Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Impressions of Nazareth

Last week we visited Nazareth. Apart from seeing the main touristic sites in the old city (churches, the mosque, the market), we took an interest in the local population.

The town is an interesting mixture of old and new, and it seems to be in process of transition. In some ways it was reminiscent of the more old-fashioned towns we have visited in Greece, with modernization superimposed on top of a slightly backward social attitude. For example, many people there still smoke, something that is, fortunately, becoming increasingly rare in my usual social circles. The traffic seemed chaotic, with some young people driving dangerously and disregarding the law. The shops were displaying a wide range of goods, and clothing seemed to range from modest and drab to rather gaudy.

The new government building, containing the courts and various offices, located on the hilltop between Nazareth and Nazareth Illit towers over the city. The old city is dominated by the Church of the Annunciation, outside which is a small mosque with a large prayer plaza (which created great controversy when it was built in 1999-2002). The streets are narrow and difficult to navigate. We visited two guest houses in the old city that have recently opened and are trying to attract tourists to stay overnight rather than just visiting the town and going to stay elsewhere. They have restored the old houses, one with high, painted ceilings, the other with the original Syrian floor tiles. Both have antique furniture along with modern amenities. We also saw a rather amateurish museum of heritage or folklore, a one-man operation that collects and displays objects and photos from Nazareth's past.

Our guide was a history teacher who has completed her Masters degree on the history of Nazareth, and is starting a PhD. She took us to the school where she teaches, to the offices of the Municipality, and drove us around various parts of the town. She explained where different social groups live, and this was also indicated by the flags and posters of the two parties competing in the municipal elections next week - the red of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality party (communist), from which all Mayors of Nazareth since the 1970s have come, versus the green of the Islamic movement. Apart from the usual problems between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish majority, Nazareth suffers from continuing tension between Christian and Moslem Arabs, and between various sub-groups or denominations within each religion. This creates a very complicated society in which the process of modernization encounters resistance on various levels.

We could see the mingling of the traditional populations, both Moslem and Christian, in their headcoverings and traditional clothing, with the modern, westernized, educated residents. Our guide and her family stressed the importance of education in creating progress, and also in liberating women from their restrictive traditional roles.

It remains to be seen whether the majority in Nazareth chooses to embrace progress, seek education, promote tolerance and co-existence, and become more integrated into mainstream Israeli society (like the Arab population of Haifa, for example), or to return to the traditional ways promoted by religious leaders, which could worsen the internal conflicts between the various groups within the town.

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