Changes in the air for Ajami

A mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Jaffa balances itself between rundown remnants of old-world charm and upscale gentrification.

ajami feat 88  298 (photo credit: )
ajami feat 88 298
(photo credit: )
Contradictions seem to be the way of life in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood. Escaped donkeys galloping down small streets in the middle of the night are juxtaposed with Range Rovers tucked safely inside remotely controlled underground parking lots. Multimillion-dollar mansions and foreign ambassadors' compounds cast shadows on smaller, somewhat crumbling but impressively sized Arabian-style villas. Within the same hour, one can hear Muslim calls to prayer simultaneously from five directions, while church bells ring on nearby Rehov Yefet, and Jews shuffle off to Shacharit morning services. Ajami, Arabic for "strangers," was the first Jaffa neighborhood built outside the Old City walls. Today the area is seeing the effects of gentrification, but for the most part it is still rundown and neglected. Some of the old Arab homes have been torn down, but a glimpse into its former beauty can be seen in Ajami's old mansions inhabited by Jewish and Arab residents. The Ajami strip is bordered by Rehov Yefet to the east and the Mediterranean coast to the west, between Jaffa Port and Bat Yam. The neighborhood's unobstructed seaside sunsets, fresh air, exotic buildings, low-cost rent and unpredictability make Ajami an atypical alternative to living in Tel Aviv. Its lack of basic infrastructure, such as street signs, and high crime and vandalism rates are moot points for the mixed Jewish-Arab residents, and keep the less adventurous away. Local historian Louis Williams, a translator, author and former IDF spokesperson, has lived in Ajami for 12 years. In his rented home meters from the Jabaliya bridge, Williams spoke with Metro on Israeli Arab stereotypes, Jaffa's history and one of his community's latest environmental battles. "There is violence and crime here… since I have lived here there has been no violence between Arabs and Jews, though," says Williams, a volunteer member of the District Committee for Ajami, one of 68 local citizens groups appointed by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to help put communities' deciding power in the people's hands. But collectively, Ajami's Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens are not always sure that their best interests are being considered. Visitors to the seaside in Jaffa cannot miss the gargantuan mountains of rubble accumulating by the shore, part of the building process of a large public park on Ajami's 200-dunam (50 acre) beach, similar to north Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park. Ajami residents are thrilled that what was an eyesore will eventually become Jaffa's own version of Central Park, connected to Tel Aviv's beachside promenade. The site for the park - variously known as Ajami slope, Ajami beach or garbage mountain - was a legal and illegal dumping ground for organic and industrial waste from the Tel Aviv-Dan area from the 1950s to the 1980s. Prior to that time, say residents, the beach "was magnificent" and washed up onto the stoops of Ajami homes. Nowadays, the Ajami slope is visited by dog walkers, fishermen, bauble collectors and people looking to get away from Tel Aviv crowds. The landfill is also a pasture for small herds of neighborhood goats and a magnet for swarthy characters. According to Williams, a couple of bodies have been uncovered since the excavation began last January. Besides the park, other changes are taking place in Ajami. Police who were once afraid to enter the snaking, narrow streets now have orders to be omnipresent, especially on Ajami's main street, Rehov Kedem. The Peres Center for Peace is constructing a new branch at the southern end of the beach to foster cultural coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Jaffa, once called the Bride of the Sea, used to be the cultural center for the bulk of the Middle East. In the 1930s, most of the Middle East's Arab-language books were printed by some 70 Jaffa printing presses; there were 17 cinemas, many of them open-air, screening Egyptian and foreign films. It was a magnet that drew traders from the Arab world, and most of the region's import-export traffic passed through Jaffa port. Prior to 1948, the houses on Jaffa's main thoroughfare, Rehov Yefet, were owned by rich merchants and mainly Muslim Arabs, although some Jews and Christians owned property and lived there. In 1948, the demographics changed when the battle for the Manshia quarter (the area of the border between Jaffa and Tel Aviv where the David Intercontinental hotel stands today) caused the wealthy Arabs to leave. "Most of the well-heeled Arab population that could afford to run, did," recounts Williams, leaving only about 3,000 people in Jaffa. At the time, displaced Arabs from some 30 surrounding villages moved into the empty mansions in Jaffa. "At that moment, Jaffa changed from being a cultured urban society into a much more rural one, which is the reason why you can find donkeys, chickens and horses running around here today." From 1948 into the 1950s, Jaffa was under military rule. "Then the city [of Tel Aviv] had the bright idea to make a landfill west of Ajami into the sea. They dumped 1.2 million tons of the city's garbage there. They even wanted to develop villa communities on the site, [but] the engineers told them you can't build on that - there will be huge air holes caused by the organic waste," Williams explains. The dumping was stopped in the 1980s by a local Arab organization in Jaffa because people were getting ill. From that point onward, it lay idle until the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality under Mayor Ron Huldai slated the area to become a park. About 25 Arab and Jewish families