Monday, May 18, 2009

Ghost Worlds

Ghost Worlds

To mark the 61st Nakba Day, I attended a tour of the ghosts of former Palestinian villages in Tel Aviv, beautifully organized by Zochrot ( In each of the villages we stopped in (Shaykh Muwannis, Summayl, al-Manshiyyah, and Salama, and there are four more: Jammasin al-Gharbi, Abu Kabir, Fisherman's Village and Irsheed), a direct refugee or descendent spoke to us about their former lives.

We stood at the beach, at the site of the Etzel (Irgun) Museum, one of the Jewish terrorist militias (so-called by the likes of Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt) of the 1930s and 1940s, which shamelessly incorporates the last remains of the only standing Palestinian home of the village into its very structure. They would not allow us inside, we were told, so we could not see what a home in the village would have looked like. The rest of al-Manshiyyah, having been leveled, is now a grassy beach park.

In each village we heard the stories of relatives scattered in every direction of the Palestinian Diaspora: Gaza, Amman, Cairo, Baghdad, Nablus, northern Israel, Lebanon, Canada. The randomness of the results of those frantic choices resonated and overlapped in both familiar and unfamiliar ways with the Jewish Diaspora. Each guide told us how their families had come to leave their land, bringing alive the terror and uncertainty of the years 1947 and 1948, proving how academic are the debates about whether the Palestinians of the region were exiled or fled. Life was made unbearable in various ways, and eventually everyone in the region was pushed further and further south, first to Jaffa itself, then maybe to Gaza or the open sea.

We went to a Muslim cemetery which stands now on the border between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, its graves still occasionally desecrated, the city refusing to allow it to be rehabilitated, still visited by relatives trying to honor their ancestors.

In Shaykh Muwannis, which was on the site of what is now Tel Aviv University, and whose lands included where my mother-in-law's home stands today, we stood at the door of the locked faculty club, which was the only original house left standing by the 1970s. The woman who spoke with us there told us that the cemetery where her grandparents are buried is now inside the nearby Shabak headquarters, and it is impossible to go and pray there.

In central Tel Aviv, a man (originally of Summayl, now of Jaljilya, a town in Israel's "triangle," by way of Jaffa and Nablus) told of his childhood before the Nakba, running through the orchards from home (Ibn Gvirol St) to school (Namir Rd). Those are now solid city blocks, but in his words, "I can see those orchards as clearly as I see you all in front of me now."

This has what has always struck me about Tel Aviv, and all of Israel. There are overlapping worlds inhabiting the same space. One is usually invisible, but it is still here.

As was noted at the beginning of the tour: the Nakba is not a date. It is a process that is ongoing, continuing even through today.

On my way home by taxi from the tour, I heard an interview on the radio celebrating 100 years of "our beloved Tel Aviv." Reprinted from last month's Haaretz below is an essay about the city that has haunted me since I read it, by acclaimed author Yarom Kaniuk. At first it seems like merely an old man's reminiscence about his youth and his city, and the first section may only be of interest to those who know the city well. But it ends with a chilling-- and despite everything--sad prediction of its fate.

--Rebecca Vilkomerson

The First TelAvivian
By Yoram Kaniuk
Haaretz, April 16th, 2009

Of the Hebrew writers alive today, Haim Gouri is the first native of Tel Aviv, but because he betrayed us by moving to Jerusalem, I have remained the first native Tel Avivian writer. On the day I was born, there were 23,708 rooms in Tel Aviv. The Yekke (German Jewish) falafel vendor on Lasalle Street had not yet arrived in the country. A total of 2,936 trees were planted that year. Aside from me, 2,100 babies were born in 1930, whereas 510 Jews and one non-Jew died. Six hundred and ninety-one people married. Two hundred and ninety-one divorced. There were 16 car accidents and 120 bicycle accidents. Twelve miscarriages were reported, and 16 cases of hysteria, and my father was appointed [mayor] Meir Dizengoff's secretary.

