FOR FOUNDERS Maoz Inon and Gal Mor — idealistic Israeli backpackers still reeling from the success of the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth — there was much to celebrate. In a single year, their hostel has been subtly and steadily absorbed into the prevailing backpacker’s discourse in Israel. A risky investment has paid off.
During my weeks of solo travel across the tiny country, I encountered the same four conversational formalities:
- “What’s your name?”
- “Where are you from?”
- “Where have you been and where are you going?”
- “Have you stayed/will you say at Abraham’s?”
At the onset of the second intifada in 2000 and the uncertain security climate that followed, the number of annual tourists to Israel dropped by nearly two thirds in only a year. The situation has stabilized over the last decade, though recent Gaza rockets falling on southern Israeli towns and an unconfirmed Iranian nuclear program suggest that security remains less than 100% assured.
But Maoz and Gal have proven that with a little ingenuity, the elusive feeling of “home” can be created even where travelers are feeling the most uncertain.
At the beginning of my trip, I sat on a humid hostel terrace in Tel Aviv. It was overflowing with travelers sipping tall Goldstars, lethargic from too much beer and sun, an exhausted heap of tanned limbs and sandy feet draped over the backs of couches and the edges of woven hammocks.
Everyone was on a different itinerary, but what I didn’t yet realize was that in tiny Israel, we would run into each other in bus stations, at museums, and on street corners nearly every day.
And we would all pass through the newest hostel in Jerusalem.
We compared notes on accommodations like seasoned diplomatic negotiators. Multiple worn copies of the same Lonely Planet circulated the terrace — Abraham’s was still too new to be mentioned in the latest edition. Most of us were traveling in the Middle East for the first time, and deciding on a place to sleep and leave our bags while we wandered seemed more daunting than usual.
“I want to go to the desert,” I lamented, already beginning to feel guilty for the unplanned, extra time I was spending in Israel’s larger cities. “I’m staying five days in Jerusalem, but maybe that’s too long.”
“Ahh, are you staying at Abraham’s?” a tall, blonde Australian piped up from the other end of the dinner table. She added the possessive to his name, as though the prophet for whom the hostel was named — the world’s very first backpacker — was a good friend whose couch she’d crashed on.
I smiled. She was the third person that day to mention it in passing. “I am.”
“Well when you go, ask around for a volunteer named Marcos,” she said, smiling when she said his name. “When I was there, he was talking about starting a Desert Night Out. Maybe he’ll have it up and running by the time you get there.”
I would later learn that Marcos, the Brazilian hostel volunteer, had not only added the trip to the hostel’s diverse tour program, but was disarmingly skilled at selling the idea to tall, blonde, foreign women.
Two weeks later, he would kiss me in the desert, like all of the tall, blonde, female backpackers that came before me. But in the desert I would be, watching the sun set over the pinkish dunes with the Dead Sea on the horizon, sipping arak with the Israeli staff and hostel guests, and chopping vegetables for a communal dinner around the campfire.
Abraham Hostel is like a summer camp for grownups, and is the physical manifestation of an Israeli snow globe effect — the terrace in Tel Aviv was given a swift shake the following morning as the Jaffa mosques awoke with calls to morning prayer and hungover 20-somethings scattered with backpacks across the Holy Land.
But when the snow settled, it fell on Abraham.
Here I saw strangers I’d nodded to near Tabgha and a foreign couple with whom I’d shared a slice of beach on the Galilee. It’s sprawling common room provided a sense of security in which we could share our stories of insecurity: hours of interrogation at the Bethlehem checkpoint, jeering on the Mount of Olives, hitchhiking around the Galilee.
Abraham’s concept is a blend of the familiarly Western and the uniquely Middle Eastern, a nice mix of support and flexibility. It’s cleaner and better organized than most Western hostels I’ve patronized, and pristine in comparison to its often grimy Israeli counterparts.
And whereas many hostels employ a staff of foreigners they believe will more seamlessly interact with their clientele, Abraham’s has mastered the balance.
Enthusiastic foreign volunteers lead tours across the desert and sunrise hikes to the top of Masada. Arab-Israeli staff members shop for Shabbat dinner at the nearby Mahane Yehuda Market and oversee the group preparation of traditional Arabic and Israeli dishes for the communal Friday night meal. An Israeli staff member sings ancient Hebrew blessings over the wine and challah before dishes are passed around a family-style dinner table.
Happy birthday, Abraham Hostel. Thank you for the adventures and for the most peaceful place I found to lay my head in Israel. May you be celebrating for many years to come. [Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Emily’s travel blog at Matador Community.]
* Feature photo: Francesco Polacchini