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Afula, Israel

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The old and new generations mixing in Afula.

Afula is a small city located in the Jezreel valley in northern Israel. Its origins are Biblical: Gideon of Judges (chapters 6-8) hails from Ofel, which is thought to be the ancestor of present day Afula. Its current incarnation was founded on 31 March, 1925, by American immigrants. In-between, several Arab villages stood on the spot: al-Affulah was built by Saladdin, which later came to be called al-Fulah. This disappeared around the turn of the century.

Now it's a municipality of about 150,000 people. Many of those live up on the hill below which the rest of the city lies. This hill is called Givat Hamoreh, and the section of the city that sits on it is Afula Illit ('upper Afula'). Down below is the commercial section of the city, which is a perfect miniature version of the cultural diversity and unique dichotomy of ancient and modern that characterises Israel itself.

For example, the local mall, kenyon ha'amakim or 'the mall of the valleys', lies only a few blocks from the more traditional shuk or marketplace. Both will sell you jeans that say Levi's; but only one will sell you a pair that will survive the wash. The mall is comfortably air conditioned - the shuk is a bit hotter, but also a more lively; you must haggle for your price. The mall sells cell phones and imported perfumes - the shuk sells cheap cigarettes and hookahs, but also some really wonderful handmade jewellery and bags. A benefit of patronising the shuk is that if you have a poker face and a steady tone you will quite often find an excellent deal.

Another good way to see how Afula is a cross-section of Israel is to just watch the people in this traditionally lower-income city. You will, on any given day, see ultra-Orthodox Jews, Sephardic1 Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Russians, and Arabs all interacting in the same small space. Russian is in fact heard almost as commonly as Hebrew, and many stores will have signs only in Russian. Arabic and Amharic can also both be heard frequently. And, like everywhere in Israel, nearly everyone speaks some English.

Also found wandering about in Afula are the people who live in all the nearby communal settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim2, who are likely to be more secular, more wealthy, and lighter skinned. Their presence is due to the fact that Afula is really the only city, of any size at all, anywhere in the area; so it is here that they come to dine and shop. Afula's longtime nickname is 'Capital of the Valley', which explains why everything in it, from the hospital to the mall to the falafel joint, is named after the valley. The area hospital, the local bus station, and other such regional facilities are located within its borders.

Within Israel, Afula is known (somewhat rightfully so) as a boring, dusty place in which it is far from desirable to live, whose inhabitants are close-minded, and all dress and act the same. There is, however, much to be said for a quiet, content sort of place, and there are as many warm and wonderful people within the Afula city limits as anywhere. A common hangout for the adolescent 'in crowd' is the bamah, a large public stage. Any hour of the day or night, you will most likely find an assortment of very pierced teenagers there, smoking a hookah and wishing they hadn't been born in Afula.

The one thing for which Afula is truly known is its falafel. Two competing falafel establishments, Haemek (of the valley) and Hanasi (presidential), have a long-standing rivalry. In fact, there is little difference in quality or price between the two, so the distinction is irrelevant. They're both great!

From Tel Aviv Central Bus Station one can catch a bus for either Afula or Kiryat Shmona, on the way to which Afula lies. Most of these bus lines number in the 830s or 840s. As for staying, it should be said, 'Don't'. If, for some reason, overnight lodging is vitally necessary, many of the nearby settlements have decent accommodations: Mizra has a hotel, called Nof Tavor, and both Bet Hashita and En Harod have guest houses.

One final sad note is that Afula is located very close to the West Bank, and in particular the city of Jenin. This means that a few times in recent years it has been subjected to terrorist attacks, killing innocent people. A memorial to the victims of these attacks stands near the central bus station. However, considering the extremely low crime rate of the place, Afula is in fact an very safe little city, and worth visiting... if only once.

1Sephardic Jews are those originating in Arab countries, mainly Yemen, Morocco, Iraq and Syria. They tend to have darker complexion than their Ashkenazic, or Eastern European, counterparts, and in Israel today they are generally poorer.2Those are two different types of settlements based on varying levels of cooperative economics.

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