April 2, 2008

The Fauzi Azar Inn is located in a 200-year-old Arab mansion in Nazareth’s old city.

One of the most recognized young entrepreneurs in the city of Nazareth is Maoz Inon, a 32-year-old Israeli Jew who fell in love with the city several years ago while hiking the Israel National Trail.

From the moment he stepped into Nazareth’s old city, he knew he would return to the city which held such an allure for him with its hidden alleyways and exotic smells.

Three years ago with the assistance of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association, Inon rented and renovated a 200-year-old Arab mansion, opening up a guesthouse in the center of the old city. The guesthouse is named after the original owner of the building, Fauzi Azar.

“I believe in this town and its ability to open up the tourism market. Nazareth has real potential,” says Inon with his infectious smile. “They appreciate me here. They see that I believe in Nazareth, see how hard I am working to bring people here. I believe Jews and Arabs must live together on this land and I am working to put that belief into action.”

None of Azar’s five children remain in the old city and only two currently live in Nazareth, but one of his great-granddaughters, Surida Nasser, 35, works at the Fauzi Azar Inn as the day reservation manager preserving a connection to the family’s old home.

When Inon first arrived three years ago, some 30-40 percent of the old properties in the old city had been abandoned – including the Azar home – as people left the confines of the narrow streets and old buildings for homes in the newer neighborhoods with better infrastructure and car access.

Now, Inon says there is a renaissance of sorts with young Nazarenes revamping their family’s shops, offering new sophisticated restaurants and cafes for tourists. Wissam Abu Saleem, 31, serves Arabic coffee in a traditional Nazareth coffee shop which he has renovated and which his family has run for three generations.

“Maoz thinks of the future,” says Abu Saleem. “What he does is good for me and for Nazareth, he sends me customers and I send him customers too.”

Currently the inn boasts a six-person dormitory on the ground floor, which includes a traditional outside courtyard. Up a steep set of stairs on the second floor there are seven rooms capable of sleeping two to five people. Three of the rooms include a private bath.

A spacious kitchen allows guests to prepare their own meals with fresh produce bought at the nearby open air market. Expansion plans are in the works and Inon hopes to have a dining area and three new rooms for up to 12 guests ready within the next year. The ground floor also includes a traditional downstairs courtyard.

Inon proudly points out the intricate woodcarvings and colorful Italian murals of the renovated six-meter high wooden ceiling in the inn’s central lounge. Sunlight pours in through three towering arched windows separated by white marble pillars. This is, he said, a typical setting for a wealthy 19th century Arab family.

“Nazareth is on a par with many of the beautiful cities in the world,” he says, noting its strategic location in the Galilee near many Christian and Jewish holy sites and some of Israel’s most famous natural parks and reserves.

Many tourists troop through the city to visit the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation and then quickly march to the other end of town to visit the Greek Orthodox Church by Mary’s Well, without ever stopping to look around them and really see Nazareth, he says.

“They stay for half an hour and don’t see what we see. They don’t benefit from the city and they don’t give back,” he says. “Nazareth is not a picture-postcard town. It is life and you have to see it, experience it and learn it.”

Inon eagerly shows guests around the streets of the old city, stopping at Ali Abu Ahmed’s shop to sample a traditional sweet, popping in to chat with the owners of the Elbabour spice mill shop where the aroma of freshly ground coffee, cinnamon and local dried herbs tickles the nostrils, and shaking hands of newly made acquaintances and shopkeepers all along the way. He has learned the city’s history from the local residents and shares it with his listeners.

He points out the traditional architecture and unique spots such as the Bride’s Market where shop windows glitter with gold wedding jewelry and ornate white lace-decorated candles, for use in wedding ceremonies, hang on hooks in front of shops.

“Couples here come from all over the Galilee to buy gold,” he tells his guests this morning – two Jewish women from Vancouver, Canada who decided to take a few days off the beaten path of site seeing.

“We weren’t sure what it would be like,” says Ellen Hamer, 53, who was on her third trip to Israel. “We thought it would be just Christian sites but it is fabulous. It is so friendly and safe. It is so nice to be in an Arab town. I wanted to see the whole country.”

There has not been one cancellation to the Guest House even during the height of the tensions in Gaza and southern Israel, says Inon.

“It’s a different world here in Nazareth,” he says.

“I am optimistic,” Inon adds “The people of Nazareth love tourists. They have dignity. Nazareth is a great place for the independent traveler and it is a great place to be. It combines Arab culture and Christian and Muslim traditions. But Nazareth is not just about Christian sites; it is about an authentic beautiful Arab city.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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