Pulled into Nazareth...

So, as I alluded to the other day, I took a day trip to Nazareth on Wednesday for some meetings. Nazareth's an interesting place; it's a fairly big town by Israeli standards, with a population of something like 70,000, and (according to Wikipedia) it's the "capital of Arab Israel" with a population that's around 99% Arab. Oh, and some controversial Jewish preacher supposedly lived there 2,000 years ago. 

Surprisingly, given Nazareth's size and religious importance, there are only a couple of inconveniently timed direct buses from Jerusalem to Nazareth. I'm not sure why this is-in looking at the bus schedule, it seems that most of the buses from Nazareth go to other Arab towns, but Jerusalem has a large Arab population. It would also be a fairly convenient waypoint for buses between Jerusalem and Jewish towns in the area. Who knows.

Regardless of the reason for the limited connections, the result was my day started with a 6 am alarm and the usual light rail ride to the central bus station. There, I boarded a northbound bus. I'd be exiting the bus at an intermediate point to catch the connection to Nazareth, so I set an alarm for a few minutes prior to the ETA, put on headphones, and passed out for two hours. After a great nap, a brief layover at a roadside bus shelter in the Galilee on a beautiful winter morning, and a harrowing ride on the winding roads out of the valley and onto the hilltop that's home to Nazareth, I was there.

Arriving in Nazareth was a shock to the system. I was aware that Nazareth is a majority-Arab city, but I wasn't quite aware of the extent to which it felt like part of a completely different country; Arabic-only signs, a complete lack of the religious/nationalistic symbols found everywhere else in Israel, etc. None of this was a surprise, per se; intellectually, I was expecting it. For a variety of reasons, which of course vary based on who you ask, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are not integrated into Israeli society in many ways, and I certainly knew that. Nevertheless, it was still surprising and thrilling to take a 2 hour bus ride, not cross any international borders, and nonetheless end up in a place that felt so foreign.

I had a few minutes to explore before my meeting. The Basilica of the Annunciation is located in the center of town. It's built on the site where, in Catholic doctrine, the angel Gabriel told Mary that she'd be giving birth to Jesus. In Greek Orthodox doctrine, the Annunciation occurred elsewhere, and they have their own church on the site. I have no idea where other Christian traditions claim that the Annunciation occurred. I didn't know this at the time, but this church is only about 50 years old. Over the years, there have been several churches on the site. In 1954, a church dating back to the 1700s was torn down, and a newer, larger one was built on the site, with completion occurring in 1969. For a country where every ancient building and holy site is preserved and contested, this surprised me.

 A bad picture of the Basilica, looming over a town square in Nazareth

A bad picture of the Basilica, looming over a town square in Nazareth

We made our way from the Basilica to the office, passing Mary's Well en route. This is near where the Greek Orthodox tradition claims the Annunciation occurred. It's also a surprisingly new structure, dating only to the 1960s.

 Mary's Well, with some local schoolchildren gathering nearby.

Mary's Well, with some local schoolchildren gathering nearby.

After this, we headed into a shopping area, up some stairs, and into the Nazareth office of my employer. The primary purpose of the visit was to receive a briefing on the activities of the Nazareth office; as I said in an earlier post, I'm writing grant applications and English-language materials for the organization, and I needed information on the office's programs for a report. Given the demographics of the area, this office primarily (though not exclusively) serves Palestinian citizens of Israel (this could be a post in its own right, but I learned during the visit that the terms "Palestinian citizen of Israel" or "Palestinian-Israeli" are vastly preferred to the terms I typically hear in the U.S., such as "Arab-Israeli" or "Israeli Arab", to the extent that the latter are seen as something of a slur. I think that the use of the word "Arab" rather than "Palestinian" contributes to the strong sense in the Palestinian community that Israel has attempted to erase the distinct Palestinian national identity as part of erasing the claims to the land. As I said-complicated, and probably best left for another post). The office has an Arabic/Hebrew bilingual staff, and they serve individual clients experiencing violations of labor law as well as engaging in educational and advocacy efforts surrounding worker's rights issues in the Palestinian-Israeli community.

One of the office's current programs involves the issue of construction workplace safety in Israel, an issue that disproportionately impacts the Palestinian-Israeli community, because Palestinian men (both Israeli citizens and residents of the territories) are disproportionately employed in this sector. Over the past 5 years, 184 construction workers have been killed in workplace accidents in Israel. More people have died on Israeli construction sites than have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks in Israel during the same period. The rate of workplace deaths for construction workers is 7 times higher in Israel than it is in other wealthy nations, like the UK. The office is working on an advocacy campaign to increase workplace safety standards and accountability for contractors who operate unsafe construction sites. It's a fascinating and deeply troubling issue that I knew nothing about before visiting. You can read more here: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.692054

After the meeting, I had a few more minutes to wander around before heading to catch the bus back to Jerusalem. Given the season, it wasn't surprising to wander into a large Christmas market. I explored for a bit and bought a delicious crepe stuffed with labneh (similar to Greek yogurt), tomatoes, and zaatar. Interestingly enough, the tourist presence seemed limited, given the number of Christian tourists who visit Israel and Nazareth's importance in Christianity. I wonder if the Arab dominance of the city scares off many of the kinds of people who'd go on a Christian tour of the Holy Land, i.e. American evangelicals (which would be ironic, since many of the residents of Nazareth are Christian). Perhaps I'm selling these people short-it's still a bit early for Christmas break season, I guess. Then again, Donald Trump is over 40% in the Republican primary polls...

 Come, evangelicals! No War on Christmas here!

Come, evangelicals! No War on Christmas here!

As I started on my way to the bus, I wandered into a store to pick up essential bus trip provisions, namely bottled water and Mekupelet bars. I also couldn't resist buying a small bottle of arak from the Ramallah Distilling company. It happened to be stocked on a shelf with Donald Trump-branded flavored vodka, which amused me to no end.

 A shocking find in a 99% Palestinian/Arab city. Although I saw crosses around the necks of most of the store staff, so they'd be allowed in to the U.S. anyway if this guy becomes president...

A shocking find in a 99% Palestinian/Arab city. Although I saw crosses around the necks of most of the store staff, so they'd be allowed in to the U.S. anyway if this guy becomes president...

After this, it was time to make my way to the bus. Remember how I said that I had my layover on the outbound trip at a roadside bus shelter in the middle of nowhere? This wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat, so for the return, I chose a connection at the central bus station in the nearby city of Afula. However, this meant that I'd have to go to Nazareth Illit, the nearby Jewish town, to catch the first bus of my trip. Google Maps told me only two kilometers, so I confidently set off. However, Google Maps forgot to tell me that the two kilometers involved going up and down several massive hills in an off-the-beaten-path residential neighborhood. The journey to the bus station was arduous, serving as a reminder that I've been eating way too much falafel and way too many Mekupelet bars over the past few months. Eventually, however, I made it to the bus station, albeit completely out of breath and drenched in sweat (which probably endeared me to my seatmate).

The trip back was uneventful, after I recovered from my workout. I read a little, napped a lot, and arrived safely back in Jerusalem at dusk. Another interesting day trip complete. I'd actually really like to go back to Nazareth and spend some more time there. It's a naturally beautiful place, nestled in the mountains (or, as I learned on my walk, draped over mountains). It also feels like an outpost of some completely different cultures within Israel. I enjoy places like that, cities or towns that are cultural outposts; it's why I drove 9 hours to Montreal in the dead of winter with my good high school buddy Carl after my first semester of college. Or maybe that was the excuse, when in fact we were just looking for a place where the drinking age is 18 without getting on a plane.