Centenary cities

reflectionWhich is the most ethnically diverse city in the Middle East? Go on, have a think. What’s your best guess? Dubai?

My guess might surprise you. If you discount Mecca during the haj – which hosts 3 million people from seemingly every country in the world – I’d say the answer is Tel Aviv. I just got back from there, on assignment for The Independent, and was delighted to get reacquainted with what is an amazingly diverse city.

In the space of a few days, and aside from Israelis, I talked to Afghans, Iranians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Romanians, Americans, Ethiopians, French, Brazilians, South Africans, Moroccans, British, and more – most of them Israeli by nationality but carrying cultural identities originating all over the world.

There are, of course, very specific political and cultural reasons for Tel Aviv’s diversity – before and after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 people were encouraged to go there to make a new life, in the process erasing several pre-existing communities. For some observers, that turns the city into an illegitimate implant. For me, it turns it into a living reflection of the region’s human tragedies – a precious, uniquely valuable record of the results of intolerance.

The injustices are not clear-cut. The thinking among politicians and ordinary people, both in Israel and in other countries, which resulted in whole communities arriving en masse in Tel Aviv strikes me as being just as racist as the thinking which has legitimized the complete emasculation by Israel of Old Jaffa. This once-thriving Palestinian city, dating back to the Old Testament, is now shockingly reduced to a touristy stop on a sightseeing tour, hosting only galleries run by wealthy Israeli artists and a handful of underplayed (or, in the case of the Jaffa museum, neglected) historical attractions.

jaffaarches1Seafront districts of Jaffa are now full of luxury villas and condos, designed in a pastiche style more reminiscent of contemporary architecture in the Gulf – pointed arches splashed around in a vain attempt to locate the building within some kind of cultural context. Tel Aviv has much beauty, but it has made Jaffa ugly – literally and metaphorically.

Jaffa is a mostly overlooked link to further themes of exile and displacement. In 1948 many people from there were forced to flee to the Jordanian capital, Amman – barely 100km to the east.

Like Tel Aviv, Amman’s character has been shaped by movements of people. Once a mainly bedouin city, its population doubled in the space of a few weeks in 1948 as Palestinians arrived in large numbers seeking refuge from war and persecution in Israel. The same thing happened in 1967 – and again in 1991, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait. After the 2003 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands more people arrived in Amman from Iraq. The city, poor to begin with, and buffeted by waves of refugees, has often struggled to cope.

Amman has remained overwhelmingly Muslim and ethnically homogeneous. Yet Tel Aviv – which has remained overwhelmingly Jewish – has become ethnically very diverse.

This isn’t the place to bang on about cultural identity, but one thing is interesting to note. Tel Aviv has frequently been active in facilitating the absorption of large numbers of immigrants (aided, of course, by political engagement and lots of money). Amman, by contrast, has been almost entirely passive: urban planning is a recent innovation and a sense of shared endeavour has been almost completely lacking. As a consequence Amman sprawls, while Tel Aviv flows.

maptaammYet both were founded in 1909. Both have been celebrating their centenary this year with cultural events and public parties – a parade in Amman, fireworks in Tel Aviv – and dedicated websites (this for Amman, this for Tel Aviv). Both cities identify strongly with their populations’ experience of transplant and exile: in both, a simple “Where are you from?” is enough to cue a life-story. They have a lot to share.

But there has been no contact. I know only a handful of people in both cities who have made the journey to visit their urban neighbours. Isn’t that a pity?