Free-ranging Roosters Are a Wake-up Crow for Rising Territorial Tensions in Jaffa

They strut around public spaces in the city, inflaming passions and driving a wedge between veteran and new residents, and local Arab and Jews. Not the civic struggle you were expecting

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A rooster in Jaffa.
A rooster in Jaffa.Credit: Hadas Parush
Daniel Monterescu
Yaara Sadetzki
Daniel Monterescu
Yaara Sadetzki

Jaffa is in turmoil – and this time not as a result of police violence, gang murders on the city's main boulevard, so-called honor killings or rising gentrification/real estate lunacy. The struggle against local roosters taking over the public domain is inflaming passions and positioning the municipality, veteran and new residents, and Arabs and Jews alike, on two sides of a divide – and not the one you were thinking of.

Everyone pounces on the strutting street fowl as if they’ve found some great bounty: bleary-eyed residents who can’t fall asleep, municipal inspectors entrusted with protecting “urban nature” and maintaining order, activists from NGOs for animal rights and various underground groups. As if all our troubles weren't enough, the cockerel has become a symbol of a hostile takeover of territory and civic identity in Jaffa. But who rules, over whom, and over what? It depends who you’re asking. A recent item on a Channel 13 news show only added more fuel to the fire of moral panic: “Gangs of roosters are casting terror through the streets of Jaffa,” the report said. “No one can control them. They are attacking children.” “It’s really a jungle out here,” summed up one frightened resident.

A brood of chickens in Jaffa.Credit: Yaara Sadetzki

In the summer of 2021, in the wake of residents’ complaints about “noisy and smelly nuisances,” the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality distributed leaflets in which it announced that it was “dealing with the phenomenon of wild roosters in courtyards and public areas” in Jaffa. The word “wild” arouses a sense of wonder, given the local context. It is part of the lexicon of urban politics that marks out the rooster as an untamed, unwanted guest. In actuality, the “wild rooster” the municipality is seeking to wipe out is a species that was domesticated over 3,000 years ago and which has even earned the scientific name Gallus gallus domesticus. In Jaffa, it is considered a baladi (traditional, in Arabic) bird of mixed pedigree. Essentially, it conjures up an image of the city in which it resides.

The campaigns for and against free-ranging cockerels in the local landscape join a greater discourse that situates dogs, horses, doves, peacocks and other creatures on a spectrum that ranges from domestic pets to attack animals that cannot be controlled. In contrast with the dog, which has gained acceptance as a local resident that walks on four feet, the rooster is not considered an urban being but a sort of addendum to the rural economy – a creature that trespasses between private and public spaces. And thus, while the municipality is ostensibly taking measures to reduce the number of cockerels in Jaffa, on the more pretentious northern side of the city, Tel Aviv is celebrating a project by means of which “the presence of birds is bringing life in the tumultuous city closer to nature.”

The rooster is a creature that arouses interest in those around it. In different cultures it symbolizes curiosity, daring, new beginnings, sexuality and masculinity (despite the ironic fact that it has no penis). It defines a daily life cycle and pace of life; it anchors memories (and anxieties) in public areas. For many of the new residents in Jaffa, the rooster disrupts order and their worldview. In this mixed city, it is a moderator between languages, times and political identities, and casts in a new light the relations between Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, urban areas and nature, Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The face of the city is as the face of the rooster.

Roosters in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Playwright Ishay Erel, who is now completing a work called “The Roosters of Jaffa – a Rom-com,” describes the plot thus: “This carnivalesque play takes place against the backdrop of the mixed city, and stars Steve, a good-looking Don Juan sort of Jew, who immigrated from South Africa. He loves animals but turns out to be a latent racist. Steve aspires to build a monogamous relationship and settle down, but only with a young Jewish chick. However, he experiences ‘performance’ problems in bed every time a rooster crows. The source of this particular irritant is the three chickens (two roosters and a hen) that Halil, a young Muslim Arab, is raising in the backyard of a neighboring house.

"When attempts by Steve and other residents in his building fail to get rid of them by conventional means and with the help of the authorities, he is forced to cook up more intriguing solutions and he starts up with Yasmin, Halil’s beautiful and clever sister, causing her to fall in love with him, with the aim of bringing about the eviction of the birds. The attempt to seduce her develops against all odds into a love story between the two. But the lovers will be compelled to struggle for their right to love in a reality and in an environment in which there exists ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts, with the chickens being yet another roadblock along the bumpy road to realization of their love.”

