Nov. 29, 2002
Keeping it in the family
Hark the herald trumpet in Wadi Nisnas during the Holiday of Holidays Festival.
If you're going to honor the three great monotheistic religions somewhere in this country, Haifa is a good place to do it. As the annual Holiday of Holidays Festival marks the temporal convergence of Hanukka, Christmas and Ramadan it makes sense to hold it in the one city where Jews and Arabs live together in harmony.
Sami Michael certainly supports the idea of holding the festival in the northern city, and he has the personal and professional collateral to back him up. When the celebrated author arrived here from Iraq in 1949 he immediately fell in love with Haifa, and settled there.
"I remember flying here from Iran [where he stayed for a few months en route from his native Baghdad]. We flew overnight and, as dawn broke, I saw Haifa below us. It looked so beautiful in the morning sun. As we landed at Haifa Airport I knew I was going to make my home there."
More than half a century later, Michael is still in Haifa and very much part of its rich interethnic cultural life. Some of Michael's novels, such as Trumpet in the Wadi, paint richly poetic but nonetheless down-to-earth pictures of everyday life in Haifa, and particularly in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of the city, which is the hub of the Holiday of Holidays Festival.
This year's festival will take place over the next five weekends with a rich program of music, the arts, folklore and outdoor events.
Throughout the year, the wadi provides a home for dozens of sculptures and paintings, based on a specific theme, stationed at various points along its narrow, winding streets. This year's theme is the ethnic groups that make up the Mediterranean region with the exhibits reflecting the festival's multicultural base.
Over the past couple of years the exhibits have included large plaques with excerpts from the writings of the late Haifa Arab writer Emile Habibi. Habibi and Michael were workmates in the early 1950s when they both contributed to the al-Itihad communist newspaper. This year, selections of Michael's writings - particularly those that refer to the locale - will also appear along the festival route.
When the festival began in 1994, the celebration of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays was a touching expression of unity between the country's three major religions. These days, there is always a highly politicized element to any endeavor of a cross-ethnic nature.
"Of course, since the intifada began the festival now has far greater importance than when it first started," says Michael. "But I still don't sense any enmity between Jews and Arabs in Haifa. Even when there is a tragic event - when Jews are murdered or Arabs are hurt in the territories - it is as if we live on a separate island in Haifa.
"I don't think Jews are wary of walking through the wadi [Nisnas] on a tragic day for the Arabs. The same thing happens when Jewish children are killed - the Arabs are not afraid to leave the wadi and pass through the Jewish areas. Don't forget, there are many mixed Jewish-Arab areas in Haifa. My upstairs neighbor is an Arab. There is absolutely no friction between us."
While Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle and Lod are also home to Jews and Arabs, these days there is very little day-to-day interaction between the two communities. In contrast, Haifa has generally managed to preserve a healthy interethnic balance with Wadi Nisnas serving as the focal point of coexistence between the two sectors, despite the fact that the wadi's residents are now exclusively Arabs. Thirty years ago there was still a handful of Jewish families living there but they eventually moved up the socioeconomic ladder and relocated to better-appointed parts of the city.
Michael notes that Jews and Arabs still mingle every day of the week in the wadi. "And there are some great restaurants there that the Jews are happy to frequent."
Dr. Motti Peri, director general of the Beit Hagefen Arabic-Jewish Cultural Center located next to the wadi, has, together with Rivka Bialik, overseen the festival's emergence and planning. Peri says the choice of this year's theme, in a sense, indicates wishful thinking and hope for a better future.
"Next year, we hope to invite artists from other countries around the Mediterranean, inshallah [God willing], like Morocco, Spain, Italy and Greece. This year's festival is a sort of preparation for next year's."
BESIDES the sculptures, paintings and literary works exhibited along the Holiday of Holidays route there will be a variety of street performances, including theatrical turns, magicians and music designed to cater to different tastes.
"There will be live Greek music and a couple of Greek-style tavernas in the German Colony near the wadi."
One of the main attractions of the Greek agenda will be young star crooner Shlomi Saranga.
"It's a way of strengthening the bonds between the different cultures in the region," Peri says. "I'd like there to be Moroccan and Tunisian motifs here next year. This year it's very difficult to bring over artists from the Arab world."
Peri is particularly happy with the inclusion of Michael's works in this year's program.
"People like [Emile] Habibi, Mahmoud Darwish, Sami Michael and A.B. Yehoshua were all members of the communist circle which circulated around the wadi. It reminds me a bit of the Mandarin community of philosophers in Paris - people like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Gide. Many of the works of Habibi, Darwish, Michael, and A.B. Yehoshua were based on Haifa and the wadi. It's quite amazing how many literary works came out of this place."
Visitors to the festival will also be able to enjoy a rare weekend treat - a guided tour of the beautiful gardens and grounds of the nearby Baha'i temple.
The terraced temple gardens lead straight down to the recently renovated German Colony street where weary festival goers will be able to fortify their depleted reserves of energy with a soft or stiff drink, and a snack or substantial repast.
As in previous years, the festival also lays on an abundance of entertainment for lovers of classical and liturgical music. The 15-date program over the Holiday of Holidays period includes concerts of baroque music at the House of Grace Church on December 6, and at the Stella Maris Church on January 3, an evening of Beethoven music at the University of Haifa's Hecht Museum on December 14 and a program of readings from Shakespeare's works with musical accompaniment at the Hecht Museum on January 11. The musical events end after the fifth wadi weekend but, as Peri explains, there are interdenominational motives behind the extended itinerary.
"We want to accommodate those who celebrate the Greek Orthodox Christmas - on January 7 - too."
The festival has always placed the accent on including family-oriented items of interest. The Beit Hagefen children's library will house an exhibition of paintings and drawings by schoolchildren around the country based on the Mediterranean theme.
"We received a tremendous response from the children," Peri notes. "It's also a way of nurturing the next generation of guardians of coexistence."
Other artistic festival events include an antiques fair, with dealers flooding to Haifa from all over the country, and a performance of Aladdin and The Magic Lantern for five- to eight-year-olds.
With the benefit of nine years' hindsight, does Peri feel the festival is achieving one of its stated purposes of strengthening the bond between our ethnic communities?
"Definitely. Every year we get more and more visitors from all over the country. We also get more people coming from outside Haifa than from this area. That's very encouraging."
If there is to be any hope of regional peace, or at least localized harmonious coexistence between Jews and Arabs maybe, just maybe, the Wadi Nisnas festival is moving things in the right direction.
The Holiday of Holidays Festival will be celebrated in Haifa over five successive weekends from November 30 through December 28.
©Copyright 2002, The Jerusalem Post (Israel)