Akka, a city with picturesque seashore and a resilient Arab soul
AKKA - “Those who didn’t see Akka know nothing about the sea,” said Abu Adham, handing a cup of his famous mint tea.
“We take pride in our city, in our walls and in our story” said the hippie-spirited grandfather who runs a small, colourful tea house in the old town of Akka (Acre) while I took a seat opposite the ancient school of Terra Santa in the town of shores and salt.
Abu Adham is a life-long resident of Akka, an Arab port city in historic Palestine. He is one of the thousands who refused to leave when Israel was created in 1948 and instead started an authentic tea shop, with the help of his three grandsons, an engineer, a lawyer and a university student.
“We are still fishermen at heart,” they said before they teased their grandfather about his flamboyant garments.
I had often portrayed myself strolling the seaside beside Akka’s famous stubborn walls, the same walls that brought Napoleon to his knees and sabotaged his ambition to conquer the East.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001, Akka has more than 750 years of history. It preserves the substantial remains of its medieval Crusader buildings beneath the existing Muslim fortified town dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is home for many mosques, uniquely coloured minarets and ancient stone basins.
Akka prison, the main theme of a song that mourns three Akkawi residents executed 90 years ago for fighting British colonialism, is a landmark that still stands. The building, now a museum, was built as an Ottoman citadel. The graves of three martyrs — Mohammad Jamjoum, Fouad Hijazi and Ata al-Zeer — are still visited.
Approaching the zigzagged allays of the old market, Al Jazzar Mosque appears in the distance. Ahmad Basha al-Jazzar, the leader who defeated Napoleon, was a Bosnian Muslim who was once the governor of Akka. Built in 1776, the mosque is decorated with crafted Quran verses, with a unique Byzantine Ottoman architecture style and a beautiful green dome. The mosque holds the tomb of its creator.
Heading to the old port, my favourite part of the city, the smell of sea tingles the senses and the giggles of children and shouts of vendors who invite passers-by to taste their delicious authentic treats are welcome sounds.
It is hard not to fall for the city.
Considered the third oldest city in the world, Akka is on a mission to preserve its Arab identity, undermined with changing street names and Hebrew signs scattered in the old souk and the harbour.
Those who fancy sampling the riches of the Mediterranean while tucked in a wall or dining in a restaurant half dipped in the sea are well-served in Akka, where fish such as red mullet and sea bass land on the plate shortly after being pulled from the sea.
“You won’t be a real Akkawi if you don’t jump!,” small, sun-kissed Ali said as he grabbed my hand and guided me towards a rocky cliff in the wall in the old harbour before he bravely jumped into the sea.
Shirtless children were taking turns leaping excitedly into the waters. There is an old saying that Akkawis believe they will forever be protected by the wall. They are excellent swimmers and none fear the sea.
I escaped being talked into jumping off the cliff and moved to one of the city’s famous attractions, Hammam El Basha Turkish bath.
Ottomans have left their prints all over the city and nothing proves as well as this ancient hammam. Built in 1795, the building, still functional, lures visitors and locals with its glass-coloured ceiling and domed reception hall. The place triggers nostalgia from the doorstep till departure. The inside reminds of beautiful memories where brides and grooms were pampered and celebrated before their weddings.
“One doesn’t really leave Akka, not in heart,” I tell myself as I took a final look at the old wall that witnessed a treasure trove of history and is beholden to its Arab identity.