The rooster is a creature that arouses interest in those around it. In different cultures it symbolizes curiosity, daring, new beginnings, sexuality and masculinity (despite the ironic fact that it has no penis).

The true stars of the play are, of course, the three chickens: Two are "Arab" and one is "Jewish." This is how the playwright puts it: Napoleon is the "Jewish" rooster, resplendent in his colorful attire, pompous and elaborately dressed, a megalomaniac who considers himself to be erudite and a skilled strategist. In contrast to him, Abu Nabut is dark-feathered, a "Mizrahi" Arab cockerel. A sort of neighborhood bully, a horny male, a bit of a fool but one with a sense of survival and street smarts. Between the two is the cackling Andromeda: a white-on-white "Arab" hen, a wise young fowl. She is quite pleased with herself and considers herself to be a well-connected member of the aristocracy: in other words, a princess. And she reigns over the two rooster-boys.

As in reality, the chickens in Erel's play are not merely an issue that needs to be dealt with; they are roving urbanites who possess desire, personality and national identity. The play translates political, social and urban issues into an artistic statement, but also expresses a metaphoric struggle that draws a connection, on one hand, between heterosexual and combative masculinity, and, on the other, the territorial discourse that centers around ownership of the city and the feeling of belonging to it.

“The roosters and hen live in a bubble, a sort of Greek chorus, and as such they symbolize the relations between Jews and Arabs," Erel explains. Fittingly, his script concludes with his own expression of gratitude: “And thank you to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, whose helplessness, sloppiness and bureaucratic cynicism gave me inspiration and impelled me to write this play.”

Maurice's counterparts

The rooster storm is not the fate of Jaffa alone. A (now-deceased) French rooster named Maurice gained world renown when he and his owner went to court and triumphed against neighbors who had sought to silence him. The dispute between the two sides, which ended in 2019, reflected the tensions between villagers with roots in the soil and the urban bourgeoisie. For the 100,000 Frenchmen who signed a petition to save Maurice, who lived in the village of Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron in southwest France, the rooster morphed into a “national principle” – a symbol of the conflict between locals and migrants for whom the rural countryside is merely a pleasant spot in which to spend a vacation. As these people saw it, the Gallic cockerel, eternal symbol of France, must be protected. One member of parliament even enlisted in an effort to officially define the crowing sounds in the village as part of the “national heritage.”

Maurice the rooster in Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron in La Rochelle, France.Credit: AFP

In parallel with the Maurice-the-squawker scandal, in the past two years voices protesting those of a same feather begun to be heard in Jaffa. In this instance, the battle is not only being waged on the basis of communal, ethnic or national identity. The tension is divided in terms of social and socioeconomic categories: locals and strangers, city and village. Some claim that these are superficial symbols, like the person who wrote on Facebook: “I don’t care about the roosters, I bought an apartment,” and who was responded to thus: “It is the fabric of the place, it is the rhythm. Adapt yourself, listen.”

Jaffa’s residents are engaged in a conversation about the limits of tolerance, respect and acceptance of the other. This conversation is repeated particularly every Yom Kippur, every Ramadan and whenever the muezzin’s call rings out. In this context, the roosters have touched an open nerve. Souad (not his real name), who is Muslim and a veteran resident of the Ajami neighborhood, explains: “Some of the Jewish residents living in Jaffa feel a need to push their lifestyle (and way of thinking) on the original residents of the city (the Arabs). There is a poisoned atmosphere of 'We are on a mission to bring culture to these parts.' It has caused numerous disputes in the neighborhood in which I live.”

Indeed, the social fabric in Jaffa is changing with the advent of bourgeois attitudes in the urban expanse that challenge the veteran population, which is weaker in socioeconomic terms. In this context, the rooster-centered discourse helps to preserve the margins of the urban core. Active in that effort are both Arabs and Jews who wish to preserve the brusqueness that reflects local authenticity and identity, and which is in its essence anti-Tel Aviv. “Let them put up statues of roosters in the squares, and then tour guides will nostalgically explain that once upon a time there were free-range roosters here and that progress evicted them,” one resident quips.

