Hagada Hasmalit

a critical review of israeli culture and society

Posted by רני On September - 28 - 2007 0 Comment

The city of Jaffa was the most important commercial and cultural center of Arab Palestine before the 1948 war. At the end of April of that year, the city was captured by the combined Jewish forces of the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi. Except for several thousand people, its 70,000 inhabitants fled during the fighting or were expelled, and were never allowed to return to their homes. The following pieces were selected from a series of electronic memoirs/reflections initiated by Salim Tamari in 1995 and exchanged by a group of twelve Jaffa exiles living across the globe. The correspondence was later taken over by two young academics living in Jaffa, Andre Mazawi and Haytham Sawalhi and transformed into a Web page on the city of Jaffa.

A History Lesson (Salim)
Today we went again to visit Old Jaffa. My companions had less emotional baggage in that they were already veterans of this Via Dolorosa and the objective this time was much more clearly defined to eat fish at the Rauf and Athena restaurant in the Jabaliyya quarter. Since it was the first day of the New Year according to the Julian Calendar, we stopped at the approaches of the city by the Russian church where my uncle Fayeq got married more than half a century ago. The doors were bolted and the nuns refused to open the place for us, so we climbed the fence and stole some bergamouth from a leaning tree.
This time we approached the city from the lower rim by the harbor. I noticed that the old Hanna Dumiani soap factory had been renovated and sandblasted. They not only removed the Arabic inscription of the owner’s name but added Hebrew motifs to the eastern entrance of the building, surmounting it with the Star of David.
Even with the dilapidated state of the buildings, the view looking up from the harbor is spectacular and still recalls the nineteenth-century woodcuts of David Roberts taken from the sea. The best way to capture this panorama is to stand between the Armenian convent and St. Michael’s church with your back to the sea. There we met eight Russian nuns gathering pebbles from the seashore. One of them was angelically beautiful.
It must have been the Day of the Russians, because soon afterward we entered the Catholic Church when the evening mass was about to begin, and it was packed with Soviet immigrants. At the top of the hill stands the wide open space that was the dense heart of Old Jaffa before it was dynamited and bulldozed by the British at the start of the Palestine Rebellion in 1936 to clear it of underground resisters. Now named Kedumim Square by the Israelis, the plaza is lined by old Arab buildings converted into cafés, art boutiques, and restaurants offering overpriced food. All over the place young Russian couples were promenading and taking photos of the sea and of themselves.
Below the plaza lies a small but attractive archaeological museum displaying mainly Hellenic and Roman artifacts. Placards narrating the history of Jaffa decorate the walls. In the manner of Ruth Kark in her book on Jaffa, the Israelis in this museum have managed to expunge virtually all traces of Arabs from the history of the city. Here are the relevant dates of modern Jaffa as outlined in the museum brochure: (1)


  • 1750: Establishment of Jaffa’s first Jewish hostel
  • 1799: Conquest of Jaffa by Napoleon’s forces, outbreak of the bubonic plague
  • 1820: Revival of Jaffa’s Jewish Community with the establishment of hostel and synagogue by Isaiah Ajiman
  • 1832: Conquest of Jaffa by the Egyptian forces
  • 1881: First Group of Jewish pioneers, belonging to the Bilu organization arrives in Jaffa
  • 1903+n1905: Jaffa suffer a crippling cholera epidemic
  • 1917: Expulsion of the Jewish communities of Jaffa and Tel Aviv by the Turkish Administration
  • 16 November 1917: Conquest of Jaffa by Allenby
  • 1936+n39: Anti Jewish Disturbances throughout the country [this is how the Great Palestine Rebellion against the British is described]
  • 14 May 1948: Jaffa is liberated during the passover festival by the Jewish underground
  • 24 April 1950: Tel Aviv and Jaffa is unified.

Despite the museum’s silence about Arabs as past or present inhabitants of the city, it seems that the tourist board is expecting large numbers of them this summer: a special brochure has been printed in Arabic and thousands of copies are stacked at the museum’s entrance. Unlike the chronology above, the Arabs are mentioned here, and in no uncertain terms.

Toward the end of WWI the city was conquered by General Allenby, ushering in the period of the British Mandate. The port of Jaffa (the sole port at the time) served as the point of entry for the increased Jewish immigration which came to the land. The Jews suffered from pogroms and persecution at the hand of the Arabs. The attacks reached a peak shortly before the declaration of the state of Israel in May 1948.

Jewish defensive action led to the flight of most of the city’s Arabs, and shortly after that part of the city was settled by the impoverished Jewish families whom the war had left homeless.

