After a years-long voluntary exile, I returned to Jaffa - the southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Before Israel's establishment, Jaffa had been a Palestinian city. Today it is home to a mixed population of Arabs and Jews.
Around my childhood home on Michelangelo Street near Sderot Yerushalayim, I found a gentler and more refined, yet more political place. Not far from the entrance to my house, someone had sprayed something on the ground, in Hebrew: “This is stolen land.” Opposite the vegetarian (and vegan-friendly) coffee shop on Aza Street, graffiti in Hebrew and Arabic said, “We have no other land,” but this was surrounded by a bunch of personal, nonpolitical graffiti. And also an ecological message: “Let it grow,” next to some graffiti of growing plants.
The tangle of identities in the city and the underlying developments there can be read on the walls while roaming the streets. The walls speak for themselves, through the authors of the graffiti and through the city and the people to whom the texts are addressed.
This is a political expression of the city’s urban poetics and those behind it. In Jaffa, the graffiti most commonly consists of poetry or slogans, and less so of drawings. Graffiti poet Oren Ilem explains: “With the graffiti of writing, unlike the graffiti of drawing, there is no community. It falls between the two popular groups – the Facebook writers and the street artists.”
Wandering through Jaffa, that place of multiple publics but no community, one can identify three classes of graffiti: The first, and longest standing, is an outgrowth of the ghetto experience. The second group is a direct outgrowth of the gentrification of the area, call it “gentrification art” or the poetization of the space. And the third group is directly political graffiti. The graffiti tells the story of the city as a periphery of the center, through a sequence of historic milestones.
The ghetto in Jaffa is also a metaphor for ethnic and class-based separation, and a part of the city’s history as well. After the conquest of the city in 1948, a military administration was declared. It lasted for a year, during which time the city’s approximately 4,000 remaining Arab residents were concentrated in a fenced-in area in the Ajami neighborhood. For decades, the Arab neighborhoods of Ajami and Jabalia marked the backyard of affluent, white Tel Aviv.
Young Arabs gave expression to their anger and feelings of alienation in graffiti aimed primarily at the oppressive police, and, in a self-critical way, at the surging crime that was ravaging the area. To this day, it’s not uncommon to see graffiti that says “Bullet 9 – An End to Crime,” “Mohammed – witness for the prosecution” (i.e., a collaborator with the police), and “Police not welcome in Jaffa.”
In the first decade of this millennium, when the gentrification kicked into high gear, artistic examples of street poetry also multiplied. Students and artists filled the ever-more-expensive apartments, and showed awe and creativity in the face of the urban strangeness that allowed for the taking of a poetic stance. For the most part, the inscriptions express a subjective personal stance of a poet in love or engrossed in an authentic personal quest.
Thus, on Yehuda Hayamit Street, one finds a quote from a song by Alma Zohar (“Galut Bavel Hashniya”): “An urban journey amid a landscape of buildings. Far from myself but right in the heart of things.” On a sidewalk in the middle of Jaffa: “Happiness is the perfect crime,” and on the wall of a crumbling structure, a line from the Song of Songs: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.”
It’s worth noting, too, that the city is in no rush to get rid of the personal/artistic graffiti, and sometimes embraces it. The architect in charge of sprucing up the street where the Song of Songs graffiti was located contacted the graffiti artist, Lavi Vanunu, and asked him to fix up the graffiti as part of the area’s facelift.
Gentrification art is a sign of the major status change happening in the city, turning it from a shunned ghetto into a public creative space. Oren Ilem has gone as far as to spray Arabic poems such as qasa’id hub (love poems) on the wall of the Army Radio building. Others have opted for an ironic style: “No one limits our number of cupcakes” or “How many Yaelis are there?” One image that connects the poetic and the political is the work of graphic artist Yaronimus Maximus – “Jaffa Municipality,” which, for the centennial of Sderot Yerushalayim, presents an alternative logo of the independent city sometime not in the foreseeable future.
The third type arose hand in hand with the growing opposition to the commercialization of the land and the privatization of housing. As more well-off Jewish residents moved into an area identified as Arab, activists attempted to foment an ideological commitment to the Arab cause. The way was first paved by the Farhesia group with its “Derekh Hasafa” project, which provides a visual lexicon of words in Hebrew and Arabic in the public space. An important turning point occurred in 2007 when tensions arose between the city planning authorities and Arab residents after eviction and demolition orders were sent to 400 Arab families in the Ajami area, and a permit was issued for construction of a closed compound for the national-religious public in the Shuk Ha’etrog section of Ajami in 2010.
The entry of nationalist Jews into the neighborhood, combined with the eviction of part of the Arab population in an area slated for accelerated real estate development, brought to the surface gentrification’s disastrous implications for the city’s Arab community. During this time, graffiti such as “Jaffa not for sale” appeared, as well as “Jaffa is crying” (in Arabic) and “Housing for Jaffa’s Arabs” (in Hebrew), and joint declarations like “We have no other Land.” In addition to these city-focused graffiti, there were pacifist inscriptions not related to Jaffa per se, such as “What will we do without wars?” Another fascinating political project is Yuval Kaspi’s work on the entrance to the Democratic School, which shows two iconic characters – the Palestinian Handala and the Zionist Srulik.
In all the instances covered above, the dominant language is Hebrew, and sometimes English. When Arabic appears, it is usually accompanied by Hebrew as a tool in the hands of Jewish political players. The main exception is the religious graffiti that consists solely of the word “Allah,” and is used mostly to mark territory and in the space next to private homes. The Islamic Movement does not use street graffiti; it uses inscriptions printed on metal boards and on banners (as in the protest against the Muezzin Bill).
The absence of political graffiti in Arabic is a manifestation of weakness, communal divides and the lack of a united political front. The voice of veteran Jewish residents of Jaffa is also absent from the graffiti inscriptions. In the cracks between the walls, Jaffa is revealed as a city of many poetic and political layers that are not joined together into a whole.
The city is searching for a language in which to describe this loss of way. In the poetry collection “Sfat Yafo” (“Jaffa’s Language”), which for the first time brings together poetry by young Jews and Arabs in the city, editors Yossi Granovski, Yonatan Kunda and Roman Vater depict the city as something of an echo chamber:
“Fragments of countless melodies and songs, stories and fairy tales, languages and dialects reverberate deep inside it, seep into and fuel the life there. The heavy hand of the past still strums the strings of Jaffa’s present, a thin seam runs through the patchwork of the neighborhoods, languages and historic narratives that make up present-day Jaffa. Hebrew and Arabic are situated – sometimes together and sometimes opposite one another – on a front that has more than one barricade in the war of national and cultural identities between their speakers. In the daily clash over place and right to expression, for preservation, documentation, commemoration and silencing – be it over street signs or construction sites or classrooms or libraries, the two languages are right in the middle, locked in an embrace like a pair of experienced and exhausted wrestlers.”