Its Beauty Defies Age and Invaders.. Jaffa, the Mermaid of the Palestinian Land

Its Beauty Defies Age and Invaders.. Jaffa, the Mermaid of the Palestinian Land

Photos: Fidaa Kiwan

If Palestine boasts of a metropolis some day, that will be Jaffa, the city that rivals Jerusalem in civilization and culture, and was the first city in Palestine before the 1948 Nakba. We can just look at Jaffa s recent history to explore its modern revival which the invaders have undermined. Jaffa, the coastal city with its impressive green hill, is almost always synonymous with beauty; its name is derived from the Canaanite word Yaffi , meaning the exceptionally beautiful .

Jaffa was founded over 4,000 years ago by Semitic immigrants from Arabia, and has since then been invaded by the Pharaohs, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Sejukians, Romans and Palmyrians. With the Arabian conquest of AD636, the leader Amr Ibn Al-As restored its Arab character and beautiful old name. The British and those who came with and after them were the last invaders. Due to its beauty and strategic location, Jaffa suffered a lot of damage at the hands of invaders as well as the Arabians who liberated so as not to allow invaders to return to its forts. However, Jaffa was always able to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

On 14 May 1948, Jaffa fell to the Zionist gangs who violated an agreement with the Arabs. On the previous day, the British governor handed responsibility for the city s affairs and government offices to Hajj Ahmad Abu Laben, and both Arabs and Jews accepted the governor s suggestion that Jaffa be an open area, but the Zionist forces stormed into the city the following day and raised their flags there! Jaffa s problem was that it was chosen as an assembly point for Jewish immigrants at a place called Tal Alrabie , where they established the nucleus of Tel Aviv, the small nascent city, which nobody then expected it to outshine the old city of Jaffa. Jaffa s population had perhaps been more aware of the danger of the new invaders, who presented themselves then as advocates of modernity, knowledge and progress. As a matter of fact, Jaffa was in the prime of modernity at regional level. That s why as soon as Palestine was placed under British Mandate, Jaffa s first revolt broke out in 1921, the main cause of which was the city s Jewishness policy!

Jaffa lies safely and peacefully on the coast and enjoys economic and cultural openness to the Mediterranean countries and the West, in addition to European pilgrims passage through it on their way to Jerusalem. Thanks to its fertile soil, plenty of water and trees it became an agricultural spot and an industrial one soon afterwards, thus possessing the ingredients for development and civilization.

To see how deep rooted Jaffa s Palestinian and Arab identity is, let s just look at Palestine s partition maps since1937, which show that it always formed part of the Arab state and its major port. Though Tel Aviv is adjacent to it, those who planned the partition of Palestine didn t annex it to the proposed Hebrew state. But force and Mandate authorities stripped off the city from what remained of Palestine!


I went to the bus terminal at Almisrara where bus drivers cried Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv!

I d like to go to Jaffa, I said

You ll have to go to Tel Aviv, then you can go to Jaffa , a driver answered.

The bus left Almisrara where the morning sun shone the gold Dome of the Rock, and we soon left East Jerusalem, occupied in 1967, crossing West Jerusalem, occupied in1948, moving between two worlds: a Western European one with some Eastern character, and a purely Arab one in terms of people s features, clothes and language. The bus ran along Jaffa Street to western Jerusalem on the road to Jaffa. Jerusalem s damaged villages occupied in 1948 were there: Siris, Beit Masir, Qalunya, part of Beit Eksa, Lafta, Deir Yassin and Qastal, bringing back memories of the war. Red Deir Yassin appeared as it was 60 years ago, as if there were gunfire at Qastal. A flog hovered on the fort. I prayed for mercy on the soul of mrtyr Abdul Qadir Al Husayni, who through controlling the Jerusalem- Jaffa road, changed the course of the battle. He recaptured Qastal, but he and many of his co-warriors martyred. As the warriors were burying their leaders, the invaders stormed into Qastal and are still there.

Parts of a damaged railway are barely seen. It must be the Jerusalem Jaffa railway, built by a French company in 1892, the first in Palestine, but I soon saw a modern train on a different track to Jaffa!

We left Jerusalem mountains and descended to the plain which stretches to the coast with its fertile soil grain, woodland, fruit trees, probably Jaffa s orange groves. We soon approached a cluster of small settlements. The bus ran parallel to the railway line, a reminder of Jerusalem s and Jaffa s visitors over a century ago. We were soon in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, which we have no good memories of. It was quiet in the morning and security personnel didn t check our IDS, probably because of our age, or thinking we carried visit permits!

As we ran out of water we entered a shop and the shop assistants sold us soft drinks and asked about the West Bank. I noticed the large number of motorcycles . We walked towards Jaffa which appeared in the horizon. It lies on the eastern Mediterranean, 60 km north west of Jerusalem. Jaffa was on the road of commercial caravans between Egypt and Syria as it lies halfway along the coastal plain, one of the easiest trade routes. It was linked to Syria through Alqantara railway and to Egypt through Rafah. To the south lies its wounded sister-Gaza, my companion said.

