Go inside the bar bringing Israelis and Arabs together: "We don't coexist, we share"


When Marwan Hawash walks the streets of the country he has lived in all his life, he feels like a stranger. 

"I am different, no matter where I go," he said. 

Hawash, 26, is an Arab-Israeli, who was born into a Jehovah's Witness family in Bethlehem. "People here like to emphasize differences. You are born into a group and that means you are supposed to behave in a certain way and hang out with certain people."

And so he had always been a little uncomfortable living in Israel. "Let's be honest. Most Israelis don't like me, because I am an Arab," he said. But, he says, he's cast out by Palestinians for being neither Muslim nor mainstream Christian. Hawash doesn't even subscribe to the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses — he is secular.

So, he has done something that can be considered radical: He has developed a space for everyone — in Israel, a country that has, since its founding in 1948, been one of the most hotly contested territories, and the site of ongoing violence related to the dispute. 

The clash: More recently, there has been a wave of Palestinian violence on the one side, which consists mainly of stabbing attacks conducted by youth acting as lone wolves.

On the Israeli side, policies of an extreme rightwing government increasingly discriminate against the 20% Arab population. They are referred to as "Arab-Israelis", a term many do not feel comfortable with as it blurs their Palestinian identity. The government considers a "Nation State Bill" establishes Israel first and foremost as a Jewish State. Critics fear democratic principles could be subordinated to religious ones in the future. 

Arab schools and cultural institutions receive less funding from the state. The education ministry even excised an inter-religious love story from the school curriculum, because it could encourage intermarriage and thereby threaten the "Jewish identity" of the state. The current incitement against left-wing groups and human rights organization is unprecedented in the history of the country.

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The Israeli government has essentially officially discouraged co-mingling between Israelis and Palestinians through a string of legistlation. Palestinians from the West Bank need special permissions to work in Israel and Israelis are barred from entering certain parts of the West Bank. In 2002, the Israeli government erected a wall to separate the territories, forcing Palestinians to pass through Israeli Defense Forces checkpoints in order to enter. In 2012 the Palestinian state has been recognized by the United Nations as an observer state, much to the disapproval of the Israeli government.

Felix Rettberg

A haven: Hawash unlocks a heavy iron door located in a small alley in Jaffa, the Arab part of Tel Aviv. The door leads into the so-called "Cave", a vaulted two-room hall. Red neon writing on the wall says "Loulou" in Arabic: It means "pearls." The bar is called "Anna Loulou," or "I am pearls."

"This is the place where you can be exactly who you are."

"This is my life now," he said with a smile. Just a couple of days ago he had left his job in marketing to become the full-time manager of the bar. Since the summer of 2015 he has been a part owner of Anna Loulou along with seven other people — all of them born in the 1980s, all of them highly educated, but each from a very different background. They purchased the place from the founders, a couple who moved to Berlin in 2015. 

"There was never a concept to bring people together", says 32-year-old Alma Itzhaky, a Jewish artist born in Tel Aviv. "Any concept would have been artificial and forced."

Without any political declarations, the place has become one of the very few locations where Israelis and Palestinians, whether straight or gay, party together in a nonchalant way, all of them seemingly comfortable in their religious, national and sexual identities.

Still, the owners have always rejected any kind of labelling as an Arab bar or a gay bar or even a mixed bar.

"This is the place where you can be exactly who you are," said Itzhaky. 

A meaningless concept: Hawash doese't like the term "coexistence," which has lost meaning in the inter-Israeli discourse, becoming a hollow phrase used by politicians and well-intended intellectuals who have failed in attempts to enact any lasting change.

"It's a lie. There is no coexistence in this country. One group is allowed to exist and the other doesn't have the chance", Hawash says. Instead, he speaks of Anna Loulou as a "shared space, an opportunity to connect".

"Growing up in Israel means being directed to different tracks, schools are separated; then there is the army to which Arabs almost never enlist," Itzhaky said. "Most people just don't interact."

Alma Katz, a bartender at Anna Loulou: "It doesn't matter how much I think I am politically conscious," she told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "stereotypes are something so deeply rooted that you don't always even know they exist."

Before Anna Lou Lou, Itzhaky explained she met Palestinians only in the context of political activism, but said those interactions lacked a natural intimacy. Conversely, the bar has facilitated interfaith friendships, romantic relationships and artistic cooperations. 

"It is queer and creative, it is fashionable and natural at the same time. The spirit is miraculous, almost unexplainable", says Vera Korman, a feminist artist, who regularly parties at the Anna Loulou.

"There is no other bar like this in Israel," Korman continued. "Usually even the left-wing doesn't interact much with Palestinians. Often they are blind to the lifestyle of young, trendy Arabs. They don't even know about their existence So the bar fills a blind spot. It is the place for the few people in this country who have the spirit and the will to really encounter and understand the other. It is a place of possibilities."

Felix Rettberg
Ben Palhov

"Of course not everyone appreciates this," Itzhaky says. "I think the game is to stay somehow under the radar." So far the owners of Anna Loulou have not faced threats. 

"This place is a lot about the music", says Ruben Rais, another co-owner of the bar. His family moved from Colombia to Israel for Zionist reasons when he was a child and today he teaches Judaism. Rais dreams of one day filling the Anna Loulou with crowds of Salsa dancers.

For now, he has invited a DJ and a rapper from Ramallah in the West Bank. They are part of 47SOUL, a Palestinian band, whose members come from Syria, Jordan and the U.S., who overcame the logistical challenges to create electronic Palestinian street music, mixing Bedouin guitar elements, hip hop, gospel and Ragga and call their sound ShamStep.

People are queuing in front of the Anna Loulou, inside Hawash is dancing with the bartender, people are drinking, laughing and the crowd is moving to Arab rhythms. Everybody seemingly has a good time. The scenario looks like an idealist's dream of what this country could be — tolerant, open and happy. But as reality in Israel is different, Anna Loulou functions as a respite from daily life for people who share this dream.

"In the end the Anna Loulou is just a normal place", says Hawash. "That is the special thing about it: It is normal. And I think there should be more such places. Most other places in this country are not normal. Hate and separation are not normal. And it should not be like this."