Mahaneh Yehuda, mon amour

The level of mismanagement of the shuk has reached such a point that many people involved are becoming increasingly concerned about its capacity to continue to function as a bona fide market.

Mahaneh Yehuda (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mahaneh Yehuda
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Four years ago, the Jerusalem Municipality hired experts at a Haifa-based firm to assess the sustainability of the shuk in the face of economic and business changes in the city center. The results of the evaluation were crystal clear: Mahaneh Yehuda, which over the last few years has become a must-see on any tourist circuit, with tours booked from around the world, was reaching the point of economic and managerial collapse.
The report, which cost the city NIS 400,000, was not made public.
Today, the forecast is almost coming true. The level of mismanagement of the shuk has reached such a point that many people involved – be it merchants or officials at Safra Square – are becoming increasingly concerned about its capacity to continue to function as a bona fide market.
The problem is much greater than just the local issue of ensuring everyone a high income. There is a serious concern that beyond the looming loss of income for many of the merchants, they will simply give up and sell their plots to the real estate vultures hovering around, just waiting for the next stage – a shuk deserted by its merchants that would fall into their hands like ripe fruit, and pave the way for them to replace it with highrise buildings and other properties.
“This is no longer just a vague concern,” says Shimon Darvish, chairman of the Traders Committee of Mahaneh Yehuda and major candidate for the next elections, scheduled for March 2017.
The blessed change that occurred a decade ago when the shuk recovered from the attacks of the second intifada and became an attractive cultural venue seems to have gone way beyond the original plans.
“It was a good idea to bring new life here and to open some nice places in the evening – bars and restaurants for tourists and locals. But due to the lack of regulation and clear planning, it has become a real madhouse and endangers the future of this very special place,” explains Darvish.
Some of the merchants who agreed to offer their opinions say that due to lack of foresight, what began as a productive idea to add nightlife to the shuk has replaced the original purpose of the famed market – to sell fruits, vegetables, fish and meat.
“The smart and delicate balance between the authentic market and the nightlife has been totally disrupted.
There is no law and no rule. The traditional merchants are already harmed because of the increasing number of malls and private supermarkets throughout the city – and now this is the final blow,” adds Darvish, warning that plans to tear down the market and replace it with real estate are being promoted time and again.
“So far they are not succeeding, but if we continue on this track, that will be the end of Mahaneh Yehuda,” he warns.
“We know who they are, we see them wandering around here in Mahaneh Yehuda, looking for the merchants whose income has dropped so much that they would seriously consider closing down their stands,” continues Darvish. “We don’t have accurate figures regarding the number of stands closed, but we know what prices are being offered, and they are really very tempting. I can understand the dilemma of the merchants.”
According to Darvish, a small 20-square-meter stand with a space in the back can be rented for about NIS 25,000 a month, “a fantastic sum that no one could have imagined just a few years ago.”
Hizki, who sells vegetables at a stand in one of the alleys on the covered side of the market, tries at first to stop his father from commenting but finally speaks out himself in anger and frustration.
“I was born here in the shuk,” he says. “My father started here as a young man, and naturally, I joined after my army duty. We have nothing against the nightlife of the shuk, but it has gone too far. It has become a free-forall for people who want to make easy money – as if there were no law and no rule here, and they are destroying our shuk and our livelihood.”
But Mahaneh Yehuda has one more interesting story, one that bridges these two different – and sometimes hostile – sides, one that links this very special place with a cultural side.
In 2013, in the framework of the bars and restaurants that opened in the market’s alleys, the Tahrir (“freedom” in Arabic) bar appeared. Dreamed, conceived, built and managed by a big dreamer, Yair Kohav, it is a place that promotes classical Arabic music as an answer to what Kohav calls the hegemonies of pop music, including Mizrahi pop, and the lack of knowledge about and respect for classical Oriental music. A graduate of the Oriental Classical Music School in Musrara, Kohav – also a paytan (cantor of Oriental Jewish liturgy) – ran the place against all odds but finally had to admit that such a challenging initiative wouldn’t make it for too long.
New restaurants and bars playing loud pop music a few meters from his place forced him to find an alternative solution. Merchants located near Tahrir agree that “Tahrir is exactly what most of us have in mind when we think about artistic life in the shuk at night, but what can you do against money, big money?” Stunned but far from being defeated, Kohav lowered Tahrir’s activities in the shuk to a minimum and moved for the summer to a huge tent installed at the First Station.
“Classical Arabic music, which has served as the basis and inspiration for our Jewish traditional chants, couldn’t be in a better location than Mahaneh Yehuda,” he says without bitterness, despite the present situation. But he adds, “If Tahrir has to close down in Mahaneh Yehuda, it will reappear somewhere else in Jerusalem. That will be my answer to those who want to transform this place into a fancy kind of non-authentic local market.”