Where the Streets Have No Arabic Name, a Group of Women Reminds Us of Palestinian History

Behind the project Shawari’a Yafa ('Streets of Jaffa'), is a mix of Arab and Jewish residents, who seek to commemorate Arab street names that were Hebraized by putting up additional street signs. An enterprise of the utmost importance

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An imaging of a planned new sign with the historical Arabic name of the street alongside the current street sign in Jaffa.
An imaging of a planned new sign with the historical Arabic name of a street in Jaffa, alongside the current street sign with the name of an Israeli army general.Credit: Nawal Arafat
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

“A mountain doesn’t care what its name is,” said one of the key speakers at a seminar held at Tel Aviv University a decade ago about the overt and covert meanings in naming public places. While the lectures focused on things like “the erasure of Arab place names in Israel as a means of control and covering up the past,” it was quite obvious that, unlike the mountain, human beings do care about such things and that this naming process is an extension of politics in other ways.

Or, as Ben-Gurion put it at the time of the state’s founding: “We must remove the Arabic names due to political considerations. Just as we do not recognize the political ownership of Arabs over the land, we do not recognize their spiritual ownership and their names” (quoted in Noga Kadman’s book “Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Arab Villages of 1948”). Although not a lot has changed regarding this painful subject since Ben-Gurion’s time, in recent years, awareness of this kind of name distortion is starting to grow, giving hope for a possible change.

The most active arena where naming is concerned, or perhaps the one that receives the most media attention, is Jaffa. The Hebraized and converted street names in the mixed Arab-Jewish city became a sad joke long ago. It may be hard to believe, but many streets bearing Hebrew names originally had Arabic monikers. For example, Resh Galuta Street was originally Al-Kutub Street. She’erit Yisra’el Street was Abu Ubeyda Street and Olei Zion Street was Al-Salahi Street. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

An illustration of a plan to paint the original Arabic street name next to a zebra crossing in Jaffa. Credit: Nawal Arafat

A militant response to this would be to turn back the clock and restore the original names, at all costs. But a more constructive, optimistic and forward-looking approach is being taken by a group of women who live in Jaffa and have just launched the Shawari’a Yafa (Streets of Jaffa) project that aims to give the historical street names a presence in the public space. The group seeks to connect the city’s various communities, especially Jews and Arabs. The decision to “enlist” the streets in the project “arose in part from a sense of a lacking personal connection, for Jews as well, to the existing street names,” they write. The objective is not further erasure or cancellation of the current names, but rather the creation of a shared presence.

The moving force behind this urban-political activism is Rachel Hagigi – an artist, cook and social activist. She was joined by director and film producer Shani Egozin, and artist and designer Nawal Arafat, a teacher at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art. Hagigi says the group’s original idea was to place additional signs alongside the current street signs with the historical names of the streets that were erased. But that would have been an illegal action unless granted a city permit. “I know the kind of thinking there,” Says Hagigi, “Huldai (the mayor of Tel Aviv–Jaffa) would only have agreed if it were a temporary festival or something like that. It’s no coincidence that the municipality’s naming committee does not have a single Arab member.” And so, they decided to create signs in the shape of small, pointed banners and try to persuade homeowners to hang them from their balconies and windows that face the street. Right now, a big part of the effort has to go into fundraising, as the project requires a substantial sum of money. The group expects to raise funds through donations and from selling prints, clothing items and signs to people interested in hanging them up.

An illustration of a sign with the original Arabic name in Jaffa. 'It’s also a way to raise awareness of and appreciation of the Arabic language.'Credit: Nawal Arafat

Another dimension to Jaffa

Even though I am convinced that this naming activism could foment change, create an opening and foster trust, I had to ask the activists what they believe will come out of all this. “I joined out of a desire to document the project and thereby add another dimension to Jaffa, a dimension that is an outcome unto itself,” Egozin says, noting that more local activists have joined in the effort and that meetings and discussions have been held with young people from Jaffa, with historians and preservation architects, and with filmmakers from Jaffa who will track the way the community relates to the project. “Let’s hope it has a good effect.”

Arafat would like to believe that “the project will put the whole issue on the agenda and make people talk about it and learn something about the history of the place. It’s a whole story. It’s a narrative that is very important to learn, to understand what happened here.” Arafat is aware that a lot of people in Jaffa don’t know what was here before “because they don’t learn about it in school. Arabs or Jews. I am very pleased with the project, and I believe that the partnership in activism and the Arabic signs will help the Arab residents feel more a part of this place. It’s also a way to raise awareness of and appreciation of the Arabic language.”

Hagigi says she has “a real feeling that this project can change things. People need to want that change to happen. Convincing them is the hard work, and I’m ready to do it.” As a graduate of The School for Peace in Neve Shalom, Hagigi began learning Arabic a few years ago. “I’m a ‘young’ activist,” she says. “I started not so long ago. I’ve been making up for many years of ignorance and I’m really deep into the activism now. At first, guilt was the main thing I felt. It broke my heart, and I felt that I was born on the wrong side. And although it brought me good things, I couldn’t bear the guilt, I had to replace it with action.”

The street name project, whose importance and good intentions can hardly be exaggerated, is being done with the cooperation and support of Zochrot, the School for Peace (SFP) at Neve Shalom – Wahat al-Salam (NSWAS), Hand in Hand, and the League for Jaffa Arabs. The lexicon of dozens of street names is based on historical research, maps and books. Historians, architects, and Arab and Jewish political activists are all lending a hand to the mission. Jaffa is waiting.

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