At this stage we decided we had had enough history and proceeded to the fish restaurant. This, incidentally, is a ritual shared by all Palestinian “returnees” to Jaffa. After being slapped by the gentrified and de Arabized city and treated to a laundered version of their history, they treat themselves to a sumptuous meal by the sea in order to forget.

In our case we were lucky to find the Rauf and Athena empty except for the Gazan illegal waiters eager to exchange views on the coming Palestinian elections. Our waiter was from the Khan Yunis camp and a distant relative of Hasan Asfour a former communist running on the Fatah list. He was trying to find a way to sneak back into the Strip to vote for his cousin.

Rema’s Jaffa

I always go to Jaffa with a sense of emotional trepidation and leave with diffuse anger and resignation. My final feeling on the way home to Jerusalem is generally that I don’t want to go back. Going to Jaffa for someone who grew up with it as an iconic myth, a place that no other place can ever measure up to, is bound to bring disappointment.

My feeling of being burdened by Jaffa, this place that exists only in the world of lost paradises, is no different from that of any other child of a Jaffaite. For there are no “former” Jaffaites – they never really left in 1948 but still carry it around with them everywhere and always. I would love to be able to walk through the city without being weighed down by its past and my duty to that past – just to be able to be fascinated by the architecture and the people who live there now, to be able to call them “Yaffawiin” in some meaningful way instead of referring to them as “the present inhabitants.” Alas, to do so would mean being burned at the stake for collaborating with a reality built on the demolition of dreams.

My first trip to Jaffa was in the spring of 1989. My aunt who lives in Jerusalem had wanted to take me earlier, but because it was intifada time, any movement beyond the perimeter of Shuafat and Salahiddin street was seen as a move into uncharted and potentially dangerous territory. My aunt had left Jaffa when she was eleven and had spent her teen years in Beirut, a far more open environment than she ever could have experienced in Jaffa witness the tissue-wrapped photos she keeps of herself and her Brazilian girlfriend in 1950s movie queen bathing suits at the plage in Beirut. In Jaffa, she was never even taught to swim like her brothers because she was a girl.

I don’t remember much about the city from that first trip. Mostly it was the problematic quest for the family house in Jabaliyya, what had been the new southern suburb of the city. (Not long before my visit, my younger sister had tried to find the house as well, and a cousin mistakenly took her to the house of my father’s cousin where the nervous Arab occupant let them in but then proceeded to show them his revolver.) We drove past my great uncle’s house, now the residence of the French consul. Built in the 1940s, it was and is a grand modernist Bauhaus mansion, all straight lines and cream colored stream lined volumes. My aunt said it had been her uncle’s dream house and one of the most modern in all Palestine. She also said that he was from the most conservative branch of the family and that his wife and daughters rarely went out. So much for architectural determinism.

“From Bauhaus to our house.” My family’s house was lost or, even worse, destroyed. We kept circling and turning back down the same narrow residential road, while my aunt pointed out Said Hammami’s house, the Kanafani family’s pink stone house on the adjacent corner, and so on. Then she would recalculate, confused: “Our house should be here…” Suddenly it struck her: the grotesquely ugly two story pebble brown Israeli building was actually our house, now concealed under a hideous facade of pebbled concrete. We got out of the car and she started crying, “They’ve buried it! Our house is in a tomb!!” Some Arab workmen were digging up the pavement and came over to see what was the matter. I explained, and perhaps to make us feel better one of them said, “Yes, yes. We know the Hammami family. All of these are Hammami houses, and we still call this Hammami street.”

My aunt was too upset to go inside and got back into the car. Across the house’s upper floor, emblazoned in Hebrew and English, were letters spelling out its new identity, Beit Nurit – “House of Light.” I went ahead to the large electric gate which was now the front entrance, though originally it had been backside of the house. Because the entrances had been switched and additions made, and because the original character of the place was hidden under the concrete shell, it was difficult to tell what was where. What did show through was the original three-arched veranda and entrance, though most of it was now enclosed. When I saw the arches I had a sudden shock of recognition based on an old family photograph taken in front of this veranda, which back then had a huge asparagus fern growing up one side. The photo had that slightly out-of-focus, dream like quality peculiar to old photos. It showed a large family, with young girls in white frocks and bows in their hair lined up in the front row. I always noticed how innocent they looked, but perhaps that was something I read into their expressions, knowing what was going to happen to them a year later.

