Ajami Oscar nod brings pride and bitterness to neighborhood

Hometown pride is laced with disappointment at the largely grim portrayal of the area.

ajami neighborhood 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
ajami neighborhood 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Residents of the melting pot that is Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood seem to have mixed feelings regarding the nomination of Ajami for the best foreign-language film Oscar, with hometown pride laced with disappointment at the largely grim portrayal of the area.
Ajami was selected Tuesday as one of the five nominees for the Oscar, to be awarded on March 7 in Los Angeles – the third successive year that Israel is vying for this award, and its ninth nomination overall. No Israeli film has actually won.
Kamal Agbaria, who volunteers as the chairman of the Ajami neighborhood committee, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that while he respected Ajami as a film, it didn’t reflect the full fabric of the neighborhood or any of its positive aspects.
“It’s a movie. They want sex, blood, violence, stuff that’s good for films but not good for the neighborhood,” Agbaria said.
“Jaffa has a very bad image of crime and drugs that is just not the reality. It’s not nearly as bad as Lod or Taiba, but because we are right here in Tel Aviv, when something happens, it’s magnified.”
Agbaria, 33, was born and raised in Ajami and rejects its celluloid portrayal as a do-or-die inner-city ghetto where kids hustle drugs to put food on the table and the mafia demands protection money from every business.
Agbaria sees Ajami as a close-knit neighborhood that residents are proud to call home, even as many struggle with poverty, high levels of crime and a school system where less than 50 percent of students finish high school.
He said the main problem was the rising cost of housing.
Agbaria said the influx of Jews into the neighborhood of 8,000 had raised prices, causing a shortage of affordable housing  – a glaring problem in Jaffa, where more than 50% of the population is under 18.
According to Agbaria, many young people, who a generation ago would have gotten married and found an apartment near their parents, have to live at home or move to Arab villages and towns far from the central region.
He did express some pride “that young people from the neighborhood, who had never acted before, are now famous throughout Israel and soon will be across the world. They deserve the credit.”
Indeed, Agbaria hopes the movie brings the Oscar home to Jaffa.
Walking through the neighborhood, panoramic sea views span the horizon – that is, where they aren’t blocked by construction cranes, which seem to outnumber minarets in this mainly Arab neighborhood. The area is one of contrasts, with old, crumbling houses meters away from construction sites where hi-rise luxury condos are going up faster than residents can count.
Weaving through the back streets and the alleys, where Ajami’s scenes of violence, gunplay and drug-dealing were shot, wide expanses of well-manicured city parks sit across from parking lots full of luxury SUVs. At the end of one narrow street, the mansion that houses the French ambassador commands a sweeping view of Jaffa and the Mediterranean.
One (for now) vacant lot, the shooting location for a murder scene between Arab and Jewish neighbors in Ajami (believed to be inspired by the stabbing death of Gil Mitchell in Jaffa in 1999), sits directly across the street from the recently finished exterior walls of a luxury apartment building, where workers mixed concrete in a driving rain.
Muhammad Aqile, an activist in the Islamic Movement and a member of the family that owns the Abu Hassan chain of restaurants, said that while he lamented that the movie “only focused on the negative aspects of Jaffa,” the crime and violence it portrays “is part of the reality here.”
Aqile said that nearly everyone in Jaffa has seen the movie and that he has at least five friends who decided after seeing Ajami that they want to study filmmaking.
He also said that while he was disappointed by the negative portrayal of his neighborhood, the film has still been a source of great pride for many residents of Ajami and elsewhere in Jaffa. On the bright side, the grim portrayal of Ajami could slow the gentrification of the neighborhood, especially by religious-Zionist Jews who have been buying property there to increase its Jewish character, Aqile said.
“Maybe some of them will see the movie and think it’s too dangerous to move here; that could be a good thing,” he said.
The mood was more heated at William’s Hair Salon on Rehov Yefet, the main drag running through Ajami. Saado Zareb, 31, said “the movie shows only crime,” and that its portrayal of the streets of Ajami “has set the Arabs of Jaffa back 40 years.
“When I go to a get a job, I have to try 1,000 times harder than a Jew. Now I’ll have to try a million times harder. The entire message of this movie is: Arabs are criminals and Jaffa is just crime. This is how Israelis want to see us,” Zareb said.
Zareb said the Jaffa of today was different than when he grew up, when drug dealers plied their wares throughout the trash-strewn streets of Ajami, an improvement he said was not shown in Ajami’s hardscrabble portrayal.
When asked if he thinks the movie brings pride to Ajami, Zareb said, “I have a neighbor who is a doctor, one who is an engineer, one a lawyer. This brings respect to Ajami, this brings us honor. They say this movie put us on the map. What map? The map of crime?”
Zareb also took issue with the film’s portrayal of violent tension between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa, saying that he had never heard of a murder in Jaffa over religious identity.
Just then, as if to prove his point, a heavy-set Jew named Johnny walked in and said he’d lived in Jaffa for 45 years and never once been the victim of violence from Arabs or felt tension based on religion. When people in Jaffa pull out knives or turn to fisticuffs, it’s based on crime, not religion, Johnny said, adding that the movie exaggerated the problems that plague Jaffa.
“It is a really great movie, though,” Johnny said, to which Zareb agreed.
A drama about crime in Jaffa, Ajami was directed by Scandar Copti, an Israeli-Arab Christian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. Its young directors, both first-time filmmakers, spent seven years making the film, which features a cast of almost all non-professionals, mainly from Jaffa.
Its complex narrative involves the conflicts and alliances among Israeli Arabs and Jews, Arab Christians and Muslims, as well as West Bank Palestinians and Beduin.
The other Oscar nominees in its category are El Secreto do Sus Ojos (Argentina), Un Prophete (France), The White Ribbon (Germany) and The Milk of Sorrow (Peru). Sixty-five countries submitted films for consideration for a nomination. Each country can submit a single film.
Israel’s two most recent nominees were both about the first Lebanon War: Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, and Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort.
Hannah Brown contributed to this report.