Yesterday I went to Jaffa to my first (probably also the last) rendezvous arranged on the network. It all began four months ago when this young woman introduced herself on my screen as interested in talking to somebody in Ramallah. She is a computer technician in 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 p.m. I told her to look for a man with gray hair (was that a sigh of disappointment?). She described herself as blonde and wearing high heels. I decided to take Alex and Rima for protection. Liza, who is visiting us this winter, was dying to go to Jaffa, her birthplace. So she too came along. Liza was crying 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 visit Jaffa.
We arrived fifteen minutes late, and Murjana was waiting, next to a bakery. She was indeed blonde. Actually, her hair was platinum silver with streaks of gold. She suggested we meet her family. We all went to a new working-class neighborhood of Jaffa where her family lives. Russian yuppies have been moving into that neighborhood. 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 woken up and greeted us in Hebrew, to Liza's great discomfort.


When we went on the tour, we found that Murjana, our great tour guide, hardly knew what was where. At Al-Khader, we saw young Jaffite boys and girls playing in the yard and Liza started crying again. She took pictures of everything that moved. We passed Yafet Street and my mother's father's house. Fakhri Jadii, my mother's distant cousin, still has his pharmacy there and pays rent to the Custodian of Absentee Property. We did not stop at the

Jadii Pharmacy. It was late and Fakhri would feel obliged to invite such a
large crowd for dinner.
One of the most peculiar memories of that evening was the manner in which our E-mail chaperone 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. Which is fair enough, except for a missing ingredient. To us Jaffa cast a very dark shadow. A city abandoned and now being rejuvenated by Jewish gentrification seeking abandoned Arab houses, or pushing houses to be abandoned. To her, growing up in Jaffa meant that she grew up under squalor. The remnants of the community were the poorer Arab villagers whose homes were destroyed and who were forced to relocate to the city.
Today, Arabs constitute about 20,000 inhabitants out of a total of 35,000 people. But less than a quarter of those are original Jaffites; the rest are refugees from Salameh, Rubeen, Sheikh Muwanis, Manshiyyeh, etc., and workers from the Galilee working in Tel Aviv. Unlike the situation in Haifa, there is a weak communal bond engulfing the Arabs of Jaffa. 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. Our friend had no feeling of locality for the place. She could not identify the landmarks - except for the French Hospital and the Church of Al-Khader.

The Harbor

One of the saddest moments was our visit to the harbor where Rima narrated how her father, Hassan Hammami, a teenage boy then, embarked on a boat with his family, as did hundreds of families on May 10, 1948, and left 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, Hassan came on a visit, as an American tourist. He went straight to his house in Jabaliyyeh, next to the Christian cemetery. The house was abandoned. Then he saw a light next door where the Andrawus family used to live. He vividly remembered the Andrawus girls he used to know as a growing boy. It was 9:30 in the evening and, despite protests from Rima and his wife, 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, they told him that none of them was married, since "all the men of stature" were gone. That says a lot about what happened to the city. My electronic friend was completely oblivious to this. Her main interest was to take us to the Hinawi brothers ice-cream shop where they had 22 flavors. But tears were still pouring from Liza's eyes. All of the time she was silent, trying to take it all in.

The Illusion of Ajami

After a brief snack at Murjana's house, she took us on the "unguided" tour of the town. Her brother, Muhammad, wants to come along, but there is no place in the car. We arrange to meet him later at Abul-Afyeh's cafe¬restaurant. We go through the main thoroughfare of Ajami, now called Yafet Street, past the French Hospital (where I was delivered by Dr. Sfeir - half a century ago, as recorded in my treasured birth certificate); past Terra Sancta, past Sbeil Abu Nabbout, and finally past Kernal Pharmacy, on top of which stands the house of my grandfather, Salim Jabagi, where my mother and twelve other siblings were born. Now it is occupied by two Moroccan families who, ten years ago when I went to visit with my wife Suad, denied us entry. Diagonally across the street is the decaying house of Elias Tamari, where my father and my uncles Fai'k, Abdallah and Emile and my two aunts were born.
Ajami today is a divided quarter. Only the disintegrating old mansions of Jaffa's patrician merchants speak of its former glory. Beyond Yafet, going west towards 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. A new ring of gentrified single-story houses is sprouting everywhere. Over the last decade, Ajami has become the real-estate destiny 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 a few established families of Jaffa and another dozen nouveaux riches Jaffites who made their fortunes from building contracting and drug dealing.
By the old water reservoir (hawuuz), Murjana pointed out a lot confiscated from her grandfather. In 1949, Amidar took his two and half dunums 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 Kushan Tabu, their family patrimony.

The Old City

Now we moved to the old city. In 1936, at the height of the Rebellion, the old city was the hideout of armed rebels and its alleys were formidable. The British - in an act reenacted by Ariel Sharon in Gaza forty years later¬ moved in with a huge force and dynamited a Y-shaped passage, linking the harbor to an opening towards the Clock Square. Then they bulldozed the rubble to make a swift passage for armored cars. This surgical act of urban clearing was captured in its razor sharpness in three photographs shot from the air (you can see them in Sarah-Graham Brown's Social History of Mandate Palestine).
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 which was later replicated in Old Safad, and in Ein Hod. Visually, the place is outwardly attractive if you are ignorant of its historical context. Full of restaurants, cafes, galleries, promenades, and so on. It is a favorite vista for Arab and Sephardi newlyweds who come here with video teams for photo opportunities. Several signposts and coin-¬operated machines narrate the history of Jaffa in four languages (I suspect Arabic will be added soon for the benefit of impending tourists from the Gulf). But nowhere is there an indication that this was once a thriving Arab city - the biggest and richest in Palestine.
The tape-narrative is as concise as it is laundered. Philistines, Phoenicians, Mamelukes, Turks, British, 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.
The cafes and restaurants were blaring music and were full of a mixed Tel Avivian and tourist clientele. Rima pointed out a remarkable absence. There were no young people around (except for the two wedding parties being photographed). Even the noisy cafe-bar by the harbor landing, with disco music, was full of couples over fifty. We differed on how to explain this. Rima and Alex (in a rare moment of consensus) thought it was the antiseptic atmosphere of the neighborhood. Not only quaint but intimidating. Murjana thought it was the prices. No young couple can afford a cup of cappuccino in Old Jaffa. And it was intended this way.
On the way to the harbor, I met Basma Abu Swayy, a former 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 parallel 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 has the great city 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.
November 1995

This article was published in Al-Ahram English weekly, February 19, 1998. Reprinted by permission.