TEL AVIV – The New York Times published an article on Sunday about a revolution taking place in the port city of Haifa that is forging a young, hip, and progressive Arab society.
Secular, feminist, and gay-friendly, these Israeli Arabs have found freedom from the strictures of traditional Arab culture while keeping their Arab identify intact.
“Haifa is a center for Arabs, like Tel Aviv is a center for Jews,” Asil Abu Wardeh, a performance-based psychotherapist told the Times. “There is a cultural movement. There is a youth movement. There’s a kind of freedom here.”
“We have our own parties. Our own places. Our own discos. We dance. We drink. We do it all in Arabic,” she added. “This all began in Haifa.”
Israel’s Arab communities, both in villages and cities, often enforce strict Islamic code. Sex before marriage is forbidden, dating is taboo, and arranged marriages are commonplace. Drinking alcohol is prohibited by Islam, so young people often seek escape in Jewish pubs and bars or drink in secret among friends.
Not so in Haifa, where there are more than a few Arab bars. Ayed Fadel says that his bar Kabareet is a place where Arabs can really be themselves.
“We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them,” Fadel said. “This is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for.”
According to the Times, the Arab renaissance in Haifa began with the opening of Fattoush, a Palestinian restaurant, in 1998. Mustafa Kabha, a lecturer in Palestinian history at the Open University of Israel, claims that Haifa in the 1930s and ’40s “had clubs, cafes, hotels, theaters, and newspapers” for Arabs.
Almost 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab. Haifa has 30,000 Arab residents, around 10 percent of its total population. Divided equally between Muslims and Christians, Haifa’s Arabs come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and are generally better educated than Arabs elsewhere in Israel. The Times writes, “In recent years, they have grown more assertive in expressing their Palestinian identity, allied with their brethren in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
Last year, Haifa hosted Kooz Queer, the first Palestinian gay film festival.