A Taste of the Arabic

Akko (2 May 2013)

By the time I arrived at Akko, also known as Acre, it was so late at night no one was around on the streets. I think it was something like 3 am. Thankfully I had printed out a map with the route I should take to get to the hostel so I was not entirely lost. But it was still somewhat of a challenge.

I was approached twice by shared taxis (mere cars and not the sheruts I would encounter in other cities) and each offered me a ride for only a shekel. But I was not prepared to trust anyone like that in the middle of the night and not especially when each already had passengers. I thought it wise to behave like a little girl in a foreign land and so late at night. Besides, I have never found myself able to trust tax drivers in other countries.

The old man at the hostel was not pleased with me at all. I had begged him to wait for me when I called from the Tel Aviv train station. He kept shushing me when I tried to apologise for being late although I could understand that he did not want me waking up the entire building. But at least he did bother to wait for me. And I was thankful that I had arrived at my accommodations quickly and safely.

I had basically wasted an entire day because of the delayed flight in. If this had happened to me a few years ago I think I would have been quite fed up. But all the travelling over the years have taught me to expect the unexpected and to accept delays and failed plans as part of life. I had learnt, somewhat, to accept imperfections and having my plans frustrated by unforeseeable circumstances. I do still get pissed off but not so much anymore.

The old man became strangely friendly in the morning. I had expected to have to deal with a foul-faced old man that morning but I was wrong! He even joked about having to stay up to wait for me. How easily people change overnight!

I left my backpack at the hostel and went off to explore Akko.

So Akko is an Arab city. I did go there knowing that it would not be Jewish but it was still somewhat interesting to realise that I was in an Israeli city that was not entirely Israeli as well.

Maybe it was all the glowing reports of the town that I had read when I was researching on this trip, but I did go to Akko with quite high expectations. True, the whole city did reek of history in every corner, and it is home to a culture that I had never encountered so directly before. But I was simply unimpressed with Akko. The architecture of the old city was uninspiring to me. I do however admit that I have been spoilt by the grand European cities and towns that I have seen so many of. However, it did not even appear to me that, despite its impressive history, there was any attempt by the builders of the city to show off at all. Akko looked to me like a mere crowded collection of boxes made of earth-tone bricks.

I started my own walking tour of the old city at the bazaar. I was familiar with the wet markets of 80s Singapore and so I did not get a culture shock here. In fact, the food section of the bazaar looked more sanitised than the wet markets of 80s Singapore.

Akko bazaar

The citadel was alright. The Ottomans had built the current building on foundations put in place earlier by the Knights Hospitaller. I rented an audio guide but did not manage to absorb anything that I had heard. It was such a waste!

Citadel courtyard

One of the Knights’ Hall

The Knights’ Halls were physical evidence of the historical presence of the Knights Hospitaller in the town. These halls were unmistakably European with their Gothic arches.

The old hamam was pretty interesting, although very touristy, to me. I was fortunate to have the whole place to myself most of the time. The facilities were well-preserved and there were life-sized figures of patrons to give visitors an idea of what it could have been like when the hamam was still functioning. It was built at the end of the 1700s and apparently it had functioned right up to 1950.

Hamam scene

Hamam scene

If you ask me, the whole set-up looked pretty homoerotic to me!

There are a few caravanserais (or khans) remaining in Akko and they are now mostly venues for restaurants and shops. The only one I had encountered that was properly preserved and not given over to modern commerce was the Khan al-Umdan. Unfortunately, it was under restoration. Even though no one could walk into the centre of the courtyard and tarnish my picture moment and there were no scaffoldings to affect the scene, there was junk in the courtyard. And of course plenty of grass and weeds. I wish they had kept the place clean!

Caravanserai courtyard

The exterior of the khan looked much better though.

I do like the look of the clock tower although this is modern. It was built in 1906 over the main entrance to the khan to mark the silver jubilee of the rule of the Ottoman Sultan And al-Hamid II. The khan itself was built in 1784 but the tower seems to blend in quite nicely with it. I did not like all those cars though!

Outside the caravanserai

It is quite embarrassing of me but after having been Singaporean for so many years I only paid my first visit ever to a mosque in Akko.

Jezzar Pasha Mosque

Jezzar Pasha Mosque (interior)

The Jezzar Pasha Mosque is another landmark in Akko although it really is a simple mosque. According to Wikipedia, this is the largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem.

As I entered the compound of the mosque, there was a local guy speaking to an American couple. I managed to catch him telling the couple that he was Palestinian. He sounded very proud of it and, dare I add, with a hint of defiance. I think the Americans were trying to find out more about the political situation in the country and the Palestinian was happy to oblige.

Thanks to the girl on the flight into the country, I have to say that I am looking at the Middle East problem with a different eye. Without her I might have sneered at everything in Akko. When I asked her about Israeli cuisine, she told me that since they all came from everywhere the local food landscape had features of different cultures. That struck me like a hammer on my head. If the Jews were recent migrants, then how much right really do they have to the land? Previously I had always believed that the land was given to the Jews by God. In fact I still do. But most of them must have left long ago for various reasons if their descendants had to return from all over the world just a few decades ago. Maybe they had left through no fault of their own. Maybe for argument’s sake we can say that they were driven out by the Arabs (unsubstantiated!). But do they retain land rights after so many years just because their holy book says so? The world is full of examples of land conquests and people being dispossessed of their traditional homelands but no one would say that they retained rights to those lands anymore. If we should follow that line of reasoning then any Malay person should be allowed to waltz into my house and claim it for himself since Singapore is after all in Tanah Melayu.

Supporting the Jews’ right to the land based on some religious reasoning seems to suggest that God loves the Jews more than the Palestinians. I have trouble accepting that. The Jews may of course make that argument because they want the land (like how they claim that God killed all of Egypt’s first-born children during the first Passover), those of us who are not involved in the fight should not support it.

After some thought on my part, I decided that I was not going to support any one side. The stories in the Bible still affects me and influence my thoughts. So I sympathise with both sides now! The conflict is just far too complicated and will take some very creative people to try to resolve it. I am not that creative.

I have to say though that I did not feel entirely comfortable in the mosque. There was always this feeling that maybe I would do something to offend the locals.

I do not remember seeing any synagogue in Akko but I do remember coming across one church there. This was the St George’s Church, a Greek Orthodox church. It was not opened so I could not see what it looked like inside.

This church looks so nondescript as compared to the mosque. If not for the little tower at the back with the little cross on top, and the carvings above the doors, it looked no different from the other brick boxes in the area.

St George’s Church

Akko is not a big city and so after over half a day of walking I felt like I had seen just about everything. Of course I wish I had more time for Akko but I needed to get to my next stop. Maybe I will come back next time. I want to do Haifa anyway but had to give it a miss this trip so that I could be in time to meet my Singaporean friends who were visiting Croatia and the Rockies with me. I can do another day trip to Akko when I get to Haifa next time if I really want to.

Akko promenade

Akko promenade

Akko street

Akko street

Akko street

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