Over the past five years, without big political declarations, the Anna Loulou Bar on Rehov Hapninim in Jaffa has developed a community that exemplifies what we no longer dare to wish for: Israelis and Palestinians, straights and gays, Mizrahis and Ashkenazis – and all of them seemingly comfortable in their identities.
About three weeks ago, after five years of intensive activity, the ownership of Anna Loulou changed hands. The couple who established the place, Niv Gal and Ilana Bronstein, tired of running it; some of the clients and employees decided to purchase it and oversee its continued activity.
It wasn’t a matter of banding together to make a profit. When it comes to Anna Loulou, the profit is first of all spiritual, social and cultural, for both the proprietors and the customers. This small bar is not just another place to drink and dance but rather the center of a community that the place itself created, a mixed community where everyone can feel comfortable in their national or religious or sexual identity, and more than that – not be threatened by the other identities.
Relationships and weddings, friendships, day trips, trips abroad, initiatives and projects have been born from encounters between the regulars. Young people, both Jews and Arabs, have moved to Jaffa thanks to Anna Loulou, among them some of the new owners of the bar.
Coexistence? Not at all. And not only because this phrase has been worn to a shred in the intra-Israeli context but rather because that wasn’t the intention of the original owners of the place, nor is it the intention of their successors. Nearly none of the eight new partners – all of them born in the 1980s, all of them highly educated, most of them residents of Jaffa but each from a different world – speaks about Anna Loulou as a place of coexistence.
In their view, it is something far broader, more inclusive and deeper than that. In a country where a person is required to express total loyalty to the state that consistently discriminates against him and at a time when inter-religious romantic relationships are excised from the school curriculum, it is no exaggeration to say that the nonchalant and unstructured way things happen at Anna Loulou is tantamount to miraculous.
Blending into the environment
Before they opened Anna Loulou, Bronstein and Gal had quite a few apprehensions. “We were afraid of becoming part of the crude gentrification of the flea market in Jaffa. We wanted to blend into the environment,” relates Gal. From the moment it opened, Anna Loulou was labeled in various ways: an Arab bar, a gay bar, a hipster bar and above all, of course, a coexistence bar. Gal and Bronstein never agreed to any definition.
They found the “cave” on Rehov Hapninim (The Pearls Street) after a long search. Two small spaces are connected by a narrow corridor: In the first room there is a bar and a small dance floor, and in the inner room are places to sit and small tables. When they found out that the Arabic word for “pearls” is loulou, they decided to call their bar Anna Loulou – which in Arabic means “I am pearls.”
They decided on their initial musical line after Gal attended a party where DJ Muhammad Jabali spun, and he quickly became the third partner in the place. “The first party,” recalls Bronstein, “was like one long rave that came from another country – the music, the mix of people. All of a sudden people came and danced the debka [a traditional Arab men’s line dance] and then they spoke German. It was different from anything we’d known until then in Tel Aviv. There were both Jews and Arabs and it was clear to us that this had to happen once a week. We spoke with Jabali, and he agreed.”
But this wasn’t the only thing Bronstein and Gal did. They also began to meet regularly with Jabali. “He taught us so much and explained to us so many cultural nuances of which we hadn’t been aware at all,” says Bronstein. “We learned sensitivities from him, about the politically correct. I didn’t like the left’s special, over-protective attitude toward Arabs, which turns them into pets. Jabali and his friends really adopted us into their inner world. He didn’t preach to us but rather shared his world with us, with self-deprecating humor, critically, and even with internal criticism.”
Jabali, very much an autodidact, was born in 1979 in Taibeh, completed high school in Nazareth, studied business administration in Jerusalem, started law school in Tel Aviv and when he decided finally that he didn’t want to become a lawyer, devoted himself to writing, art and culture. Today he works as a content editor at a Palestinian start-up and a photography teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, with occasional gigs as a DJ.
In contrast to many other Arab music DJs, who played mostly classical and familiar Arab music (mostly for Mizrahi Jews), Jabali brought into the scene musical genres that hadn’t been played previously, like Lebanese or Egyptian alternative rock, rhythms from the Gulf states and Sudan and more.
