensive Arabic Semester students that two layers of paint had had to be peeled away to reach the original painting of Istanbul."It was an incredibly difficult and intricate feat that these artisans carried out," Menachem explained. He also pointed out the decorative wrought iron balconies and window decorations that were the originals and those that had been meticulously copied by experts.
Tall arched windows, the iron work of both balconies and stairways, artistic stonework carving – all quite awesome and making one appreciate what had been created by men with the most basic of tools hundreds of years ago. Also being renovated is the Turkish bath and future guests will have the chance to 'chill out' in hot steam as did Turkish gentry living in the palace all those years ago.
Left: Larger than life Uri Yermias outside the URI BURI restaurant in Acre Port
Right: Students enjoy fresh cups of juice from a local on the streets of Acre
Text and Photos by Lydia Aisenberg
Apart from sitting comfortably in the madaffi (guest room) attached to the family restaurant Lev Hakfar (Heart of the Village) in the old part of Daliat el-Carmel, Zeedan took the students for a stroll through the main center of town to visit the family hilweh (the gathering place for the religious Druze).
Zeedan's madaffi has been visited by thousands of guests over the years, a few score of whom appearing in a large number of framed photographs hanging on the walls. The photographs show Israeli politicians, media and entertainment personalities, high-ranking officers of the Israel Armed Forces, sports personalities and many a famous person from abroad – all photographed either with Zeedan or other members of his family.
Two of the largest Druze villages in Israel (Daliat el-Carmel and Isifiya) are spread out across the undulating hills atop the Carmel Mountain range, the Mediterranean far below on one side and the Haifa Bay area on the other. During a recent visit to Daliat el-Carmel, the larger of the 2 villages, the Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students were hosted by Zeedan Housen Safa, a well-known personality who goes out of his way to receive guests from Israel and abroad who are interested in learning more about the Druze people, their history and way of life. The nine students, four of whom British, four American and one student from Colombia, were fascinated by Zeedan's explanation regarding the Druze people and what was permitted to be spoken about their culture, religion and beliefs.
A row of elderly, white bearded Druze wearing traditional head coverings, stretch across the wall above the framed photographs of the multitude of guests. The photographs are of Zeedan's father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He can trace his family roots in Daliat el-Carmel back as far as 400 years when his forefathers moved from Syria to the Carmel mountain range.
A large framed photograph of a deceased leader of the Druze hangs alongside two large flags, that of the State of Israel and the other, the five colored flag of the Druze, each wide stripe representing one of the Prophets of the Druze nation.
The Safa family guest book attests to the appreciation of guests who have had the honor of entering the madaffi and experiencing the all embracing welcome of the extended Safa family.
Among the rich and famous, and not quite so rich and famous, the Givat Haviva overseas students were amused to see a greeting from none other than Joe Wurzelbacher – better know as 'Joe the Plumber' after he quizzed then Democratic candidate Barak Obama with regard his policy for small businesses – later picked up by the McCain-Palin camp who gave Wurzelbacher the moniker 'Joe the Plumber' using him as a representative of Middle America.
Joe Wurzelbacher wrote in the Zeedan Housen Safa guest book – obviously after a meal in Lev Hakfar next door: "The food was absolutely amazing. I have to say, after dinner, sitting by the fire was my favorite time. It has been most relaxed time since I have been my entire trip – Thank you."
"Druze villages are usually to be found on high places for better protection," explained Zeedan whose home, restaurant and madaffi are situated in the recently restored old part of the village. The Druze population worldwide is around one million with the majority of Druze living in Lebanon and Syria. The population of Druze in Israel stands at 120,000, of whom 18,000 live on the Golan Heights under Israeli jurisdiction. They hold blue Israeli identity cards, not citizenship and do not serve in the Israel Armed Forces.
The Druze religion, with deep roots in Islam, was formed in Egypt in the tenth century and basically blends Islamic monotheism with Greek philosophy and Hindu influences. "The Druze religion is secret and there is no way of someone who is not born of Druze parentage to become Druze," explained Zeedan, emphasizing that being Druze was not only a religion – as only those who chose to become religious, studied for 3 years and swore on their holy books not to tell what was written therein – but also a way of life.
"Until recent years we never had any problems with crime – no Druze from Daliat el-Carmel sat in prison, but unfortunately the outside world is beginning to show its negative influence in our community as well," he said. Believing in reincarnation, there is no thoughts of Druze that their communities will disappear in the future if they do not receive converts.
"We will always remain the same number as when we die we return as another," he said, spreading his hands and looking upward. One of Zeedan's sons recently completed his army service and his photograph is proudly shown on the wall – wearing his IDF uniform the son of the house is standing next to President Shimon Peres.
"My son was the assistant to the military attaché of President Peres," said Zeedan proudly before speaking about the loyalty of the Druze to whomever they live under. "We are proud to be citizens of the State of Israel and our sons are conscripted to the army in the same way as the Jews since 1956." Every Sunday some 60-80 IDF soldiers are hosted in the Zeedan madaffi. The Sunday gatherings have become a tradition and incorporated in the educational days given by the IDF to serving soldiers.
In the family hilweh Zeedan, with the Intensive Arabic Semester students sitting crossed legged on cushions around him in the center of the large hall, described the scene of when the community gathered therein. The tomb of Zeedan's father and that of his grandfather are in a small courtyard outside. His mother, who is in her mid-80s, still lives in the small family home alongside the hilweh and the students paid their respects to the family matriarch before returning to Lev Hakfar for a most enjoyable lunch – and entering yet another inscription in the Safa family guest book.