I owned a hotel once. Like Monopoly, only better; real people came to stay. They told stories, we told stories, everyone listened to everyone.
It started with an Ottoman ruin in the Old City of Acre that I bought as a home and studio, but after three years of massive conservation and renovation efforts, my son Micha and I turned the building into a tiny boutique hotel and artists’ residency called Arabesque, which drew guests from around the world thanks to the beauty of its stone arches and the hospitality of our staff. Over the next five years, Micha grew Arabesque by working with local entrepreneurs, but we never purchased another building.
Micha and I are Jewish; all our neighbors are Arabs — mostly Muslim, with some Christian descendants from the city’s Crusader past. That mattered, certainly, in a country obsessed with tribal boundaries and religious identifications. But our experience was one of welcome and warmth. We became part of the fabric of the city.
On Wednesday, shortly after midnight, Arabesque fell to the hands of a violent mob, in spite of the best efforts of our neighbors, who deflected the attack time and again until the mob grew to 50 and there were threats to burn down the entire neighborhood.
It is no small feat to upturn a grand piano or split a sink in two or rip a television or air conditioner into its tiniest parts. The anger and hatred necessary are beyond my own imagination, the pull of muscles involved beyond my capacity. But I do not wish to envision the frenzy as it crescendoed. I prefer, instead, to remember what has been lost: laundry day, when the dining table and the piano stood full of linens to be sorted and we talked and laughed as we worked; the pleased astonishment of first-time visitors as they encountered our oasis after meandering through the narrow stone alleyways of our town; the scent of hibiscus flowers cooking on the stove for the next morning’s breakfast juice; the bells from St. George and the muezzin calls from the Al Jazzar Mosque, occasionally at once; the daily encounter with Abu Saleh, the oldest man in the Old City, on his daily walks to feed bread to the pigeons on the seaside promenade.
Yesterday, I sat shiva. On a rough stone stair amongst the ruins, I sat, while neighbors came in to view the destruction, cry, apologize for the inexcusable acts of their brethren, tell stories. I cried, too, and laughed. When people offered help or asked what my plans were, I told them I was in mourning, that my thoughts are solely on this moment and no other. I do not wonder yet whether Arabesque will ever house lovely guests again or whether I will feel so wholly at home as I did for eight wonderful, life-changing years.
It is not yet clear whether the people in this sad, beautiful, ravaged land can ever learn to respect the differences and distinctions between us and use them for an enhanced joint future, whether the wrongs committed by all parties can be righted. Only this, I know for certain: the friendships I have made in Acre are real and unassailable, even by hatred, anger and muscle. From this, I will build a future.