A Muslim Palestinian walked into Jerusalem and opened a store called “Alabama – The Heart of Dixie.”
It sounds like the start of a joke, but it isn’t.
As I walked along the narrow David Street leading from Jaffa Gate to the Wailing Wall in the middle of ancient Jerusalem, the character of the place overcame me. The city’s old, narrow streets are filled with stores selling Jewish, Muslim and Christian gifts and souvenirs. Smells of jasmine, rosewater and saffron greeted me as I watched locals and tourists alike haggle over prices.
The place beckons to a time when all three monotheistic religions shared stories and heroes.
This is where the Old and New Testaments were born. It is where the Quran played an important role. It is where the Torah was penned. It is also where a storeowner named Hani Imam says, “Roll Tide,” as many as 50 times a day.
Among stores filled with Jewish menorahs, Christian olivewood crosses and Muslim prayer rugs, Imam’s store, named “Alabama – The Heart of Dixie,” stands out. The store is filled with trinkets, from silver and gold jewelry to olivewood crosses to framed Roman glass fragments to ancient coins.
But Imam also sells T-shirts with the University of Alabama logo along with the state’s name in Arabic and in Hebrew. UA logos are also printed on mugs, plates, hats, car tags and just about everything you can think of. An Alabama-red wooden sign with a “Welcome to Bama Country” greets you at the door. Inside, a signed picture of Coach Nick Saban hangs on the door with a Sharpie-written note: “To Hani, Roll Tide, Nick Saban.”
The Palestinian-born Imam studied engineering at the University of Alabama and lived in Tuscaloosa from 1984-1994.
“I went to school in Alabama, and I am a big Alabama fan. My family and I love Alabama football and are very proud of Coach Saban and the program,” Imam said. “No one expects an Alabama store here, but everyone loves it.”
I asked Imam how often people from Alabama and the United States come into his shop.
“I have to say ‘Roll Tide’ a few times a day. In the summer, I say it around 50 times. They love it here, they walk in all happy and shocked,” Imam said.
Imam fell in love with Alabama Crimson Tide football when he studied at the university. Upon returning home to Jerusalem, he decided to continue the Alabama tradition by opening a store dedicated to the state.
His store does turn heads.
It is nestled between a store that sells Middle Eastern spices, including cumin, sumac and cardamom, and one that sells leather goods with engraved Jerusalem scenes.
The College Football Playoff National Championship game took place while I was in Israel.
“I did not have the chance to watch the game, but I was kept updated by my brothers. They texted me,” Imam said. “I am happy we won; it went down to the wire but we still won.” He followed that statement with a loud “Roll Tide.”
Reconciling the conflict among Israeli’s, Christian and Muslims may not be Imam’s main goal, but there is one thing he is passionate about and hopes his store brings.
“It boils down to us all getting along. When I lived in Alabama, people were very nice to me. I think people should put their differences aside and just get along,” Imam said.
Next time you walk along Jerusalem’s narrow David Street filled with smells and colors of an era gone by, look for a store with a sign that says, “Alabama – The Heart of Dixie.”
That is where the spirit of Alabama lives, along with the spirit of peace.