Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pensaks Passage

Couldn't have been there without writing a few words about Pensaks Passage at Herzl 16. Built in 1925, this was designed as a commercial building and served as a sort of proto-shopping mall, complete with shops, restaurants, cafes and workshops. From a central courtyard open to the elements, you climb up to another three floors all facing down to the courtyard. Today the ground floor is deserted and some of the top floors have been sub-divided into flats. The day we we visited a group of arts students were holding an exhibition on the ground floor.

Goods were lifted to the upper floors by means of a lift (ok, elevator), the first of its kind in Tel Aviv.

Still standing but now unuseable, this went by the name of ma'aliya. The original sign can be seen in the entrance to the building.

A pretty corner created by tenant on one of the upper floors hints at the potential for change. Haven't heard about a scheme to salvage and conserve this wonderful old building. I hope that someone picks up the gauntlet.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hard times

These are hard times all over and Tel Aviv is no exception. One friend told me about a friend of his who has just been dismissed from a high-tech company . The whole exercise was carried out like a military operation. The unlucky emplyees recieved a dismissal letter and were expected to vacate the building within minutes. When they staggered downstairs they found two ambulances and a line of taxis waiting to take them home. I heard another story about 5 guys who are about to be sacked by the kibbutz factory but meanwhile have been invited to a holiday at a Turkish resort at the same factory's expense!!

Despite the economic downturn and at least in the near vincinity of the rooftop (yesterday an example of inner urban blight today a sexy real estate location) the clatter of building is still audible over the traffic. The whole area is being revitalised by a combination of conservation of old buildings hand in hand with new construction, especially of tower buildings.

Here's the back of an old building a few houses up the road that dates back to the early years of the century and the very beginnings of Tel Aviv (Ahuzat Bayit) . The bulldozer is probably digging an underground parking space for the new building that will rise behind the old one.

This space on the corner of Herzl and Lillienblum streets is slated to hold a 30 storey hotel - 'Dan in the City'. Only the facades of the old buildings on the perimeter of the site facing the road will be retained and restored.

Only the fronts of these houses will be saved. Some of them have some attractive features.

Until the hotel is built, graffiitti artists have been using the dilapidated space as their canvas. One of them had played on the words tov lamut be'ad artzenu ( "It is good to die for our country") reputed to have been uttered by the dying lips of Zionist leader Joseph Trumpeldor in the battle of Tel Hai. Instead of that uplifting patriotic motto the artisthas written tov lamut - artzenu be'ad or "It's good to die - our country is for."Not a slogan likely to go down well with the occupants of the new hotel but by then the place will be all prettied-up.

And while on the subject of dilapidated spots about to undergo great changes, here's a picture of an open piece of land called kiryat sefer . Some of the local residents are battling to turn it into a park. Since an earlier promise to do just that has never materialised, the municipality obviously has other plans. I read that the locals had done some planting and we went over to check it out. But instead of fresh green shoots we found only this disconsolate woman in front of a deserted building carrying the sign "This is the Kiryat Sefer democratic ecological park." In case you were wondering, Ron Huldai was re-elected mayor of Tel Aviv (by 52-34% if I remember correctly). Dov Khenin's supporters put up a great fight and have as many seats in the local council as Huldai's Tel Aviv 1 party. Now let's see if they can use their political power to turn the asphalt green in the democratic -ecological park in Kiryat Sefer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Herzl won

This is a photo of (part of) the outside of a bar situated at 1 Herzl St, a few minutes walk from the rooftop. The first time I saw it I smiled at the irony of Theodor Herzl, hozeh ha-medina (the visionary of the state) as the name for pick-up bar. But after all, this is sardonic Tel Aviv where all sacred cows have long been slaughtered . And also after all, what does Herzl mean to young people nowadays. At best, he might ring a bell as a vague symbol of someone who promoted the idea of a Jewish state. Nobody however actually reads his works nowadays and even if they did, his ideas about a utopian European-type Jewish-international state would sound as though they belonged to another planet. I was therefore intrigued - and a bit shocked, to notice that on another part of the facade of the bar - which seems to have been copied from an encyclopedia entry on Herzl , the designers had chosen to include this text:

“We must expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population over the border by procuring employment or it in the transit countries by denying it employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly. Let the owners of the immoveable property believe that they are cheating us, selling us things for more than they are worth but we are not going to sell them anything back.”

