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The pulse of drums pounded through Levinsky Park Saturday evening, kicking off the opening of the Garden Library for Migrant Communities in Tel Aviv. The project was initiated by Arteam, an Israeli nonprofit organization, in an attempt to address the intellectual and cultural needs of the many foreign workers and African refugees who now call Israel their home.
Designed by architect Yoav Meiri, a member of Arteam, the open-air library consists of two wood and metal bookcases - one lined with children's books, the other filled with books for adults. Reading materials are available in a variety of languages, including Tagalog, Bengali, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic, Thai, Mandarin Chinese, Romanian, English and Amharic. Only children's books come in Hebrew.
The Garden Library in Levinsky Park is staffed by volunteers, and is open on Saturdays and Sundays from three in the afternoon to seven in the evening. Visitors receive a membership card after they make a 30-shekel refundable deposit.
Situating the Garden Library in the Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood, which is heavily populated by foreign workers and African refugees, reflects Meiri's vision of creating an accessible structure. The design itself is also intended to be open and welcoming, Meiri said.
"The intent was to redefine the institution [of the library] as something that is functional," he added. "It's an open space defined by the action in it and the people in it. When it's closed, it's part of the park."
As Oz Unit patrols of the area ratchet up the pressure on Israel's foreign community, and threats of deportation loom large, erecting a permanent structure for these same people seems to be a loaded gesture.
Meiri, however, insisted that the Garden Library "is not there to make a political stand but to make a statement that this population is here and has needs." Access to knowledge and culture, Meiri said, is a human right, regardless of one's citizenship.
"Everyone has the right to read a book," Dr. Mike Naftali, chairperson of Topz, another Israeli NGO involved in the project, said, pointing out that the intellectual needs of the foreign community have long been ignored. "Sadly, Israel stigmatizes them as peasants, but many are highly educated."
The Garden Library, Naftali said, was established in hopes of making the foreign workers and African refugees feel at home.
THIS SPIRIT of cooperation was mirrored in the ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked The Garden Library's formal introduction to the city. Members of the South Sudanese Dinka tribe, their skin decorated with white paint, were the first to enter the library. They jumped up and down - in a traditional gesture of celebration - as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai accepted a pair of scissors offered to him by a Filipina girl. As Mayor Huldai prepared to cut the blue ribbon that cordoned off the library, he said to the child, "We will cut the ribbon together," in Hebrew.
With a snip of the scissors, the library was opened and the crowd erupted in cheers. Mayor Huldai commented to Metro, "As the nation of the book, I see [the Garden Library] as something very symbolic."
This was just one of many steps that the municipality has taken to assist the foreign workers and African refugees, Mayor Huldai pointed out. "A human being is a human being," he said. "We can't continue closing our eyes to the fact that we have a community hereâ€¦ and we have created a net of services to help them."
The Garden Library was made possible, in part, by the city - the initiative was funded by the Tel Aviv Centennial Committee, as well as the Israel National Lottery and two anonymous donors. Additionally, the Mesila Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community, which obtains some of its financial backing from the municipality of Tel Aviv, was instrumental in organizing the project.
But Saturday night's festivities were about more than the library - the event was also a warm welcome to the many cultures of the foreign community. The celebration lasted for hours as performers from around the world and Israel shared music and dances from their home with the audience.
After the opening, the Dinka tribe made their way to the stage. There they continued their celebratory dance in honor of the new library, as an Israeli master of ceremonies, Hadas Ophrat, offered the crowd some information about their history and culture.
Next, half a dozen men from the Gujarat state in India performed a traditional dance. Each man held sticks in his hand, tapping out the beat as they moved in concentric circles.
Filipinas treated the audience to the national dance of the Philippines, the Tinikling. A pair of women thumped long bamboo poles on the ground as two women hopped and flitted between and along the sticks. The dance invokes the bamboo traps set by Filipino farmers who hope to catch the Tikling bird; the women's light, darting movements recall the bird's escape.
Two individual performers took to a small side stage, one-by-one, to share dances from their home countries. Cloaked in white, Aviv, who hails from Ethiopia, moved to the pulse of Amharic music. A Nepali woman, draped in a deep red sari studded with silver and gold sequins, undulated to the strains of Oriental music.
The Ambassadors, an ensemble comprised of musicians from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, France, Israel and Brazil, entertained the crowd with contemporary gospel music. A guest singer from Ghana joined them for several songs; the group can often be found performing in area churches on Saturdays.
System Ali, an eleven-member group composed of Arabs, Jews and an Uzbekistani immigrant, was another local act. Founded in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood, System Ali's songs are threaded with Arabic and Hebrew and dotted with Russian and English; their energetic music includes a violin, electric guitars, drums and, occasionally, an accordion. Their Saturday night set was incredibly energetic. At the behest of rapper Mhamad Aguani, the audience rose and jumped in time to the beat.
The Garden Library met with an equally enthusiastic response.
Michelle Fria, a Filipina metapelet (nanny), who also moonlights as a journalist for the local publication Pinoy Na Babasahin (Something to Read for Filipinos), felt that the Garden Library would boost the morale of the foreign community.
Israeli volunteer Sagi Gorali was excited to lend a helping hand to the project. As he manned the library's check-out table, which was back-dropped by Israeli flags, he remarked that the Garden Library is more than a place to share books; it's also a space to share heritage.
"This is the junction of totally different cultures," Gorali told Metro. "I'm hoping to get to know some of these people. I'm curious about their stories."