The gate was open so I walked in. I found myself in the large liwan (A vaulted hall), the womb of the house, which still had its columns and original Italianate tile floor. It was full of people who somehow didn’t enter my field of vision: I was remapping the liwan’s former reality, a process that excluded objects and people not part of that earlier moment. Then someone spoke to me in Hebrew, and I was brought out of my dream. A woman in a white medical coat was asking me things I didn’t understand. I looked around and realized that the liwan was full of retarded children. When I answered in English, the woman walked off and returned with a large blonde Germanic looking matron, also in a white coat. She looked like the female jailer in Seven Beauties or a heftier nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She asked me what I wanted, and I replied that this was my grandfather’s house and I just wanted to look at it. For some reason I was surprised at her reaction, which was nervousness and agitation.

She became very flustered and said, variously, that I must be mistaken, that it couldn’t be true, and besides, how could I know it was my grandfather’s house? I replied that my aunt who grew up in the house was sitting right outside in the car. The woman told me that before I looked further she had to get the director. After a bit I was ushered upstairs to the director, ensconced in his desk and emitting an aura of deep and expansive self confidence. “Sit, sit, come in come in. Yes yes, do come in,” he said in that pushy way that Israelis seem to understand as warmth. “Here, I want to show you something.” I followed him to the landing where he indicated an odd colored frieze on the wall. He asked me to look closely, and then proceeded to explain with what seemed to be glee that the frieze depicted the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the creation of the Jewish state. He ended with a kind of hymn to the success of the Zionist dream. I was speechless at what I could only take as a form of sadism, and mumbled something like: “Look, I just want to look around the house.” Without waiting for an answer, I proceeded to do so.

On subsequent visits, the occupants changed from retarded children to incapacitated old people. This made the visits even more painful, since when you stopped visually excavating the place in search of the original structure you looked up to find yourself surrounded by hunched up and drooling old men and women with unkempt hair lolling in plastic chairs as if sedated. You walked past them as if they didn’t see you, like walking through a gallery of macabre statuary. Our house had become a dumping ground for unwanted people God’s waiting room. It occurred to me that in their earlier lives these pathetic souls may had played their part in making the Victory Frieze on the second floor possible.

There were many things about Jaffa that my aunt was unable to explain to me nor did she really know even the Jabaliyya neighborhood where she had grown up. At first I attributed this to her youthfulness in 1948, to the fact that she had only a child’s eye memory of her environment. Though this was partly the case, it was also due to the fact that she had been a girl in a conservative community and could not roam about freely like my father who was about the same age. She told me how her movements had been further circumscribed: Once, playing with neighborhood children in the street outside her house, they had spotted an older man in a tall tarbush and a suit riding by on a bicycle at the end of the street. They all began jeering and making catcalls at him. As he turned his head to look at them, my aunt realized in horror that the comic figure they’d been mocking was my grandfather. He saw her as well but with his usual self control kept pedaling away while she died a thousand deaths knowing what she would face when he came home. After this incident she was no longer allowed to play outside and thus stopped being able to see her playmate Ghassan Kanafani(2), who she says used to be the instigator of games of make-believe.

Although all of my aunts went to school, the main function of schooling of young girls seemed to be the “finishing” necessary for young ladies. Thus needlepoint and music figure strongly in my aunt’s depiction of her early education. I gave my sister in Boston the only thing we inherited from our grandmother: a garishly colored petit-point embroidery of an eighteenth-century French lady in a pastoral scene. The piece was such a dilemma ugly and kitschy yet simultaneously something to be cherished as having belonged to my grandmother.

Although the family had a dining table, my aunt told me that they preferred to eat sitting on mats around a short legged round table in the kitchen. The image intrigued me. The Bauhaus architecture, the needlepoint, the missionary school education and all the while there was this (secret?) preference to eat sitting on the floor. I could picture the empty dining table standing proud but forlorn at the end of the liwan, while happy voices emanated from the cramped kitchen.

A Date With Murjana (Salim)

Yesterday I went to Jaffa for my first (probably also my last) rendezvous arranged on the Internet. It all began four months ago when a young woman introduced herself on my screen as wanting to talk with somebody in Ramallah. She is a computer technician from Tel Aviv, born and raised in Jaffa. When I suggested that I might come to Jaffa on a Friday afternoon, she said she would show me around.

We decided to meet by the clock tower at 2:30 PM. I told her to look for a man with gray hair. She described herself as blond and wearing high heals. Liza Bouri, who is visiting us this winter, was dying to go to Jaffa, her birth place, so I took her along, and Rema and Alex came as well. Liza cried all the way in anticipation of the encounter with her lost city. Later, she told me that she was crying because her father died without having the chance to revisit Jaffa.