The content he brought to Anna Loulou was not obvious. “I liked creating it. Not getting stuck on classical Arabic but rather bringing in experimental music too, performance evenings, underground poetry evenings, anything you can think of. Anna Loulou created a rich repertoire of content.”
The community at Anna Loulou jelled quickly. Even if at the start some of the young people who came there, especially the Jews, were motivated by an aspiration to fulfill a romantic fantasy that would enable them to tell the folks at home that “some of my best friends are Arabs / Jews / lesbians / gays,” without a doubt the repeated hanging out together created closeness, and the closeness created acquaintance, the acquaintance created friendship and the friendship – acceptance. In this way, quite a lot of the regulars at the bar – Jews or Arabs, Israelis or Palestinians, women or men, gays or straights – changed their perceptions and their way of life.
Alma Katz, the bartender and first employee at Anna Loulou, relates to it as a school. “It doesn’t matter how much I think I am politically conscious,” she says, “stereotypes are something so deeply rooted that you don’t always even know they exist. Anna Loulou has enabled a kind of assimilation in which you are precisely who you are. You don’t even need to make an effort to stick to your identity because it’s simply there, and it isn’t threatened.”
Marwan Hawash, the new content director at Anna Loulou and one of the new partners, became acquainted with the bar a little over a year ago. Hawash works in advertising and as the media director and public relations person for Tsofen, an organization that promotes high tech in Arab society. He was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Haifa in a Palestinian Jehovah’s Witness family, and as such feels different both in Palestinian society and in Israeli society.
“The moment I walked into Anna Loulou,” he says, “I didn’t feel that.”
The various sensitivities cropped up a fair amount during the first parties, and with them the tensions. There were Israelis who asked that certain kinds of Arab music (contemporary, for example) not be played and those who objected to certain content even if they didn’t understand the lyrics. There were Palestinians who found it hard to accept certain Israeli songs like Omer Adam’s “Tel Aviv” and those who even asked that no Hebrew be played at all. All of them learned that “this is what there is.” This is the place, and it enables replacing the panic and the outright rejection with listening and acceptance.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Jabali. “There were a lot of awkward moments and in fact they haven’t stopped to this day. People sometimes forget that the extent of the suspicion between Palestinians and Israelis is such that it was very hard to convince people that yes, they can feel at home in this place. Even I took quite a while to convince myself to dance to the sounds of Zohar’s [legendary Mizrahi singer Zohar Argov] ‘The day will come and together we will drink to life, in the beautiful city of Zion, Jerusalem.’ Now, I listen to it in my own home.”
All this notwithstanding, he relates, at Loulou they let him play songs that probably other places wouldn’t have allowed.
“I loved it that the Loulou tries to speak the language of the Arab space – not just get stuck on the roof of the Israeli hegemony and put worthy content into the compulsory box – and to understand that if it wants a life like that, it is committed to a certain community. The place never tried to bat its eyelashes and wink at the Israeli mainstream. It hosted [Joint Arab List MK] Haneen Zoabi several times, when the state around us was going crazy. The absence of compromise on all these aspects kept me as the house DJ for more than three years.”
At Anna Loulou it seems that “the absence of compromise” was the embodiment of acceptance. The eve of Independence Day is an especially good example of this. “We asked ourselves what we would be doing on that evening,” relate Bronstein and Gal. Finally they decided to celebrate with two white flags outside the bar, Yiddish music played by Ronen Eidelman and Arabic music that Jabali played, and they hung paper cutouts of Hannah Arendt, Ofra Haza, Mahmoud Darwish and Miss Piggy. “We celebrated diaspora on that day,” explains Gal.
“That’s the greatness of this place,” says Vladislav Bukshevsky, another customer who became a partner. He was born in Odessa in 1983, came to Israel when he was seven and is now studying for a master’s degree in philosophy at Tel Aviv University. “They don’t celebrate Independence but they also don’t come out against it and they don’t ignore the day. This is a place that offers an alternative space, that above all doesn’t reject.”