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When other men in his Jaffa neighborhood are heading off to work, Yosi Lugasi is breaking the mold of the traditional Middle Eastern male stereotype. And if you see Lugasi fishing for red mullets at the sea in Jaffa with his Arab friends, you might not imagine that he is a self-made artist.
While his wife Yaffa is working to bring home the bread, Lugasi is at home piecing together what he thinks is the largest mosaic collection of portraits in the world. He has turned almost every corner of his apartment into a spectacle that would make any Israeli beam with pride. The rooms and balcony are crammed with colorful mosaics of the country's historical heroes and heroines.
But the creations were not initially fueled by love. Had his fate been different earlier in life, Lugasi, 57, may not have been the artist he is today - one who is drawing crowds of Israeli tour guides and whose home was voted the best destination for 2006 by the Israeli cartographical website mapa.co.il.
Lugasi dropped out of school in third grade. When it came to enlist in the army, he was rejected because he couldn't read or write. At a time when social hierarchy and jobs were determined by military service, he was devastated that many doors would never be opened.
"I didn't feel good, like I wasn't a part of the life in Israel," he says.
It was the early 1970s and his journey into adulthood was fraught with bouts of depression and anger, much of it directed toward the politicians who built a national policy that prevented him from having a normal life, he believed.
In 1975 he met Yaffa (also born in Casablanca), who saw the potential in his smattering of drawings and mosaics around the apartment they still live in today. Lugasi had made drawings of ships and the sea to give him and his fishing buddies a cheerful backdrop for their regular fish fries. But after one winter rain, the paintings disintegrated. "I found mosaics when I was looking for something that wouldn't wash away," he says.
Yaffa recognized in Lugasi a talent for art. She also saw his frustration and difficulty getting a job and suggested he direct his pain into his art. She told him to make mosaics of the people he believed prevented him ultimately from entering the army.
"Rothschild was my first," says Lugasi of the wealthy philanthropist. The second was Montefiore, and the next was Rabbi Alkalai. "It was excellent therapy," he admits.
The couple, who married and have three children, decided that Lugasi would be a stay-at-home dad and work on his mosaics. Yaffa works as a secretary for the Israel Electric Corp.
Lugasi has 390 mosaics in his home. The couple regularly invites local school groups to come and learn about Israeli history from the walls.
From the living room sofa, the central view is of Israeli politicians who have built the country. On the right is a wall of artists and singers, such as Shlomo Artzi and Sarit Hadad. On the balcony is a large Peace Wall that includes portraits of Bill Clinton, Egyptian presidents Sadat and Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein, and King David and his wives. Other mosaics include astronaut Ilan Ramon and the Russian olim from the 1930s who built the Jaffa Gymnasium.
The most unusual mosaic, says Yaffa, is Tabachit (the cook) on the kitchen floor.
Lugasi collects tile shards for the mosaics at sea during fishing trips near the Old Port or from kibbutz tile factories.
Lugasi well remembers the incident that first sparked his love for art and mosaics. While visiting family at an absorption center near Beit She'an at age 13, he was surprised to find the tents and camp swept away to reveal an archaeological dig.
"I was shocked. Nothing was there. Instead, there was a Roman amphitheater. I went down and checked out all the antiques at the site; when I returned to Jaffa, I started to collect stones, sculpt and paint."
After arriving in Israel in 1954 from Casablanca and spending several years in Israel's north, Lugasi's parents only felt close to home in Jaffa.
"They felt Jaffa was like Morocco, something between the East and the West. They loved the shuk and the songs sung in Arabic. They felt like they had returned to their childhood."
In a way, he has also returned to himself after the early years of desperation and disappointment. He expresses a deep love for the multicultural offerings of Jaffa, a city shared by Jews, Muslims and Christians. "Seventy percent of my friends are Arabs. In my building there are Muslims and Jews, and we get along excellently. This is how the Middle East should be."
While he has increased the height of the walls to extend space for the mosaics, his work and life in Jaffa are extending into his community, where he encourages neighbors to build peaceful coexistence. Through his art, Lugasi is doing more than piecing together parts of his inner world.
"Now I am working on [President Moshe] Katsav," he says. "And if you look over there, you will see a space that is empty. I left it for Arafat, for one day if he was to make peace."
Despite Arafat's demise, the space remains. "If someone signs for peace, the place will be theirs," Lugasi offers. "I did Sadat, King Hussein and Mubarak. They wanted peace, so I made mosaics of them. I hope to work on this wall in the future."
Yosi Lugasi's mosaics can be seen at 26 Rehov Yehuda Yamit, Jaffa. Call in advance: 0544-700397. Entrance is free.
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