October 14th 2020
Film Review

Invisible terrains:
Jaffa’s obscured history


by Nadi Abusaa

on The Architectural Review

        The colonial erasure and depopulation of Jaffa, once the vibrant Mediterranean gateway to Palestine, is evidenced in the fabric of the city, a ghost of its former self.

        A derelict, rusty, steel structure sits off an Eastern Mediterranean shoreline. From it, the northern view to the other side of the seafront is unmistakable: Tel Aviv’s skyline of glittering lights and glass facades. Long before the new eccentric city of glass deluged the horizon, Jaffa, its adjacent southern city of sandstone, had been the primary coastal urban center for cross-regional trade and cosmopolitan life in 19th- and early 20th-century Palestine. Heavily destroyed and most of its population forcibly displaced in 1948, a year Palestinians refer to as ‘the year of the catastrophe’, Jaffa has since stood as an emblem for the loss of Arab Palestine. The abandoned structure, a warehouse in its once bustling port district, is an unofficial memorial for its interrupted modernity.

        A ghostly atmosphere engulfs the city today. From its busiest commercial boulevards to its most insular residential alleyways, its architecture is mostly typified by unadorned signs of decay. Intermittently, a few buildings appear that have been entirely refurbished, their structures rebuilt, and their facades completely whitewashed. The contrast between the two is glaring but not incidental. It is a blatant visualisation of an ongoing systematic process of urban depopulation: Israel’s policies pushing Jaffa’s remaining Palestinian residents out of the city through its encouragement of state- and private-led gentrification. All under the pretense of urban regeneration and improvement.

“In Jaffa, as with other Palestinian concentrations in Israel, gentrification is imbued within a wider Israeli settler colonial logic of erasure.”

        While gentrification is a common phenomenon in cities globally, in Jaffa, as with other Palestinian concentrations in Israel, it is imbued within a wider Israeli settler colonial logic of erasure. Control and dominance over land is a central component in this logic. Palestinians’ continued presence on the land, and any expression of their living culture and identity, is perceived as a threat to the stability of the homogeneous settler colony.

        It is thus not surprising that transfer, the coordinated procedures of forcing Palestinians out of the land, has been popularized in Israeli policy and public discourse since the establishment of the state. As Israel attempts to conceal its colonial strategies with a veneer of modernity and development, the physical state of its depopulated Palestinian villages and cities continues to unmask its original sin and perpetual attempt to expel those who remained.

Port of Memory, the 2010 film by Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari, depicts the troubled reality for Palestinians in Jaffa, and evidence of erasure and decay on the city’s streets.

        In his film Port of Memory (2010), Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari artfully captures the banality of everyday life for Palestinians in Jaffa and the normalised state of eviction notices in their daily routines. What stands out most in his film, however, is the relationship between his protagonists and the city. It is through their encounters with the city that Aljafari’s characters reveal their true identity and relationship to the land. In one scene, Israeli filmmakers try to capture an act inside what appears to be an uninhabited Palestinian house, as the director remains unconvinced of the actor’s performance in reciting the phrase ‘and the ceiling is mine, too!’. Most of the scenes that capture Jaffa’s landscape of erasure, however, are shown through Aljafari’s solitary wandering in its empty streets. The Israeli asserts a frail claim to place; the Palestinian, meanwhile, is lost in his own city.

        The colonial erasure of Jaffa is not a new procedure, nor one that only materialized after 1948. As soon as Tel Aviv was established in 1909 in Jaffa’s northern environs, its founders decidedly planned it not as a suburb of modern Jaffa but as a fulfilment of a Zionist colonial fantasy in the Holy Land. Its name derived not from the topography of the land, but from a utopian European vision of Zion. Its planning was not a continuation of Jaffa but a break from it. In a 1925 scheme prepared for the new colonial city by Scottish planner Patrick Geddes, Tel Aviv’s proposed grid suddenly discontinues south. Nothing on the map indicates why this break takes place. Its southern Arab city merely appears as a blank space. A void in a landscape of advancing Zionist modernisers. A mysterious obstacle for their southern crusade along the coastline.