We arrived fifteen minutes late. Murjana was waiting next to a bakery. She was indeed blond. Actually, her hair was platinum silver with streaks of gold. She suggested that we meet her family. We all went to a new working class neighborhood that Russian Yuppies have been moving into and where her family lives.

The mother is a social worker with a fighting spirit. She belonged to a community group that was trying to get Arab representation on the city council. The father, a mechanic, had just awakened and greeted us in Hebrew to Liza’s great discomfort. Language actually was a problem in this household. Murjana spoke Arabic with strong Hebrew inflections, and the elder brother cannot read or write in his native tongue. Only the mother knew proper Arabic. They all mixed their talk with a liberal sprinkling of Hebrew.

The family four sisters and two brothers was close, but the daughters, at least according to Murjana, spoke of their family’s oppressive protectiveness. The younger sister had gone to study in Marseilles and married a French student, but because he was a Christian the daughters did not dare tell the family.

When we finally went on the tour we found that Murjana, our tour guide, hardly knew what was where. She could not identify any landmarks except for the French Hospital (where I was born) and the church of al Khader. At al Khader, we saw young Jaffaite boys and girls playing in the yard, and Liza started crying again. She was taking pictures of everything that moved. We passed Yefet Street and my maternal grandfather’s house. Fakhri Jdaii, my mother’s distant cousin, still has his pharmacy there and pays rent to Amidar the Custodian of Absentee Property. We did not stop; it was late and Fakhri would have felt obliged to invite this large crowd for dinner.

One of the most memorable aspects of the outing was seeing the way Murjana related to Jaffa. She had absolutely no feeling for the place. Freedom to her meant Haifa, where she had an occasional job, and a place away from family oppression. To her, growing up in Jaffa meant growing up in squalor. The remnants of the community were the poorer Arab villagers who had been forced to relocate to the city when their homes were destroyed in 1948. Today, of Jaffa’s total population of 70,000, Arabs constitute about 20,000. Less than a quarter of these are original Jaffaites, the rest being refugees from Salama, Rubeen, Shaykh Muwwanis, Manshiyya, and so on as well as workers from the Galilee employed in Tel Aviv. Unlike the situation in Haifa, the communal bond uniting the Arabs of Jaffa is very weak. There is also a strong feeling of confessionalism and worse atomization. Prostitution and drug gangsterism are rampant, and the few pockets of nationalist groups are completely isolated.

To us, Jaffa cast a very long shadow. A city abandoned and now in the process of being rejuvenated or gentrified by Jews seeking abandoned Arab houses or pushing for Arab houses to be abandoned.

One of the most moving moments was our visit to the harbor where Rema narrated how her father, Hasan Hammami, as a teenage boy embarked upon a boat with his family – along with hundreds of other families – on 10 May 1948, leaving Jaffa for the last time in the direction of the ship that took them to Beirut and

permanent exile. As they embarked, gun shells were exploding all around them, spreading panic and mayhem.

Last year, Hasan came on a visit as an American tourist. He went straight to his house in Jabaliyya, next to the Christian cemetery. The house was abandoned. Then he saw a light next door were the Andrawus family used to live. He vividly remembered the Andrawus girls he used to lust for as a growing boy. It was 9:30 in the evening and despite protests from his wife and daughter, he knocked at the door. To their utter astonishment, they found the four Andrawus girls, now matronly ladies in their sixties, facing them at the door. After a tearful scene of embracing and hugging, and many lemonades later, they told him that none of them had married, since “all the men of stature” had gone. That says a lot of what happened to the city. Murjana was completely oblivious to this. Her main interest was in taking us to the Hinnawi Brothers’ ice cream shop were they had twenty-two flavors.

After leaving the harbor, we went through the main thoroughfare of Ajami, now called Yefet Street, past the French Hospital, past Terra Sancta, past the Ottoman fountain, Sabil Abu Nabbout, and finally past Kemal Pharmacy, on top of which stands the house of my grandfather, Salim Jabagi, where my mother and her twelve siblings were born. Now it is occupied by two Moroccan Jewish families who, ten years ago when I went to visit with Suad, denied us entry. Diagonally across the street is the decaying house of Elias Tamari, where my father and my uncles Fayeq, Abdallah, and Emile, and my two aunts were born.

