Seeking to grab a quick lunch on a Saturday – Shabbat – in Israel, led us into the Arab town of Umm Al Fahm, where we were greeted with unexpected hospitality.
Before we went, I didn’t know anything about Umm al Fahm other than that it ‘had a bad press’, and I’m glad I saved the googling for after our short visit.
We were on our way to visit the biblical site of Megiddo, or ‘Armageddon’ to give it it’s Greek name, when we decided to detour into Umm al Fahm to grab some lunch. On the map, Umm al Fahm sits very close to the motorway, and being an Arab town, it felt a safe bet for a quick falafel sandwich. The map was deceptive however, and we were soon twisting and winding our way up the steep hillside into the Fahm hills.
Umm al Fahm with its population of 55,000 was bigger than we expected, and nothing short of a rabbit’s warren. If the narrow streets were part of a one-way system, we weren’t in on it. Eventually we came to a halt in an unofficial parking spot in one of the winding streets which may or may not have been part of the town centre.
The plan had been to ‘grab and go’ but on entering the café, a man sprung up and moved his two young sons, both in crisp white karate outfits, to a smaller table to accommodate us, and the café owner started assembling small plates on the table. It was clear that this would be a sit-in affair.
We ordered falafel sandwiches and were encouraged to select salads and other accoutrements from another counter. The food was good and the service efficient. Strong Arabic coffee was served. By this time, karate dad had finished and before leaving he came over to say, ‘no money, it’s done’.
He didn’t know where we were from, hadn’t spoken to us, and yet had paid for our lunch. It was touching and baffling in equal measure. The awkward ritual of refusing as well as accepting at the same time followed and left us feeling like we’d missed the opportunity to be properly grateful. It was a highly unexpected and extremely gracious act of kindness.
After karate dad left with the kids, we asked the café owner ‘why?’, and received a shrug of the shoulders and a signal that ‘Allah decides these things’. Conversation then led on to where the best viewpoint in Umm al Fahm was and the second act of kindness for the day.
As we got up to leave, tipping the two waiters generously, a tiny man appeared in the shop’s entrance, and we were told that he would take us to the viewpoint. We could do nothing but accept, and he jumped into the front of the car. A few women, in long dark dresses and headscarves, stood huddled in their doorways chatting, and casting unsure looks as to who the accosted party was.
‘Left, right, dogarie’, we were led back through the narrow, twisting streets and even higher up the hillside to the top of Mount Iskander. The tiny man had slightly greying hair (one of the only signs that he wasn’t actually a child), and a thick padded jacket despite the heat. His smile was generous, and he acted as if being whisked away by foreigners was all in a day’s work for him. He beckoned us to stop next to a building site, where the viewpoint was partially obstructed but nevertheless, we admired the West Bank stretching out below us with views across to Jenin. We returned tiny man to the town centre and tried to pay him for his time which he firmly refused.
The proximity of Umm al Fahm to Jenin, and the supposed close links between the towns – one in Israel, the other in Palestine, was part of the reason for Umm al Fahm’s bad reputation. Whether by flaw or design, Umm al Fahm was one of the places where the Separation Wall was not entirely secure and people and goods could circumvent the checkpoints. On 18 May an Umm al Fahm resident was charged with running one such illegal smuggling operation.
Over the years there had been various political scandals involving Hamas and regular accusations that the town was a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism. On 27 March, two young men travelled from Umm al Fahm to Hadera where they killed two Israeli border guards. They had pledged their allegiance to ISIS. This was the cloud that currently hung heavy over the town.
From its hillside location, Umm al Fahm teetered somewhere between Israel and Palestine. Not welcome in either. We were sorry not to have had more time in which to visit the Umm Al Fahm art gallery. We left with more questions than we arrived with. We hadn’t asked anything of Umm al Fahm and yet the hospitality of the people, left a lasting impression that made it worthy of further exploration and an open mind for the unique challenges faced by this community.