For many locals, the rooster situation is an expression of the Arab identity in a Jaffa that is growing increasingly more Jewish. At the height of a stormy debate in a Jaffa-based Facebook group, Sharif (a pseudonym) wrote: “You guys (i.e., Jews) can forget about it. As much as you fight us and try to erase the Arab identity of Jaffa – you won’t succeed. Whether it’s the muezzin, the ancient Arab homes, the names of the streets, the cost of living and the cost of the apartments and for sure if it’s the roosters. This is what was and this is what is, and anyone who has a hard time with it should move to the north. In any event, those who have agreed to pay 5,000 shekels ($1,400) a month for some hole in Jaffa and raised the cost of renting there are the same people who are trying to change Jaffa and erase its Arab identity.”

“You can laugh, but in my opinion the subject of the roosters is very serious,” a Jewish resident responds. "Not only because of the noise and the filth but because there are people who have them just for spite. It's become a quiet struggle.”

Displaying solidarity with Jaffa's feathered residents as an act of opposition to gentrification is not only the province of Arab residents. Seffi Smadja, a local Jewish activist, wrote on a municipal Facebook group: “All of those bleeding hearts who arrived in Jaffa and who instead of blending in came to force their lifestyle on us: Who told you that you are better? After all, in another month, in half a year, you will no longer be here, so enough is enough with your patronizing attitude. Leave us in peace.”

Jaffa, 2019.Credit: Alex Levac

Another resident stated declared: “Roosters have a political aspect about them because they create a rural atmosphere. I expect to find the elements of a village in Jaffa. That is the nature of the place. I don’t see any reason to change it. If someone does not like encountering roosters in the street he should live in a place where there aren't any.”

“It isn’t the crowing of the rooster that can be heard in Jaffa early in the morning,” social activist Ishay Shechter points out. “It is Jaffa’s right to live a culture of its own that is crowing at night.”

For Abed Abu Shehada, a noted activist and member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council, the entire debate over the roosters exposes an Orientalist bias that sees Palestinian residents as either passive victims or dangerous threats. “The entire debate over the roosters in Jaffa has taken on an illogical proportion and turned the rooster into a symbol of the way in which people view their surroundings. On the one hand, there's the romanticization and idealization of Jaffa, an outlook that assumes an Orientalist basis both toward the physical surroundings and the Arab population. On the other hand, there's a desire to create a sparkling-clean space, a sort of spillover of Tel Aviv into Jaffa, and the lack of any desire to get to know and to accept the different space and the different population. [These are] two assumptions that see the Arab population as a passive player that needs either to be protected or to be excluded. These people cannot imagine cooperation for the sake of true recognition.”

A bird that isn’t a bird

In numerous religions and cultures, the rooster is cherished and even revered. In Judaism, as well, it occupies a place of respect. The Hebrew name for rooster – tarnegol – is derived from the Sumerian language, by way of Akkadian: tar-logal, or “bird of the king.” In the Book of Job (38:36), Job praises the Creator of the world and asks "who gave understanding to the mind"; the latter word in Hebrew is sekhvee, which some interpret as rooster.

The rooster of kapparot – that is, of expiation, to which one in essence transfers one's sins during the days prior to Yom Kippur – plays an important role in Judaism. It is the creature that, with its sacrifice, allows an individual to enjoy a good and peaceful life.

The rooster of kapparot, that is, of expiation, to which one in essence transfers one's sins during the days prior to Yom Kippur.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“The rooster moves in the expanse between the dinner plate and the amulet,” explains Haim Hazan, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Tel Aviv University.” "It is a creation of a different sort. It is a bird that cannot fly. A bird that is not a bird. It flaps its wings, marks out territory and threatens. There is a mythological value to the cruel caging of a rooster.”

In Islam, the crowing of the rooster disseminates precious gems and is identified with rising from sleep for the morning prayers. According to Islamic tradition, after his nocturnal journey (Isra) and his ascension to heaven (Miraj), the prophet Mohammed met at the entrance to paradise a huge white rooster that called out in the name of Allah. The prophet is himself credited with the saying: “Do not curse the rooster, for it wakes you up for prayer.”

The rooster storm is not the fate of Jaffa alone. A (now-deceased) French rooster named Maurice gained world renown when he and his owner went to court and triumphed against neighbors who had sought to silence him.