Ajami today is a divided quarter. Only the disintegrating old mansions of the patrician Jaffan merchants bespeak its former glory. Beyond Yefet, going west toward the sea, one faces squalor everywhere. Arab and Jewish prostitutes mingle and fraternize, and drug dealers are everywhere. By the seashore, Arabs are encouraged to relocate south (to housing estates near Bat Yam) and a new marina is being built for rich condo invaders. Gentrified single-story houses are sprouting up everywhere. For the last decade, Ajami has become the real estate destination of hip Jewish artists, gallery owners, professionals, and foreign embassy staff. There is an easy coexistence between the newcomers and the destitute Arab community. In the middle have remained few established families of Jaffa and another dozen nouveau riche Jaffaites who made their fortunes from building contracting and drug dealing.

By the old water reservoir (Hawuuz), Murjana pointed out a vacant lot confiscated from her grandfather. In 1949, Amidar took his two-and-a-half dunams away and offered him compensation. He refused the money and contested the confiscation in court. Since he had not left the city, he had a good case. But he lost, and the money was deposited in his name in Bank Leumi. He refused to touch it. When he died fifteen years later, the family could not trace the money. But they still hold fast to the land deed, their family patrimony.

Now we moved on to the Old City. It was here that the Great Palestinian Rebellion began in 1936. And it was here that the British, in an operation reenacted by Arik Sharon in Gaza forty years later, moved in with a huge force and blasted a Y-shaped passage linking the harbor to an opening toward Clock Square, bulldozing the rubble to make swift passage for armored cars (3).

The Old City today encapsulates the magnificence and tragedy of historic Jaffa. The Israelis – meaning the greater Tel Aviv-Jaffa Council – have completely renovated the area as a major tourist attraction and an “artists’ colony,” an operation later replicated in Old Safad and in Ayn Hawd(4). Outwardly the place is attractive if you are ignorant of its historical context, full of restaurants, cafés, galleries, promenades, and so on. It is a favorite vista for Arab and Sephardic newlyweds who come here with video teams for photo opportunities. Several signposts and coin operated machines narrate the history of Jaffa in four languages (not Arabic). Just as in the archaeological museum, nowhere is there an indication that this was once a thriving Arab city the biggest and richest in Palestine. The taped narrative mentions Philistines, Phoenicians, Mamluks, Turks, and British who, we learn, all had their share in plundering the city until it was delivered by the combined Jewish forces of the Haganah and Lehi in May of 1948. A ragged sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized the city in the year 1800, points his finger to a restaurant overlooking the harbor.

The café’s and restaurants were blaring music and full of mixed Tel Avivian and tourist clienteles. Rema pointed out a remarkable absence. There were no young people around except for the two wedding parties being photographed. Even the noisy café bar with disco music by the harbor landing was full of couples over fifty. We differed on how to explain this. Rema and Alex thought it was the antiseptic atmosphere of the neighborhood, self-consciously quaint but intimidating. Murjana thought it was the prices, the fact – intentional – that no young couple could afford a cup of cappuccino in Old Jaffa.

On the way to the harbor, I met an old student of mine showing an Egyptian friend of hers the town. This strange encounter brought me back to reality. Jaffa is really a figment of the imagination. There is no connection between the city of our parents and this bleached ghost town. But Arab visitors construct the past from their memory (or their parents’ and grandparents’ memory) using the rubble as their nodes.

Only in one short lane the great city has retained its past that is, the stretch between the old mosque, past St. Michael’s Orthodox monastery and the attached church, down the stairs to the old harbor. Here the walls, the staircase, and even the engraved Greek and Arabic signs have been retained. The feeling is eerie and haunting, and here there is complete silence. Thanks to the Greeks, the Arabness of the city has been preserved.

Rema’s Version

Between my first and my last trip to Jaffa there have been others, the most painful perhaps being when I accompanied my father on his first visit “home” since he left as a boy in 1948. The most recent was with Salim, Liza, and Alex. I wanted to meet Murjana because I so rarely get to meet contemporary Jaffaites people many of the originals do not even consider as being really of Jaffa but as latecomers who are just posing as Yaffawiin while the authentic ones are in exile. I also like visiting Jaffa with Salim because he harbors many of the same resentments about the oppressive reverence with which children of Jaffaites are supposed to react to the place, as well as the desire to resist the overwhelming bitterness one feels about the subversion of Jaffa’s history.

As we headed toward Jaffa on the Tel Aviv highway – as opposed to the “Beit Dajan/Yazur” route I am usually forced to take on family pilgrimages) I realized it was going to be an emotionally charged visit because of Liza’s return for the first time. I had obliquely thought of the trip as a visit to the Jaffa of today through the person of Murjana. However, it turned into the colliding of the two Jaffas the one of loss and dreams and the one of everyday lived in places.

