I haven’t written a blog for a very long while. Extra time and extra thinking to myself during the lockdown periods of the Covid-19 pandemic prompted previous blogs, and since things began to open up, I’ve been very busy delving back into life as it used to be. But on the morning of May 13, 2021, I woke up to a three-word text from a very good friend, Evan Fallenberg: Arabesque is gone. Suddenly, life stood still.
Evan Fallenberg is, like me, a long-time American transplant here in Israel. He wears many hats, among them highly-touted novelist, Professor of Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University, sought-after literary translator, and most recently, creator of a hotel/multicultural arts center in the Old City of Akko. That’s where Arabesque comes in. When looking to buy property in Israel, Evan fell in love with a wreck of a structure in the middle of Akko’s almost completely Arab Old City, his artistic head full of brilliant architectural and decorating schemes – but also, vision. Hope. Optimism.
Evan believed that with a combination of talent, good will and respect toward others, he could turn his ancient ruin into a coexistence gem. Its light would be pale and delicate at first, but its flame would eventually warm many hearts, minds, and souls in this harsh land. Evan and his son Micha, and all the gifted professionals and craftspeople who collaborated with them, turned Arabesque into one of the most popular boutique hotels in the country, each room decorated in exquisite, colorful twists on classic Levant. Arabesque’s common areas, with their curious stairways and innovative cooking/eating areas, not to mention a very grand piano, hosted many unique events.
I was personally involved in two of these: Evan’s pre-opera cocktail party before the city’s annual outdoor summer opera production in the ancient Crusader fortress, and the half-day creative writing workshop he generously gave, several years in a row, to my diverse international class of Masters degree students in Child Development from University of Haifa. The last time I visited Arabesque, Evan and I had breakfast on its rooftop, overlooking the port, after more than a year of not meeting because of the pandemic. Arabesque was magical. Evan and his mostly Arab staff, neighbors, and friends exuded such genuine affection for each other that I always left feeling convinced it was only a matter of time, and maybe just a short time, before Israel’s ethnic and religious strife would end and we’d all share the land with reasonable equanimity.
During the night between May 12 and May 13, Arabesque was destroyed by rioters rampaging through the alleyways of Akko’s Old City. The night before, it had been spared, while Evan himself had been ducking in and out of bomb shelters in Tel Aviv trying to have a meeting. But the following night, there was no stopping the violent attack on this unique place.
I have no idea whether Evan and Micha will accept the multitude of well-meaning offers of help from friends, all over the world, urging them to rebuild Arabesque. That is their decision, and theirs alone, and it is too early to decide. Right now, as Evan told me, they are in mourning. It will take time for them to regroup and decide what to do. But, that decision is about Arabesque, the place. It is my deepest hope that Arabesque, the vision, will somehow remain alive inside the Fallenbergs and inside all of us.
Only places like Arabesque know how to gently nurture budding understanding between “others” – and because of this, they are safe houses. We must protect these “safe houses” inside us, even if their external structures are destroyed, and keep hoping.
Being hopeful and optimistic are important ingredients for maintaining one’s mental health. Just as important is holding onto our beliefs and values no matter what forces are wreaking havoc in our crazy world. Having an internal compass is far better than letting others steer our course. We may have no control over what goes on outside ourselves, but we must try to do the hard work of maintaining control of our inner lives.
With a great deal of patience, optimism and hope, a better world will come – maybe not as soon as we’d like, but eventually. Until then, as individuals, we must each have our own Arabesque inside of us. Not even the most violent hatred from the outside can destroy our inner vision for humanity.