A Christmas tale of modern life in Nazareth with bird’s eye view

PITCH dark, cold and rain falling … I was walking slowly backwards and forwards near our outside light, in order to keep it shining until visitors had had enough time to get down the drive, across the cattle grid and the road to reach their car (this light normally reacts briefly to passers-by and then drops them into black darkness seconds later).

There are certain times of day and night and certain weather conditions in which wildlife experiences are so unlikely as to be assumed non-existent and this was, I thought, one of them. Wrong!

As I waved goodbye to the lights of the disappearing vehicle, a sudden movement caught my eye; a gold flicker.

I paused. Another flicker and another. There, dancing into the beam of light was a small moth, with sheer, gold wings. The wings were so fine; they seemed far too thin and flimsy to enable anything to become airborne.

As it fluttered low over the ground, the light flashed off the shine on the scales. Then in an erratic lurch to one side, it touched against the step. It stuck fast on the wet cement.

For a good half minute it flapped vainly, twirling against the roughness, frantically attempting to lift free. I longed to help, but any contact with my giant finger tips would inevitably have damaged those elfin, tissue sails.

I waited. At long last, it released itself and danced away this way and that, a flicker or two of gold light, vanishing into the night.

But I was more than puzzled. There were wild windy gusts the night before. How had so fragile a creature remained in such perfect condition, and also, what kind of moth was it?

Just two more days to the still point of the turning year. Christmas, in fact, falls into the “real” new year, when the days have just begun to edge towards the light again; rather appropriate in a Biblical sense perhaps.

But the word Biblical conjures up somewhat different images. Little flat roofed, white houses with arched blank windows, like the ones in the simpler Christmas cards (that is if you can find any “Christmas” cards at all; most of them this year reflect colossal quantities of booze, fancy decorations, goofy Santas and puppies).

But what if you could see with the eyes of a Nazarene pigeon and take to the sky above the old city to catch some real life scenes of that present day city in midwinter? Having just returned from a visit to Israel and Jordan, such images are fresh in my mind and I will fly you across a selection of them for your festive reflective enjoy­ment.

First we will perch high on Mount Gabriel, in an elderly palm tree, overlooking the new hotel of the same name, where tables are being set out and laid for evening refreshments for the hordes of tourist “Christian pilgrims” whose buses are due back from the day’s package tours in a few hours. From here the sounds of the city float up in waves of traffic and children’s voices, as it is break time in the large Arab secondary school nearby.

Bulbuls call from the shrubs in the hotel gardens and a small cat wanders across beneath them, gazing up with bright eyes. Between tumbles of rubble below the road, small chunks of ancient terraced fields can still be seen, where villagers once harvested olives and vegetables below hill tops favoured by golden jackals and barbary falcons and maybe ibex.

Today the hill tops are hidden by blocks of new flats; the old scenes remembered now only in old black and white photographs in the Nazareth Folk Museum. Time to fly down a short way Below us tiny alleyways, some with steps, others coarsely paved, thread a hundred different routes down to the old city. Further out, the roads are wider and traffic courses through with much honking.

Concrete flat roofs, bristling with aerials and solar water heaters shoulder the older pitched, red tiled ones and far below green patches denote walled buildings of im­portance, enclosed in gardened spaces against the hustle and bustle outside; citrus trees glow with yellow and orange fruit lamps among the dark green of cypress and juniper around the minaret of the White Mosque, white crosses from Christian churches and civic buildings too.

We alight on an arched stone bridge, spanning the space between two old stone walled buildings. A respected wealthy merchant of Nazareth, one Fauzi Azar, years ago built an addition to his family house here and as the old city is densely built up, the only way free is upwards.

So story after story of sturdy stone levels were added to the imposing ground floor buildings and each one required bracing supports between them, the combinations of deceptively light stone arches and exterior flights of steps, interlaced with vines, rose trees and plant pots make for truly beautiful scenes.

There are big tubs of geraniums, mint and rosemary to perch on, and our pigeon has to leave us for a few moments while he sizes up the local feathered competition. He struts and bows and fluffs up his feathers, coodling and goodling his magnificence to the watching birds. Traffic noise fades as we enter the courtyard. Years ago, the only sound, apart from voices, would have been the clopping hooves of horses and donkeys.

