The Holy Land is baking and laid over with haze. Brown smudges the horizon as if a painter has worked it with her thumb. The buildings are chunks of dirty brown-grey or cream. From the aeroplane, they seem to hug the ground. Even the taller blocks hunker down. Soon, the reason becomes clear: flat roofs. They cut off and create a no-nonsense appearance rather than the illusion of uplift. Occasionally I spot a cluster of dull red roofs with low gradients; insufficient to alter the perception.
Back in the days when even non-believers attended Sunday School occasionally (to understand that parallel culture of belief and know the accompanying stories that had become societal references), Mrs White, softly spoken Mrs White almost as pale as her name, read us Jonah and the Whale. What an astonishing idea for a six-year-old. There was even a picture of Jonah sitting inside in the stomach like a hermit in a cave.
I think it was my mother who introduced me to the idea of fable.
And here we are, in this storied land.
Upon arrival at our accommodation, we have some concerns about the structural soundness of the buildings in the locale. And the street door of our accommodation. The apartment door, made of unassailable steel, does not engender a feeling that we have made a wise decision but a friend assured us beforehand that this is how Jaffa looks. All accommodation closer to the old city had been booked. We found something on the fringes… and it looks like it.
However, we step into what feels like a 1970s film set; a film that requires lots of doorways and doors in various states of repair. Funkalicious. It is a short and quiet walk into town, Shabbat having begun. On our street someone has placed a huge plastic bottle – the sort used in water dispensers in medical centre waiting rooms – beneath a trickle of water dripping from a dodgy-looking pipe on the side of a building. I hope they have other options for drinking water.The streets waft with drain and rubbish smells but there are also random whiffs of fragrance, as if cologne has been sprayed about.
We marvel at the shabbiness. The city looks like it’s only a few years from disintegration. Ruin is not an unfamiliar state for Jaffa. Over thousands of years, its streets have seen sieges, bombings, razings and demolition by foes, residents and its own government.
Around the coastal sweep, the Tel Aviv section of Tel Aviv-Yafo conveys a different notion of a middle-eastern city. The plans of the 1909 founders have gone a little astray. They envisaged it as a tranquil, garden-rich, suburb of Jaffa – a place to retreat after a busy workday in the city. Arguably, today’s nightlife buzz and beach culture are the perfect antidote too.We eat in the backyard of a restaurant, surrounded by lush plants screening the ocean views. A constellation of things conjures the feeling that we might know the people at the other tables: our pleasure (and surprise) at this new city; chatting with the owner/cook and having the sense that she was just going to pop into her doorless and casual kitchen and whip up something for us – like guests rather than customers; people strolling in from the street as though arriving for a party; the toddler from the next table leaning down for me to kiss her goodnight as she passes in her mother’s arms.
We are introduced to food the Israeli way – one orders and receives a lot more. Hot bread appears alongside a variety of vegetable dishes in small bowls.
In the morning, we buy breakfast from a bakery where the servers’ T-shirts proclaim that Arabs and Jews can live happily together. Not quite a microcosm of society…yet.At the foot of the Hapisga Garden, I see six varieties of bird, including a hoopoe which I so enjoyed in Africa.
Kdumin Square was ‘created’ by the British in 1936 as they squashed an Arab uprising by demolishing the (evacuated) houses in this area. Now it is a meeting place, a place for tourists to gather their breath, an outdoor performance area. Beneath it lies a small museum which includes an excellent multimedia show of Jaffa’s history.
A breeze drifts through the window of a restaurant on the square. The waitress pours cardamom-laced coffee, thick with grounds. Below us, boats navigate the narrow entrance to the port. All is well.
Jaffa was first inhabited in roughly 7500 BC. It has had a working harbour since the Bronze Age. The port was greatly reduced in significance when the Tel Aviv port was opened after the Arab uprising. It ceased to function for all but fishermen in 1965. Today the port bustles with people and moored craft.
In a café on the hill behind the port, we watch the faithful cross the street in a procession to a coach. We find them later, disgorged by the sea. One woman is trailing behind, arms raised above the chattering, cheerful crowd, taking photos on her phone – a seaside outing.They’re not the only ones enjoying the beach. Tens of metres away, rats ferret out food from rubbish strewn amongst the rocks. It is still broad daylight.
We have a sneaky cocktail in a funky little bar also serving as an art gallery with half a roof. It pays to slip down the back streets. (In this case, Hatzorfim Street. Maybe we caught it at a quiet time.)
Up the hill, at the edge of the square, St Peter’s Church has its own magic. I open the doors to the lilting and rippling of a hymn sung in Spanish. Due to its destruction, the church has been rebuilt twice since its original construction in 1654 over the ruins of a crusader church. St Peter raised Tabitha/Dorcas from the dead on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner’s house a short walk away. After a dream there, he set off to spread Christianity.