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My Utopian Jaffa

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.01.2009:

By J. Ryder

“Djaah-Faah” – a long, slowly expired, two-syllable word that caresses my palate like a sip of dry wine. Ja-ffa was my “Lo-lee-ta,” and as Nabokov put it, “the light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” When, during the ephemeral years of Oslo’s golden expectations, I lived in the highest topographical point of the Ajami quarter, I didn’t realise, as I do now, how happy and in tune with the place I really was. Sunset after sunset I witnessed the near-mystical moment in which the sun abandons us, like the gods abandoning Anthony in a Cavafy poem, diving into the sad, sombre sea-line. From my bedroom, carved into the attic space of an early-nineteenth-century mansion, I could see the Old Port almost at my feet, with an elderly rusty merchant boat lying on her side, agonising on the quay, like a distracted whale caught, breathless, in dry land. Ahead, towards the horizon, a shallow ocean, the very image of Mediterranean eunuch placidity, but for a few rebellious January tides evoking the virility of former centuries, when entire Crusader fleets sunk to the fury of its waves… Encroaching my balcony, the City: as its sister Alexandria, a Capital of Memory. You must visit it with your thoughts and readings as much as with your eyes and senses.

Why did I fall for Jaffa? The Orientalist nostalgia for cosmopolitan dreams of East meeting West? The attraction of female faded beauty when surrounded by a halo of tragedy? Cities, like powerful women, are only stimulating when carrying Pasts, black spots or even black holes in their biographies. Jaffa is no Miami, and no Tel Aviv either, when one comes to think of it… Three-thousand-year-old cities are in a different league altogether. They view the commemoration of a first centenary with amusement and condescension… Their brighter moments might have long since passed, the once rich and vivid clothes might now be rags bearing the stains of unwashed sins, but the bone structure of Glory still stands and will never vanish.

It didn’t take me long, in my first summer as a Jaffa resident, to realise that for the many Palestinians who have a connection with this city – not necessarily with birth certificates from Manshiyyah or the iron keys of their Ajami homes left in a hurry – Jaffa, and not Jerusalem, was the real stirrer of emotions. I was reminded of Alexander Pushkin’s bon-mot: “St Petersburg is my wife … but Moscow my mistress.” Likewise, for those Palestinians I spoke to in Ramallah, Amman, or Beirut – or London, for that matter – Jerusalem was their lawfully wedded wife, never to be repudiated as their Capital … but Jaffa was their mistress. The light of their Past lives, still capable of evoking the fire of their loins.

Why is that? Perhaps because in the 1930s Yaffa was the jewel in the crown of Palestinian Arab society, the showcase of the entrepreneurship of the local bourgeoisie? Due to the adrenalin highs induced by the race for survival that Jaffa was engaged in, once Tel Aviv was created? Final enjoyment of pleasures in sinking Titanics? Or merely the memory of the potent perfume of orange blossoms, salty moist winds, a hint of pine trees, and traces of jasmine?

Jaffa, I find, was unique but simultaneously a clear-cut representative of the Levantine seaport city whose apogee came between the exit of Colonialisms and the assertiveness of Nationalisms. Alexandria, Beirut, Jaffa: names that come to mind. Cosmopolitan spaces, when it was not a sin to be one. Multicultural cities before “Multiculturalism” became fashionable. Proud orientalist cities before Edward Said turned “Orientalism” into a four-letter word. Crossroads that we would describe as “hubs” in contemporary economic slang. Friendly clashes of civilisations, before Huntington and his neo-con-artists arrived, like circling vultures, to take the “friendly” out.

Ports of call and doors to their respective hinterlands, cities like Jaffa were also in need of a particular asset, or a “brand” as we now say, to consolidate market-share in the stock exchange of urban destinations. As Alexandria had the cotton trade, attracting brokers, banking services, and the full spectrum of providers of modern comforts, Jaffa had the oranges and the near-monopoly of the pilgrims’ route to the Holy Land. The loose control exercised by a distant, if sublime, Porte, and the concentric shock waves of world imperial politics, allowed a proliferation of communities in the Near East. Jaffa became an ever more complex, plurinational and multilingual society, without a dominant ethnicity or a religious creed which overwhelmed or constrained.

Notwithstanding the traditional tendency for migrant communities to stick together, cross-breeding may have been more common than acknowledged. After centuries of neighbourly life, not to mention the legend in nearby lands of razzias for rare bloodlines, carried out as far as the Circassian mountains, mixed DNA is expected. Like how in a modern fruit cocktail, combining the exotic mango taste with the ripe fig’s Mediterranean flavour is no longer a surprise.

For brief periods, no more than a few decades, the balance between centripetal imperial/colonial pressures and centrifugal nationalist forces was just what was needed to sustain the buzz, the incoming modernity, the demographic diversity, and the economic turnover. Social injustice, political unfairness, and unacceptable poverty were widespread – however, different communities with diversified world-views went about their private lives with a level of tolerance and understanding, empathy towards their neighbours, and a common hedonistic indulgence in the sun’s warmth, the seafood, and the aroma of oranges.

I may be accused of nostalgia for a decaying order, when Mandatory patronising attitudes, imported ideologies, and near-feudal tribalism conspired to keep true self-determination at bay. Suspending our belief in political determinism, we must argue that radical shrinkage in communal diversity, a rush to homogenous ethnicity, and a rise in mono-Faith societies is a flawed prospect for us, as individual human beings.

I long for “Jaffa” not as nostalgia but as Utopia.

J. Ryder is the pen name of Jorge Ryder Torres-Pereira, a Portuguese diplomat who has held posts in London, Tel Aviv, Moscow, and Madrid. He works in Ramallah while living in East Jerusalem. His blog can be found at His Jaffa novel, The Four Wives of a Believer, is due to be published in 2010, Inch’ Allah!

Article photos courtesy of Jorge Ryder.

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