Sestina on impending departure
At home with the Bible

A history of Jaffa

I just read City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor, and I'm really impressed. The book tells the history of Jaffa (and to some extent also Tel Aviv, its neighbor) through the histories of six families: three Arab (Christian and Muslim), and three Jewish. Through letters and diaries and interviews with the current generation of these families, LeBor paints a picture of what life was like in Jaffa ninety years ago...and how it has changed, repeatedly, between then and now.

In Jaffa, in the spring of 1921, a young Jewish woman called Julia Bohbout was planning her wedding. Julia was twenty-one, dark-haired and vivacious with lively eyes, a popular girl who made friends easily. She was fluent in Arabic and French, played the piano and was gifted at needlework. Julia danced the waltz and even a daring new import from South America, the tango. The Bohbout family lived on Nagib Bustros street, the heart of Jaffa's commercial centre, which drew shoppers from across the Levant. The shop windows displayed the latest European fashions and household goods, while neighbouring cafés were crowded with customers drinking coffee, smoking, and eating ice cream...

That's how the first chapter, "A Battered Bride," begins. (The bride in question isn't Julia, don't worry. It's the city of Jaffa, known in those days as the "Bride of the Sea.")

LeBor has chosen a fabulous way to make history clear. It's one thing to say "Muslims and Jews and Christians used to interact in a mode of genuine respect and friendship," but it's another thing entirely to tell the story of an Arab family attending a Jewish wedding, or how Jews and Arabs both used to gather at a Jewish-owned spice shop or an Arab-owned bakery. The stories of real families make the history engaging and meaningful.

LeBor has a real eye for detail and attention to historical reality, which makes these tales of interaction and connection really satisfying for me. Of course, that talent means that once the story gets darker -- the pogroms of the 1920s, the wars in 1948 and 1967 and 1973 -- the realities of this new world order hit home for me in a powerful way. This book was occasionally deeply depressing to me. I had to put it down several times, because the suffering on all sides was so palpable. But each time, I had to pick it up again and read further, because I wanted to know what would happen next. This is one of those rare history books that reads like a novel.

And I came away from the book with a much clearer sense of the history of this land over the last eighty years, as Israelis tell it and as Palestinians tell it. I'm embarrassed to admit that I wasn't entirely familiar even with the details of the Israeli side of the story -- I'm not sure I could have distinguished between Irgun, Haganah and Lehi (the Stern Group) before I dove into this book, and I certainly didn't know much about Jewish life here in the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s. The Palestinian narrative was all-but unknown to me, and there too I lacked the details that would make the Arab history of this place come alive.

Having read City of Oranges, I feel like I have a sense of the impact of 1948 (and the wars that followed it) on the lives of ordinary inhabitants of Jaffa, Palestinians and Israelis alike. (Well: not alike. That's part of the point.) LeBor doesn't take sides, and he doesn't editorialize -- though I come away with the sense that he loves Jaffa a great deal, and that he respects and admires all of the families he interviewed over the course of writing the book. In the end, it seems to me that Jaffa serves as a microcosm for all of Israel/Palestine. The narratives of these interwoven families stand in for all of the narratives of every family who's inhabited this land in reality or in memory, through arrival and departure and return.

You can download an extract from chapter one here [pdf]. If you're interested in the Middle East, or in history written in a clear, readable, engaging style, this book is really worth a read. (And if you read the book and enjoy it, the author has collected a set of links to audio interviews wherein he discusses the book with NPR, the Economics, and Budapest-based Liquid Books -- good stuff.)

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