I’m in Dubai, my eyes tell me. I’m in my apartment, happily sinking into the flesh of my corduroy couch, balancing a laptop on my pyjamaed thighs. But my ears are somewhere else — somewhere they have never been; somewhere, as things currently stand, they could never be. My Lebanese ears have found a way into Jaffa, circumventing unbreachable borders, transcending enemy states, travelling, by way of the Internet, to the now intangible neighbourhood of Manshiyyah.
“I think any project that allows people to relive the way others remember a place, the way refugees remember Jaffa, making it present in the urban sphere itself or on the Internet, archiving and communicating it globally, is important.”
Before 1948, Manshiyyah was a lively quarter of Jaffa, brimming with intellectuals, politicians, activists, artists and all manners of hedonists. But, like many once vibrant centres of Palestinian urban life, it was bombed out of physical existence during and after the Nakba, and later reconstituted as an undistinguishable slice of Tel Aviv — its past life smothered beneath new parks and pavements, the feet of citizens and tourists trampling daily over its buried tragedy, further entrenching it in the ground. Now, Manshiyyah is nothing more than fragmented recollections in the ageing minds of the few remaining Palestinians who once walked its streets, clinging to the increasingly frail life support machines of refugee memories.
One group of Israeli and Palestinian activists and sound artists, under the direction of Miriam Schickler, however, believe Manshiyyah is not necessarily doomed to complete evaporation, not fated to decompose along with the dead and be absorbed into nature’s inaccessible attic. There are other ways, they posit, for such forgotten spaces to live on without corporeal form, without material traces of what was, without living witnesses to confirm their now extinguished existence. Witnesses will inevitably die, but their narratives have the potential for immortality, their words the ability to speak life back into that which has been seemingly annihilated.
All that remains of Manshiyyah, once a buffer zone between freshly divided Tel Aviv and Jaffa, is a pair of buildings — to the average passer-by, two buildings in a sea of ordinary structures that today coat the Israeli capital. But a stroll though the erased neighbourhood of 60 years ago is still possible, Schickler and her colleagues have shown. Imagination fastened to ears, we can follow narrated memories on an audio walk through this disappeared space.
As a whole, ‘Echoing Yafa‘ is a work of fiction composed of non-fictional experiences. It is a mosaic of stitched together memories, delicately scooped out of the minds of a few remaining former residents of Manshiyyah, and orated by local actors. “I think any project that allows people to relive the way others remember a place, the way refugees remember Jaffa, making it present in the urban sphere itself or on the Internet, archiving and communicating it globally, is important,” says the Jaffa and Tel Aviv based cultural practitioner and occasional DJ Muhammad Jabali, who introduced me to the Echoing Yafa project. “Oral history has this weird effect of breaking stereotypes. Personal stories are much more powerful than written, official histories.”
Threaded in between these morsels of remembrance are moments derived from British and Israeli archives and intelligence records — a touch of context. “All of the dubious rumours of the borderland were present in the audio walk,” remarks Jabali. In the background, sound behind sound, oral narrative behind oral narrative, artists interpret and respond with pieces of aural art to the stories intermingling with facts, personal experiences penetrating official statements, subjective convictions undermining historical truths. They imagine and then reimagine the bygone soundtrack of forgotten days, encouraging the audience to experience and not just observe this retelling of the past.
“Audio is a very useful and powerful tool,” Schickler reflects. “It’s different from vision. You have to immerse yourself in the listening event. It’s a more immediate and affective experience. I think we’re totally overloaded with visuals, and generally people don’t listen enough. I’d like to make them shut up for a second.”
For those privileged enough to be able to travel to Jaffa, their eyes will attempt to reconcile the landscape described in these stories with the markedly different territory through which their bodies must move, trying to keep up with the oscillation between directions provided by the narrators in the “real” and the invisible landmarks they point to. For those like me, listening from a distance, forbidden what was once also our Palestine, before mandates and borders, nationalisms and sectarianisms, our eyes might stare at media sets or coffee tables, out café or car windows, unsettled by the feeling of how foreign it all is — the Palestine of yesterday, the Israel of today, the promised states of tomorrow.
I thought I knew what the Nakba was. I thought I understood what the Palestinians had lost as a result of their infamous catastrophe. Land, homes, businesses, family members. Freedom of movement, the right to self-determination, control over their own collective and individual destinies. I thought their loss was theirs, not mine. I have a home. I have a passport. My family is accessible to me. I have a country — a disappointing one, to say the least, but a country nevertheless. I sympathise with the Palestinians, fiercely support their cause, rage at the injustices they must daily endure, wave their flag as though it were my own — but their tragedy, I have always believed, was not mine.
