What Jewish-Arab co-existence looks like in the real Ajami

DAN-CHYI CHUA
Oct 05, 2010
*Special to asia!

The Oscar-nominated Israeli film Ajami depicted a gritty and complex situation of Jews and Arabs living side by side in the mixed city of Jaffa. But how faithful is the film to the reality of the real Ajami neighbourhood?

 

44 Peace Wall in Jaffa, Israel

 

A wall has gone up in Ajami, one decorated with mosaics and murals.

This is a project by CityArts, a New-York based foundation. Called Pieces for Peace, it brings together children and professional local artists to build “Peace Walls” in Harlem, New York, Karachi, Pakistan and now here in Jaffa, Israel.

According to the foundation's director Tsipi Ben-Haim, this is an effort to “build bridges of cultural understanding through art, joining hands in a movement for peace and creating a better world in the process.”

To that end, this wall in Jaffa is monument to peace, to depictions of co-existence between the city's  Jewish, Arab and Christian communities. Created by local children under the guidance of Israeli artist and Arab artist, there are images of hearts and dolphins and handshakes.

The wall makes for a pretty facade, or rather a half-facade, since it barely conceals the four-storey apartment block behind it.

Take a peek behind the Peace Wall and it is a different scene. Paint is peeling off the grimy walls. It looks untended, nothing like the painstakingly pieced-together mural on the other side.

 

The ground floor of the apartment block in a state of disrepair behind the Peace Wall

The residents who live in this building are ambivalent about the Peace Wall. They do not believe it does anything for them, but rather it was constructed for the benefit of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace across the road.

The Center for Peace. On its own it is a beautiful steel and glass structure that occupies a breathtaking location on a cliff overlooking the sapphire waters of the Mediterranean. But taken in the context of its surroundings, it is an oddity, almost an eyesore.

This is the neighbourhood of Ajami, made famous by the film of the same name that played to rave reviews earlier this year. This is where the city's Arabs inhabitants were driven to live in, after Israel took over the city in 1948.

... someone came and scrawled a swastika over the synagogue.

Since then, Jaffa has been subsumed into greater city of Tel Aviv-Yafo, but Ajami remains a distinct section in many ways. Coming from vibrant Tel Aviv where beach and night life is in full swing, you can feel the sense of economic despondency hanging here in the air. The buildings here, with the exception of the modernistic Peace Centre, are run-down houses and apartments, and the roads that run between them are in need of paving.

Jaffa is one of the mixed towns Israel uses to tout Jewish-Arab coexistence. Indeed, compared to the West Bank and Gaza, relations here between the two peoples are markedly less tense, but calling it coexistence may be a bit of a bridge too far.

One of the murals on the Peace Wall originally depicted a synagogue and a mosque side by side. It has now been changed to a church and a mosque, because someone came and scrawled a swastika over the synagogue.

 

A world in love, a mosque and a church that used to be a synagogue.

In February this year, Ajami's Arab residents lost a lawsuit against B'Emuna. The religious Jewish organisation will now construct 20 Jews-only residential units in the neighbourhood, where there is a housing shortage for its Arab population.

As pointed out by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the building project is “provocative.” In addition, the ACRI also called B'Emuna's ideology “racist,” because “the group promotes traditional Jewish education, in which Jewish students learn in an all-Jewish environment, and not in mixed Arab-Jewish schools.”

A project such as this is seen by Jaffa's Arabs as boost the Jewish presence here and to take over the city, akin to what the Israeli settler movement is doing in the West Bank. Neighborhood council chairman Kemal Agbaria said,

“They want to separate between Arabs and Jews in schools. They essentially are coming here to make provocations in a place that is very delicate and has mutual respect between Christians, Muslims, and Jews."

B'Emuna denies that it is its intention, but in this case, perception may be all it takes to shatter Jaffa's fragile state of coexistence.

 

WHAT NOW THEN FOR AJAMI?

With issues as big as this, what is the point of building a pretty “Peace Wall” in Jaffa?

I put the question to Israeli Arab artist Salma Shehade, who is involved in the creation of this wall with her Jewish counterpart Yoav Weiss.

“It is a very small step. First of all, it's better than not doing anything. Expose them, show them the option (of peace), maybe they choose not to take it, but show them the option.”

At the start of the project, she and Yoav went into local schools and asked Jewish and Arab students between the ages of 10 and 17 to create artwork that reflected what they thought about peace.

“We tried to disconnect them from the daily things that they learn, and let them connect with their fantasy world.

“I don't believe it is a subject they talk about in their daily life. For them to see a Jewish and Arab artist come into their class for 1 ½ hour to make them express their feelings about the situation and let them dream for a while, I think we did a great job.”

 

Image of peace through the eyes of a child

Not all the artwork was happy. Some expressed violence. Salma recounted the incident of a student whose cousin was killed in the recent Gaza War. During the workshop, the principal took him and asked him to think about how to avoid more killings. This seemed to calm him down.

Many of the Arab students had relatives living in Gaza, and that keeps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict close to them. They may live in Israel, but ancestrally, they are Palestinian. Jaffa was Palestinian, before it became Israeli in 1948.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

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