Seeing Ghosts*

By Meron Rapoport 

Author Alon Hilu remembers the moment when the Tel Aviv landscape changed before his eyes. “I was sitting in a cafe near Dizengoff Center, a totally Tel Aviv landscape, and suddenly I saw how this landscape could be different – orchards, an Arab landscape. Like a glimpse into the past.” We are sitting in a Herzliya cafe, in a high-tech landscape. Hilu’s successful new book “The House of Dajani” (in Hebrew) takes place in Arab Jaffa just before the Jews established Tel Aviv and 50 years before the Arabs abandoned the orchards there. He continues: “A while later I was sitting with my wife in a cafe in the Tel Aviv port, and this past was haunting me, like a ghost. I thought that I could see before me the Muslim cemetery next to the sea, suddenly even the sea looked Arab to me; I don’t know how a sea can look Arab.”

 

Eshkol Nevo is the same age as Hilu, 36, and was a classmate of his at a Jerusalem school for a while. For him, the discovery of the Arab past of this country was slower and more incidental. When he began to write “Homesick,” which became one of the biggest best-sellers of recent years, he knew that the story would take place in Maoz Zion, a small community near Jerusalem where he had lived in the past. Every time he drove to Jerusalem he stopped in Maoz Zion. 

“During these forays, I saw all kinds of ruins that I hadn’t noticed when I lived there,” he says. These were the ruins of the Palestinian village of Castel, on which Maoz Zion was built. “I began to ask questions, I began to read, to meet with people,” says Nevo. His book was supposed to deal with the Israeli longing for a home, for a stable place. “And I understood that I couldn’t write about longing for a home without writing about the longing of the original owner for his home,” he says.

 

Uri Balter, 25, a student in the School of Architecture at Tel Aviv University, arrived at Jaffa’s past not out of choice, but as part of his class work. Balter was given the assignment of planning a preservation project for an Arab “well house” in Jaffa, one of the dozens of magnificent homes that were built above wells in the center of the orchards that once surrounded the city. The house now lies in ruins in the heart of Tel Aviv, a reminder of a lost civilization.

 

“Just as I researched the origin of the house’s flooring,” says Balter, who produced the exhibition “Well Houses” that was displayed at the Bashdera Gallery in Tel Aviv last month, “I looked for the person who created this house.” The meeting with the Palestinian owner, who lives today in a community near Kiryat Malachi and longs for the house he built and the orchard he cultivated, left Balter saddened and with a clear sense that “it’s impossible to confront the future if you are unfamiliar with the past.”

 

Without our noticing it, the taboo regarding the Palestinian past of this country has been broken. The past has entered the mainstream, including the best-seller list. In A.B. Yehoshua’s short story “Facing the Forests,” the Palestinian who burns the forest that was planted on the ruins of his village is mute. In Hilu’s book, “The House of Dajani,” the Arab child Salah, who predicts in 1895 that the Jews will exile the Arabs from their homes and that on the lands of his estate on the banks of Wadi Musrara three towers will rise – one square, one triangular and one round – never stops talking. The longing of Saddiq, the Palestinian handyman in “Homesick,” who rediscovers the home of his birth in Castel-Maoz Zion, is stronger than the inconsistent longings of the Jewish families who live in his house at present. He is the silent hero, even when they throw him into prison because he tried to take the gold chain his mother left behind in the house when she fled 60 years earlier.

 

“Homesick” sold tens of thousands of copies in the original Hebrew. “The House of Dajani” is high on the best-seller list, and was published by Yedioth Books, a pillar of the cultural establishment. Nevo and Hilu have just returned from France, where they were sent by the Foreign Ministry to participate in the Israeli pavilion at the Paris International Book Fair. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality sponsored the “Well Houses” exhibit.

