It has crossed my mind on several occasions during my lifetime that Haifa is the city I could one day live in. Diverse, lively and has a great beach.
After all, I grew up with countless stories about Haifa’s golden days pre-1948: The hustle and bustle of the Horse and Carriage Square (Sa7et El 7anatir) and the life of comfort Palestinians lived there before they became refugees. I’ve heard stories about restaurants, picnics, weddings, and graduations among others. Always happy memories of a life lived before it was harshly interrupted in 1948 by the establishment of the state of Israel. I don’t recall any sad or challenging stories prior to the Nakba (Calamity of 1948 as Arabs refer to it). It always seemed to me that life was perfect then and in the blink of an eye it just ceased to exist. I’ve seen actual keys to homes left behind and I’ve read documents of ownership for businesses, land and properties. I’ve seen identity cards with Palestine listed as a country before Palestinians were reduced to refugee numbers on UNRWA ration cards.
Then the awakening came at my first meeting with a current Haifa resident more than twenty years ago. My first impression was disbelief that an Arab, Christian-Maronite actually resides in Haifa after all the atrocities committed and the complete takeover of the land and displacement of its original people. “I know people from there,” I said. I listed all the locations that grew dear to my heart over the years: Saint Elias Church, Mount Carmel, College Des Freres school, Selizian School, Wadi al-Nasnas... To my surprise, they were all still there and flourishing with fresh new generations of Palestinians. I later met a Jewish family from Haifa and got to know a different side of the story of the majestic city. I learned about the Hadar area, Hertzel Street and Ben Gurion Boulevard. From the Druze of Haifa I learned about Isifya and Daliya village on Mount Carmel. Not to forget the Muslim community of Haifa which can be found everywhere in the Arab sections and the very prominent Baha’I faith with its majestic gardens and Abbas Dome, one of the most beautiful gardens and architectural structure in the world.
For some reason, Haifa was always a common denominator and it kept creeping up into my world, as the example of how integrated living between -- not just Arabs and Israelis would look like -- but also how the harmony among Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Baha’is and Jews can be exemplified.
During a recent visit to this great city, I learned that indeed Haifa is a symbol of tolerance and co-existence. Palestinians, while treated as second-class citizens at many levels, have mastered ways to utilize the system to their advantage and participate effectively in all aspects of life towards the betterment of their Arab heritage and Palestinian identity. Haifa taught me that a rightful cause doesn’t die if people keep working hard at improving themselves and forging ahead in their life without succumbing to intimidation or bullying. In Haifa I learned that most people live their life just like any other place on earth. As Haifa blogger Abeer Khshiboon told me, “Here, we live together and we deal with each other on a daily basis. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not part of our daily conversation or woes.” Khshiboon and many other young Palestinians are very attached to their Palestinian identity and they project it well. Highly intellectual, she speaks both Arabic and Hebrew fluently, fully integrated in her society but knows very well the limits and challenges being a Palestinian woman come with and lives her life accordingly.
A lesson learned
People who still believe in the military struggle as the only way to Palestine should learn a lesson from Haifa. Peaceful Palestinians have found a way to protect the land and safeguard it despite all the pressures and abuses. By doing so, those Palestinians are growing demographically and doing well socially creating one of the biggest threats to the state of Israel. It is a threat that is much louder and much more difficult to crush than any military attack.
I know a little boy who was baptized in the Saint Elias Maronite Church in Carmel some seventy years ago. He might never see that church again, but it must be comforting for him to know that it is still standing and brings together Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druze for worship and for lessons in co-existence only Haifa can offer!
Multi-award-winning journalist Octavia Nasr served as CNN’s senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs, and is regarded as one of the pioneers of the use of social media in traditional media. She moved to CNN in 1990, but was dismissed in 2010 after tweeting her sorrow at the death of Hezbollah’s Mohammed Fadlallah. Nasr now runs her own firm, Bridges Media Consulting, whose main aim is to help companies better leverage the use of social networks. Twitter: @OctaviaNasr