It took the vision of a Jewish Israeli to turn the abandoned mansion of an Arab Christian into a popular hostel in the town where Jesus walked
By Rivka Borochov
Until a few years ago, Christian pilgrims to Nazareth might not have been able to find a hotel room in town. The largest Arab city in Israel, with 85,000 people, wasn’t really set up for the busloads of Christian tourists who would stop by the famous Basilica of the Annunciation, do a quick walk around and then leave. There wasn’t much in the way of accommodation for the Westerner, despite the famous Arab hospitality.
But a young Jewish entrepreneur named Maoz Inon had big plans for Nazareth, where Christians believe the young Jew named Jesus spent his childhood under Roman occupation. As an Israeli, Inon loves the land, and has hiked its trails from north to south. While on his travels he stumbled through the Old City of Nazareth. Finding it in great ruin and neglect, he became enchanted by the potential he saw.
Inon looked into small business development for the city and showed up for a meeting, where he made the acquaintance of a young Christian Arab woman, Suraida Shomar-Nasser, who had just finished hotel management studies. Shomar-Nasser thought Inon had come to the wrong office, because it was a meeting for developing small Arab businesses. But Inon assured her that he did want to develop a business in the Arab city of Nazareth.
As they chatted, the woman happened to mention that her late grandfather Fauzi Azar had owned a large estate in the Old City. It had been in the family for generations, but left crumbling under lock and key after her grandmother died in 1989. Fauzi Azar had succumbed to a house fire in the mansion nine years earlier.
“I grew up in that house,” says Shomar-Nasser, and she remembers big family dinners with her siblings there on weekends. The house was in the center of the Old City, an undesirable location at the time since the streets were considered unsafe, and it was a long trek by foot to go into town. “I have small kids, and with the stairs and the walk, it would have been hard to live here,” says Shomar-Nasser, whose mother was left in charge of the estate.
A legacy in his name
Inon’s ears pricked up when he heard about the old estate. He was sure this was just the right place to set up his own hotel. He asked Shomar-Nasser for her mom’s number and, a few days later, Odette Azar-Shomar took Inon to see the property.
Shomar-Nasser recalls her mother’s stories about how the Arab neighbors and shopkeepers looked at them as she walked down the street with a young Jew, an uncommon scene in a city where no Jewish Israelis live.
But after their meeting, Inon and Azar-Shomar worked out a deal. He had no money so, in exchange for a short-term lease, he would renovate the house into a hostel along with assistance from the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association.
Since Fauzi Azar had five daughters and no sons to carry on his name, his house was his lifeline to the future. For this reason, it was decided that Inon’s inn would be named in Azar’s memory, with his portrait hanging on the wall. It opened in 2005, and today it’s known as the hotel that pioneered tourism in the Old City of Nazareth.
The Fauzi Azar Inn gives travelers a real taste of life in the modern Galilean city. Its charming facilities, preserved in such a way that undoubtedly would have made Grandfather Azar proud, include three impeccably preserved frescoed ceilings from the late 1800s and original arches, tiles and wooden fixtures. The inn offers dormitory-style accommodations and also private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. Large Arabian seating areas are punctuated by arches and stone walls.
And the inn’s day manager is Shomar-Nasser. Her suspicions about the Jewish stranger who wanted to do business in the Old City have long since dissipated.
In the steps of Jesus
An important aspect of the inn is its location on the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile route that retraces the possible steps young Jesus took when he lived in the region. Inon’s initiative, together with Christian hiking specialist David Landis in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the trail meanders right through the Old City up to the inn and through small Galilean villages.
Inon also started a free weekday tour for his guests to “secret” spots in Nazareth, guided by a former American, Linda Hallel. She takes visitors to old, famous spice markets (one has a 150-year-old spice mill that still works), and shows them where to sample the best coffee and lemonade in town and where to find, when in season, handpicked produce and wild herbs and plants. Or how about an alarm clock that calls worshipers to prayer, Muslim style?
No doubt these tours, ongoing for the past two or three years, have boosted business in Nazareth, as tourists and journalists from newspapers including the New York Times have come to see the hidden gems of the Old City.
Before the tour, Shomar-Nasser gives guests a lecture about the history of the home and the story of her partnership with Inon. There are tears in her eyes despite the fact that she gives this same talk every day. “If it doesn’t come from my heart, I will ask someone else to do it,” she says.
When her family agreed to let a Jewish man start a hotel in her grandfather’s house, she had a bittersweet feeling about it. Bitter because she didn’t think of the idea herself, and that it came from the perceived “other;” and sweet because the grandfather who had no sons to carry his name now lives on in the best budget hotel in Nazareth -- a hotel full of life, great local food and people who get to know the story of Nazareth without a political or religious agenda.