 

“We are always getting inquiries from journalists, researchers, script-writers,” says Eitan Bronstein, CEO of the non-governmental organization Zochrot (Remembering – http://www.nakbainhebrew.org/index.php) which works to commemorate the Nakba (“catastrophe,” the Palestinian term for the Israeli War of Independence). “We cannot respond to all of them. The inquiries do not come from members of [the far-left organization] Matzpen. These are Israelis who identify themselves totally as patriots. Look how many articles there were about the construction project in Sumail (the remains of a Palestinian village on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv), and it’s only a small and not very important village.”

 

Hilu says that the initial desire to deal with the Palestinian past came from his Mizrahi identity (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin). “My parents were born in Damascus, they spoke Arabic at home, but they were ashamed. Instead of saying ‘Damascus’ they would say ‘abroad,'” he says. He himself, a gifted child, grew up among the Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin) elite, and always felt he didn’t belong. In his first book, “Death of a Monk,” he explores Damascus, the culture of his forefathers.  

He considers “The House of Dajani” a direct continuation of “Death of a Monk,” because “I wanted to remind myself that we are living in a European enclave within a Muslim space; I wanted to restore to the Israeli landscape its Mizrahi character. It was easy for me because I myself am Mizrahi.” Hilu reread S.Y. Agnon’s book “Tmol shilshom” (“Only Yesterday”), which takes place during the days of the Second Aliyah (wave of immigration, 1904-14). “Agnon arrives in Jaffa and sees the ground of Eretz Israel. He doesn’t see the Arabs. He de-Arabizes the landscape. I Arabized the landscape, perhaps I countered his de-Arabization.”

 

Hilu knew in advance that the hero of this book would be a Palestinian boy who sees the future, who knows that soon the entire situation will be different. Afterward, Salah, the boy who sees the future, joined Haim Margaliot Kalvarisky, a (real) participant in the First Aliyah, who purchased land in Eretz Israel. “I knew in advance that I would situate the story in Tel Aviv,” says Hilu, who himself was born in the Dajani Hospital in Jaffa. “Tel Aviv is the holy of holies of Zionism, it was born from the sands, I wanted to touch the most painful point.”

 

Hilu deliberately uses the Arab names of the places so familiar to every Tel Avivian. The Ayalon River is Wadi Musrara, the Yarkon River is Nahal al-Uja, the Hilton Hotel is the Muslim cemetery. And all the space between them is covered with orchards cultivated by Palestinians, long before a single Jew set foot in this place.

 

Hilu began to visit Jaffa and Tel Aviv, accompanied by people from Zochrot and alone, and soon learned to identify Jaffa’s past by peering through Tel Aviv’s present. “I developed a special eye,” he says. “When I see parking lots, I know that there are Arab traces: Menashiya has become one big parking lot; the vestiges of Sheikh Munis are concealed between the university parking lots. All that remains of the Palestinian presence are houses, and ghosts emerge from these houses and echo in our ears. In order to get rid of them, you have to embrace them. The same way you get rid of a dybbuk.”

 

A book like “The House of Dajani,” which tells the Palestinian story, should have been written 20 or 40 years ago, says Hilu. But on second thought, he adds, perhaps it could be written only now. “Eshkol and I are the same age, and it’s possible that the ability to write about these things without fear is something that belongs to our generation,” he says. “Our generation is more inquisitive, freer of personal blame and more interested in knowing what happened. The past is less threatening to us.” In his opinion, Israel’s acceptance of “Mizrahiness” also helps young Israelis to deal with the Arab past.

 

Hilu believes that another reason for the preoccupation with this past is the realization that “the conflict with the Palestinian is a chronic disease. Like a mortgage, it’s for your entire life.” He doesn’t think that the right of return is a solution. “I’m the good Zionist, precisely because I’m aware of the injustice. It’s because I want the State of Israel to continue to exist that I think we have to find creative solutions. Israeli society must be aware of the past in order to save itself.”