Wickipedia adds:

In his diary he wrote that land in Palestine was to be gently expropriated from the Palestinian Arabs and they were to be worked across the order /"unbemerkt" (surreptitiously), e.g. by refusing them employment.[6]
Herzl's draft of a charter for a Jewish-Ottoman Land Company (JOLC) gave the
JOLC the right to obtain land in Palestine by giving its owners comparable land
elsewhere in the Ottoman empire. According to Walid Khalidi this indicates Herzl's "bland assumption of the transfer of the Palestinian to make way for the immigrant colonist."[7]

This was indeed the way that the early Zionists "redeemed" the land in the early years of the 20th century, gradually buying up lands and dispossessing the tenant farmers ("another dunam and another goat" as the saying went). I'm not aware of alternative employment being offered but I could be wrong. As for spiriting people over the border - that only came much later in the 1948 War of Independence. In any event when it came to workers, the system of preferring Jews over Arabs didn't seem to have worked too smoothly. I'm reading a book by Nobel prize winner Shai Agnon ('tmol shilshom) which vividly describes the travails of the young idealistic pioneers of the Second Aliyah who were unable to find work because the immigrants from the First Aliya who had already established themselves in the first moshavot (villages) preferred to hire Arab labourers since they were both cheaper and more experienced.
Back to Herzl One. Whether this text was chosen randomly (graphic designers tend to see words as no more than shapes) or because someone was trying to make a political statement I have no idea. It's also quite possible that (since it is written in English to make it seem "cool") I'm the only person who has noticed.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Local polls

Municipal elections tomorrow. In Jerusalem (which already has an ultra-orthodox mayor) haredi candidate Meir Porush has been driven to visiting pubs in a last ditch effort to pick up votes against secular hi-tech tycoon rival Nir Barkat. The ladies on TV from once staunchly secular Ramat Eshkol had no doubt for whom they were going to vote (even if they couldn't remember his name for the moment). Anyone but the ultra-orthodox who are changing theface of their neighbourhood. One of them woke up to find a placard outside her door advising her to dress modestly so as not to offend the eyes of her religious neighbours.

If the battle for the management of poor, bedraggled Jerusalem is being waged , at least symbolically, over the souls of its residents in the religious sense of the term, a different battle is being waged over the Godless souls of Tel Aviv. Here too, two conflicting world views seem to be clashing. On the left, the communist, non-Zionist hard working Knesset member Dov Hanin who, with strong green credentials, is heading a loose coalition of non-partisan community activists. Their platform - to give the city back to the people by ridding it of the domination of the automobile and the political machinations of city hall. On the right, the incumbent two-term mayor Ron Huldai (backed by Labour and Kadima), a gruff and hard-nosed former air force officer, who has spruced up Tel Aviv and turned it into a magnet for the rich. Thanks to a word of mouth and internet buzz and his adoption by celebs, the emaciated and non-charismatic Hanin has come out of nowhere to place an easy victory by the formidable Huldai in doubt. On the opinion pages of the local and national papers there are some who are even comparing Hanin to Obama (hah!) and saying that if this strait-laced green /red nerd defeats Huldai it would be a victory for the sort of change the whole country needs.

The incumbent

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Crying with Obama in Cairo

Was lucky enough to spend a few days in Cairo , for a seminar. My third brief visit. I was told that this tower was built by Nasser and funded by an American bribe in return for not building the Aswan Dam, which of course he eventually built anyway. Other than to look attractive (it also lights up at night) it serves no apparent purpose. Early Wednesday morning, this was the view from my hotel window. But most of my attention was on CNN and I found tears running down my cheeks during Obama's victory speech. The Egyptians, like nearly everyone else, were heartened by his victory

There are an estimated 20 million people living in Cairo - a quarter of Egypt's population. 100,000 of them live in the cemetary. Noisy, congested and dangerously polluted, Cairo still has the buzz of a great city. Forget about pedestrian crossings. To cross the road, you have to wade into six lanes of honking old cars and hope for the best.

