At a Jaffa Bookstore-cafe, Writing the Story of Co-existence

Yafa, the joint venture of a Ramle Arab and a Nahariya Jew, has for 10 years been a meeting point for Jews and Arabs in this mixed Jewish-Arab town just south of Tel Aviv.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

When Michel Elraheb, a Christian Arab and a lover of books, was growing up in Ramle, there was nowhere in the central Israeli city – let alone in the area – to buy books in Arabic. People traveled to Jerusalem, Haifa, and Nazareth, and as far as Jordan and Egypt after those nations' respective peace treaties with Israel, to buy books.

The same situation existed in Jaffa, and in 2003, Elraheb decided to change that. He co-founded Yafa, a café-bookstore in Jaffa, together with Dina Lee, a Jew from the northern Israeli city of Nahariya. Aside from being the first purveyor of Arabic books in Jaffa since Israel was established in 1948, the shop also set out to bring local Jews and Arabs closer through culture. On its shelves, Hebrew volumes appeared alongside the poetry of Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish.

Almost immediately upon opening, Yafa became a cultural center, hosting film nights, book launches, discussions and other events. Lee died of cancer last year and last month the shop marked its 10th anniversary. It remains a hub of activity in the neighborhood, and its shelves are still lined with Arabic literature, Hebrew - mostly political - volumes, and Hebrew and English translations. The spoken Arabic classes which it began offering after its first year following customer demand still attract students. Some 65 are currently enrolled.

Avraham Hakim, 64, a Lebanese-born Jew who teaches Early Islamic history at Tel Aviv University, has been buying Arabic books in Israel since he moved here in the 1960s. Hakim, who usually buys books in Haifa and the Galilee village of Kafr Kana, describes himself as "imbued of the Arabic culture." He explains that Yafa is a sign of cultural revival in Jaffa, where "Arab intellectual life became nonexistent after 1948."

Part of the reason behind this, explains Elraheb's sister Mary Copti, who spent much of her youth in Jaffa, is that local Arabs were isolated from other Arab populations after 1948, and culture and identity suffered as a result. Copti is one of the Arabic teachers at Yafa today. When the shop opened during the Second Intifada, she says, it offered a positive expression of the Palestinian identity that was being stirred amid the violence. At Yafa, she says, Jews and Arabs met in peace, as equals, and as representatives of two identities and cultures.

Yosef Asfour, 41, a local teacher and human rights worker who frequented Yafa right from the start, describes the impact it made as "a positive tsunami."

"Until 2003, Jaffa was hummus ful, shipudia [grill restaurants], fish restaurants, people in the streets, some of them selling drugs, and suddenly it [Yafa] brought books and culture," he says.

In fact, Yafa was where Asfour met writer Yossi Granovsky, and where the two of them penned a book of stories about the city, entitled, "Prefer Your Face to the Moon, Jaffa!”

The idea of opening a bookstore first came to Elraheb on a trip to Hungary in 2002. He saw that Hungarians read "everywhere," and that bookstores served beverages along with bestsellers. Back from his trip, he tested the water for his vision of bringing literature to Ramle, but local residents didn't really take to the idea.

Meanwhile, Lee was doing something similar in Jaffa, where she lived at the time with her daughter, Romi. Like Elraheb, she was concerned about the lack of access to Arabic literature, but she also wanted to create a juncture where Arabs and Jews could meet.

Those who knew Lee describe Yafa as her dream come true, something that brought together her love of hosting with her political conscience. At the one-year memorial of her death in Jaffa in earlier this month, speeches in her memory described how central the cafe and its ideals were to her life.

At the time, the first person to respond positively to Lee's idea was 61-year-old Copti, then a local school principal. "When I met Dina I immediately said you have to meet my brother," says Copti. "I saw education and culture was dead in Jaffa. The idea excited me."

Moreover, Copti identified with Lee's vision of exposing Jews to Arab culture. "Jews will read Arabic literature – I said this is marvelous,” she says. At school, she added, “I learned about [Hebrew poets] Bialik and Tchernichovsky, but Jews haven't heard of our writers."

The pair was introduced in Copti's home, and the shidduch worked. Six months after they met, Elraheb says, he and Lee set up shop in today's premises on Yehuda Margoza Street, tucked between an ice-cream parlor and a corner store, five minutes from Jaffa's iconic flea market.

Of course, there were disagreements. The pair had great chemistry, Elraheb says, but they came from different cultures. One month before opening, he recalls, they ran into a tussle when Lee wanted to fill the cafe with second-hand furniture.

"How could I invite people I know and let them sit on something that wasn't new?" Where he comes from, he explains, "This is unacceptable."

But he agreed, albeit with some hesitation.

Elraheb had never focused on bringing Arabs and Jews together. His plan had been just to create a space for the reading and sharing of Arabic-language literature. But Lee, he says, persuaded him. "I learned a lot from her," he says. "She wasn't afraid to speak her mind."

Sitting at one of the cafe's tables, Elraheb proudly shows me a certificate for the New Israel Fund’s Yisraela Goldblum Award, given to the cafe in a 2007 ceremony with President Shimon Peres for "their contribution in promoting Jewish-Arab joint living in Israel." The prize, worth $15,000, is awarded to initiatives that promote co-existence in Israel. Today, he explains, the language school is an important element of this: "When we teach Arabic, we also teach culture."

The award was the peak of their partnership, however. That year, Lee, who battled with health problems ever since recovering from cancer in her late twenties, split off from Elraheb to run Yafa's language school as a separate business. Two years later she and Elraheb split entirely. She opened another cafe some 500 meters away in October 2009, which closed after her death.

Michel El Raheb at Yafa.
Michel El Raheb at Yafa.
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Michel El Raheb at Yafa.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
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Jaffa.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Michel El Raheb at Yafa.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Writing the story of co-existence

"I felt sad," Elraheb says of the split, adding that he missed working with Lee. He understood, however, that "there is no sentiment in business," especially in Jewish-Israeli culture. Those close to Lee recall that the two split on less than ideal terms. Looking back, as Copti understands it, one of the reasons the partnership ended may have been that Lee was not completely satisfied with the extent of the "meeting" between Arabs and Jews in Yafa.

Supportive regulars took to drinking coffee in both places after Lee set up her new cafe. Asfour remembers feeling caught in the middle.

"Imagine you are between a brother and a sister. You don't want them to fight," he says.

Not everyone agrees on the impact Yafa has made in the area, or on how far it has promoted co-existence. Jaffa local Wael Kubtan, 41, who used to teach at Yafa, admits the shop is unique in the area, but says "it didn't change the area at all. It's another place that came out from the situation of being in Israel."

Maryland native Laura Shaz says Yafa provides her with an insight into Palestinian culture, but that that it may be preaching to the choir.

The 31-year-old, who made aliyah eight years ago, has been visiting Yafa for about a year. She says most of its clients are “Israelis and foreigners who are interested in Arabic culture and the peace process.”

Jaffa resident Mariam Abed el Dayyem, 35, heard about Yafa from friends when she still lived in Jerusalem, and has been a regular ever since she moved to the neighborhood four and a half years ago. In Jaffa, El Dayyem explains, Arab waiters will often speak to her in Hebrew, even though she is an Arab. Whether or not they manage to promote co-existence or bring about real change, places like Yafa are important, she says, "in the face of this loss of identity."

Yehuda Margoza Street 33
Tel Aviv-Yafo
052 733 5650

Michel El Raheb at Yafa.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Dina Lee at Yafa in 2004. Courtesy of Michel Elraheb.

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