Middle East Narratives

Invisible Borders yet Still Coexisting

Story and Photo by Danielle Murad Waiss

The smell of a bonfire surrounds me. Behind me are the beaches of Tel Aviv and in the evening sun, the sky is painted many oranges and pinks. As I move forward, I leave behind the tourists, the Tel Aviv fitness freaks and the strolling couples. As I cross into the last beach before the port it feels like I am in a different country. The long, paved boardwalk that contours the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv is the same, the walking and bike paths extend all the way to the port, but the only grassy beach in the city, seems to mark a big change. Multiple families are arriving at the beach, they have bonfires and are cooking an evening meal. I no longer hear the Hebrew that usually surrounds me. I hear Arabic instead. I do not understand what they are saying, but as I walk, some people stare at me, sometimes yelling something at me in Arabic, sometimes winking and sometimes just looking. Perhaps it is because of the riots that recently took place in Jaffa, or because I am alone and it is beginning to get dark, but I am a little nervous. I press on walking straight ahead.

The strip of Bauhaus buildings that line the beaches in Tel Aviv have disappeared. I carry on, the view of the ancient white stone buildings and the narrow clock tower also in white are inviting me forward. I eventually make it to the port. A narrow stone barrier lines the water. I can hear a mix of languages including English, Russian, Spanish, and Arabic. There is a musician and people watching. I am at ease once again. A wide staircase invites me up.  I ascend and find myself between small shops and homes lining this maze of white buildings, white homes and white stones. I am now alone, except for the occasional passersby who are either on their way, or are exploring the area. It is quiet, I am not scared but intrigued. The white stone, from which the Old City of Jaffa is constructed, makes it difficult to figure out where I am. Eventually a right turn leads me into the main square; an open plaza, with some shops and restaurants, a small stage and some sort of ancient ruins. The people here are enjoying the evening. An argentine tango lesson is taking place on the stage and people are watching. Others are sitting in the few bars and restaurants and enjoying the breeze that is coming from the beach. 

I can see the clock tour just behind the square, I walk towards it straight through the plaza and before I know it, I find myself in a less comfortable environment. The clock tower is in front of what seems to be the entrance to Jaffa, which is confirmed by the police van standing at the entrance. The men in and surrounding the van are keeping an eye out and this clear division, makes my senses heighten. The people here are Arabs. Nobody says anything, some ignore me, while some smile and nod. The sidewalk is lined with shops and restaurants, and the distinct aroma of Middle Eastern spices fills the air. I come by a beautiful sweets shop, with all kinds of treats displayed. It seems to be a popular location. As I pass the shop I find myself in a different environment. The buildings here are no longer made out of white stone. I can hear music, chatter and a big crowd. I have found the Shuk Hapishpishim or flea market. I can no longer hear Arabic, English is predominantly spoken. The contrast between the street I just turned from and this area is extreme. The local culture is gone. It is nice, but it feels wrong, like it wasn´t meant to be here, like it is disrupting the otherwise calm evening in Jaffa.

As I walk back home leaving the white stone behind me, I am flooded by the local bustle of Tel Avivians. There is a temporal division between these two parts of the city. The Old City of Jaffa is generally quiet, compared to the non-stop city life of Tel Aviv. My walk was mostly quiet, the lights were dimly lit and it felt as though I was in a different time. People are more conservative in their demeanor and dress and they follow their long standing traditions more. In contrast, Tel Aviv is a pocket of liberalism, personal freedoms and self-expression. Neither is better or worse, but the boundaries in ways of life really highlight these distinctions.

Although Tel Aviv and Jaffa are considered one place, the differences that exist make it seem like miles away. I can’t help but think about the politics of it all and how the situation has drawn borders within this city. Recent events have made people cautious and I can’t help to think whether the warnings I have heard are only feeding into our imaginations to help construct these borders and lines within a city that has coexisted with different ideas.

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