What is it about Tel Aviv that makes it so praiseworthy? Me personally, I am not suited to it: I don't like sun. I don't like summer. I'm a sabra [native Israeli] but I can't stand the sabra fruit; watermelon is okay, but nothing special. Of all the vegetables, my favorite happens to be spinach, which aroused a fair amount of disgust among the city's children. Like everyone else, I used to spend hours at the beach. The father of one of my friends, who had the franchise for renting out beach chairs at Frishman Beach, next to the "Tir" shooting range - where they would fire into the air and kiss on the sand in the dark - would give me a chair for free and I sat with an awning over me like the old people.

During the 11 years that I lived in New York I thought a lot about Tel Aviv, but I invented it in my mind, fixing it permanently as it was when I left. And it's true, I preferred New York. Sometimes I would look at old photos of Tel Aviv, and think that maybe I wasn't born in that city. So why is it that now I like living here so much? I have no idea. One doesn't love a city, one barely loves a woman or a man. When I travel to beautiful and marvelous cities abroad, I place an EKG in the street and it reads zero, and I count the days until I return to Tel Aviv.

I lived in Ramat Hasharon for 14 years, and I don't remember a thing from there. But Tel Aviv flows through my blood. Maybe there is something to it after all? Tel Aviv is the first Hebrew city - before Los Angeles. But precisely because it's Hebrew, and everyone is proud of that fact, most of the signs in the city are written in all kinds of languages that merchants believe to be English. Once there were cafes with lovely names: "Atara," "Snir," "Kankan," "Kassit." Today Cafe Hillel is one of the only cafes with a Hebrew name, written in English, because old man Hillel apparently emigrated to America and served as a soldier under Washington, of blessed memory.

Effervescent city

Tel Aviv is the only city in the world where people died before anyone was born there. In 1902, because of the cholera plague, the Turks forbade burial in Jaffa and the Arabs buried their dead in the place where the Hilton Hotel now stands, next to Independence Park, whereas the Jews bought a plot far from Jaffa, on Trumpeldor St., and began burying their dead in it. A substantial percentage of the people who gave their names to the city's streets are buried in this lovely cemetery, which is therefore both geography and history. Anyone who has gone on a tour of this cemetery, the most beautiful in the city, with my dear friend Shlomo Shva as guide, will not forget the stories of loves and hates buried there.

On Nordau Boulevard, at the corner of Ben Yehuda Street, stood the kiosk of Grin, who was the brother of David Ben-Gurion. Anyone who agreed to curse Ben-Gurion here was given soda with syrup, instead of plain soda water. There was also Berele's kiosk, where my father stopped each day to ask for soda without syrup, before riding his bike to the Tel Aviv Museum, which he ran. My father would wait until Berele said, "Without which syrup, Mr. Kaniuk?"

There were four theaters in Tel Aviv at the time. There was an opera, a philharmonic orchestra and chamber concerts in the museum on Shabbat. There were crazy people who lay down in the street. The greats were strongman Shimon Rudi, who took apart iron chains with his teeth to the illumination of two motorcycle headlights; girls would hang on to his muscles and shout and he would play them to the garmoshka of Shpil, who knew one song but knew it well. The song they sang at the time was "Tel Aviv, a city of roofs and sky and cries of the shoeshine boy," but there was also the weissen kesselach and the alte zachen (old clothes seller) and the milk delivery man, who used to shout "Milk, milk." And there was the ice man, and there was the man who once a year would come with a device like a hand cello, with one string, and inflate the winter blankets that had slept in the closets all summer long.

So what is it about this city that I live in and love to live in? I don't know exactly what. Stockholm is much more beautiful, but for me Stockholm, like Paris, is a church without God. New York is already too big. Copenhagen gets boring after a few days, but remains as beautiful as a queen. Is Tel Aviv beautiful? Yes and no. Most of the houses in Tel Aviv today, to which the leaders of the nation have moved, look like huge cemeteries. If you land at Sde Dov Airport, you see a huge gray cemetery with ugly eight-story houses, a shopping center and a cafe for women and trees that look like little leaves.

