Bitter fruit

Adam Lebor's 'City of Oranges' examines Jaffa's history and reimagines the city as it was in the 1920s.

jaffa book 88 298 (photo credit: )
jaffa book 88 298
(photo credit: )
City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa By Adam Lebor Bloomsbury 384pp., GBP18.99 For as long as there have been Arabs and Jews in the land of Israel, there have been writers trying to distill their complicated relationship into a comprehensible story. City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa is Adam Lebor's effort to join the literary fray, and to provide his own answer to a simple question: Why can't they just get along? Lebor is the central Europe correspondent for The Times of London and has written several books, including A Heart Turned East: Among the Muslims of Europe and America. Lebor draws his Middle East bona-fides from his studies of Arabic at Leeds University and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But while he may be better accustomed to covering wars in the Balkans than IDF raids in Gaza, his writing belies an intimate relationship with the city of Jaffa, one that supports his view of Jaffa as one of the unrecognized focal points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lebor traces the history of Israel from the 1920s through the second intifada, using Jaffa and its inhabitants as a lens through which to view the conflict. City of Oranges chooses not to retell events via facts and statistics alone, though the book is extensively researched and each major episode is chronicled in vigorous detail. Instead, Lebor embellishes the storyline by using an array of oral histories from Jewish and Arab families with deep roots in Jaffa. Through the stories of these families - the Abulafias, the Abou-Shehades, the Aharonis, the Adrauses, the Chelouches and the Hammamis - Lebor establishes the foundation for City of Oranges, in which he seeks to debunk national myths and prevailing misconceptions about the history of Israel and the two nations fighting over it. While Lebor describes the differences between the two groups, he also argues for an underlying commonality based on two separate yet powerful national traumas: the Holocaust for the Jews and al-Naqba - the creation of the state of Israel - for the Arabs living in Palestine. The vast majority of Jews and Israelis would reject that equation, and Lebor doesn't claim a moral equivalency between the two events. Instead, he argues that each framed the national identities of Israelis and Palestinians for generations afterward. Israel is in large part defined by its Holocaust survivors, their children, and their children's children. The Palestinians, on the other hand, carefully preserve memories of houses and orange groves that in one way or another were lost to them during the War of Independence. CITY OF ORANGES does not have a singular purpose. It interweaves personal narratives with national history to make arguments about the past and put forward a vision for the future. It's a powerful storytelling technique, reminding readers that a family's history is often punctuated not just by wars, but also by marriages, births and deaths. Lebor's primary triumph is to recreate the city of Jaffa as it was around 1920, when it was a bustling cosmopolitan port home to a myriad of peoples and ideas. Back then it was called "the Bride of Palestine." These days it's more likely to be described as Tel Aviv's homely stepsister. By painting a vivid image of the city through the stories of the people who loved it most, Lebor establishes a sense of what was lost in 1948 and in the ensuing conflict. Lebor uses Jaffa to show how, just as 1948 represented a time of birth and celebration, it was also the end of a golden era for thousands of people. Lebor's other success in City of Oranges is to dispel the idea that Jews or Arabs are monolithic groups. His cast of characters includes Yoram Aharoni, an Eastern European refugee who fought for the Lehi resistance group and later started the Tiv spice shop, a Jaffa fixture for years. It also includes Julia Chelouche, matriarch of the Chelouches, a Sephardi family that settled in Jaffa in the 19th century. There's Khamis Abulafia, a baker, and Fakhri Geday, who became a pharmacist in exile but returned to Israel and tried unsuccessfully to bring modern business practices to the Palestinian Authority after Oslo. Each person has a unique perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but all are tied together by a deep connection to the city. Throughout Oranges, Lebor demonstrates a clear leftist stance, drawing from so-called New Historians Tom Segev and Benny Morris extensively, as well as from Palestinian political scientist Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. He shows an affinity for Israel's peace movements and does little to hide his distaste for the security barrier and other restrictions on Palestinian freedom. Still, while Lebor's politics may be evident throughout City of Oranges, his facts are fair. He isn't afraid to call either side on its misdeeds. At times, the language he uses to describe those acts can be unsettling; terms like "ethnic cleansing" with regard to Israel are unduly extreme. But Lebor preempts accusations of Israel-bashing by firmly denouncing Islamic fanaticism and cases of Arab violence. The book culminates in Lebor's argument for a post-Zionist vision. Israel, Lebor believes, must become a state for all its people, and allow Israelis and Palestinians to live together peacefully as equal citizens. Unfortunately, Lebor seems to forget that Arab-Jewish violence predates the state, and that those Palestinians currently in power would prefer it if Jews had not set foot in Israel at all. But while Lebor's driving arguments may be questionable, City of Oranges nevertheless represents a valuable addition to the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By recalling a time when Arabs and Jews lived together in peace, Lebor unveils some hope that such a situation may arise again.