But back to the issue at hand. The roosters we refer to are only part of a larger group of symbols of otherness. In Jaffa, you can also see horses galloping on the beach or on paved roads, dogs wandering about without a leash, peacocks and ducks. These village-like phenomena reflect a sort of natural rebelliousness or stubbornness with respect to caving in to the dictates of urban bureaucracy and bourgeois conservatism. This rural-ness is not prepared to be domesticated. Likewise, Jaffa is not prepared for Tel Aviv, or the state, to domesticate it. Within this creative chaos, Jaffa may be seen as refusing to take on an identity: It develops a local, somewhat animalistic identity, at the expense of a greater national identity. Meanwhile, by contrast, gentrification seeks to reign in this urban anarchy. As one Jewish resident of Jaffa put it: “I am protesting this pretentious north-Tel Aviv decision… This is the real thing! Not some rich lady in an Arab house slated for preservation with a Shih Tzu dog in a white-beige shade and a ribbon adorning its head."

In the face of the identity-based discourse underway in the streets of Jaffa and on the internet, there are also those residents who stubbornly insist: “This is not a matter of identity or anything else. It's dirty, smelly and now I want to sleep!” But doesn't this “hygiene-oriented discourse” pass through cultural filters?

In her book “Purity and Danger,” anthropologist Mary Douglas contends that dirtiness and impurity are cultural distinctions that mark objects, persons and animals that are found to be out of place, that extend beyond the boundaries of the hegemony. For Douglas, food is not dirty in and of itself, but the moment that it leaves the boundaries of the plate and falls on the floor, it becomes something that must be removed. The same goes for the soil beneath our feet: It is natural in the open expanses outside the home, but absolutely not acceptable in bed, where it becomes filth that must be cleaned up.

“In Jaffa,” says one local interviewee, “Ashkenazim don’t like ‘dirt’ in the space that they think belongs to them. To others, it constitutes a jarring hygienic hazard in the urban domain, one that disrupts the lives of Jewish and Arab residents alike. The Arab residents suffer from it, too, but they are afraid to complain due to the symbolism this whole issue has taken on, and to their fear of confrontation with their neighbors.”

“Raising a rooster, a horse, a donkey, cows or sheep is a positive commandment for us, but one still has to maintain order,” says Amir, who is Muslim, in an attempt to strike a balance.

Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Neighborhood glue

How is it possible to explain the dramatic presence of animals in the struggle we are describing here – the identity-based, economic and political struggle over the character of Jaffa? What makes Jaffa unique as a cultural environment in which, for example, the rooster plays a primary role in regularizing relations between human beings? It is part of the neighborhood. It is a sort of neighborhood glue and a local hero specifically because it runs around and is faithful to some sort of internal clock whose ticking may be heard more clearly than that of the human social clock. The movement of the rooster is based on its temporal nature, breaking through the humdrum same-old same-old and the violent blurring of territorial boundaries. It is heard and not always seen: one moment beneath a building, the next moment on a tree or porch. It is an alternative to a sedentary lifestyle and embodies a feeling of fictitious freedom.

The crisis in Jaffa is total in the sense that it is not possible to break it down into its myriad dimensions (the high cost of real estate, communities being torn apart, urban violence, identity issues). This crisis has economic and environmental significance, but also social and political and at times also religious and psychological significance. The abundance of animals and birds in Jaffa, first and foremost its roosters, are turning this mixed city into a multispecies mixed city, in which other living creatures also have their say.

In conclusion, the canonical text of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “Deep Game: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” provides an example of how roosters reflect identity, ownership and possession. In Jaffa, as in the Bali he describes, the combatants in the arena only seem to be roosters. The Jaffa "cock fight" is no superficial game, but rather a reflection of an existential struggle over the future of a city that is developing too rapidly. It is an intense struggle over the memories of those confronting each other: north Tel Avivians and Jaffa Tel Avivians, Jews and Arabs, the White City and the black city.

“It is starting small and will keep on getting bigger,” is how Samir sums it up. “How long will we be silent and not say anything to the north Tel Avivian snobs who have come here? It wouldn’t be like them to go back to where they came from. In the end, we will pay a heavy price. Slowly but surely, we will lose the memories. The roosters were here first. Take your dogs and pick up your dog shit on your way back… to Tel Aviv.”

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