The Forgotten Story of the Original Jaffa Oranges

For decades, a sign hid under layers of paint in a building on Jaffa's Salameh Street. Restorers recently unearthed the sign, and together with it some touching stories and forgotten facts about citriculture in Mandatory Palestine.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Citrus packers. Moved from one orchard to the next, according to demand, erecting tents.
Citrus packers. Moved from one orchard to the next, according to demand, erecting tents. Credit: Courtesy of the Albert family
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The writing was literally on the wall of the building at 6 Salameh Street, in Jaffa. Buried under layers of paint, it waited patiently for decades to be noticed. It survived a world war and a war of independence (or a Nakba – catastrophe – depending on its owners’ perspectives); watched in silence as the British, the Arabs and the Jews passed by; and concealed a small local story, which like many others of its kind was all but forgotten.

Half a year ago, the writing, in the form of a sign, was uncovered by Shay Farkash, from Studio Tchelet, an art restoration and conservation firm.

Farkash was summoned to a construction site where a large, luxury residential-and-business complex is going up, one of many currently cropping up all over Jaffa and south Tel Aviv – a project involving creation of 130 apartments, and the restoration of the facades of a few existing structures from Ottoman times, slated for historic preservation.

The sign at 6 Salameh Street. Photo by Courtesy of Shay Farkash/Studio Tchelet

Farkash, who specializes in preservation of frescoes and wall inscriptions, was called in to examine what was hiding below the surface of the walls, as he puts it. It didn’t take him long to find out. An inscription on one, beneath many coats of paint, read, in English, “Said Hajaj Oranges.”

Not long before, by an interesting coincidence, a historical novel, “Ishmael’s Oranges,” revolving around the story of a family that lived at 6 Salameh Street, was published in Britain. The author, Claire Hajaj, 40, is the granddaughter of Said, whose name appears on the wall. Farkash contacted her through Facebook, and last month she accepted his invitation and visited the construction site to see the souvenir from her granddad.

Taken together, Hajaj’s family research and materials collected by Farkash shed a fascinating light on the history of the building, which is due to become part of the new complex.

The structure, which dates from the mid-19th century, was originally the home of the Murad family, of Armenian descent, one of whose members was the German vice consul in Palestine. After World War I, the owners changed hands, until eventually the Hajaj family – a large Jaffa clan that grew and marketed citrus fruit – acquired the property. There was once a grove next to the building, and a well inside the structure itself, which was apparently used as a packing house or as an office for the citriculture business.

“People still remember the tire-repair shop that used to be here, but not the packing house for oranges, which operated here years before that,” Farkash said. “The inscription is a historical document that helps us strengthen the ties to the past and to the families that lived here and left. It helps restore the building’s soul.”

He adds, “There are many forgotten structures in Jaffa – in some cases, people wanted them to be forgotten. But in the end, things are found and come back.”

Citrus packers. Photo by Courtesy of the Albert family

Said Hajaj and his family remained in Jaffa after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. His son Mahmoud, Claire’s father, was born there in the 1940s. “My father was a boy when Israeli troops entered Jaffa with tanks and mortars,” she related. In the early 1960s, the family fell on hard times and emigrated to Britain.

But even across the seas, the familial bond to the land continued to haunt the family. Mahmoud met a Jewish woman, Deanne Shapero, whose family had survived the pogroms in Russia decades earlier and moved to Britain. “My father’s family scattered across Europe and the Middle East,” Claire Hajaj says. “Like the Jews, they too looked for ground to build on and mourned their loss.”

From its first buds on the campus of the University of Manchester in 1967, a love blossomed between Hajaj and Shapero. They married and raised a family.

“I grew up in the knowledge that I am part of two heritages and have two strong identities,” Claire Hajaj says today. “On my mother’s side, I am the daughter of a solid Ashkenazi family, which supports Israel; on my father’s side I am the daughter of a proud Palestinian family.”

Photo by Courtesy of Shay Farkash/Studio Tchelet

Asked how she defines herself, she replies, “I don’t like definitions. I find odd the idea that one can inherit a religious belief. According to the Jewish religion, I am a Jew; in the Palestinian tradition, I am a Muslim Palestinian. I describe myself as a person who comes from the Levant.”

