Behind the Well Houses: The Saknat of Abu Kabir / Matan Kaminer

In recent years, the beautiful well houses of Jaffa have become the object of attention from researchers, the media and educators in the field of urban architectural heritage. One such well house has even been renovated in the kitschy, neo-Orientalist style which characterizes the city’s new residential complexes and rechristened as a municipal cultural center and a “home for local art entities.” The Israeli real estate industry, too, realized long ago that the architecture of the 19th-century Palestinian bourgeoisie is well suited to the tastes of the 21st-century Israeli bourgeoisie.

But the hype around the well houses obscures another, no less important, and even complementary aspect of Jaffa’s architectural heritage, one ignored not only by the hegemonic story told by Zionism, but also, to a large extent, by the counter-narrative of the Palestinian national movement. The romantic perception of the well houses as symbolizing simple but pleasurable “traditional” life among the flowering orchards has no basis in historical reality. In actuality, the Palestinian citrus industry, like the Jewish one which succeeded it, was from the start an export-oriented, capitalist industry reliant on modern technology and cheap labor.

Of course, the cheap labor did not live in the well houses. The orchards which grew up around Acre and Jaffa throughout the 19th century and in which the luxurious well houses were built, were worked by poor, propertyless laborers. Many of them were the descendants of soldiers in the army of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali who conquered Palestine on his way to Syria in the 1830s. Around the commercial coastal towns, and near the orchards which became their headquarters, the immigrants built houses in clusters called saknat, (sing. sakneh), probably after the Egyptian pronunciation of the word thakneh, meaning “barracks.” These were settlements of a new kind, midway between village and city, with a new kind of inhabitant: agricultural laborers without land of their own. The biggest of the saknat around Jaffa, Abu Kabir, is named for a city in the Nile Delta. The Abu Kabir area as defined today includes this large sakneh, located north of the hill on which the Russian Church of St. Peter was later built, and a number of smaller ones: Ara’in, Daniyat, Hamed, a-Sabil, and a-Turk.[1] The Egyptian founders were later joined by additional immigrants and members of other stigmatized groups, including Syrians from the Hauran region, Kurds, and , and dark-skinned Arabs.

Architect Yael Allweil suggests examining the well houses, the saknat and the links between them with the same tools used by researchers to analyze the cotton plantations of the American south. After a century of romanticizing the magnificent plantation “big house,” where the master lived with his family and house slaves, researchers began to take an interest in the huts which were home to those agricultural workers whose cotton-picking labor supported the inhabitants of the big house. From this point of view, Israeli nostalgia for the well houses is not so different from the “lost cause” nostalgia for the antebellum American south exemplified by films such as Gone with the Wind. And just as in the United States, interest in the slaves’ folk architecture is accompanied by a growing historical interest in their daily resistance and the active part that they played in the Confederacy’s defeat, an in-depth examination of the saknat is an opportunity to reexamine the popular opposition to the Zionist movement and its patron, the British Mandatory government.

In the 1920s and 30s’, Palestine underwent rapid economic growth, accompanied by growing dispossession of Palestinian peasants (fellahin) from agricultural lands purchased by Zionist institutions. Many of the dispossessed peasants gravitated to the coastal cities, where the racist policy of “Hebrew labor” locked them out of many workplaces. Meanwhile, the agricultural zone between Jaffa and Wadi Musrara (Ayalon) was partially urbanized, and the southern section of Herzl Street, which connects Tel Aviv to the Jaffa-Jerusalem Road (now Ben Zvi Road), was paved beside the houses. The neighborhood of Givat Herzl, where poor Jewish immigrants crowded, grew around the road. The zone’s Arab population also clustered in a number of foci, not all of which were considered saknat. One which was not is Tel a-Rish (today’s Tel Giborim in Holon), whose residents made their living growing vegetables on land leased from the Jerusalemite Khalidi family. Subhiya Abu-Ramadan, who grew up in Tel a-Rish, later told anthropologists Chaim Hazan and Daniel Monterescu that locals called themselves birawiya (from bir, “well”) — an identity that they differentiated from both the rural-peasant and the urban-bourgeois classes.

