Akko’s Old City, many people told me, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but I never found the time to go there. At least not until today, when I decided that it’s time I finally heed their advice.
I don’t know anybody in Akko — Old City or New — which means that I must find a hotel. I try booking a room but my choices are very limited. To be more exact, there’s only one available room in the whole of Akko’s Old City, in a place called Akko Gate Hostel.
It doesn’t occur to me that there might be a reason why this particular place is the only place with available rooms, and I immediately book the room.
Only when I enter my room after a long ride do I realize my mistake. The room stinks, it’s very small, and nothing in it works. Everything I touch makes a sound as if it is just about to break apart.
Yet, I must admit, this Akko Gate Hostel has something very appealing — Waled, the owner of the place. Waled is funny, welcoming, and if he likes you he will give you great coffee for free.
Many of his family members, he tells me as I sip his sweet-bitter coffee, don’t live in Akko anymore. They moved to Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Why? “Before 1948, the Jews were dispersed all over the world, but now it’s us.”
“The Jews push us out of our land.”
How do the Jews do it?
Simple. Years back, Waled tells me, Israel came up with a genius plan. They offered the Jews living in Akko’s Old City new houses in the New City, but they kept the Arabs in the Old City, leaving them with a broken sewage system and rats. As a result, the Arabs left Akko and moved to Germany and Holland.
If the Arabs and the Jews left, I wonder, who is living in Akko’s Old City these days?
I say goodbye and go out to check.
Walking the streets of the Old City, I hear Arabic, German, English and some Hebrew. But most of all, I hear Arabic. Did the Arabs come back from Frankfurt without telling Waled? Perhaps I should run to Akko Gate Hostel and tell Waled that his family is back.
But before I do that, I meet up with a charming lady named Pascale, who works for the Akko tourist office.
How old is the Old City? I ask her.
“Quite new,” she tells me — it was built somewhere around 1800. The real Old City, and in fact more than just one of them, can to this day be seen in various excavations. When various invaders captured the city, they destroyed it and built a new one upon the ruins of the old.
What happened to biblical Akko? I ask.
“Destroyed ages upon ages ago.”
How did the current Old City come into being?
“Ahmad al-Jazzar, the Ottoman governor, built it. He was a strong leader and even Napoleon, who laid a siege on the city, was defeated by him.”
In Arabic, al-Jazzar means “the butcher of people.” I ask if he got this name because he defeated Napoleon.
Not really, says Pascale, who proceeds to tell me an oft-related legend about Al-Jazzar. One day, when he was away for some business, he heard a rumor that one of his wives had betrayed him. He returned to his palace and ordered all his wives to stand in line. He was certain, so goes the story, that by looking into the eyes of his women he would be able to determine which wife was betraying him. But no pair of eyes stood out.And so, not able to ascertain which of his wives had betrayed him, he cut off the heads of all of them.
Ahmad also had a Jewish financial adviser by the name of Farkhi, Pascale tells me. One day, Ahmad decided to blind him in one eye and maim him in one hand. The Jew, half-blind and half-maimed, didn’t budge for a moment and faithfully continued to serve his lord.
It is Saturday today, and Ms. Pascale takes me for a walk in the Souk, the Old City’s market. I can’t spot any open sewage or rats, but instead I notice that the place is exploding with shoppers and tourists, most of whom speak Hebrew.
How many Jews, I ask her, live in the Old City?
“The Jews shop here, but no Jew lives here.”
This was not always the case. In the old days, Jews used to live here, and some were actually big rabbis who had their synagogues here. Up to 10 years ago, she adds, there were signs on the walls of Akko’s Old City’s pointing to those synagogues, but the Arabs living here ripped them off.
The “Frankfurt Arabs,” it turns out, are not really in Frankfurt.
We are in Israel, inside the so-called Green Line; how come no Jew is living here? I ask.
Instead of answering, Pascale points to signs on the walls that look very much like street signs, but aren’t. These signs display Quranic quotes, and Pascale explains them: “The Islamic Movement put hundreds of Quranic quotes all over the Old City about 10 years ago, replacing the Jewish signs.” The Israeli authorities, she makes a point of telling me, let the new signs stand.
“The Israelis are afraid that if they take down the signs they would be filmed by European peace activists who will then use the material to accuse Israel of disrespecting Islam and Muslims,” she says.
I bid Pascale goodbye and proceed to explore the Old City on my own.
Moments later I spot a gorgeous mosque, one of the fancier ones that I’ve seen so far. But unlike Al-Aqsa, for example, here you don’t have to be a Muslim to walk in. You can be a Jew, a Christian, an Atheist, or whatever, and you can enter provided you have a few shekels in your pocket. Of course, no matter how much money you pay, you must observe the rules of this holy place. For example, you must leave your shoes outside before you enter; this is a house of prayer, after all. And if you happen to be a woman, you must wear additional pieces of clothes available at the entrance to cover your arms, shoulders or any other part of your exposed flesh.
For a moment, I think that I have just been transported to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, a place known to protect God from tempting women, but no: I am at Al-Jazzar Mosque — “The Butcher’s Mosque,” in simple English.
I walk around the grounds, marveling at its sheer beauty, when suddenly I encounter a little grave. Ahmad al-Jazzar is buried here. I close my eyes and think about the stories I have heard about the Butcher, next to whose remains I stand. I rush back to Waled’s place. Sometimes, stinky rooms can be quite comforting.
Tuvia Tenenbom is the author of the Der Spiegel best seller “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.” He is currently in Israel working on his next book, “Alone Among Jews.”