On one side of the street, a street sign like a beckoning finger encourages the stranger to enter.
But turn around to the other side, and this spooky masked image glowers down at you.
So it was with a slightly uncomfortable sense of ambiguity that we entered Wadi Nisnas, a neighborhood in lower Haifa steeped in the atmosphere of a 19th-century Arab village.
My friend Chaya and I were looking for the open-air market. No sign of vendors or stalls, although colorful murals with a nostalgic feeling decorated the street walls.
Did these two boys live in this house?
Look carefully and you’ll see, behind the shutters, the pale oval of a woman’s face as she gazes down at the street life below. The couple below are a little girl and a man. I wonder if they were the artist and her Dad.
We climbed up a little alley and knew we were getting close to the shuk when we smelled the mellow odor of roasting coffee drifting around.
At Cafe Haifa, a truly ancient roaster produces several blends of coffee. Cranky and decrepit the roaster may be, but the smell of freshly roasted and ground coffee was head-filling and delicious.
The owner hasn’t wearied of his own product.
Cafe Haifa is one of the stops along “The Tastes Track,” a yearly culinary festival promoting intercultural exchange and peaceful co-existence in Haifa.
As expressed in this hopeful mural decorating the ceiling of a bakery.
Every Friday and Saturday in December, Wadi Nisnas bursts into festival. There’s the Tastes Track, a big arts festival (the street murals were originally created for the festival) , street performances and concerts. Apparently the streets fill with visitors and a good time is had by all.
But on that fresh June morning, we found a couple of quiet streets,
and sleepy vendors.
Fruit and vegetables of early summer.
Prices were about the same as in my local shuk in Petach Tikvah, but there was some produce that my shuk doesn’t have – like fresh grape leaves.That excited me. Mushrooms baked in vine leaves (recipe here)! Fish baked in vine leaves! Vine leaves stuffed with cheese! Stuffed with rice! Oh boy… I filled up a bag and paid all of NIS12.
A shopping cart heaped high with some herb caught my eye.
I couldn’t identify it. The vendor told me it was fresh green chickpeas on the stem and to go ahead and eat one. I peeled one and did. The taste is like raw sweet peas.
I considered bringing some home, but the thought of carrying all that herbage in my arms, on buses, for 2 hours across the country, defeated me.
I wonder what these two ladies were chatting about. Something pleasant, it looks like. They looked so content.
Chaya and I kept sticking our heads into the shops. I sensed a certain forced tolerance in the shop owners, rather than the friendliness and humor I’ve found in other shuks. Still, this bakery allowed me to squeeze in and watch the pitot plopping out of the oven.
One of the things I like about the Middle East is how people like to celebrate times and people gone by. A reproduction of an ancient photo showing an Arab woman winnowing grain. The photo of the baker’s father, maybe the founder of the business.
I loved the look of these home-made pickles.
This store also carries small zucchini, all hollowed out for filling with rice and ground lamb. You buy them by the bagful. Things to charm the eye and waken the appetite, although nothing for the kosher-keeper, of course. Yet…
Chaya and I spent several long minutes in the store, looking at things on the shelves and taking pictures. Nobody appeared to help us. It seemed that the owners were in the back of the store, doubtless watching us via surveillance camera.
A TV near the cash register was showing a program in Arabic with English subtitles. The narrator spoke of how Israel fills its citizens with anti-Arab propaganda. The hatred in his voice was palpable. Chilling for me, but for Chaya especially, sad.
Chaya meets with Muslim and Druze women every week in a moderated setting. They exchange life stories, seek to understand each other, hopefully encourage the germ of peace to take root. Over time, real friendships have formed among them. I hear Chaya’s stories and only shake my head…G-d knows how much we all want peace.
And how I would love to sit among the women of those cultures, talking family, talking food, talking life.
Well, maybe someday.
In the meantime, we walked on. In other stores, a display of beautiful multi-sized finjan pots caught my eye.
As did the exotic labels of Arak bottles.
The Abdel Hadi bakery almost blew me away.
Just imagine being a kid in this store – miles of the most delicious-smelling pastries! Every possible variety of baklawa and cookie, each with its own name and origin.
If any of them had been kosher, I would have gladly bought. If I could have chosen from the bewildering variety.
Oy. Just as well for my health, not to say my girth, that none of it was kosher.
And so we slipped out of Wadi Nisnas, each pondering life, and calories, and should we all trust each other, and things like that.
The afternoon was waning into evening and there was a long bus trip ahead for each. We parted at the central bus station, Chaya to Tsfat and I to Petach Tikvah. I sat by the window on the bus and looked at the ocean as we rolled away from Haifa.
Such a tiny neighborhood, containing so much living history. Will its history end in real peace?
I hope so.