Food is brought in by employing a variety of integrated transport systems.

Found this beautiful old Pontiac (alongside a Morris Minor and a 1950s Jaguar all well preserved) not far from the hotel.

The Manial Palace (now a museum ) is said to have been built for Prince Mohammad Ali between 1899 and 1929. The palace was given to the Egyptian nation in 1955. Prince Muhammad Ali was the first cousin of King Faruq and the younger brother of Khedive Abbas II Hilmi. So now you know.

Casual conversations in Cairo revealed, worryingly, that Mubarak's regime is disintegrating and no-one knows what's going to happen when he exits the arena. But no-one seemed overly perturbed. The Egyptian people have been around for a long time and stoically and cheerfully survive everything their chaotic country throws at them. As long as the the Nile flows undisturbed through Cairo's heart they will somehow survive this hiccup in their history too.

On my last night in Cairo I went to jazz concert supported by various European embassies. These Nubian frame drummers from Aswan played with a great Cuban band.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The well maker

Took a trip last weekend with friends to the village of Metula which is slap bang on the Lebanese border a few kilometers north of Kiryat Shemoneh. We were hosted by Galia Goldberg at Hamavri , an archaic name (literally translates into “the well maker”) but somehow appropriate for an old-fashioned , friendly family hotel . The vivacious Galia is the widow of the late Yossi Goldberg who was Metula’s mayor and, for a few years, a Member of Knesset. Their son, Eyal, who joined us, made a sensitive and compassionate documentary film about his lively family and how they contended with his emergence from the closet. There are some unforgettable scenes of his domineering, eccentric yet loving grandmother and her bitter sweet-relationship with his grandfather. Both of them have died meanwhile, as has his father Yossi.

Metula – founded in 1896- is about as close as you get to an authentic Jewish village (as opposed to kibbutz or moshav) in Israel: old stone houses, home-made jam, wood fires, thick soups, a tractor in the yard , the fruit ripening in the orchard, the local election campaign posters on the main street. At the same time, the twist and turns of history, and of the economy, have brought about some changes.

First, its clear that Metula makes as much money from tourism as it does from agriculture. The main street is packed with hotels (some extremely ugly) and restaurants (some of them good). Another striking feature are the Thai workers, wearing broad hats and scarves, we saw zipping around on tractors or resting outside prefabricated dormitories. Globalization and higher living standards in Israel means it is them and not the local lads of Metula who are doing the hard agricultural labour in the orchards and fields. And not just in Metula - throughout Israel.

After Israel finally withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 some of the Christian residents of southern Lebanon who, with Israel’s agreement, had been regularly crossing through the 'Good Fence' to work in the Galilee, managed to escape into Israel and receive asylum. They were associated with the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army which collapsed with Israel's departure and was immeidtaely replaced by Hizbullah. There are still several Lebanese families working in hotels in Metula - which is probably why the food tasted so good there.

There is however an unwritten agreement with the Lebanese neighbours who open the sluices and let the rainwater flow over the border into the nearby nahal Ayoun nature reserve where it flows down a series of waterfalls, the biggest being the tanur (oven). Since the neighbours have yet to turn on the tap the waterfall above is dry.

Not mentioned in the Wikipedia description, Metula also bears a scar. Its fields used to stretch north of the present border into the fertile Marjayoun valley. However the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that carved out Lebanon and Syria, left Metula's fields on the Lebanese side. The local farmers were eventually compensated with inferior land in the Hula Valley but some never got over the blow. One bricked over his window so as not to have to look at the lands he lost.

The trees are losing their leaves in Metula (and in Tel Aviv).

And the first winter flowers can be seen. It was good to get out of the big city.