Old Tel Aviv is beautiful. It is beautiful in an artificial way. It is old because they decided that it would be a "White City" and the capital of Bauhaus, as it really was once upon a time. So I really love living in old Tel Aviv. That is also where I was born - when Tel Aviv was still a Hebrew dream and my mother taught at the late Gymnasia Herzliya high school, where she also taught the words that Eliezer Ben Yehuda would invent every day.

The small streets of the old city are pleasant. Personal. There are gardens behind the houses. But the houses are so expensive to live in that although I am the oldest of the city's writers and received the great honor of being declared an honored citizen of Tel Aviv, I can't live there in an apartment of my own, so I have to rent.

Young people have always made the city. Then as now. Old people have memories, young people have life before death. Tel Aviv is effervescent. Once effervescent referred to a drink, the way today's national beverage is diet cola, and once they used to drink tzuf (nectar) - so what? Tel Aviv oozes a power of survival that does not exist in any other city I know. It has the pleasantness of transience. It has impulsiveness. It is more of a mistress than a legal wife, and natives of Be'er Sheva count the days until they will be considered Tel Avivians.

A place of birth is not such a big deal. When I was a few days old I was brought to my parents' apartment on Balfour Street, at the corner of Rothschild Boulevard; at the time, perhaps somewhat later, a woman who used to shout a lot committed suicide there. Later I would sit on the balcony, I was 3 years old and I saw the young people singing - back then the rich people didn't live in the Azorei Chen district, in that huge and ugly cemetery - but on Rothschild Boulevard.

A city-state

There were several relatively new Arab villages near Tel Aviv: Someil and Jamusin, and there was the German Sharona. For a while we lived in Kiryat Meir, then the border between Tel Aviv and the Arab world, and my father would walk around at night banging metal cans to chase away the jackals. Today it is Dubnov Street, which hides behind Ibn Gvirol, who was then still a poet. In Sharona we bought butter and cream, they held Nazi parades there that the Arabs of Someil joined.

I got stuck one night in Sheikh Munis; it was my turn to escort two girls from the youth movement - Mahanot Ha'olim - to school, perhaps Seminar Hakibbutzim, and to return them. I said a password. But the Arab boys decided to take care of me. Never mind. I survived. My hand was hurt. One of the boys was hit hard. After years in New York a man stopped me and said, "Do you remember me?" I said, "Maybe you were on the illegal immigrant ship Pan York when I was bringing in immigrants?" And he said, "No, you broke my hand in Somail and I remember." We embraced. I don't remember why. A girlfriend who was with me burst into tears. A policeman stopped to ask if everything was all right and I told him that we had grown up together in Palestine. He didn't know where that was and went on his way, twirling his baton.

Today Tel Aviv is no longer the capital of Zionism as it once was, because Zionism is finally dead. Therefore Tel Aviv, which began as a cemetery, is today an independent city. It is no longer the country's real capital, the capital is now in Hebron or in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem; today Tel Aviv is a city-state, of the kind that once existed in the world. Florence was not Italy, but a city-state that fought against Venice. And in this city-state there is a special atmosphere. There is the joy of the poor. There is sadness that unfolds while the country is being destroyed.

Today I am old and ill. In the Tel Aviv bubble I can walk anywhere on foot and at the same time sleep peacefully, because the small streets of the city that is now being renewed - but is preserving its short past - are quiet. And you are in the center of the city, near the bustle of everything that in Berlin requires a train journey of almost an hour. I'm not willing to be buried in my city. I will be cremated into the open world. Because to leave a gravestone on the ruins of the Zionist dream seems to me artificial, and sad, and heartbreaking. But my grandmother and grandfather are buried in Trumpeldor and in Nahalat Yitzhak.

I met an old woman at Ichilov Hospital who claims that she lives above the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery and that she bought a burial plot for herself there, and from her window she sees where she thinks she will live for eternity. There will be no eternity for this city. Tel Aviv almost became the beginning of Zionism and Hebrew culture and it will remain when everything is in ruins and empty of the pampered children who will emigrate from here to Los Angeles. So that I won't be the only one to see Tel Aviv from the air.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
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1 comment:

DANIEL said...

Posted to my own blog. A wonderful reminder that there are always two sides to a story, and both should be remembered.