living on the border of the proposed park are concerned about dust and noise from the trucks. Members of the District Committee for Ajami sat with city officials and the park's contractor, Olnick Haulage, Earthwork and Roads, to choose a landfill removal method that would minimize the effects on residents' lives. A decision was made that 500,000 tons of landfill would need to be removed from the site, in some 120,000 truckloads over the course of 18 months. The Jaffa residents favored the option that would produce the least amount of noise and dust, involving equipment to sort the industrial material by metals, concrete and earth, and grind the rest. That way, only 30,000 truckloads would be needed to remove the fill. The local residents received promises that the new park, to be built on potentially prime real estate between Jaffa port and the old Muslim and Christian cemeteries, would never be used for constructing homes or other structures; and police presence at all times would ensure that derelicts and junkies stayed away. The project commenced last January. All summer, Ajami residents complained of suffocating dust and disturbing noise from the park construction site. The contractor, who originally agreed to keep the dust down by watering the work area and to work only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., has purportedly not been keeping his part of the agreement. Ajami residents are taking legal action with the help of Hen Tirosh, a lawyer with Tel Aviv University's legal clinic that offers free legal advice under the auspices of the Price Brodie Initiative in Jaffa. Tirosh told Metro that dust measurements taken by the Ministry of Environmental Protection recorded allowable amounts of particulate matter in the air. After meeting with the residents in Ajami and seeing their obvious suffering, Tirosh is now drafting an official letter that will threaten the contractor to clean up his act, although she thinks the underlying problem is the municipality's, which does not send enough supervision to the site. "We are working according to the book," said a spokeswoman from the Olnick Haulage office. To elaborate on this statement, Doron Olnick, a co-owner of the company, spoke to Metro earlier this week. "All the equipment is new and accords to new EU law requirements on noise emissions, as required by the law in Israel. There is no noise. We work from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day, and on Fridays we work until 1 p.m. The site is far from buildings, although there are a few houses close to the site," said Olnick. Regarding the dust problem, Olnick said, "There is a water truck at the site all day long, and we water the site every day. The Environment Ministry checks the air all the time, and the municipality comes to visit on a regular basis. If the people don't like the site, then they will stay with all the trash and dirt there. There is also a problem with existing building sites there - there was dust before we came. The Arab people wanted us to buy them air conditioners. We told them we are doing things according to the law." As for the rumors of bodies being uncovered in the rubble, Olnick believes they are just rubble. "There are a lot of bones there, that I can tell you. People throw them from the meat market. If we find bodies, we'll call the police." Lillian (not her real name) is a grandmother to one of the 25 families that live immediately on the border of the beach renovation zone. On a sunny day, her living room windows are shut. "In the beginning, it was especially hard. I couldn't open the windows because our food would be filled with sand," she says. During the worst times in the summer, Lillian had to sweep the outside patio five times a day and keep the air conditioning running, producing electricity bills of about NIS 2,000. Now that the winter has come, the dust has settled a little and the construction bothers her less. But not everyone in Ajami is prepared to wait and see what will happen with the dust when the rains stop in the spring, and not everyone has air conditioners to drown out the dust and noise. With no interest in financial compensation, the Ajami neighbors - especially those living close to the sea - simply want the contractor to uphold his original agreement. "The residents of Ajami contacted us in August," recounts Tirosh, who works mainly in Jaffa on environmental issues. "We at TAU didn't initiate legal action because the committee tried to solve the problems by themselves. We helped them draft a letter warning about what will happen if the contractor doesn't take the required steps. They have been trying to get him to change things since May." Kamal Agbariya, head of the District Committee for Ajami, says that the park is a good idea but that the municipality is putting too many resources into making Ajami (and Jaffa) attractive, rather than focusing on the roots of the city's social and education problems. If the contractor doesn't change his ways, says Agbariya, the next step will be a court injunction to stop the work. The residents will demand that the contractor listen to each of the 25 families about their personal suffering since the project commenced. Williams, Tirosh and others suspect that the contractor is under pressure from the city to have the park ready for Tel Aviv's centenary celebration in 2009. According to Gilad Peled, manager of Mishlama, a special unit that functions as an executive arm of the municipality, the park will become a clean shore with a playing ground, a small amphitheater and promenade that has lanes for pedestrians and bikes. It will connect to the Tel Aviv promenade from Reading in the north to Bat Yam in the south. The Jaffa slope, says Peled, "became during the 1970s and 1980s a garbage mountain that damaged the coastline." The cost of the project is estimated at NIS 50 million and should be completed by 2008. "It