Whizzing along coastal Highway 2 between Tel Aviv and Haifa, few drivers think to turn off into Jisr az-Zarqa, Israel’s only Mediterranean seaside Arab village. In fact, few drivers know anything about it.
Until just a couple years ago, this neglected town was perhaps the country’s most unlikely tourist spot. Now a handful of enterprising villagers are trying to change that, and bring visitors — and attention — to their town.
Jisr az-Zarqa ranks as Israel’s poorest village, with 80 percent of the population below the poverty level, a third of the residents unemployed, crime rates among the highest in the country and the highest high-school dropout rate.
Pollution and large-scale commercial fishing depleted fish populations, which in turn affected the local economy. And during the second intifada, several incidences of stones being thrown at passing cars only reinforced the widespread belief that Jisr az-Zarqa is nothing more than an Arab slum by the sea.
Not only does the town of about 14,000 lack basic infrastructure such as decent roads and trash collection, but there wasn’t even a high school there until 1997. Jisr’s poverty level is especially striking because it’s wedged between Caesarea (the enclave of choice for Israel’s rich and famous), prosperous Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and Zichron Yakov (a highly desirable town with booming real estate prices).
Basically, Jisr az-Zarqa exists in splendid isolation. When Israel’s coastal highway was built decades ago, no access ramp to the village was included, further cutting them off from the rest of the country. (A new interchange is now being planned.)
Yet Jisr possesses all the components for a winning tourist destination — and town officials want to move things in that direction. A headline this summer in the Times of Israel screamed “Overlooked Arab Israeli beach town opens its doors to tourists,” and part of the deckhead read “new guesthouse … hopes to entice backpackers and shed town’s negative image.”
“We want to exploit the potential of our town and area,” explained Achmad Emesh, a 31-year-old tour guide. “One only heard bad things [about Jisr az-Zarqa] — that it was a place to be avoided. We want to prove that it is not the worst place in the world.”
Simply with its location, Jisr has a lot to offer. It is an idyllic fishing village on a harbor, and it’s close to Roman ruins in Caesarea National Park, the Taninim Nature Preserve and the old Zichron Ya’akov colony, founded in 1882. Moreover, the 683-mile Israel National Trail, from Eilat in the south to Dan in the north, is funneling thousands of hikers through Jisr every year.
To take advantage of the increased foot traffic, Jisr’s junior high school students initiated a project to entice hikers into town by taking a ½-kilometer spur off the main trail. Signs in Arabic, Hebrew and English point visitors to 17 landmarks, and the hope is that travelers also will stop at local businesses (including bakeries and a cafe) along the way.
Emesh said the name Jisr az-Zarqa’s refers to the nearby stream valley known in Arabic as the “Blue Valley” (Wadi az-Zarka). In Hebrew the river is called Nachal Taninim, or Crocodile River. The Romans imported crocodiles from Africa and featured them in their gladiatorial entertainment at Crocodilopolis. (The last crocodile died in 1912, its hide now displayed in a museum in Jerusalem.)
A Roman aqueduct skirts the village, and digs in the area have uncovered pottery shards and amphoras dating back 2,000 years.
The story commonly believed by many Israelis is that Jisr was populated by descendants of Sudanese slaves brought by the Ottomans. While some current inhabitants’ forebears were in fact Sudanese, 75 to 80 percent are descendants of a handful of families that arrived from Jordan, Yemen and Iraq; many of them made their livelihood from fishing, agriculture and basket weaving with marsh reeds.
Other things are getting Jisr on the map, as well. In November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chief of the nation’s police, Roni Alsheikh, attended the opening ceremony of Jisr’s new police station, built to help deal with the high crime rate.
Achmad Juha, an electrician and father of seven, is trying to change the town’s isolation. For several years he arranged for visitors to study Arabic in the village, and he also organized home stays during Ramadan. In 2014, he and his business partner, Neta Hanien, a Jewish mother of three living in nearby Avi’el, opened a hostel to attract the backpacker crowd.
An avid hiker and adventurer, Hanien first saw Jisr in 2008, when she helped her mother shoot a documentary about the town’s fishermen. A working lawyer, she decided she wanted to open a guesthouse in the village as a side business.
Some of the funding for what has since been named Juha’s Guesthouse came from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Grants Initiative — a 6-year-old donor-involved approach to grantmaking modeled on social venture philanthropy. For the fiscal year 2017-18, Juha’s Guesthouse was one of 26 entities that received a share of nearly $1.5 million under the heading of “Strengthening Israeli Society.”
Located in the center of town, a five-minute walk to the beach, the hostel has 18 beds and offers home meals and tours (and the website at zarqabay.com includes a creative video that plays with the town’s ignominy). Recently, a cafe and a bakery opened, as well.
“People thought I was nuts, to open a guest house here. Who would come?” Juha said with a laugh. “But they seem to be coming. Jisr has always existed under difficult conditions, and we’re now making a small dent in the gap between the town’s current reality and its potential.”