Jaffa (the biblical Joppa from which Jonah set sail before ending up in the belly of the whale) claims to have the oldest fishing port in the world. Some things just don’t change; fishing boats still bob in the harbor and fishermen sit on the pier untangling and repairing their nets.
For centuries Jaffa was the Holy Land’s bustling portal through which every pilgrim and immigrant passed and where many decided to stay.
On the eve of the 1948 War of Independence, it was the largest Arab city in Palestine, with some 100,000 residents, only 30,000 of whom were Jews. Now it has about 40,000 residents, only about 17,000 of whom are Arabs. Since 1949 it has been joined administratively to Tel Aviv.
The fishermen are still a presence, but Jaffa is again changing rapidly. This is due partly to the city’s recent investment in infrastructure, after decades of neglect. Over the past ten years it has poured in some NIS 1 billion (about $250 million), according to Ami Katz, of the Governance of Jaffa, an administrative arm of the city.
Once a crime-ridden, forbidding area, Jaffa has become Tel Aviv’s southern playground. New restaurants and cafes have opened in several neighborhoods, but especially in the flea market, where the city had to limit the percentage of new businesses to preserve its character as a funky place for bargain-hunters.
Other new ventures include exhibition spaces for art and design. One of these was the Jaffa Salon of Palestinian Art, which opened early in 2010 in an old hangar in the port. Two Israelis, Amir Neuman Ahuvia and Yair Rothman undertook the ambitious project of showing the work of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. And in March 2011 the New York Times reported that Palestinian art was the up-and-coming thing on Israel’s art scene.
The Jaffa salon “was something I thought would be unique,” Neuman Ahuvia explained yesterday. Most Palestinian artists “don’t have a fair chance to exhibit in the center of the country,” he said. “They live in the periphery and don’t have connections.”
I visited the salon twice. I found the works to be of very uneven quality, but there were some I liked very much, such as small the iron-and-wood sculpture by Ahmad Canaan, curator of the exhibition, titled “Refugees”: an ancient boat whose sails are house keys.
The theme is simultaneously specific to the Palestinians and universal. The sculpture touched me especially because my parents were refugees from Nazi Europe, and because it reminded me of what Jews had told me in Thessaloniki (Salonika):
When King Juan Carlos of Spain came to visit Salonika’s Jewish community in May 1998—thus becoming the first Spanish monarch to do so since the Jews’ expulsion from Spain more than 500 years before—community head Andreas Sefiha gave him a silver box engraved with an old key. It was a reminder that Jewish families had kept the keys to their homes in Spain, handing them down from generation to generation, in the secret hope that they would return someday.
Even Borges wrote about the keys of Spanish Jews: “Abarbanel, Faris, or Pinedo, exiled from Spain—unholy persecution—still keep the key of the house they … had in Toledo. Free now from hope or fear, they stare at the key, as the day slowly fades; the bronze contains the yesterdays, that remained there, a tired gleam and a silent suffering.” (translated by Nikos Kondos)
It almost seemed that if you had that understanding about your own people, you could understand the pain of others who had undergone similar suffering.
But despite the sanguine report in the New York Times on the flowering of Palestinian art, and although the salon was successful in bringing the memories and dreams of Palestinians to the attention of Israelis who aren’t necessarily museum-goers or art-lovers, it turned out not to be commercially viable, Neuman Ahuvia said. Now it is called simply the Jaffa Salon of Art, and it shows the work of twenty-five young local artists, only five of whom are Palestinians.
I’m sorry the old salon did not survive, but I wish the new one luck.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.