Journey Number 2 — Abu Kabir / Michal Baror and Avital Barak

In early 2020, we were about to open a new research group project around the organizing principle of journeys. This project was meant to be a continuation of the work done as part of the project “Border Patrols,” which brought together groups of artists, curators and researchers from different disciplines once every two weeks in order to discuss questions of spatial liminality and the aesthetic-political potential that such spaces make possible. As part of the project, we planned a series of journeys around Israel, without knowing that all of our plans were about to change. The outbreak of the coronavirus put a spoke in our wheel and we had to reconceive the project.

We moved the project’s first journey into the virtual space on account of the pandemic, with limitations on movement and meeting particularly severe during the months of the first lockdown. The virtual journey opened up a wide range of possibilities for wandering, touring and guidance that appealed to us. But, at the same time, there was great desire to go outside into the ‘real world’ again. So as soon as the restrictions were lifted, we convened a group for a second journey which mostly took place in the open air of the Abu Kabir neighborhood.

The decision to focus on Abu Kabir was almost intuitive. It seemed that all of us pass through this neighborhood all the time — on our way back and forth between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, for birthday parties in Park HaHorshot, or stopping at the gas station on the outskirts of the neighborhood. And at the same time, it seemed that we didn’t know anything about it — how could a place be so familiar and at the same time so obscure?

Originally, Abu Kabir was a small village of immigrants from Egypt on the eastern outskirts of Jaffa in the 1930s, alongside the Daniyat, Hemed and Alarain sakhnat. With the passing years, Abu Kabir and its surroundings underwent many incarnations — from a rural Palestinian area that supplied agricultural produce to Tel Aviv and Jaffa, to a kind of border zone subject to violence, to a center of battle in the 1948 war, to a transit camp (‘ma’abara’) for Jewish migrants and eventually into a public park. The neighborhood has been home to various different institutions, such as an ice factory, a university, a zoological and botanical garden, and others. These days, the spatial conception of Abu Kabir has almost completely disappeared and we mostly consider it in the context of the police detention center and the Institute of Forensic Medicine. However, Abu Kabir and the other sakhnat (whose boundaries are also subject to discussion on the current map) are full of treasures, hidden and in plain sight — starting with the abandoned zoological garden (which was destroyed last year), St. Peter’s church, the Jewish cemetery from the Roman period and many other hidden corners that even after our journey remain unknown to us.

As part of our journey through the neighborhood we tried to change positions and perspectives between and within the encounters. Sometimes we roamed freely, we drifted and got lost, sometimes we leaned on our historical and political knowledge for our trajectories of movement, and other times the playful mindset of discovery and deciphering led us into the field. Within the wandering, encounters and conversations were a number of questions which came up repeatedly in different contexts. The primary one was that of invasion: who is considered an invader and why? There was also the question of preservation — what and who deserves to be preserved? How can we maintain those things that we identify as essential to the place?

As we sat amidst the foliage of the botanical garden (a common colonial practice), the ‘School of Environmental and Social Nature’ was on one side of us and on the other was the Russian Church, and a sign stating: “A burial cave from the first centuries C.E. — the Mishnah and Talmud period – is located here. The cave, hewn from kurkar. belongs to the Jewish cemetery of Jaffa.” Fire ants bit us and a rebellious myna bird hopped around. We began to discuss the matter of invasive species.

In the short story “Endangered,” by Eyad Barghuthy (Granta 10, 2019) the narrator confronts the myna bird: “that colonialist bird that invaded our country in recent years and drives out the local birds, like the Baladi sparrow, and the Syrian woodpecker, ousts them from their nests and throws their eggs and chicks out after them” (184). In the story, an impudent myna, that speaks fluent Iraqi Arabic, arrives to Haifa after a pogrom in her family and insists on reproducing so as not to be at risk of extinction. The myna hits the storyteller with the bitter truth: “You humans are a shameless bunch. You cut down trees, pollute the air and the sea, you dry out rivers, you hunt birds and animals, trade them and poison them and commit atrocities — and you accuse us of making little birds go extinct.” (187) Barghuty’s precise metaphor places the myna, the teller and us, the readers, squarely in the essence of local existence, well-suited to the variable, torn, violent, beautiful, abandoned and lively space of Abu Kabir.

The first stop on our journey was the southeastern corner of the neighborhood, where Lavon Street meets Ben Zvi. There, Abu Kabir’s last longtime residents — headed by Ora Griv — took us for a tour of the neighborhood and a conversation at the synagogue. Griv’s parents, who immigrated from Iran, were settled in the neighborhood in the 1950s by the government with the aim of populating the tumultuous border area with Jews. However, as with many similar places in Israel, the legal status of their properties was never settled, they were never granted basic municipal services, and instead of honoring them as ‘pioneers’ they were declared ‘invaders’ and sentenced to eviction. Grib, who is among the last of the original neighborhood Jewish residents, was evicted from her home in January 2020 by the Tel Aviv municipality under the pretext of expanding Park HaHorshot. After the eviction, Grib said: “The city of Tel Aviv stole my home today. I’m a 56-year-old woman. They took my house by force […] the city has no time, it is more urgent to them to build a green lung on our black heart…”[1]

From there we went on a series of walks, wandering freely — we passed by the neighborhood’s well houses, headed by the magnificent house of the well-off Palestinian merchant Salim Qasser from Jaffa. Beginning with the war in ’48, the IDF broke into the building which has since served the Education Corps, until 2009. We passed through the different sakhnat and tried to identify their boundaries from those that the city incorporated among them. We wandered the entire length and breadth of the Park HaHorshot and the fallow fields east of Ben Zvi Road. After that came the next lockdown.