 

Eshkol Nevo comes from a different background. His grandfather was prime minister Levy Eshkol, one of the pioneers of the Second Aliyah who settled on the lands that people of Kalvarisky’s ilk “redeemed” by expelling the tenant farmers who lived on them. While doing research for the book, Nevo met Palestinian refugees for the first time. “I would return from those meetings profoundly depressed,” he says. “It’s hard to reconcile their narrative with ours. I felt the extent to which the myth of return is still alive among them, and I said to myself: If they haven’t given up, then how is it at all possible to reach an agreement with them?”

 

And nevertheless, Nevo felt some kind of identification with the Palestinian Nakba stories, and therefore was not afraid to center his book around the handyman Saddiq. “Alon (Hilu) and I were born in 1971,” says Nevo. “During the Yom Kippur War we were 2 years old. For our generation, the question of whether or not Israel would survive did not exist. We grew up with confidence in our place, confidence that there is a state. Therefore I can hear another story. I don’t adopt it, but I listen to it. I can give room to the Palestinian story without fear that it will burn me, as is the case with A.B. Yehoshua.”

 

When he wrote “Homesick,” Nevo felt that he was doing something new, something cool that had not been done before, and therefore he was surprised by the ease with which the book was received. In meetings with readers, which he has been holding since the book was published in 2004, the question of the Palestinian refugees always comes up, especially on the part of the “generation of grandparents.” But even there, he did not encounter hostility. In his opinion, that is also a sign of the new atmosphere surrounding this topic.

 

Even Hilu, in spite of the more biting content of his book, did not encounter hostile reactions. “They even recommended it on (the religious station) Radio Kol Hai; they only asked me not to talk about the romance between Kalvarisky and Salah’s mother.”

 

“The thousands of people who read Alon’s book will look at the Azrieli Towers differently,” says Nevo, “and this awareness will extend to broader circles.” “Homesick” is already being studied for the matriculation exams, so that Saddiq’s dilemmas are being studied today in many schools. Nevo declares that he is a member of Zochrot, but at the same time he is a loyal Zionist and he utterly rejects the idea of the right of return as a political solution.

 

“There is emotional justice in the Palestinian narrative, and it is important that it be studied and heard. The challenge is how to deal with it without ceasing to be a Zionist, without losing the meaning of our existence here.”

 

Balter also feels that this approach due to the new generation. He comes from a right-wing religious home. “Had my father received the project of preserving these houses, he would have related to them differently,” he says. “He would have said: ‘We won, and we earned these palaces honestly. They are ours.’ I didn’t see Jaffa prior to the War of Independence; I don’t have the fear of my parents’ generation that it’s them or us.” The project changed his view of Tel Aviv: “Suddenly I understood that the orchards in the paintings of [Nahum] Guttman and [Reuven] Rubin are Arab orchards; suddenly I understood that Tel Aviv rose from the sands because that was the cheapest land, because the Arabs didn’t want to sell their orchard lands.”

 

Balter feels an obligation to preserve these houses, just as in Berlin they are preserving the Jewish past of his family. He, too, is a Zionist. He, too, is opposed to the right of return. But he thinks it is impossible to ignore what was here beforehand. The well houses that have remained in the area of the Central Bus Station, in Abu Kabir, in Jaffa, he says, “are the ghosts that force us to deal with reality. It’s strange that they taught us that it’s possible to forget. Truth is the basis for a solution.”

 

“Forgive us, land. Forgive us, beloved country,” writes artist Danny Karavan in the “Well Houses” catalogue, “because we were too young, because we didn’t know how to ask and didn’t know how to see, because we were brainwashed.” Karavan, who is much older than Hilu, Nevo and Balter, does not think that what his generation did during the War of Independence was a crime. He himself sustained a foot injury from a bullet fired from Jaffa to Hayarkon Street. And still he begs forgiveness.

 

“I am begging forgiveness for not treating the Arab culture as a culture,” says Karavan in a telephone conversation from his studio in Paris. “Forgiveness for destroying this culture, its homes, its landscapes. We wanted to erase the past, but the past cannot be erased, and no culture exists without its past. 

* http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/971506.html, Thu., April 03, 2008.

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