“Audio is a very useful and powerful tool. It’s different from vision. You have to immerse yourself in the listening event.”
But then I took a walk through Manshiyyah, and I heard that the Palestinians had lost much more than territory. It was the little things that caught my attention. I already knew about militias and rebels, demolitions and bombings, cleansings and exoduses. I knew about death and destruction, misery and suffering. What I didn’t know about was life — about Umm Al Ghareeb, mother of the stranger, as Jaffa was known, where “people come from all over the world to find their luck.” About Carmel Market, where Jewish, Muslim and Christian merchants from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere “try to rip you off all the same.” About the Jewish and Arab comrades of the neighbourhood — a nest for Bolsheviks, as the British called it. About the first Jewish quarter built outside of Jaffa’s walls, known for its market and brothels, to where Arabs, Jews, Brits – foreigners and locals alike — would travel from near and far to purchase a variety of goods and to satiate a diversity of desires. “The rumour goes,” a narrator tells us, “that wealthy men from Nablus sell plots of their land to have some fun. Whether it’s gambling, women, alcohol or even hashish, you can get everything here.” About Muslims warming their Jewish neighbours food on Shabbat. And about that beloved sea. Mothers, sisters and aunts enjoying sunset dips on Jaffa’s coast while their sons ogled the women bathing on Tel Aviv’s shores.
Here it was. The ‘Arab Modern’. Here was a forgotten way of being in the world — strangled by war, displacement and occupation, stumped by the sedimentation of borders and nationalisms — a tradition of urban life that existed at once in Jaffa, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, before these cities closed themselves off from one another, before we started defining ourselves through colonial categories and othering our own reflection, before visas and border police scarred the regional body.
We’ve tried so hard to make sense of “Arabness” over the years, to provide a counter-definition in response to stereotypes launched at us from abroad. We’ve ended up either discarding it as a fake, instrumentalist, supra-nationalist label with no basis in history or socio-cultural reality or presenting it as a static, monolithic set of abstract and meaningless tenets, ideals and characteristics, failing to realise that there was once a time when we were just being Arabs, when our Arabness was the organic result of everyday practices, of mobility and habitual exchanges, shared businesses and families in cities that were peppered with and therefore belonged, in a sense, to all of us.
Is there such a thing as an Arab anymore? Did we not lose our ability to become Arab, to practise our “Arabness”, when we lost cities like Jaffa?
This is not to argue the existence of some kind of (second) Arab golden age, or to romanticise the past. Such exercises in simplification, we should all know by now, are futile, and best left to exploitative nationalists. But, how can we move forward, how can we understand who we are, how we got here and where we should be trying to go, if we don’t fully comprehend our own before? If we don’t possess an inventory of our own losses?
We speak plenty about trauma, about material confiscations, about impoverishment and disenfranchisement. But, we rarely touch on the consequential cleansing of practices and habits, on the massacre of the day-to-day banalities that shaped the subjectivities of generations, on the annihilation of an environment that made possible what were once taken for granted as ordinary activities, interactions and experiences which, in actuality, mould and define this thing we mistakenly ascribe a naturalness to — our ‘self’.
Is there such a thing as an Arab anymore? Did we not lose our ability to become Arab, to practise our “Arabness,” when we lost cities like Jaffa, when we erected barriers where few or none had existed, when we discarded traditions and habits that challenged our new, imagined, exclusionary nations?
When Manshiyyah disappeared, when Tel Aviv and Jaffa were divided, Palestine was not only reduced territorially but characteristically, culturally and identitarially. “Today, nobody talks about the women of Manshiyyah knowing how to swim, for example,” Jabali comments. “It has a lot to do with the collective image, with what it means to be a Palestinian or an Arab. The Palestinian memory has been shaped as a villager’s memory; the cities disappeared from the story. We talk about losing the land, but we forget that we also lost our urbanity and our modernity; we lost our connection with other parts of the Middle East. There is much more loss here than the land, and projects like the audio walk that highlight this make you rethink what return means. It’s not just about returning people to the land. You have to deal with what has been lost and what else, besides people, needs to be returned, and to think about whether it can be.”
“This is the borderland,” one of the narrators tells us as we begin our aural journey through Manshiyyah. “It is a threatening place for those who think they know exactly who they are and where they belong. It is here where their firm identity gets shaken, and it is thus here where the battle will begin.” Manshiyyah, even in disembodied form, even as mere memory, can still be a productively threatening space, an archive of narratives that force us to question our understanding of who we are and what we want, that sends our imaginations into the past so that we might be able to reimagine the Middle Eastern future, steering us by the earlobes towards alternative possibilities powered by the echoes of a forgotten but not extinct life-world. The battle begun in Manshiyyah continues.
Edited by Stephanie Watt.