“What the Zionists continually deny is that Jaffa had been experiencing its own version of modernity, even long before Tel Aviv was even built”.

        What the Zionists continually deny is that Jaffa had been experiencing its own version of modernity, even long before Tel Aviv was even built. Jaffa’s was a cosmopolitan modernity, not a confessional one, like what British and Zionist colonists sought to construct in 20th-century Palestine. Jaffa’s popular epithet, ‘the city of strangers’, alludes to its strategic situation at the crossroads of geographies and cultures; local and foreign, old and renewed, conservative and progressive. The principal Mediterranean gateway to Palestine, its port received pilgrims, visitors, tourists and goods from the Middle East, Europe and beyond. From it, Jaffa’s globally celebrated oranges and other goods and crops from Palestine and Greater Syria’s fertile interior stretch were exported to the rest of the world.

        Since the start of British rule in 1917, Jaffa’s residents had seen first-hand Tel Aviv’s colonial expansion at their doorstep and the detrimental effects of the British support of Jewish settlement and its racist policy of economic separatism. In the mid 1930s, when news surfaced of plans to build a rival port in Tel Aviv, Jaffa’s Palestinian residents organised protests and strikes. These later developed into a nationwide anti-colonial revolt and were met by a grave response. In June 1936, the British commenced a planned demolition attack against the city, forcibly cutting ‘good wide roads’ through the city’s historic fabric. The operation left hundreds of Palestinians homeless and, when a resettlement scheme was prepared for them, it entailed their transfer from the city to a British built ‘Arab village’ outside its boundaries.

        The operation against Jaffa was a clear act not only of depopulation but also urbanization. Through the destruction of Jaffa’s historic center, the connecting tissue between the port and the city’s extra muros developments, it violently obliterated the commercial and residential heart of the city. In Arabic publications in the operation’s aftermath, there are photos of families returning the day after to search in the debris for their houses’ remains. Mattresses, kitchen sets, clothes and other items that belonged to the interior were now shelterless awaiting their excavation from the rubble. From an urban standpoint, the ethnic cleansing of nearly a million Palestinians in 1948 was not a complete rupture but an extension of a decades-long procedure of pushing Palestinians out of place and out of history. Except, in 1948, this gradual process had intensified into a more efficient and radical form of displacement.

        In 1936, British forces started to destroy swathes of Jaffa’s historical fabric (below), cutting ‘good wide roads’ through the city. The homes of hundreds of Palestinians were demolished, and their inhabitants resettled in an ‘Arab village’ outside the city.

        In the aftermath of 1948, when most of Jaffa’s Palestinian population had been displaced and most of its architecture destroyed, Israeli and American filmmakers saw it as the perfect stage set for their action and drama movies. Kamal Aljafari’s most recent film, Recollection (2015), is entirely made from excerpt footage from Israeli and American movies shot in Jaffa in the 1960s-’90s. Turning what began as an act of documentation into an active subversion, Aljafari digitally erases all of the actors that appeared in the original films. The only characters he retains are Palestinian residents who were unintentionally and hauntingly caught on camera as the filming was taking place. Originally appearing in the scenes’ background through windows, balconies and doorsteps, Aljafari identifies them and brings them to the foreground. Unrealised historical retribution in reality is momentarily attained cinematically.

        The city itself, in its lingering state of devastation and silence, remains Aljafari’s main protagonist. Walking us through its surfaces, steps, windows, doorsteps, arches, he narrates the story of its erasure. Once a city has been reduced to a collection of objects, one immediately concludes, it is no longer a city. It turns into mere memory, a city’s ghost. Yet these objects resist their total obliteration. They are durable as much as they are fragile. Not as mere objects, perhaps, nor as a city, but as ruins. Their unremitting existence is a powerful reminder of colonial aftermaths. An aide-mémoire that any attempt to rewrite the city’s Palestinian history is inevitably an act of recollection. They are the traces of those who were forced into their exodus in 1948, and those who lingered behind. Enduring evidence in a landscape that is tenaciously designed for their perpetual denial.

Kamal Aljafari
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