Review |

A Painful and Joyous Journey Through the Histories, Languages and Cultures of Jaffa

Anthropologist Daniel Monterescu examines the role of politics, economics, art and nightlife in the mixed city that is so much more than just Tel Aviv’s backyard

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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The old city of Jaffa as seen from the sea.
The old city of Jaffa as seen from the sea.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

'Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine' by Daniel Monterescu; Publishers: Indiana University Press (English) and Bavel (Hebrew)

It was a month after the soul-shaking murder of a dear friend. The lease on the apartment I was renting in Tel Aviv was running out and I was looking for a new place in the city I had lived in for many years, but every building I walked into reeked of foreignness.

I arrived for a meeting at Dina Café, belonging to Dina Lee (no relation), on Yehuda Hayamit Street in Jaffa. The voice of the muezzin trilled and penetrated into the small space. Arabic filled the space, mixing with its sister language, Hebrew. After a bitterly black month because of the vicious murder, with endless pain and a feeling of emptiness gaping inside me, I was filled with a surprising whirlwind of emotions. At the end of the meeting, I left the café – which has since closed, after the death of the owner – and wandered around Jaffa. With every step I felt a storm of feelings, signaling to me that my senses were reawakening and my heart had switched from beating at a sorrowful pace to a beat of great desire and curiosity.

The now-closed Anna Loulou Bar in Jaffa, 2016. Credit: Ben Palhov

The loss of people who are dear to us changes us and the course of our lives. I wondered how the brutal murder, which overwhelmed me and brought up other losses that had been buried in my heart for a long time, would change my life. While I was still wandering around Jaffa, it became clear to me that moving there could well inoculate me against hardening of my heart, soften the intensity of the pain and reignite the spark of life.

I’ve been living in Jaffa for nine years now, and reading the book “Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine” (in the new Hebrew edition) brought me back to these first wanderings, when I understood that the city called “The Mother of the Stranger” (Umm al-Gharib in Arabic) would be my home, at least temporarily. The book, written by Daniel Monterescu, is a journey between the borders of anthropology, history, urban geography, architecture, culture and language. This is a rich and comprehensive study written in poetic and stirring language.

The cover of the Hebrew edition of Monterescu's book.Credit: Vered Navon / Bavel publishers

Victim of Jaffa-mania

Monterescu, who admits that he suffers from “Jaffa-mania,” was born and grew up in the Jaffa Dalet neighborhood. He moved to Jerusalem Boulevard in his youth and went to the French school, College des Freres de Jaffa, in the city. He lived there for a long time before he put on his researcher’s cap. The book was written “from this oscillating perspective of ethnographic recidivism,” he writes in the acknowledgements. He calls himself a “recurrent returnee” – for the last 20 years, he has left for studies and work overseas, leaving and coming back to the city like a returning native, someone who “comes back to the scene of the crime.”

The book was originally published in English in 2015 as an academic study intended for social science researchers. The new Hebrew edition, which was released this year, includes new chapters written in cooperation with social scientists. It tries to appeal to a broader audience, and especially the residents of Jaffa. Monterescu also writes a blog on the Haaretz Hebrew-language website, whose name is the same as the book, and there, too, he lays out his unique perspective on Jaffa.

Restaurant workers who prepare free meals for the elderly sit outside at the Jaffa market during the latest quarantine.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Monterescu, who serves the role of the city storyteller, tries in his book to turn the staunch statement from the famous poem and song by Yossi Gamzu, “Zohi Yafo” (“This is Jaffa”), into the question: “What is Jaffa?”Knowing that Jaffa is torn between images, narratives and social inequality that is growing and deepening, he sharpens the readers’ gaze to the accelerating changes going in the city. He sketches out the map for the journey for them, with questions like is it possible to create a shared home in Jaffa for Arabs and Jews, or whether Jaffa will survive the invasion of Tel Avivians and neoliberal gentrification.

Insider and outsider

Monterescu wanders around Jaffa as the faithful representative of philosopher Walter Benjamin on a journey that liberates the consciousness and places him in a liminal position in the field of anthropological research literature: On one hand, he is an organic part of the city; while on the other hand, he is located outside it: “both a native and a stranger to the city at one and the same time,” as he calls it.

In this one can note a reference to Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities,” in which the author notes that a city contains its past as if it were a web of lines on one’s palm, written on street corners, on the bars of windows, on staircase railings and lightning rods, with each part scratched and cut in, including the commas.

