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