Here once, discreetly hidden ladies would entertain their lady friends out of sight of the menfolk. Now it is a cheerful thoroughfare of guests of the Fauzi Azar Inn, a remarkable accommodation project run by Jews and Arabs and foreign volunteers. There is a wonderful international feel here and the “traditional Arabic Breakfasts” are worth every sheckel of their supplementary charge on the overnight fee. Feel like a bite? Come on down into the street level dining area. A light, airy stone-walled room, where you are welcome to use the kitchen to cook your own food if you are travelling on the cheap.

The walls are also hanging space for a current exhibition of paintings and photographs. Splendid arched doorways have been glassed over and passersby glance through at the diners within and enjoy the colourful pictures on display.

Help yourself to coffee, “nes” or ‘bots”, in other words “instant” or the grainy, gritty real thing. I am going for the “bots” (the Israeli word for mud) with cardamon, or “Hell” in Arabic. I love the spicy, rich flavour it gives. But there’s tea too, hot chocolate and a jug of newly picked mint stems and leaves. You can get fresh mint tea everywhere now. Take a seat.

Pitta bread comes in a basket, beautifully warm. Fill one with a selection from the bowl of humus, streaked with herbs and olive oil, a tray of chopped tomatoes and cucumber and a plate of chopped white cheese. Olives are served, green and black ones and then just when you are beginning to fill up, small omelettes appear, and more pitta bread arrives, with honey and a dish of dates, sweet and succulent, but a real problem for anyone with false teeth apparently. Try a glass of water from the big jug on the table.

Help yourself to more hot drinks. Now if have you got any room left our hostess is heading this way again, with pancakes. Hot pancakes, some covered in a savoury spread of herbs and freshly crushed spices, others with cheese. But I’m now too full for another morsel. Time to say “Shukran” and head for the pigeon. He’s waiting upstairs. Climb up but have a quick glance into the reception area first.

Beautiful stained glass windows with elaborate twirly wrought iron frames let the light into this roof level room. Wonderful painted ceilings speak of the wealth and splendour of days gone by.

We can see from here down several of the narrow streets of the old city and there a gaps where small vistas of ancient city roof-scapes gleam like visions from the past.

There is a welcoming table here with a guest book full of fulsome praise for the delights of the inn by people from every corner of the globe. Freshly-baked cake slices are on offer and more free hot drinks as well as use of the internet and a library of books to borrow from.

We soar away from the guest house and circle the compound of the iconic Basilica of the Annunciation; a vast modern building with an imposing conical roof, the third to be built over the foundations of what is claimed to be Mary’s house. It’s another gallery of artwork, sculpture and glass from all round the world.

But we are flying down again and under several arches, finally alighting above a stretch of the “shook”, the old market. Sights and smells to dazzle the senses rise from the dozens of tiny shops, whose wares spill out across the paved alleyways.

Here you can find wooden moulds for Arab sweets, Christian biscuits, crucifixes and Jewish menorah. Haggle with swarthy dealers over “real” Roman coins, prehistoric arrow heads and ancient clay lamps. Enter the special workshops and buy a few hundred grams of freshly blended spiced coffee, piled in volcanic cones of warm, brown grains. Avoid the cheap plastic rubbish, drool over embroidered shawls, and then take the feathered flight out into the sunlight again and soar.

High above the old city, you marvel at just how far the buildings have spread. Where olives groves and vineyards, green productive terraces and small villages once stood, acres after acres of city concrete now cover the hillsides.

A restless mix of old and new, rich quarters, poorer ones, Christian Arab, Muslim Arab and Nazareth Elite, the newer Jewish area. History is alive and well in Nazareth, with a million individual stories to be told and more certain to follow in the uncertain days ahead.

But we skim back down again, past the open windows of the Folk Museum, where one visiting primary school class is enjoying a video of olive oil pressing the old way, while in another room children are learning to make simple bead jewellery.

This time we alight outside to Abu Ashraf’s coffee house, with its walls covered in antique Nazarene tools, cooking utensils and memorabilia. He tells us stories of old Nazareth.

We enter a long, philosophical debate on the Middle East today, drinking sweet black “bots” in minute china cups. We nibble Abu’s generous treat of Kataifi, tiny hot pancakes, folded over a heap of honey and ground walnuts. I need to learn the Arabic for “delicious”.

“There are fanatics in every country,” says Abu Ashraf. “But in my coffee shop we talk about peace. You have to find the way to live in peace with everybody.”

And now, back in Shetland, with the day almost as short as it can get, the heat and hustles of Nazareth are a world away. Greening hills and bougainvillea fade from the memory along with the honey seeking sunbirds and the skeins of migrating cranes. But wildlife is never far away.

Jill Slee Blackadder


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.