The Fauzi Azar Inn is a structure with a story.
I learn this from an elegant lady who knows it best. What I consider to be just a place to spend the night, she remembers as a childhood home. Her name is Suraida and she is the granddaughter of Fauzi Azar.
Suraida is eager to tell her story to the six of us. We sit together on chairs and stools in the reception area. While chatting, another woman enters with a tray of coffee. This is Arabic hospitality at its best. We sip from small handleless cups and listen to a saga that offers one window to the past and another to a possible future.
The structure in which we sit was built in 1830 by a man named Hebib Azar. The Arabic name Azar, I now learn, is a shortened form of Lazarus, a character from the Gospels. The Azar family, like many of the old families of Nazareth, are Christians.
Their home was constructed of local limestone in a rich Ottoman style. It has a central courtyard, airy to the sky, and lined with arches and rooms. As for the rooms, they are framed in cedar brought down from the Taurus mountains. The ceilings and eves are lofty and ornately decorated. Suraida knows that the artist responsible for the scrollwork came from Lebanon and that he was commissioned to do the work in the decade of the 1860s. Most of the decoration is a running garland. However, one room shows wheat in various stages of development. Elsewhere, two angels float overhead.
She points to the angels, proudly. “This tells you that the owners were Christian.”
Such ceiling work is rare in the region, according to Dr. Sharif-Safadi, an Ottoman expert who has done a thorough study of these paintings. Perhaps only 60 ceilings survive to this day, many, curiously, in Nazareth (see http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/ottoman-era-decorations-give-picture-of-palestines-past).
With its position, plan, and decoration, the structured accumulated dignity. Even now, though tired and worn, it elicits the charm of another age.
“All of my family fled to Syria in 1948,” she says. “Only Fauzi Azar stayed behind to take care of our property.”
Suraida explains how in the aftermath of 1948 conflict, Nazareth was dramatically changed. Property was confiscated by the new government. Whole villages were bulldozed. People with nowhere to go, came to Nazareth. It became a town of refugees and squatters. Only Nazareth’s international reputation as a holy place kept it from being destroyed. Despite this, many of the painted ceilings like those of the Fauzi Azar Inn were whitewashed or lost.
The granddaughter learns forward in her chair, intimately. Her voice drops. “As a girl I remember coming here on Saturdays. The whole family would come and eat around the table, right here.” She points. She then reminisces about what her grandfather and grandmother’s bedroom looked like, and how she played in the courtyard with the other children.
As her grandfather aged, it became increasingly difficult for him to keep the house in good repair. Finally, in an ironic tragedy, the man who stayed behind to protect the home was killed as a result of a disaster in it. A heater, used to warm one room against Nazareth’s cold winters, caught fire. Fauzi Azar died in 1980 from burns incurred while extinguishing the flames.
In the decades that followed, the house crumbled. It became a kind of metaphor for the town itself. Between the slumping economy and the political unrest, Nazareth was suffocating. Tourists came to visit the churches but then left again. “No one stayed for any time. (Old) Nazareth was abandoned even by its residents. Even I was afraid to come here,” Suraida confessed.
In the pause, I reach down for my coffee cup. Awkwardly, I bump it and spill some on the floor. My clumsiness does not escape Suraida. She chuckles. “In Arab culture, spilling coffee is good luck. You are going to have a very good day!”
The coffee lady appears out of nowhere, this time with a tissue. She dabs it up.
I swallow the rest of the cup immediately to prevent the accumulation of any more luck.
Here, her story takes a new twist. In 2005, in Israeli backpacker and entrepreneur contacted the family. His name was Maoz. He had visited the abandoned home in Nazareth. “He didn’t have any money” (Suraida laughs again at this), but he did have a vision. The vision began with the idea that some travelers want more than a isolated room. They want interaction with a community. Certainly the Azar structure was no ordinary structure and Nazareth no ordinary community. But at the time, the structure had no electricity, no running water. Would they rent it to Maoz? The family balked, fearful of the repercussions for renting to an Israeli. It was a risky thing for an Arab family. And as for Maoz, he too incurred risk. A lone Jew moving into an rough Arab neighborhood to start a business? It was unheard of.
In the end, both parties agreed to try. And to the surprise of all, Maoz warmed the hearts of his neighbors and began restoring the venerable place to its former pride, piece by piece, stone by stone, board by board. All this was done under conditions and with the promise that Fauzi Azar’s name would not be lost.
I watch Suraida closely now. Her eyes dance. She describes her own emotional journey from fear to reluctance to hope and then to joy, at seeing the abandoned home brought back to life. As I listen to her, I am struck by the fact that this is new wine in a old wine skins. The power of individual choice is greater than the power of collective prejudice. People from very different cultures can find ways to work together. It simply requires courage, patience, and grace.
Of course, the story is far from over. Thus far, the results have been amazing. In 2011 the Fauzi Azar Inn received international recognition as “best in its class” in the Responsible Tourism Awards. In 2012 and 2013 it won back to back traveler’s choice awards from Tripadvisor.
Stimulated by traffic to the Inn, other businesses are springing up. Old Nazareth is slowly coming back to life. Streets are being repaired. Tourists who wish to escape scripted routes and canned tours are spending not just an hour, but the night in Nazareth. It is ecotourism, urban style.
To see Fauzi Azar Inn pleases the eye. To hear the story behind it pleases the heart.