Categorized | Middle East

WELCOME TO THE ZOO

By Audrey Farber,

crossposted at

 

Photo by Audrey Farber

 

My neighborhood doesn’t have street signs. And when it does, they don’t refer

to names of streets anyone is familiar with. House numbers, too, are scarce.

I didn’t know my own street address until yesterday – four and a half months

after my arrival. My neighborhood doesn’t have the big plastic-and-glass street-

side recycling cages that are conveniently placed around the rest of the city.

Its streets are narrow and winding, and children on bikes navigate the obstacle

course created by their siblings and cousins and neighbors playing soccer

between doorway goal posts. There is one bus stop, few taxis, and I’d be surprised

 if there were street lights.

 

But it does have public restrooms (see photo), and signs directing adventurous

tourists towards them in no less than three languages. It’s featured in all the

guidebooks as the neighborhood in which the best falafel can be found, down

a side alley in an unassuming hole in the wall. Although if you ask me, I think it’s

on a pretty average street in a pretty average storefront. I guess it depends on

 your perspective.

 

My neighborhood is the location of the “Middle Eastern bazaar” and outdoor

market, obligatory shawarma “stalls” and baklawa shops, and deliberately-placed

public art pieces by, for the most part, Jewish artists depicting various themes of

cooperation and coexistence. But no Jewish Israelis live in my neighborhood –

indeed, most Jewish Israelis I know are shocked that I live here. “Is it safe?”

 

My neighborhood is condescendingly? patronizingly? affectionately? referred

to in Lonely Planet as “Haifa’s grizzled old Christian-Arab quarter” and all signs

(literally) point to it being maintained as such to lend the city an air of authentic

Middle Eastern-ness, as long as it stays within its confines and preset boundaries.

This is where the tourists go to get a taste of the old-school Middle East, a little

Arab flavor in a Jewish-only melting pot. It is smack dab in the middle of one of

Israel’s few examples of pseudo-co-existence; one of the only places the Israeli

government could stomach such a blatant display of the persistent existence of

non-Jewishness. Throwing a tired old gnawed-out bone to all the civil rights

defenders out there: look at our diversity!

 

Come visit the Jewish state and while you’re at it, look at these primitive Arabs

in their small, confined space – just like they lived before we swooped in and

civilized this desert wasteland with milk and honey and fruits and wine and all

 that jazz. And guns. (Never mind the decades of British rule and before that

centuries of Ottoman administration that preceded us.)

We are preserving their heritage for them … by denying them opportunities to

advance and succeed and confining them to their narrow, scuzzy alleyways, selling

 eggplants at a discounted rate and smiling and nodding ahlan wa sahlan for tour

buses full of middle aged Americans. (You know they aren’t birthright kids

because birthright kids aren’t allowed near Arabs: danger, danger!) Of course,

not one of Haifa’s several museums – dedicated to everything from Japanese Art

 to Clandestine Immigration to the Israeli Oil Industry – represents Palestinian

culture, art, or history.This is a community on display. It is

the famous Wadi Nisnas whose charming alleyways have turned it into a tourist spot.”

It’s the only remaining part of its Middle Eastern-ness that Israel can exploit without

fear of criticism or retaliation, because the Orientalist inside all of us doesn’t

see the ghettoization of the Arab as something that needs to be rectified.

This community

is stuck inside its bars, fed scraps of economic opportunity to pacify it but never

allowed to forget that it is not equal in the eyes of the state. Capital S State.

 

Overshadowed by the imposing hotel towers at the top of the hill (read: affluent

 Jewish neighborhoods) and bound at its base by the militarized industrial port,

it’s a small haven of an increasingly smothered culture, a segment of society whose

 rights are diminished by the day. And the best part is, living here makes you feel

like you’re a part of the zoo, too. On display with the pita bread and fresh-caught

fish, for the enjoyment of tourists everywhere. And they can even find the

restrooms.

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