Market makes Ramadan special in Israel’s Taybeh

Sunday 26/06/2016
Arab Israelis gather at a marketplace in Taybeh to celebrate the opening of the first megastore on the first day of Ramadan. (Photo by Sassy Haj Yahia)

Taybeh, Israel - The call to prayer ech­oed from surrounding mosques in Taybeh, in central Israel, as the sun set on nearby mountains, signalling the end of the fast in Ramadan.

Aside from the occasional clink of silverware on plates, silence cov­ered the city, which had been bus­tling with people buying food and other supplies. It was not long be­fore excited voices broke the tran­quillity in anticipation of what lay ahead.

Ramadan has a special taste in Taybeh this year: It kicked off with celebrations marking the inaugura­tion of Taybeh market in the city centre, the first such opening spe­cifically for Ramadan in the Arab sector of Israel.

Following iftar, the meal to break the daily fast, approximately 10,000 people gathered at the mu­nicipal building to participate in a parade through the city to the mar­ketplace in al-Omari. Excitement was evident as holiday greetings and contagious laughter filled the air.

Following Nazareth, Taybeh, with a population of 50,000, is the second largest Arab city in Israel. It is in central Israel, a few kilome­tres from the border with the West Bank.

Once a magnet for culture, Tay­beh has suffered from drugs and crime, alleged municipal corrup­tion and high debt. Residents have been denied the right to vote for a mayor for nine years while the Is­raeli government dealt with messes created by previous administra­tions, some of which had been ap­pointed by the Israelis.

Now, the city is trying to live up to its original title, Tayyibat al-Ism, meaning “good name”.

Municipal leader Shuaa Mansour Masarweh, who was elected in Oc­tober 2015, promised to rehabilitate the city and restore its hope, faith and pride.

“I hope that Taybeh market will bring people together and will be the beginning of lifting Taybeh to the standards that it was once at,” Masarweh said on the sideline of the celebrations.

Taybeh, which is more than 1,000 years old, is rich with the history and tradition of ancient Palestine, visible in its Mediterranean Arab architecture.

On every street is a men-only coffee shop, opening after iftar, and filled with scents of shishas and, true to Ramadan tradition, on every street the smoke from barbe­cued meat rises from grills offering a snack following the feast.

And as the call to prayer is heard, the faithful attend Taraweeh prayers, unique to Ramadan.

Al-Omari, in the old part of the city, is made up of ancient homes, some long-deserted, and narrow, dimly lit, brick pathways. Al-‘Illiyyi al-Tawili, a castle built in 1706, stands undisturbed but nearby buildings have broken doors and windows and weeds grow between the stones.

A plaza in the area has been named Martyr’s Square in honour of Rafat al-Zuheiri, who was killed in Taybeh by Israeli police in 1976 while protesting the confiscation of Arab land in northern Israel.

During Ramadan, Al-Omari is transformed into a magical place, a place that residents barely rec­ognise. There are wooden kiosks standing against stone walls, signs pointing visitors towards various activities around the site and col­ourful blinking lanterns that light up the sky.

It was to the backdrop of these historic sites that the Taybeh mar­ket received its visitors.

Faleh Habib, spokesman for Tay­beh municipality, said: “Taybeh had little entertainment to offer its people in the past few years, espe­cially for the children. Now Taybeh is different.

“This is a good occasion for the city to welcome people from all over the country, Muslims and Jews alike.”

This goal is being reached. Each day, Masarweh said, people from around Israel are visiting Taybeh. Hundreds of Israeli Jews from neighbouring cities, who once feared to go to Taybeh, have been arriving, as have thousands of Ar­abs from around the country. Early estimates were that the number of visitors was almost double what was predicted.

The market is not lacking in en­tertainment. Palestinian music is played by local musicians; there are clowns and face painting; a cooking workshop; traditional Arabic story telling; and games for children. The busiest vendors are those selling cold drinks.

Habib said about 30 kiosks, with goods ranging from ceramics to flowers to clothing to jewellery and toys have opened. “I expect many more to follow when they see how successful business is in the mar­ketplace,” he said.

Amena said she plans to sell her handmade items of traditional Palestinian embroidery. Wanting to keep the art alive, “I took six months of embroidery lessons from a Palestinian lady from Jenin in the West Bank,” she explained.

Now, Amena designs her own products and will have her own shop.

Shehab, who sells ice cream, drinks, popcorn and cotton candy, and opened his kiosk the first day of the bazaar, can hardly keep up with orders.

“It is much more than what I had expected,” he said. “The company and generosity of fellow vendors is awesome. People I did not know before have become my friends.”

“If the market succeeds,” Habib said, “we might open it on spe­cial occasions, on holidays and on weekends.”

“It is hard to predict but the mar­ket is expected to attract between 1,500 and 1,800 people from around the country each day of Ramadan.”