Jaffa is not marked as an exit on the main highway – you have to know to get off at the exit marked “Kibbutz Galuyot.” One wonders why, but most likely rather than being a conspiracy Kibbutz Galuyot is for some reason a more important marker on the Israeli map of geographic meaning than Jaffa. The main road into the city begins with 1950s housing projects and then dissipates into an industrial area; you only start picking out that you are near Jaffa when you see dilapidated old buildings with orange tiled roofs dotted in between what seem to be grimy mechanic shops and crossroads attempting to lure you in more hopeful directions. One has to be totally committed to visiting Jaffa in order to make it through this maze of unmarked directions and one way streets.

Finally, we reached Clock Square. By now we know that it is best to park on the right side of the prison-fortress in the sandy parking lot overlooking the sea. It is at this point that one always feels pulled in two directions: whether to walk up to the Old City or around the square and old market area. That day it was decided for us by Murjana, who had arranged with Salim to be waiting near the clock tower. So we filed down the main square, attempting to piece together various bits of information that could serve as Liza’s introduction. Past the mosque and the lurid tropical juice caf?s we crossed the street to the clock, and on the opposite side was a “blond” leaning against a doorway – Murjana. What struck me was not the blond streaks in her hair (I was once teased by Gaza women that I couldn’t be from Jaffa because I didn’t have “frosted” hair), but the fact that she was wearing a blouse and jeans too tight to put things in the pockets but was not carrying a bag women always seem to have a need to carry things. The group was, I think, a bit surprised by this tall attractive woman who was also clearly quite shy and not sure about what to do with us.

Murjana insisted that before anything we must go home to meet her family, who were waiting for us. This immediately raised the problem of old-versus-new Jaffa. If we were to get caught at her house, we probably would not be able to do what Liza had been waiting for all her life visit the lost Jaffa of her father. In this one brief moment all the contending needs of the array of Jaffaites came up against each other. The Jaffaites of the here-and-now wanting to welcome us into their homes and learn about us as “real” Palestinians living in the West Bank or the diaspora; and us, who saw ourselves and wanted to be seen as Jaffaites, wanting to celebrate our “Jaffaishness” with Murjana and walk around uncovering the “real” Jaffa from underneath the Israeli signs and landscapes imposed on “our” city.

Of course we made the courtesy call to Murjana’s family, who lived not far from “my house” though on the other side of the main road. In asking Murjana what this neighborhood was called, she looked confused and shrugged: “shu barifni?” – “who knows?”

Her neighborhood had all the marks of the failed housing rehabilitation projects that stand dejectedly around Ajami. A few years ago the New Israel Fund had decided to start doing projects in the Arab sector. Jaffa, as the metaphor for Arab communities in need of rehabilitation (Read: drug addicts, thieves, and prostitutes), was taken on as the showcase project. Money provided largely by the Los Angeles Jewish community went into “urban renewal,” especially in Ajami where the exteriors of houses were returned to their original Venetian-style splendor, while a pedestrian walkway and small children’s park were added. But the people living in the houses selected for rehabilitation were the poor remnants of a community that had been literally destroyed, and all of their attempts at civic control over their own lives had been quickly and systematically neutralized. So it was not long before the pink stucco was either soiled or splashed with graffiti, the houses and park now standing as eloquent reminders of the futility of prettifying the environments of fundamentally marginalized and oppressed peoples at least when the prettifying is undertaken by the same forces that marginalize and oppress them.

Murjana’s family lived in a relatively new one-story house that had not been rehabilitated and that could not have figured in our Jaffa dreams. We were led into the liwan where we were met by Murjana’s mother the best Arabic speaker of the family as well as the strongest personality. We were introduced to the family in dribs and drabs. Murjana’s father, who had just woken up, shuffled in; the beautiful red headed sister came and sat with us; two very uninterested brothers who had just awakened filed by at various intervals with hastily mumbled greetings and even hastier departures. The father was very quiet. It seems that whenever he tried to speak Arabic, Hebrew words came out. This linguistic unease perhaps explained why the brothers, who we were told spoke no Arabic, seemed to avoid us. The beautiful redhead had diligently majored in Arabic, but she too was shy to speak. This meant that the matriarch was our main point of contact. She taught in the public school system and was actively involved in the community and municipal politics, explaining how Jaffa’s managing to get one Palestinian representative in the Tel Aviv municipality (into which the Jaffa municipality has been dissolved) after forty-five years was a great achievement for a community so divided among and against itself.