Jaffa residents protest the demolition of a Muslim burial ground in Jaffa, June 2020.Credit: Avshalom Halutz
Women sit outside during the second coronavirus lockdown, in Jaffa, September 2020.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Jaffa is a binational city, often described as “mixed.” This term has changed hands within the triangle formed by British colonial rule, the pre-state Zionist community and the Palestinian narrative. Monterescu examines the negation and rehabilitation of this term. At first, it was used by the British colonial administration to define its area of control. The term was later embraced by the liberal Zionist narrative during the British Mandate period; in the third phase, after Jaffa was conquered by Israel in 1948, this term made its way into the Zionist narrative and the civil administration of the city. The fourth stage paralleled the rehabilitation of the Palestinian community and the rise of a new generation of Palestinian intellectuals.

The term was embraced by the leaders of Arab communities in Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, Acre and Haifa. Even so, Monterescu notes that part of the national Palestinian discourse rejects the liberal-Zionist concept of mixed cities as cities where there is co-existence, presenting them as “threatened” cities, or more optimistically as “common” cities. Monterescu dwells on the journey this term has taken, making the following diagnosis: “whereas in the past it denoted the distress of Jewish neighborhoods that were a minority under Arab authority, it now depicts the predicament of an Arab minority in cities in which the majority is Jewish, and in which institutions are defined as Jewish.”

The opening chapter provides a creative and sweeping look at Jaffa through the graffiti on its walls. Monterescu reads its complex representations while wandering the streets, identifying a vibrant political expression of urban politics. He stresses that the prevalent graffiti in Jaffa expresses more poetry and slogans, with less emphasis on pictorial aspects.

A bar in Jaffa's flea market during the COVID-19 outbreak.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

He identifies three patterns of graffiti. The first and most seasoned one is a product of Jaffa’s ethnic and class-based exclusion after its capture in 1948, with neighborhoods such as Ajami and Jebaliya marked over the years as the backyard of white and sated Tel Aviv. The second pattern is a direct product of the rising middle class in the area, defined by him as the “art of gentrification” or the “poetization of space”; the third pattern is the direct political one.

Monterescu finds that the dominant language of the graffiti is Hebrew, with occasional English used as well. “When Arabic slides in, it’s usually accompanied by Arabic, as a tool in the hands of Jewish political actors,” he writes. Is the absence of graffiti in Arabic an expression of the weakness of the Palestinian community in Jaffa? Monterescu unravels this hypothesis with great beauty throughout his book, giving expression to his insight that the invisibility of political activity is an illusion.

Politics is interwoven in the city’s life, flowing through its arteries. “Jaffa has a language of its own,” he writes, instructing readers in the secrets of this city. “In order to understand it, one has to examine its local urban expression. Then we’ll find that between and within its walls beats Jaffa’s conflicted heart, telling the city’s stories.”

The Jaffa port during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, 2020.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

The concept of gentrification, coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in describing new patterns of inner migration in London, has acquired many meanings over the years, expressing much more than changing housing preferences. It currently serves as a theoretical concept and an ideological term. The accelerated urban development of Jaffa, its increased Jewish population and its hordes of realtors pouncing on any good finding occupy Monterescu through much of the book. “Gentrification is not unique to Jaffa,” he writes, “but in Jaffa it’s colored in socioeconomic colors, both locally and in terms of the weight of adjacent Tel Aviv, Israel’s financial capital.”

Monterescu conveys a neoliberal interpretation, seeing the phenomenon as a magical cure to urban ills, expressed in the character of the private entrepreneur, a process which blurs socioeconomic and class boundaries. But he also brings forth critical interpretations, which see gentrification as “a tyranny of capital, an imperialism of kitsch, with class polarization and the defeat of politics.” He presents the struggle taking place in the city, writing that “some circles in Jaffa see this process as the utopian realization of a new Middle East, an expression of co-existence, or an economic upgrade, while others see it as an expression of exclusion, ‘Judaization’, and an economics-based transfer of populations. The unsolved problem of municipal boundaries – the borders between communities, the unequal development and involvement of the state – passes like a scarlet thread through both camps.”

Art tour guide Joy Bernard, center in black, conducts a tour at Magasin III gallery in Jaffa, 2020.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Bye bye hipsters

The book also includes a wonderful chapter written together with Merav Kaddar, called “The Rise and Fall of the Political Hipster,” an elegy for the Anna Loulou bar, situated on an alley in Jaffa, which became a cultural icon that defined the city’s marginal culture, allowing binational encounters and political subversiveness while promoting Arab and Mizrahi culture. Its founders closed it in 2016, before emigrating to Berlin. Eight veteran customers volunteered to continue operating this cultural institution, but last year it closed for good.

Does the book capture everything that happens in Jaffa? “The experience of a city is always partial, temporary and situation-dependent, since a city can never be totally captured,” admits Monterescu in the book’s foreword. Indeed, Jaffa continues to tell its developing story with endless and beautiful complexity.

A residential area in southern Jaffa.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

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