Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Cities of immigrants and oranges

Tel Aviv from Jaffa
This is Tel-Aviv.

The shurut from Haifa takes 40NIS and drops you off in a grimy neighborhood. This is Tel-Aviv and not only does it feel strange but everything feels out of place. The name should've been the indication. If this isn't an identity crisis, then I don't know what constitutes one. I guess they are right when they say it's the South of France, many people look like they've inspired Donatella Versace's Eurotrash looks. The divide between the rich and the poor is like any other North American city, and looking at Tel-Aviv's skyline makes you feel as if you're somewhere in Mexico in the 70s, the hotels give it away.
Jaffa from Tel Aviv
Jaffa's clocktower. This makes roundabout #3 I illegally and dangerously cross to get a photo.
I wasn't really interested in spending time here anyway and 70s architecture or numerous Bauhaus style homes from the 30s wasn't going to make me stay either. I was more interested in taking a short walk to Jaffa, the Bride of the Sea, the city whose beauty is renowned, a city long inhabited and the city that smells of oranges. I also have a thing for walled cities, which explains my love for Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, Jaffa's walls were dismantled to ease traffic in the 20th century. Her old inhabitants were also dismantled, and must now live with the fact that all their old homes, previously inhabited by Arabs, now house galleries, museums and shops. The Arab population in Jaffa is evident, but due to Tel-Aviv's proximity, the population is more balanced than other old cities. Jaffa's old city doesn't quite feel like Haifa's old market, or Akka's old city. The narrow alleys are cleaner. Some homes are renovated and trees provide shading. Rarely do you find Arabs roaming the streets of Tel-Aviv, but in Jaffa you do, however, most of the shops selling "Falafel, Israel's National Snack" postcards are run by Israelis and flooded with fanny pack wearing Americans.

Jaffa port
The Arab Hebrew theatre
Cannons from the Ottoman era
Ajami café
It isn't hard to imagine how beautiful Jaffa once was and the peaceful harmony that resonated from it. I would live here because it's warm, its coast is blue and its cobblestones are old. I would live here, if it weren't for the obvious obstacles I face.

Sadness consumes me when I walk through the old city and I know if I stay any longer I'd sit still, constantly waiting for the smell of oranges that won't come to fill my nostrils.
Mahmoud Darwish poem on someone's balcony

Hanging rock

Sunday, 20 June 2010

I Saw Ramallah

The minara douwar - the main roundabout in Ramallah. It has undergone a variety of changes, most of which are very ugly.

The last time I was in Ramallah was 10 years ago. My newly married cousin lived in a beautiful apartment, working for some ministry and drove a Peugeot. My memory of the city itself is vague, and descriptions my friend's gave me as the years passed still could not give me a clear image of what it resembled. All I can recall was her pretty apartment, and how much she enjoyed life there.
An old building from 1924 set for demolition

Old buildings under demolition
One of Ramallah's oldest trees - deceased naturally. My guide made sure he got the municipality to examine the way it died.

Ten years later, I'm on a 15 NIS service ride that takes me to Ramallah. After exploring most of the city on foot, with a guide who also happens to be one of Palestine's most accomplished and popular writers, I've developed an idea of what Ramallah looks like and my feelings towards it. My guide, Ziad Jayyousi, not only photographs parts of the city with me, he knows every corner and every story.
The Al-Hambra Palace was a popular destination amongst honeymooners when they were finally able to enter Ramallah.
Yasser Arafat's grave

Palestine needs a Ramallah, but not quite in the sense that it is. You see Ramallah is the Tel Aviv of the West Bank, except its Jaffa is slowly being destroyed and its coast is missing. Owners of property dating back to the 1920s and earlier are selling off the land and making room for bulldozers (no not Israeli ones) that destroy and then provide space for tall buildings. These two cities share many other similarities: one is old but becoming new again, the other is new and replaced a near by city to make it look like it was always inhabited. Another similarity? Foreigners. Ramallah is a hub of NGOs and Westerners doing "research", researching what I don't quite know or care, while Tel Aviv is a mix of every Jewish person from anywhere in the world recruited by Israel to come and settle. The main difference? Ramallah does not have an overwhelming identity crisis or a McDonald's, which is ever so prevalent in all of Israel but mostly in Tel Aviv.
The oldest market in Ramallah.
*The title of this post is from Mourid Barghouti's novel I Saw Ramallah.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


"Why do you want to go to Akko? It's Friday. Nothing is open in Akko! Everything close at 4 in Akko!" says the hotel manager. "Just tell me how I get to Akko, Rachel. Do I take shurut (service)?" My Hebrew is getting pretty good, that's an elite pronunciation. "Take the train to Akko, and go eat at this restaurant, I forget what it's called,'s good." She remembers the name, but I forgot it. Israelis have the most identifiable accent on the planet.
View of the old city, Mosque of Jezzar Pasha in view (Ottoman era)
On board a train, some guy shows me a brand new pack of Marlboros and talks about its specifications in Hebrew. Israelis can't speak English. I tell him no Hebrew and he replies in destroyed, not broken, English. I nod and say "okay". He leaves. I realize that if I spend a month in Israel I'll learn Hebrew.
In Akka, we board a cab with an Israeli Arab who is happy to meet us. He recommends a place to eat fish and tells us New Akka sucks, and that we should stick to Old Akka (old city, port). Again, it's the Arab hood. And everything is open. Rachel, clearly doesn't come around here, although the restaurant she recommended is in the old city.
Boats in Akka's harbour

We walk in the ocean, and I stare at the remains of the walls that defeated Napoleon in 1799. We take photos, then walk up to the old city. Akka reminds me of Alexandria, and not because Alexander conquered this city. Akka is smaller, cleaner and people ride horses around the old city. It's a genuine definition of a coastal town. The water is clean and blue, the people fish and the kids jump from the magnificent ancient rocks that surround it. We eat fresh fish, we take a boat, I find old postcards, my skin burns, and I feel at home.