"City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa" by Adam LeBor, Bloomsbury Publishing, 384 pages, $28.99
"The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel" by Linda Grant, Virago Press, 366 pages, 18.99 pounds sterling
When Linda Grant's love affair with Tel Aviv blossomed on a trip several years ago, as she recounts in an article for the British Guardian newspaper, she wanted - as a writer would - to read up on the city. Entering "Tel Aviv" into the Amazon.com Web site, she was under-whelmed by the results: a paltry 10 books, only four of which were in print. If Grant had extended her "Amazon index" to Jaffa, Tel Aviv's neighbor and alter-ego, an equally poor literary harvest would have been found.
The years since have seen a proliferation of interest in the city(ies). Writing about the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area is culturally and intellectually in fashion, following the UNESCO designation of Tel Aviv as a World Heritage site because of its Bauhaus buildings, the developing discourse of the "White City" versus the "Black City," the reverberations from disturbances in Jaffa during the second intifada, and the recent "prisoners' document," the latest salvo in the debate regarding Palestinian refugees' return to pre-1948 homes - including those in Jaffa. Grant's own efforts have helped popularize Tel Aviv's sense of place: her "When I Lived in Modern Times" won Britain's Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000.
Though nominally covering Israel in general, Grant's recent collection of informal essays, "The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel," continues her exploration of, in her words, the "mongrel metropolis" in the middle of the Levant. Adam LeBor's new book "City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa," a rich and heavier-weight "biography" of Jaffa as recounted by its inhabitants, is a contribution to redressing the balance in the urban publishing stakes in which Jaffa stills lags behind.
LeBor and Grant focus on an element missing from many of the history books, polemics and political analyses or manifestos that dominate writing about the region: the people's voice, the lives and views not just of the pundits, but also of those who actually live the reality behind the headlines. Both authors came to Israel neither as reporters nor as novelists, not to interview major political figures. Rather they chose to center themselves and their writing in a specific location and to build narratives populated by frank, idiosyncratic, local voices.
From sympathetic to repellent, these voices have the potential to reverberate far beyond their municipal bounds, as each location functions as a microcosm of wider issues regarding Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately the full potential of the books' subjects are not exploited: Rather than exploring the depths of current critical inquiry, the books, in different ways, skim the surface of their topics, providing limited insights from material that could have provided much more substantial food for thought.
Layers of history
At least the extent of Adam LeBor's research cannot be contested. In "City of Oranges," the stories of six Jaffa families - three Jewish, three Arab - are recounted and counterpointed. He delves into the layers of history and human experience that saturate his subjects. For anyone who ever wanted to find out more about the guiding personality behind the bourekas and baklava at the Abulafia bakery, about the Chelouche dynasty that moved from Jaffa to be among the founders of Tel Aviv, or about the "authentic" restoration of Old Jaffa and the Arab families from Jaffa whose former homes are now art galleries - for them, LeBor's book has the answers.
This book causes the reader to reconsider the easy phrase "Tel Aviv-Jaffa," to confront the image of an apparently natural semantic and geographic union between two cities that are so unequal and divergent in size, population, economic, cultural and social power and access to resources. Jaffa's identity and eminence have undergone a dramatic diminution over the last half century; the pre-1948 "Bride of Palestine" has come to be regarded by many simply as "Tel Aviv's Arab neighborhood."
LeBor is an unusually skillful collector of tales, an abundantly empathetic listener. Like a good saga, "City of Oranges" draws the reader in to know the fate of each of the families. On the one hand, this is a rare opportunity to hear relatively unmediated voices from both sides, such as the traumatic accounts of Arab families fleeing Jaffa by sea in 1948, or an Israeli soldier's eyewitness account of a Sinai battle in the Six-Day War. Personal accounts are indeed an important corrective to top-heavy formal history, and LeBor clearly intends to challenge many of his readers' preconceived and partisan conceptions about the historical narrative.
On the other hand, the close personal relationships that LeBor clearly built with his subjects leads him to a loyalty that is also a suspension of critical analysis. He does not challenge or question the accounts he narrates, whether they are controversial or rosily nostalgic. The upshot is a kaleidoscopic tone that is at the same time flattening and relativist. Apart from the last chapter (discussed below), where LeBor as author comes out of hiding, the book lacks a clear narrative voice to make sense of the borders between personal interpretation and factual history, particularly pertinent to a book that is based on such subjective material. His authority is also undermined by a surfeit of factual mistakes. The former British ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Coles, would certainly be surprised to be referred to as "Sherard Carper-Cowles"; Ra'anana could not fairly be described as "a Jewish town on the coast north of Jaffa"; and despite Tel Aviv's pretensions, a bus journey between Jaffa and its neighbor is not from "Clock Tower Square to the [country's] capital."
LeBor is strongest when discussing the state of Jaffa since 1948, the wholesale expropriation of land belonging to Palestinians who stayed, the "ghosts of the past," Jaffa exiles from the territories revisiting their former homes after 1967, its decline into a haven for drunks, junkies and drug-dealers as "the final destruction of Palestinian nationhood within Israel's borders."
