Treacherous memories: Electronic return to Jaffa

Salim Tamari, Monday 15 May 2023

Salim Tamari tours Jaffa, the town of his birth, accompanied by a young Arab woman resident, negotiating a path between the place of his memories and the city that is her home

Jaffa 1948
Jaffa 1948 painting by Shaima Farouki, The Palestine Museum, US


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 19 March 1998


A DATE WITH MURJANA: Yesterday I went to Jaffa to meet my first (probably also the last) date 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 from Tel Aviv, born and raised in Jaffa. When I suggested that I might come to Jaffa on a Friday afternoon, she said she will 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 blond and wearing high heels. I decided to take Alex and Rima for protection. Liza Bouri, who is visiting us this winter, was dying to go to Jaffa, her birth place. 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. I personally have no particular feelings for Jaffa. I was concentrating on the event, and the meeting with Murjana.


We arrived fifteen minutes late, and Murjana was waiting next to a bakery. She was indeed blond. 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 in that neighborhood. The mother is a social worker with fighting spirit. She belonged to a community group that was trying to get Arab representation on the city council. The father, a mechanic, greeted us in Hebrew, to Liza's great discomfort.


AL-KHADER: 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 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 at the Jadiis Pharmacy. It was late and Fakhri would feel obliged to invite such a large crowd for dinner.


One of the most peculiar memory of that evening was the manner in which our email chaperon 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 in Jaffa meant that she grew up under squalor. The remnants of the community were the poorer Arab villagers whose homes were destroyed and they 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 (were incidentally I was born) and the church of Al-Khader.


THE HARBOR: One of the saddest moments was our visit to the Harbor were Rima narrated how her father, Hassan Hammami, a teenage boy then, embarked a boat with his family, as did hundreds of families on May 10th 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 were 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 protest 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 were married, since "all the men of stature" were gone. That says a lot of 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 were 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 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 Kemal Pharmacy, on top of which stands my Grandfather's house, Salim Jabagi, where my mother and 12 other siblings were born.


Now it is occupied by two Moroccan 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 Fai'k, Abdallah and Emile, and my two aunts were born.


Ajami today is a divided quarter. Only the disintegrating old mansions of Jaffa 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 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 are sprouting everywhere. For 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 co-existence between the newcomers and the destitute Arab community. In the middle have remained few established families of Jaffa, and another dozen nouveau riche 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 (the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property) took his two and a 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 15 years later, the family could not trace the money. But they still hold fast to the Kushan Tabu, their family patrimony. Murjana's maternal grandfather had left the city for Egypt, leaving his wife behind, the encounter 40 years later is one of the saddest stories I have heard, but I will leave this for later.


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 Arik 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 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 Ain Hof. 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 Sephardic newlyweds who come here with Video teams to take 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 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, Mamlukes, 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. A ragged sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized the city in the year 1800, points his finger to a restaurant overlooking the harbor.


The cafes and restaurants were blaring music and full of a mixed Tel Avian and tourist clienteles. Rima pointed out an 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 not 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 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.



* Salim Tamari is the Director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies, delegate (and coordinator) of the Multi-lateral Peace Negotiations Team and Professor of sociology at Bir Zeit University. The Electronic Jaffa Forum, where this extract first appeared, was created in 1995, with the aim of gathering testimonies by Palestinians in exile discussing their various reactions to the idea of returning to Jaffa, and attempting to interpret what happened in 1948 to this dismembered city.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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