will restore the sea and shore to the city's citizens," he adds. A cradle of coexistence? Judging by recent media reports, coexistence in Jaffa is deteriorating. On November 12, the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot warned that anti-Jewish acts of violence are on the rise in Jaffa as a means for Arabs to expel the city's Jewish residents. A Jewish radio interviewee claimed that stones thrown by local Arabs have shattered window panes in every synagogue in Jaffa. "On the contrary," retorts Hen Tirosh, a lawyer with Tel Aviv University's legal clinic. "The prevailing atmosphere is harmful to Arabs. One of my clients is a mother of three who was beaten by a police officer and placed under house arrest." Another local Arab woman, Yosra, 60, had an unpleasant run-in with the recently posted Border Police company in Jaffa last month. Arriving home from a wedding in the early hours of the morning, she was stopped by a young border policeman who demanded to see her ID card. "Is it normal for Israelis to get stopped by border police asking for an ID?" asked Yosra in a telephone interview. "I only took a small purse to the wedding and couldn't fit everything inside it, so I left my ID card behind." In hijab, the Muslim practice of wearing modest, loose-fitting clothes with only her face exposed, Yosra gave the policeman her ID number and told him that she didn't have the card, although her two daughters had theirs. The policeman ordered her to get out of the car. "They took us by force and didn't understand us," she says, noting that the young border guard didn't seem to have any familiarity with the mixed community of Jaffa. Holding no apparent grudge but not wanting to publicize her last name, she added, The police are good, but in some ways they are not okay. It wasn't a nice experience for us." Williams, who is Jewish, comments, "The border police haven't understood yet that Jaffa is not Gaza or Nablus. These are citizens of Israel." He believes that the perceived rise in anti-Semitism has been fabricated to advance the political career of National Union-NRP MK Zvi Hendel, whose ulterior motive, in Williams's opinion, is to get the Arabs out of Jaffa to win voter support of the right. Williams says Hendel was in Jaffa on November 9. The following Sunday on November 12, Yediot Aharonot reported that when MKs Hendel, Aryeh Eldad, Uri Ariel and Eli Gabbai toured Jaffa, they witnessed several confrontations between Arab and Jewish residents. The MKs talked to several residents and visited two synagogues. One resident, Shimshon Oknin said, "Jews are afraid to walk here. Every Saturday, stones and firecrackers are thrown at us." The MKs claim that the violence in Jaffa is spurred by national or racial motives. But the residents they met with were mainly religious Jews claiming to have experienced violence by their Arab neighbors. "Hendel came parading through Jaffa with the other MKs just to stir things up and cause problems," says Williams. "Hendel is talking about getting the Arabs out of Jaffa because he thinks it should be Jewish; but if we can't live in peace with Israeli Arabs, then how can we expect to live with Arabs from the outside world?" In all the years Williams has lived in Jaffa, he has neither seen nor experienced religious or racial tension between Jews and Arabs. "We had a break-in once when we were abroad - the thieves poured food and drink all over the floor." The Jaffa Police suspected Williams's Arab neighbors, telling him, "It is 'them.' They want you out of here." A few days later the Ramat Gan police notified Williams and his wife Susan, that a north Tel Aviv Jewish youth was found to be the culprit. Williams thinks that one of the reasons that negative Arab stereotypes persist in Jaffa is that Jews come to Jaffa "with a lack of understanding of what it is to move into a different multiculture." As an example, the first Jews who moved into the semi-affluent Andromeda complex complained that they couldn't stand the church bells ringing. And an agent for the complex relayed to Williams and his wife, who were looking at an apartment for sale, a "Tel Aviv municipality" promise that "no Arabs will cross a certain line in the neighborhood." Williams, 74, has lived through much of Israel's history, having come to the country three years after its inception. "Today we live with stereotypes built by politicians of how evil Islam is. Muslims are among the most polite people in the world. Here, in our house, we have a 'terrible' problem with Ramadan. The doorbell never stops ringing from our Muslim neighbors coming to bring us food!" Today, believes Williams, most of the Jews who have moved to Ajami and stayed know what they've come to. "I think all of us, Jews and Arabs, live in good relations with our neighbors. There are problems if you look for problems." Ilan Eliyahu, 32, left Ajami two years ago after living there for five years, for several reasons, none racially motivated. "The roof caved in and I was a bit afraid of walking through a gun battle in the middle of the night," he says. Eliyahu, who now lives near the Azrielli Center with his new family, says that what he misses most about Ajami is "the atmosphere of Jews and Arabs being together, the air brought by the sea smelling like jasmine as it comes through my neighbors' backyard, and my friend Omar." Another Omar, Omar Siksik who is a former chair of the Association for Arabs in Jaffa, was one of the residents who went to court to stop the illegal dumping of garbage onto the Ajami shore in the 1980s. A third-generation Jaffa resident, Siksik adheres to the notion that "what is good for the community is good for me. We want this beautiful project in Jaffa, but we don't want the dust, waste dumping and noise." And as for the rumors of hate flying between people amid the dust, "I don't think so. Here in Jaffa we are not coexisting, we are existing."