A Palestinian Christian Bought a Jaffa House. That’s Not Gentrification

Yaqub Hanna
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People and buildings in old Jaffa
People and buildings in old JaffaCredit: David Bachar
Yaqub Hanna

In her article, “This Luxury Home Epitomizes the Erasure of Jaffa’s Historical Landscape” (Haaretz, August 26), Naama Riba discusses a new house built in the place of an old one in Jaffa.

The author argues that this constitutes a blatant example of cultural and historical erasure in Jaffa. In her telling, the erasure is being carried out by a Palestinian, the builder of the new house. In a strange mode, Riba subsequently shifts the focus to “neighborly disputes” that have nothing to do with architecture.

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I can’t quite figure out how, of all things, a house that I, a Palestinian Christian, bought from the CEO of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team (with all the symbolism that entails!) – in an area that was originally known as a Palestinian Christian neighborhood before it was emptied out in the wake of the Nakba – became a story of erasure and gentrification. It is worth reframing the narrative set forward in the article. This ought to be a story of architectural and human renewal in a neighborhood that is celebrating a cultural revival.

The article makes no mention of the preservation of the architectural motif of internalization, which is characteristic of homes in Arab cities. Nor is there any mention of the architectural elements that are in clear dialogue with their surroundings. For example, the ceramic mashrabiya that encircles the house, and the preservation of the inner courtyard with a central tree. The writer says nothing about the house’s presence, its style, or its occupants in the context of a renewed Palestinian presence in an area whose buildings symbolize a kind of modern Palestinian renewal. In the early 20th century, houses built in this neighborhood were for those who wished to move away from “historic” Jaffa’s “traditional” buildings and into homes outside the ancient walls, which had a new style.

Boutique hotel in Jaffa Credit: Assaf Pinchuk

The house represents a surprising Palestinian counter-movement into upscale neighborhoods, rather than out of them. In our choice of an architectural style that is not to the liking of our Jewish neighbors, we defy the Orientalist conception that sees the Oriental as static and non-dynamic. In another mode, we consciously sought to escape the colonialist architectural masquerade that dominates “authentic” areas, in which Arab houses are preserved as the ultimate status symbol. My aim is to cut off the chain of colonialist imitation that began with the new settlers’ imitation of the natives’ style, who later return and imitate the imitation when given the chance.

When the “Arab” houses in the Harish neighborhood turned from the homes of the Palestinian enemy to the homes of the affluent Jew, the term “Arab house” became an expression of cultural and real-estate value. In this way, the new occupants are absolved of any responsibility for the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians who built these houses. This is how cultural erasure happens: Not only through demolition, but also through the means of preservation. For Riba, the only erasure worth discussing and critiquing is a physical one – the kind that has no connection to the passage of time or human activity in that space. The physical preservation that Riba advocates is nothing more than an attempt to exert control over space and time, to obscure the past and enforce a hegemonic mentality.

For the present-day residents of Harish, the upper middle-class Jews and descendants of generals, the neighborhood promotes two aspects connected to their national-economic identity: an Orientalist character and designation as a Jewish neighborhood that is closed to Palestinians (even if this policy is not openly declared). The construction of a house by a well-off Palestinian – in a style that refuses to conform to the “Arab house” that represents cultural, symbolic and economic capital – disrupts the status quo. The threat is both economic and ethnic. It even erupted in a moment of fervor, when my neighbors used a crane to climb the walls of my home and hang an Israeli flag there.

The construction of a single house in Jaffa exposed the wide field of colonialist contradictions and forced the hegemon, who clings to control, to step up his efforts of concealment. Nothing is more suited to this purpose than framing the house’s construction as gentrification.

Jaffa during Operation Guardian of the Walls, 2021Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The stance presented in Riba’s article is a new variant of racism and symbolic violence that has replaced physical violence in the particular colonialist cultural sphere in which it was written.

Constructing my house was not an act of erasure. It was an act of healing in a space that had been disarticulated.

Yaqub (Jacob) Hanna, a Palestinian Israeli, is a professor in the department of molecular genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, who researches stem cell biology. He lives in Jaffa.

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