The people of the Abu Kabir area played an important part in the movement of resistance against the Mandate and Zionism, which was led, throughout the country, by the poorest and most vulnerable members of the Arab population, in the face of de-escalation attempts by local dignitaries who sought to reach an understanding with the British. Violence broke out in the area during the “events” of 1921 and 1929 as well as during the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, when as part of a major punitive operation in Jaffa, the British demolished 300 “illegal” huts in Abu Kabir and another 350 near the Sheikh Murad Cemetery (in today’s Shapira neighborhood). In February 1948, the Zionist Hagana militia attacked the saknat as part of its attempt to besiege Jaffa, and at the beginning of May, the residents surrendered and evacuated, some of them into exile and some into the Ajami ghetto into which the remainder of Jaffa’s population was evacuated. The story told by Abu-Ramadan, who remained in Jaffa, reflects the tensions within Palestinian society as well as the passivity with which the Arab regimes responded to the Nakba.

At the start of the fighting, Abu-Ramadan says, “We stayed, and the shells reached our house. […] All of our neighbors left except for us. […] There was a group of Arabs who collaborated with the Jews, who would bring the resistance fighters bullets filled with fake gunpowder. You fire the bullet and it does nothing, less than a rock. It was a betrayal.” And further: “Those who betrayed us were those from outside. After all, an army came from Jordan and Syria to defend Palestine. I saw them at Tel a-Rish. […] But they didn’t attack. […] In Lod and Ramleh there was fighting, but King Hussein helped the Jews. […] How could the Arabs hold out? […] My brother-in-law was shot and killed. Not in Jaffa.”

An open-eyed walk through today’s Abu Kabir provides an opportunity to examine the spatial implications of selective memory. While some of the well houses are undergoing institutional rehabilitation as part of the area’s accelerated gentrification, the saknat remain neglected and unmarked on the city map. The largest of them, Abu Kabir, was destroyed in the aftermath of the war and still stands desolate. Saknat a-Turk (at the corner of Ben-Zvi Road and Lavon Street) was settled in the fifties by Mizrahi immigrants who are now fighting for their right to continue living there. Saknat Hamed has become an odd little island, packed with motorcycle garages, between Herzl Street and Shach Alley. The only sakneh which has preserved something of its original character is Daniyat, today a tiny compound near the intersection of Salameh and Herzl Streets. In this small, hidden neighborhood, one can still identify elements of vernacular Egyptian architecture, such as partially-chiselled stone walls and low, flat roofs, in the several original structures which are still standing.

The erstwhile residents of Abu Kabir’s saknat have no clear place in either of the two prominent national narratives which tell the history of this country. In the Zionist story, there is room for Orientalist fantasies about effendis and orchards, but not for Palestinian capitalists who developed innovative production methods and connections with the global market, or for friction between those capitalists, who sought to placate the Mandate authorities, and agricultural workers struggling to save their homes and their livelihoods. Even the Palestinian national story has so far found only marginal space for this stratum of rural and semi-urban workers, many of foreign origin, who led the popular resistance despite the hesitation of the notables. But perhaps, in one possible future of this city, there will be a place of honor for the residents of the saknat, the people whose labor made Jaffa into the wealthy and cosmopolitan city which ultimately gave birth to Tel Aviv.

Translated by Zoe Jordan

The author wishes to thank Amnon Baror, Basma Fahoum and Daniel Monterescu for their comments. Opinions and errors are mine alone.

 

Sources

Allweil, Yael. “Plantation: Modern-Vernacular Housing and Settlement in Ottoman Palestine, 1858-1918.” Architecture beyond Europe, no. 9–10 (July 2016).

Kanafani, Ghassan. The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine. London: Tricontinental Society, 1972.

Golan, Arnon. “Abu-Kabir: From the Rural-Urban Fringe to the Urban Margins,” Cathedera, 160, pp. 49-72 (Hebrew).

Hazan, Haim and Daniel Monterescu. A Town at Sundown: Aging Nationalism in Jaffa. Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2011. (Hebrew).

Kark, Ruth and Aviv Oppenheim. “The Development of the Egyptian Sakinat in the Jaffa Region in the Nineteenth Century.” Ariel, 210-11 (August 2015), pp. 159-176. (Hebrew).

Tamari, Salim. Mountain against the Sea: Essays on Palestinian Society and Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.      

[1]  The professional literature and the historical maps expose a degree of uncertainty regarding the precise names and locations of saknat Ara’in, Daniyat, and Hamed. This lack of clarity also reflects the marginality of the saknat in historical memory.