Complexity and polyphony
Linda Grant also came to Tel Aviv to discover the people's voice, the ambiguous human beings and not the "receptacles for slogans" presented on television around the world. The book covers four months Grant spent living just off Ben Yehuda Street in 2003, and her declared aim is to try and "understand the Jews, that vexed, contradictory question that had plagued me all my life, [especially] those who intensely inhabit a coastal plain in the middle of the Levant, making a mess for which there seemed to be no solution."
Rather than following specific individuals through the generations, Grant's technique is somewhat looser, based more on previous acquaintances and random Israelis who walk past her table at one of her fixed cafe-haunts. Her search for the complexity and polyphony of Israeli life begins on the day of Saddam Hussein's capture, where she plugs into the zeitgeist of the day with several fortuitous encounters with Tel Avivians of Iraqi and Kurdish descent.
The very fact that Grant decided to live for a short while in Tel Aviv and to write sympathetically about her neighborhood and its inhabitants has led some critics to accuse her of pro-Israel partisanship. A trip to Gush Katif before the disengagement, where Grant surprises herself by her empathy for the settlers' "duty to an idea of redemption and endurance and courage," would not have endeared her further. Even within the book she asks herself whether it is disingenuous to "sit in an apartment writing a novel when an hour's drive from your desk there is terrible suffering experienced by real people, not people who live on paper."
But she sticks to her credo, that the artist and reporter are mutually exclusive occupations, that there are many simultaneous realities, not just the one making the headlines on the day's television news, that Israelis, too, have a legitimate story to tell. Her writing assumes an antagonistic audience, and she takes it on, with the aim of restoring a bit of proportion to the discourse on Israel: "Inside the regional super-power it seemed like a ramshackle Middle-Eastern bazaar, the rules of the balagan [mess] pervading everything."
Grant writes with an eye for entertaining the reader, not least through an unstoppable reserve of jokes, anecdotes and quotations. The fluidity of her style and its conversational tone, especially when she ventures out of Tel Aviv, to checkpoints, an army base and the separation fence, make her an accessible observer, honest about her subjectivity, an engaging companion.
Her chapter on the self-made "bubble" that Israelis live within - the tactics of psychological self-defense as well as apathy or inertia - which she adopted during her time in Tel Aviv, also contributes to her effort to humanize Israelis, while honestly admitting the limited and self-selecting perspectives to which she has access. But apart from these politically charged scenes, much of the book is taken up by musings that give the impression of being interesting though insufficiently substantial literary leavings from her previous works.
However, the intimate, if not parochial, details of urban daily life that Grant revels in, restore a human scale and social context to Israel and Israelis that is rarely touched on in writing from the region.
Grant's clear captivation by Tel Aviv is almost enough to allow a reader who lives there to see through the dirt and heat to the fabled White City. The city of Tel Aviv itself, in "The People on the Street," becomes a living, breathing novel, bountifully populated by "characters": salt-of-the-earth types, intellectuals, artists and activists. Her epiphanies about the people around her and their shared tribal history illustrate a sense of belonging and are sentimental but honestly felt, a contrast to the hierarchical, alienating history "full of the kings and queens of England" with which she grew up.
In an attempt to demonstrate her temporary immersion in Israeli society, every chapter has a Hebrew or Yiddish title that provides the theme, and she sprinkles Hebrew liberally throughout the book. A whole chapter is gratuitously taken up by e-mail entries to a competition Grant sets up between well-known Israeli literary figures to define the word "davka," with somewhat less than creditable results. The outcome is a somewhat affected attempt to construct an "authentic," insider's voice, though perhaps this is less cloying to the non-Hebrew speakers who are the book's primary audience. One of Grant's conclusions from her time in Tel Aviv - to be more careful using the words "apartheid," "colonialist" and "terrorist" - appears all the more measured and grounded when compared with the "solutions" for the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that spin out of Adam LeBor's final, and perplexing, chapter.
He starts by asserting the minority, but still conventional, view that a state of all its citizens is a "model for Israel's future." Using language already copyrighted by Shimon Peres, he suggests that Jaffa could be a "laboratory for a new Israel, even a new Middle East - [where] everyone lives alongside each other in peace." He then goes on to proclaim that - using the example of one of his subjects - the "new and beneficial phenomenon, one that could yet solve the Israeli- Palestinian conundrum" is in fact intermarriage between Jews, Muslims and Christians.
One must assume that LeBor does not intend to suggest this pitiful strategy for conflict resolution in other crisis areas. It is unlikely that wedding bells would prompt swords to be beaten into plowshares for Serbs and Bosnians, black Africans and Arabs in Darfur, or Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir. Regarding LeBor's "solution," davka one of the more overused Hebrew terms in Linda Grant's book - chutzpah - seems most fitting.