As we reached Alnuzha area I shouted, the minaret! My eyes were filled with tears. Without a guide we approached the old city and saw pre-1948 government buildings and the old Turkish garrison with its date shown on a wall map which the Zionists couldn t deface.

Call to the noon prayer came from a mosque on the shore. I said to my companion, It s a Turkish mosque, as seen from its style, minaret and domes. In just a few minutes we were in the Palestinian Arab mood: a mosque, prayers and a Friday prayer preacher. I looked at the mosque carefully: beautiful mosaic, a courtyard with roofed sides surmounted by a large number of small domes. The mosque is a hundred years old. Its old age alleviated my feeling of misery as it defies the invaders revealing that they were intruders! The imam welcomed us warmly and asked about our people in the West Bank, and his sermon was about supporting them. Inside and outside the mosque there was a small Islamic festival where Islamic books and cassettes were sold.

We went into a shop to buy some cakes and asked the shop keeper which was more delicious: Jaffa s or Jerusalem s, and he was in favour of the former. The shopkeeper, Ahmad, was a villager from my home city Nablus and he works in Jaffa occasionally but always finds difficulty in gaining access to the city.

We would like to see Jaffa.

We climbed Jaffa s green hill. This part of the city is well cared for. Israeli archaeologists carried out many excavations which revealed antiquities probably related to the Romans as well as other civilizations. Jaffa s small hill is not adjacent to the sea; that s why it was built there to be safe from its giant waves. Jaffa was built on a hill only a few tens of metres above sea level, with a steep slope to the sea; gentle to the plain. Down the hill there was an Arab Hebrew theatre where rehearsals for a contemporary play were held. I couldn t distinguish Arabs from Jews in the audience, but I only heard Hebrew-another falsification! Jaffa, which used to be the capital of culture, the press and education, has it disappeared for ever? Is this the fate of a city which had seven newspapers, mainly Palestine, and a broadcasting station? We were told there was a centre for children and women called Hersch .

Alajami area

On our way to this area we saw a number of shabby houses where Joffa s people live like refugees: nasty odour sewage in the streets, houses covered with zinc plates! We walked along side streets all with Jewish names now. It is there that the Jews gathered all 4,000 Palestinians who remained in Jaffa after the departure of 65,000 people hoping to return to Jaffa after the war! They were imprisoned in this area which was cordoned off with barbed wire with restricted entry and exit!

I tried to talk to people about the very poor condition of Jaffa and the area and the piles of garbage and dust, but with no favourable response. Behind me I saw Aljabaliya mosque and Alkhidr church, a sign of Mulsim-Christian peaceful coexistence. Old yellow houses show that it was an affluent area in the past, but the present is harsh indeed!

A small, old, rusty ship was docked in the neglected area. It was not the famous Titanic. I imagined how it was bustling with life some day. In the old port I remembered Nasri Shamsuddin s song lamenting the loss of Jaffa. An old man was carrying fish, as if not wanting to give up his old profession. I asked him about the port which he said was built in 1936, coinciding with the revolution against the British. I was still a child then, but I remember how the place was busy with ships, Europeans, Egyptians, etc. Tall buildings allow people to see and talk to the sea and look through windows to boats, fishermen and visitors before the port was closed down 42 years ago, causing the loss of part of the city s history of prosperity. What about Jaffa s sailors? They were brave and skilled in the face of wild waves.


Have Jaffa s remaining sailors left for other seas? Dr Ibrahim Abu Lughod, who was born and buried in Jaffa fifty years after his death, said he was 18 when he and other youth tried to convince people not to emigrate, but to no avail. They left for Acre and the Diaspora. He remained in Jaffa until the last wave and then had to leave, wondering whether he would be able to return some day.

Jaffa s people

Like other 1948 Palestinians, Jaffa s people lived under Israeli military rule from the year of the Nakba to 1966.They were long reluctant to talk about it; I don t know why. A sense of alienation and loss of identity, having to accept poorly-paid work. However, their population rose from 4,000 to over 25,000. In spite of Tel Aviv s prosperity within a century, the Jews occupied Jaffa and made it a mixed city: 25,000 Arabs and 50,000 Jews. Jaffa s people don t like to talk. In the courtyards of neglected old houses, villas and small places I saw children playing, which alleviated my sense of sadness.

What a beautiful house:

I dared to ask a man in his fifties, dressed in a pyjama, who was standing in front of his house, why he didn t rebuild his house. That s forbidden, sir, he answered and went into his house. Most houses are the property of the people who left Jaffa and the Municipality prevents rebuilding them. A bearded young man described Jaffa s very poor conditions: a drugs problem, which the police ignore, neglected, undeveloped schools. People can t compete with the Jews in buying or construction tenders. The Jews are in full control of the city and its future, denying the Palestinians their choices and aspirations.

Jaffa s fish

Jaffa has always been famous for its fish, which is delicious, filling and eaten fresh.