Murjana’s mother was very good at the contemporary political and social situation, but of no use in satisfying Liza’s need for confirmation of her family’s link to Jaffa. In fact, Murjana’s family recognized none of the original Jaffa family names we lobbed at them, or simply acknowledged that they’d heard the names but were not able to provide any of the hoped for genealogical itineraries or their connection to contemporary sites which Jaffan exiles so deeply need. I was beginning to get frustrated we were being corralled into a very unnecessary lunch made by Murjana, which would prevent us from seeing the city in daylight and leave no room for the fish dinner at the end of the day, always the needed transition from the pain of lost Jaffa and back into the world of the living.

I thought that my frustration was on Liza’s behalf, since it seemed so unjust for her to be cooped up in someone’s living room in Jaffa while the sun was going down on the city she had so long longed to explore. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that I am also not ready or able to visit Jaffa as the contemporary place it is. I am still too overwhelmed by the desire to uncover that past, to find the Jaffa hidden under the new signs and to make it live again through the stories of my father and other exiles, then connect them back to a pavement I walk on, a storefront now boarded up, a clump of old cypress trees in a front garden.

A Visit To The Dead (Salim)

Last Sunday Suad, Beshara, and I went to visit the Jaffa cemetery in Jabaliyya. We were looking for the remnants of my family. My mother had mentioned that some time in the late thirties, when she was in her teens, the Jaffa cemetery near the city center in Ajami had to be moved since the dead were crowding the living. An outlying plot in Jabaliyya was chosen since at the time it was at the southern edge of the town. The dead were dug up and heaped in collective family plots. Rich people built family crypts known as Fustuqiyyat laced with marble and embellished with highly stylized verses celebrating their occupants. The poor were dumped in holes marked by concrete blocks. All this seems inconsequential today since all three Arab cemeteries have become squalid heaps. All that remains of their beauty is their location a magnificent hilly plot overlooking the Mediterranean.

From the western edge of the Greek Orthodox cemetery, you can see Ajami to the north and the beginnings of Bat Yam to the south. Soon the Israeli plans for Jaffa’s gentrification will extend the marina project to this point, and both the dead and (some of) the living will be enjoying the view.

My two companions were not interested in my quest and had to be dragged in. Suad’s father was born in Manshiyya, died in Prague, and was buried in Amman. She went to visit his grave twenty years ago accompanied by her mother, who slipped near the grave and broke her pelvis. They never went back. Beshara was still shaken from the morning boat tour of the Jaffa harbor and the unbearable kitsch of the renovated lofts surrounding the old town. He was particularly annoyed when the Arab waiter in the restaurant also called Beshara addressed him in Hebrew. Of the three, only I have a fetishism for the dead.

The three Arab cemeteries, where there is a progression of decay, are separated by walls. First the Muslim cemetery, a sloping field of thorns and brush dotted with uniformly melting white marble. Rema had earlier claimed to have located the grave of her grandfather, Shaykh Ali al Hammami, among the thorny shrubs, but I do not see how. Next, the Greek Orthodox cemetery is similarly disintegrating, but with a few family crypts valiantly withstanding time and the sea breeze’s devastation. Finally, the Catholic cemetery, with an air of a fading beauty queen, some new marble here and there but not enough to mask the cruelty of years.

This time we entered the Orthodox cemetery and asked the caretaker, a gaunt and shabby man in his sixties, if he knew of any Tamari graves. At first he suggested that we go to Yazur (only God knows why), but then suggested we look in the northwest corner where the pre 1948 graves were. It was a hopeless quest. Very few of the older graves were left intact, and among those only an archaeologist could decipher the script. Eventually I could make out some older names: Qahush, Musa, Khoury, Burtqush. Then I came across a grave with a name I recognized, Nicola Dabbas – Aunt Margo’s father, the father-in-law of my uncle Fayeq. But mostly the old graves were covered over by new ones. Since the cemetery was too small to accommodate the new dead and very few of original pre-1948 Jaffa families were left to maintain their family plots, the newcomers (from Ramla, Lydda, and the Galilee) had begun to displace them.

What astonished us, however, was the Russian invasion. All over the place the old Arabic grave slabs (shawahid) were being replaced with Russian ones. In Jaffa there was a small Russian Orthodox community, attached to the Russian convent so obviously some of these were the nuns and monks. But that does not explain the sudden flood of Russian inscribed graves in the 1980s and 1990s. The most logical explanation is that many of these are Soviet immigrants who came to Israel disguised as Jews, or as Christian spouses of Jewish immigrants. Many of them had occupied portions of Arab graves and carved their niches on top of the marble slabs. You could still see many of the Arabic inscriptions underneath the Russian ones. Nearer to the entrance among the more recent burials we also saw Hebrew graves carved on top of the Arab graves. Invariably they would have a small cross on top and a Slavic name in Hebrew script, Ruth Davidovich, for example, who died 14 February 1989.

