Saturday, February 07, 2009

Urban scars, an unfinished essay: Jaffa/Tel Aviv

Urban scars, cutting deep into the flesh of the city. Lines of division which linger through the civic body, long after their political and social meaning was lost. Areas of inexplicable void within a thriving city. Areas that are constanly on the drawing tables of architects and city planners, who seek to redeem the past, to bring to a close whatever conflict there were, to move on, for fuck sake. The property value is huge. The return on investment promising. So why do they still stand empty and dead, like in Amsterdam’s former Jewish neighbourhood, lifeless even 65 years after the deportation? And why, even when they are filled with parks and monuments and museums – like in Berlin’s former no-man’s land do - they still feel empty, artificial, and wrong?

Cities are place of change, and change always means a struggle - violent or subtle - between men and women, rich and poor, black and white, one religious group against the other, indigenous residents and immigrants. The way the city accommodates its different constituencies, the possibilities it opens and closes before them, are never static. And change comes, through negotiation and conflict; bourgeois neighbourhoods turn into slums; seedy streets are gentrified into yuppielands; megalomaniac city planners draw lines of battlefields on city maps, marking boulevards, highways and high-rise buildings. Decay and development are inevitable and often involve pain. But I am talking about something else: about scars, about the visible marks of trauma that cuts deep and refuses to heal. Those strangely-lifeless quarters, moments in space where the rhythm of the urban fabric is broken, the music lost. Most often these scars are the legacy of wars and displacement.

Such is the scar that divides Tel Aviv from Jafa. Sixty years after the 1948 war, the no man's land between the two former sisters-rivals remains strangely empty. Where once were borderline neighbourhoods there are now parking grounds, a promenade, half demolished houses, a run-down industrial zone, and plenty of promises for regeneration and a better future. It is a void, like a sudden break in the conversation of the city. It is not a quiet area - busy roads lead traffic from here to there, from there to here, but hardly no-one lives in the middle, hardly no-one stops because there is nowhere to stop, no reason to stop. No, it is not a quiet area, yet still there is strange silence, the absence of those comforting sounds of urban life: loud human voices.

The former border between the two municipalities is still, to a large degree, the border between north and south, rich and poor, strong and weak, ruler and ruled. At the same time, the south is changing - whatever survived of Arab Jaffa and Jaffa's former Jewish neighbourhoods (Florentin, Neveh Shanan, Shapira). Gentrification, dispossession, an influx of migrant workers and refugees, residential developments and planning atrocities: "South Tel Aviv" is hot, as far as property developers are concerned. Yet the scar remains; it is evident in the roundabout ways which one has to follow in order to travel from Tel Aviv to Jaffa.

Tel Avivis would not typically think of their city as scarred by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If anything, Tel Aviv imagines itself as an anathema to the conflict; a place beyond cycle of violence and bigotry. A secular metropolis, on the shores of the Mediterreinia, looking westwards, to Europe, to New York. Often Tel Avivis are accused of being out of touch from the rest of Israel, far from suicide bombers or rocket attacks, they live in on their island of normality, between the long beach and cool bars, money and art. And Tel Aviv, celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, is "the first Hebrew city", the city which was born from sand, a creation of urban modernity out of nothing. This is of course a myth, as right-wing settlers often like to remind Tel Aviv leftists, Tel Aviv university was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village Shaykh Muwanis, a Palestinian village whose population was made to leave in 1948. But Shaykh Muwanis, like other Arab villages in this area (Jamasin and Sumayl) were devoured whole by Tel Aviv; barely any traces can be seen of them today. Their obliteration enabled Tel Avivis to pretend that here there was no dispossession and destruction, only pioneer spirit, hard work and creative construction.

But Jaffa is another story altogther. For Jaffa is still there, however destroyed, however changed. For the Palestinians who live there, and for those who do not but still think of it as their hometown, Jaffa is still an open wound, an open question.

Tel Aviv is Jaffa's daughter, sister, and killer; Tel Aviv was born not, as the Hebrew song has it, "from the foam of waves' and clouds", but as a suburb of the country's biggest port town, Palestine's most cosmopolitan centre, its commercial and cultural capital. Soon the young suburb became a rival town, and then a rival port, until in 1948 the tension was decided through war and violence. And Jaffa lost, and its defeat was of biblical dimensions, as almost its entire population went into exile.

But I don't want to write about Jaffa or of Tel Aviv; I want to write about the dividing area between the two, about the scar that keeps them apart, long after that victory and that defeat. For the past five years I been have researching the history of this land before 1948, and I have been drawn especially to the areas of in-between, the borderline neighbourhoods, the uneasy sharing of urban space, and to the people in-between, those whose identification with one of the sides to the emerging conflict was fraught with difficulty and torment. I spent years looking at maps, reading the newspapers, and taking down notes from a long list of memoirs and diaries. It is no surprise, then, that I can see the destroyed neighbourhoods and houses; I hear the ghosts, I travel with them through streets which are no longer there, I know their stories by heart. And so I see the scar as if it was an open wound. I see the absence, I feel it deeply and most of all in those urban scars.

When you know Jaffa's former grandeur, it is impossible to miss the scar; it cries out. The void shouts out; the attempts to fill it seem inadequate and artificial. I show it to fellow Jewish Israelis. Look: the conflict is here, in front of you. Here is the story of dispossession, here is our ongoing trauma. Not only in Gaza, in Jerusalem, in the refugee camps, but here, in Tel Aviv's "Banana Beach": sixty years have passed and we have managed to destroy Jaffa's Manshiya neighbourhood, but not to build anything in its stead. Sixty years have passed and still have this strange gap within our city.

But what for me seems evident, is invisible for others. Where I see trauma, others see nothing; just an empty parking lot, just another urban wasteland. “What is there to see exactly? A rundown area? Isn't it the nature of cities? Some areas are good, some are bad, city planning can go wrong, and anyway, just wait a couple of more years, you'll see this area completely changed. You know, south Tel Aviv is becoming very fashionable these days.”

One of the problems in this conflict - perhaps also in others - is that people feel that the truth about it is evident. You just have to open you eyes. Just look and you will see for yourself. And so the partisans repeat what for them is obvious, and for others are clear inventions. The debate never gets anywhere. What is lost on the participants is their own point of view, the place they stand and from which they see. Others do not stand there; they have not heard the stories, read the histories. Therefore they can’t see. Nothing is ever evident: seeing is always mediated.

Trauma exists in the urban landscape only in the eyes of those who see it. And many do not see it; perhaps do not wish to see it. The problem for Jewish Israelis is that once you start seeing the scars, you’ll see them everywhere. It becomes a real obsession. Every forest is hiding a destroyed village, every history book an exercise in denial. So naturally most Israelis prefer not to see.

And still, in what way is the scar there? My answer is that if a historical trauma can provide a way to read ongoing urban divisions, then it is a good explanation, better then the uneven arbitrariness of urban development. The persistence of the former Jaffa-Tel Aviv border line as a line of division within the supposedly one city is difficult to deny. The challenge, therefore, is to see logic where others see a combination of unrelated developments. The challenge, furthermore, is to make visible the pain. Where one does not see the pain, out of ignorance or preference, it will be impossible to see the scar. Once you see the pain, you will see the scar.

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