Since we were unable to obtain permission to enter the various institutions which intrigued us, we took advantage of the transition to cyberspace to get inside. We ‘invaded’ the Institute of Forensic Medicine with the help of the film by director Ran Tal, ‘Ben Zvi Road 67’ (1998) which took us back to the end of the bloody 1990s. In the Zoom conversation that we had with Ran Tal, we found ourselves in the liminal space between life and death. The dead body, exposed and anonymous, who appeared on the screen as the subject of a forensic investigation, seemed to resonate with the remains of the shattered buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood. The virtual wandering and trying to extract meaning from the truncated body echoed the walks, on foot, through the neighborhood and our attempts to conjure up its past.

Due to the pandemic circumstances, we had no chance of entering the detention center. Instead of standing outside of the walls and shouting to the detainees inside, we decided to invite lawyer Yishai Sharon, Dr. Hagit Lernau and lawyer Gil Shapira from the Public Defenders’ Office as well as lawyer Anne Socho from the Civil Rights Association to a fascinating conversation led by Nitzan Satt, a member of the group, about prison conditions in Israel in general and at the Abu Kabir Detention Center in particular.

This issue of Maarav is the product of these wanderings and not a reflection of them. The issue does not seek to give an overview of the neighborhood or describe our journey through it. Rather, it offers different thoughts and diverse perspectives. In this sense, it is a collection of pieces describing the way in which the place was interpreted by the group’s different participants. It is an attempt to teach ourselves to pay attention to the places which we pass through, to learn to move through them and observe the different layers and readings that they invite. It does not address every aspect of the place, nor does it pretend to say something comprehensive. It is simply a collection of perspectives on one place, foreign and familiar, near and far in which we did not intervene, nor leave a mark.

Preservation architect, Professor Amnon Baror, continues his research on ‘areas of embarrassment’ and suggests understanding the Abu Kabir neighborhood as an archipelago of islands of embarrassment. The political anthropologist Dr. Matan Kaminer, conducts a reading of social class and power relations before 1948 in the unique working-class sakhnat which were built as residences for the workers of the surrounding orchards and port of Jaffa. Researcher Dr. Orna Vadia shines a light on a material and almost trivial element of the neighborhood’s landscape — the fence built of sheet metal, used as a temporary wall around construction sites. Vadia calls the fence a part of the local aesthetic tradition on the one hand, and an act of resistance on the other, and proposes alternative conservation methods. The painter Dr. Alma Yitzhaki presents paintings in ink from the series ‘Abu Kabir / Ruderal Communities,’ in which she observes the urban seams, dominated by crows, packs of dogs and castor plants. Designer and urban activist Hila Harel offers a series of photographs and text tracking a human footprint within what looks like wilderness. Planner and author Karen Schwetz contributed a fictional perspective in the short story that she wrote for this volume, which reflects the geographical and emotional inner workings of the neighborhood. The issue contains two important collections that serve all of the texts: one is a collection of historical maps which offers historical orientation to the dramatic processes that this space has been through and the second is the collaboration between three members of the group — Michal Baror, Amnon Baror and Matan Kaminer; Michal photographed, Amnon contributed his professional knowledge in deciphering the space and Matan provided a historical framework. In this collection of photographs, the Abu Kabir neighborhood appears as it does today, through the detective gaze which seeks those remnants of the past that managed to survive the waves of destruction and erasure; this photo series follows Matan Kaminer’s article.

In addition to the group members we invited the artists Hinda Weiss and Meital Katz Minerbo to contribute works to this edition, which engage with spaces within the neighborhood which we see as reflecting the spirit of the group’s research and wandering even though they did not participate in the meetings themselves.

Two projects which will join this collection in the near future include one by sculptor Rotem Linial, who puts forth a series of speculative monuments designed specifically for the neighborhood, to be accompanied by text by the curator (and director of the Center for Digital Art) Udi Edelman. In the other, Michal Baror interviews longtime resident of Abu Kabir, Ora Griv.

Many thanks to the participants, the guests, the hosts who opened up their world, their homes and perspectives to us.

The wandering group members:
Orna Vadia, Rotem Lineal, Keren Schwetz, Matan Kaminer, Nitzan Set, Tali Keren, Karen Benvenisti, Alma Yitzhaki, Amnon Bar Or, Hila Harel, Udi Edelman, Michal Baror, Avital Barak

Translated by Zoe Jordan

[1]Carmon, Tal, “Pioneers, no intruders, ‘As if I’m a criminal’: Ora Griv evicted from her home in the Abu Kabir neighborhood.” Davar, 4, January 2020. [in Hebrew]