Beshara already in a bad mood from the boat trip was foaming by now. “First they take the ‘abandoned’ houses in Jaffa, then they displace Arab workers from their jobs, and now they have occupied our cemeteries!” he fumed.

It wasn’t clear who “they” were. The main diplacers of Arab abandoned houses in Jaffa were Bulgarian Jews who came in the 1950s. But in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the Russians and Ukrainians who began to invade Jaffa and Tel Aviv, with heavy connections with the Russian mafia in Israel.

We sought enlightenment to all these mysteries from the caretaker, but he was more interested in confusing us. He led us by the hand to the newly-built Orthodox chapel, still fresh with new paint and not even consecrated yet, near the cemetery’s entrance. The Orthodox community, he told us, had tried to get a plot for the chapel outside the cemetery, but the municipality would not grant one. But we were curious about other issues: “What happened to the older dead? Why so many Russian names on the graves? Who are those Hebrew Christians?” The man’s lips were sealed. Either he didn’t know, or he didn’t want us to know. Suad decided he was subcontracting the older graves for the newly dead.

On the way back to Jerusalem, with Beshara driving and Suad directing, we got completely lost.

“Tabadul” (Salim)

Every new visit to Jaffa dulls the novelty of the encounter. The dramatic fades away, and the mundane prevails. But the excitement is always there, in part because there is an element of trespassing. We go there without a permit, and therefore our presence is “illegal.” But we also trespass on people’s existing reality by invoking a past which they, the Jewish majority of present day Jaffa, do not recognize or choose to suppress or most likely are completely oblivious to.

Recently we began making greater efforts to observe the existing realities of Jaffa and suppressing the (nostalgic?) past. Which basically means that you skip the sea, the restaurants, the artists’ quarter, the churches, and the mosques. You must also skip the cemeteries. Especially the cemeteries. (Rania, Brigitte, and I were expelled from the Jabaliyya cemetery last month by two Jaffa thugs wearing swimming shorts for showing disrespect for the dead.)

So now we meander around the streets and let our feet guide us. We let the faces and the dialects and the smells leave their traces on us. Last week we began by buying manaqish from Abul ‘Afyeh’s pastry shop and set out on a mission of discovery. Rema insisted on visiting the music shop across from the police station. The man was a Moroccan who lives in Holon and has been in Jaffa for a long time. He was very eager to show us his collection of predominantly Arabic music. Um Kalthum, Abdel Wahhab, and Layla Murad were dominant. (No sign of Fairuz, who does not seem to have much appeal to the Sephardic community.) He was impressed to see that we were familiar with Andalusian Muwashahat, which seemed to be his favorite, and he ended up by selling us some Ladino CDs mostly lamentations over lost love in Andalusia and some tapes of Moroccan singers.

He was curious to know where we came from, since we conversed with him in Arabic and broken Hebrew. I showed him my Palestinian passport with the birth entry: Jaffa 1945.

Shlomo: “And where in Jaffa were you born?”

Me: “Ajami.”

Shlomo: “That’s very curious, because I came to Ajami in 1948! I was a teenager then. Isn’t that a coincidence! You left exactly when I arrived! We could have met then.”

Me: “I don’t think so.”

Rema [ironically]: “It was what you might call a ‘tabadul’ [exchange].”

Shlomo kept repeating the word, “Tabadul … tabadul” as if in a trance. Then all of sudden it dawned on him, and he said loudly: “Aah … TABADUL!” Then he smiled and nodded sadly in recognition.

He asked if I still knew anybody in Jaffa. I mentioned the pharmacist Fakhri Jdaii, a distant cousin of mine. He said that Fakhri is the best “doctor” in Jaffa. He has been going to him for years, and Fakhri always prescribes treatments that work. “You see, we are Arabs like you, and here is the proof,” he said, pointing to the cassettes.


NOTES


  1. “Old Jaffa” leaflet distributed by the Old Jaffa Development Corporation.
  2. Palestinian writer, poet, and activist, assassinated by the Israelis in Beirut in 1973.
  3. This surgical act of urban cleansing was captured in its razor sharpness in three photographs shot from the air that can be seen in Sarah Graham-Brown’s Palestinians and Their Society, 1880+n1946: Photographic Essay (London: Quartet Books, 1980).
  4. A picturesque village in the Haifa district whose population was expelled during the 1948 fighting but which was not destroyed. It was transformed into an artists’ colony in 1954 and has been designated as tourist site.

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