Rediscovering the Arab Heritage

The Palestinians in Israel have a new sense of pride. Jaffa serves as an example of this: Long decried as a slum of Tel Aviv, this old city is planning a new future – an Arabic one. By Tobias Asmuth

After the state of Israel was founded, almost 100,000 Arabs fled Jaffa. Now, the city's Arab heritage is to be rediscovered

​​An invisible front runs through the old town in Jaffa, one that is hotly contested and changing its course every day. Mamud Eid closed his bakery because he was being boycotted by the Jewish neighbors. In an old Arabic building in Ajami, the hip quarter of Jaffa, an architecture office from Ramat Gan has moved in. And in the ground-floor of a villa on a narrow street, a gallery is trying to sell Jewish arts and crafts. No one else can afford the high rent.

Around twenty-two thousand Jews and almost twenty thousand Arabs live in the divided city of Jaffa. Both groups are Israeli citizens, they carry the same blue Israeli passports and live in the same streets, and sometimes even in the same old buildings made of light colored sandstone. But the one group, they belong to the winners, and the others are the defeated.

Driven out into the margins

One group sits in City Hall and determines which houses get renovated and where in which quarter a new sewage line will be built. The others feel like second-class citizens and call the decisions made by politicians Apartheid.

The members of one group move from the loud party metropolis of Tel Aviv to the carefully renovated apartments in Jaffa's old town with a picturesque view of the port. The others are driven out of the city center and into its margins, for example into the new housing complexes in Batyam.

Abed Satel also used to live on the outskirts of Jaffa, in the fifth story of an apartment building. His place of exile had an elevator, new air conditioning, even two balconies. But he still hated it. In the mid-1990s Mr. Satel, a nurse, founded the "League for Arabs from Jaffa."

Trying to make Jaffa an Arab city

The League is an aid organization and an association, a cultural society and a political movement. Today it has almost 500 members. Mr. Satel now lives in an old Arabic building in a small, old town street called Nazla.

The whole thing started back when Mr. Satel gathered a dozen like-minded men and began collecting the garbage in the streets of the downtrodden Arabic quarters. The situation was particularly bad in Pardes Daka. In this poorest of neighborhoods in Jaffa, one hundred Palestinian families lived together in disintegrating houses that were flooded with rain in winter.

Mr. Satel organized cheap building materials, collected donations, and arranged affordable credit for the people. The neighborhood is still dreary today, the streets are in disrepair and there are ugly huts with corrugated tin roofs, but the ruins and the piles of rubble have disappeared. There is a stake in preserving Pardes Daka. It is part of Mr. Satel's strategy to make Jaffa an Arab city once again. There will be no more retreating.

The cultural center of the League is situated in an old, renovated villa in the largest and most important street in Jaffa, Yeffet Street. There is a small library and a large hall for theater shows and concerts. Mr. Satel has a small office in the middle of the house. Its walls are filled with book shelves lined with thick files labeled "House Projects," "Charities," "Knesset," or "Consulates."

Israel as a Jewish and Arab state

Mr. Satel is a small man. He has a round face and short gray hair, he wears washed-out jeans and a t-shirt that stretches over his belly. He speaks quietly but articulately. As he talks about the historical photographs of Jaffa on his desk, he takes the largest one in his hand. It shows the cultural center in the year 1950. In the photograph, in front of the villa a barbed wire fence runs down along the street.

After the state of Israel was founded, almost 100,000 Arabs fled Jaffa. Those who stayed lived in a kind of ghetto for three years. The photograph, Mr. Satel tells us, will one day hang in a museum of Palestinian history in Tel Aviv. And when will this be? The day that Israel is no longer a Jewish state but also an Arab state. His voice betrays no signs of doubt. Then his cell phone rings. Everything is ready, we can start out on the tour of Jaffa he has organized for us.

Jaffa, "the Beautiful"

Mr. Satel steers his old Toyota quickly through the narrow streets, gestures left and right with his hands, and reports on the progress being made. Here an Arab family is renovating their house, there a shoemaker has just opened up a new shop. Jaffa was in fact long considered the "slum of Tel Aviv" after it had been incorporated into the city in 1950.

Almost fifty percent of its people are on welfare, most of them Arabs or religious Jews. The city has a high crime rate, and anyone looking for drugs in Tel Aviv just comes down to the old port. But Jaffa had once been a rich and eminent city, and the cultural capital of the Palestinians. Arab musicians played in its luxurious coffee houses and poets recited their verses in the villa gardens. The word Jaffa translates as "the Beautiful."

Before we only had the memory of our history, says Mr. Satel. Today we also have a future. He believes in numbers, and his calculation is as follows: Today there are almost 5 million Jews in Israel and only 1.3 million Arabs, but the Palestinian population is growing much faster than that of the Jews, despite the immigration of Jews, or the Alija, as it is known. In ten years, of the seven million inhabitants in Israel, two million will be Arabs.

A Heidelberg printing machine in Ali Khalaf Street

"We are a young people," says Mr. Satel. And because time is on his side, the result is clear to him: first the peace process, which has been making progress lately, and then "Israel will someday be a state serving all its citizens."

Mr. Satel's struggle is not a spontaneous one; it is constant hard work, which is why we drive to the League's printing house at the end of the tour. In a house in Ali Khalaf Street, Nasim Assali is setting up an old Heidelberg printing machine. Mr. Satel is pleased. In a few days the League will be producing its own small newspaper on its own machine. Mr. Assali also wants to print publications on this old press for other Arabic associations from Tiberias, Akko or Kfar Kana.

The formatting is quite versatile, they can also print small posters, Mr. Satel adds as his cell phone starts ringing again. This time I recognize the melody of its ring: It is the March of Triumph from Aida.

Tobias Asmuth

© 2005

This article was previously published in Germany's daily Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation from German: Christina M. White