The Sea (or Port) Mosque

I kept looking at the sea and birds and saw some Arabs. There was a mosque nearby. After ablution in a hurry I entered the mosque for the afternoon prayer and was happy to see some young prayers there. We were told that the area round the mosque was a drugs spot. Mr Ahmad Abu Ajwa, the two-room mosque imam, told us it was neglected and the area round it, which was part of traditional Arab-Muslim traditional style, was partly removed by the British in1936 and the rest by the Israelis in the 1950s.People were too poor to rebuild the mosque. During the military rule the Arabs were forced to live in ghettos. There were over 46 mosques in and around Jaffa before 1948, and some minarets are next to church bells. It s some sort of solace, isn t it?

In the late 1980s, part of the mosque fell and the area was designated a danger zone. The Islamic Foundation rebuilt the mosque which is now an Islamic centre where jurisprudence, reading and Sunnah are taught. The state is required by law to restore all buildings, including mosques. But this is not implemented! he said. The mosque was built by the Turkish minister Hussain Pasha in the 19th century. It had a large congregation, being on the main road, but now as it is a long way from Arabs houses, it has not more than 15 prayers. Abu Ajwa said the phrase to be or not to be was written inside the Fort Mosque, adding he and a number of Jaffa s people performed prayer there, but the police closed it down. A court action concerning the mosque is pending.

Jaffa Orange

Jaffa Orange Co. , a name on a page in an old book. The company, I think, was on Alexander Street. Shall I try to locate the street and the company?!

Jaffa orange is a well-known, excellent fruit, for which Palestine is especially famous. We haven t eaten it for ages. Jaffa oranges were first cited in 1751 in a book by the Swedish scientist Frederick Hassel Quest about his travels in the East. Orange groves were concentrated on the banks of the Auja river. Ididn t have the opportunity to see a single lemon or orange grove to enjoy the fragrant odour of orange blossoms and the smell of Jaffa, Haifa and Acre. The poor, beautiful orange which was imported from faraway lands has been stolen by the invaders!

In his Before the Diaspora: An Illustrated History of the Palestinian People: 1876-1948 , Walid Alkhalidi wrote, In 1886, the American Consul in Jerusalem sent a report to the American Assistant Secretary of State highlighting the top quality of Jaff orange and the efficient grafting methods used. He suggested that American farmers in Florida copy the methods of growing Palestinian oranges. In 1911, about a million orange boxes were exported to Egypt, Britain, Turkey and France.

Many decades have passed since 1886, and a lot of sand, stones, dust and water separate us from Florida. In front of us was Hassan Bey Alkabeer mosque, which is always subject to attacks by extremists. It is a medium-size mosque with a minaret. It is nearer to Tel Aviv than Jaffa. After it stands the large city of Tel Aviv with its high-rise hotels and wide shore.

Tel Aviv

We were still walking along the fringes of the old Tel Aviv. When was it founded? Why was it established as a separate city for the Jews before Israel came into being in 1948, I wondered. My information about it is very limited. We walked only to identify its edges because we don t love it! Jews started to live in Jaffa in 1841 for commercial purposes following the appointment of a rabbi there. Their number inthemid-19th century was estimated at 30,000 families. Starting from 1882 a huge number of Ashkenazim went in groves to Jaffa taking advantage of the Capitulations in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire. A kilometre or so away, sixty houses were built, the nucleus at Tel Aviv, in the early 20th century, or more exactly in 1909.

A stranger in the city

I wanted to listen to Jaffa s old voices street vendors in Ramadan, music coming from the houses of the rich which have been reduced to ruins, students chanting slogans at British colonialism at Manshiya, ships at the port The smell of the sea is still the same, so is scene in the horizon. But this is not beautiful Jaffa, the lovely bride, as it used to be! Sixty years ago, on 14 May, Jaffa fell in long captivity. Wasn t Jaffa shown as an Arab city on all maps? Diplomacy failed to obliterate its Arab identity, but then came those who seized the place and time. I wonder why the British governor made Hajj Ahmad Abu Laben in charge of government offices and the city affairs for just a single day?!

On our way back to Jerusalem darkness had already fallen, filling my heart with grief, hiding some tears. I climbed Jaffa s hills once again on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road.

(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


* writer and critic- Occupied Jerusalem

** writer, poet and journalist - Nablus


Tahsin Yaqin* and Abdul Hakim Abu Jamous**


Beautiful Jaffa: a view from the sea

Old rich Palestinian houses rebuilt by the Israelis in preparation for seizure

Those who remained in Jaffa and how they have been marginalized

The Turkish mosque

Old Saraya Building, at the Clock roundabout

Porticoes of the Turkish mosque, renamed Jaffa Grand Mosque

Look at the prayer on the mosque door asking God to make their task easy

The Sea mosque, restored 13 years by Jaffa’s residents

A picture reflecting Nasri Shamsuddin’s song wishing to go to Jaffa or evoking memories there

The old port

A boat docked at Jaffa shore after its last journey

What are you whispering to the sea, fisherman?

World-famous Jaffa oranges in the sad land of orange groves

Jaffa minaret

The Sea mosque at sunset

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