She now lives in Lebanon, where her husband works for the United Nations children’s-aid organization UNICEF.

‘Two tribes’

The writing on the wall also evokes the story of Arab citriculture, which has been deleted from Israeli textbooks. “We were raised on the stories of Israeli citrus exports under the famous ‘Jaffa’ brand, but we know very little about the Arab citrus growers,” Farkash notes.

Dr. Nahum Karlinsky, from Ben-Gurion University’s Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, has studied citrus growing in pre-state Palestine.

“The citrus industry is perceived in the Israeli consciousness as an exclusively Zionist pioneering effort. In fact, the Palestinian-Arab citrus industry predated it, and for most of the period, until 1948, exceeded it in both physical area and quantity of exports,” Karlinsky and co-author Prof. Mustafa Kabha, from the Open University, wrote in an article recently published in the historical journal Zmanim. (Karlinsky has also published a book in English on the subject: “California Dreaming: Ideology, Society, and Technology in the Citrus Industry of Palestine, 1890-1939.”)

Photo by Courtesy of Shay Farkash/Studio Tchelet

In the last century, Jaffa was the center of the citrus industry in Palestine, and until 1948 the city was surrounded by groves. Tens of thousands of people, Arabs and Jews alike, earned their livelihood from this industry, directly or indirectly. The owners of the orchards were generally wealthy individuals. There were also workers, such as groups of packers who moved from one orchard to the next, according to demand, erected a tent, sat themselves down on the ground, and packed the oranges in crates.

The growing of oranges for export had begun in Palestine in the mid-19th century, before the advent of the Zionist movement and before its first members arrived in the country, according to Kabha and Karlinsky. Arab entrepreneurs invested in the citrus groves and in the marketing of the produce in England and Europe.

The two authors discovered that in 1933 the Arabs lost their primacy, in the wake of competition and large investments in the Jewish sector of the citrus industry. However, the situation was reversed again during World War II, at the end of which the total area of Arab-owned orchards exceeded that belonging to the Jews.

In any event, the researchers note, during the Mandatory period (1920-1948), “the two national arenas of the citrus-growing industry – the Arab and the Jewish – maintained reciprocal relations that were equal, mutual and close over a long period.” Testimonies to this are the joint agricultural and citrus exhibitions in the 1920s, in which Palestinian and Jewish orchard owners showed their wares. Representatives or both groups also took part in competitions that offered prizes, such as packing contests.

Photo by Courtesy of Shay Farkash/Studio Tchelet

After 1948, this reality disappeared from the Israeli and Palestinian consciousness. In the nascent state, the citrus industry was presented as a pioneering Labor-movement project, “void of any Arab presence, economically prosperous and enveloped in the scent of oranges,” as the article in Zmanim puts it.

Similarly, the role played in the local citrus industry by the German Templers, whom the British expelled from the country in World War II, is today consigned to oblivion.

In January 1950, five leading figures of the citrus industry in Israel, who had had friendship and business ties with the major Arab citrus growers in the Mandate period, asked Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett to allow the return to Israel of four Arabs who had been members of the Palestine Citrus Board.

Sharett rejected the request. He understood, he wrote, that the individuals in question were “among the moderates of the Arabs of the Land of Israel and offered personal testimony of their moderation by cooperating for years with their Jewish colleagues.” Nevertheless, he added, “What you are asking conflicts totally with the government’s declared policy on the question of returning the Arab refugees.”

He concluded on a personal note: “As for myself, I would be interested to know whether it is not clear to you, too, that bringing back orchard owners means bringing back orchards, and whether you truly think that abandoned Arab orchards should be returned to their previous owners.”

The marriage of Mahmoud Hajaj and Deanne Shapero also foundered, and ended in divorce.

“The older I became,” their daughter, Claire, herself the mother of a small daughter, says, “the more resemblance I discovered between my two tribes – stories of loss, of scattered families and of new beginnings.”

Referring to the war last summer in Gaza, she notes, “My daughter has to learn to live in peace with both sides of her heritage. I saw her in every image of a bleeding Palestinian child on a stretcher in a hospital, and in every Facebook post of Israeli parents who fled when the air-raid alarm went off.”

Farkash cut the sign documenting her grandfather’s business out of the wall and framed it. In the future, those who want to know more about local history will probably find it on display in a museum.

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