Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The city that never sleeps

Tel Aviv skyline from JaffaMy next stop was Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city, and one of the largest Mediterranean metropolitan centers altogether. During my first few days in Israel, the coastal weather was hot and humid, but clear. The temperature ran around 38 C (98-100 F). The water was a spectacular green-blue. I walked down the beautifully cleaned up beach promenade toward the old port town of Jaffa. The fantastic economic growth of the last 15 years has given Tel Aviv a modern skyline and raised prices for coastal real estate to near-European levels.

Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring) was founded in 1909 next to the much older port city of Jaffa (Yafo). The Ottoman Turks ruled Palestine at that time. For a long time, it was the main center of Israeli government and what international commerce there was. In the 1930s, it was famous for its Bauhaus-inspired architecture. But after independence in 1948, Tel Aviv was swamped with immigrants, first from Europe, then from the successive waves of Oriental or "eastern" (Mizrachi) Jews from Arab countries. The city struggled, not helped by the largely socialized economy and perpetual state of war between Israel and its neighbors.

Twenty years ago, when I first visited Israel, Tel Aviv was much more of a diamond-in-the-rough. The beaches were often unattractive, and much of the city was run down, with that "instant slum" look familiar from other modernizing Mediterranean cities like Athens and Istanbul. The port area in the northern part of the city was polluted and not a place you'd want to go if you didn't have to. Israel's economy was heavily socialized and mostly closed.

Not now: as I walked around the northern and central part of the city my first day, I could see the effect of Israel's economic opening to privatization and globalization. While there is some exchange with other eastern Mediterranean countries (notably with Turkey and the Greek islands), the most startling sign of globalization is the presence of Asian businesses and workers, mainly from India and China, especially the latter. Northern Tel Aviv, once the unattractive port area, is now home to a fast-growing biotech industry around the university - plus an amazing explosion of nightlife. Israel is the practical, pioneering sort of society - early to bed, early to rise - turned globalizing and postmodern: Tel Avivis now stay up all hours with their Internet connections (Tel Aviv is the world's most wired city) and their cellphones (pervasive and always ringing). My first night there was with a friend in the biotech industry. It was my first contact with Israel's culinary revolution: "gourmet" and "Israeli" can now be used in the same sentence. In this case, it was a bit a falafel and shwarma. Anything you get in the States is a pale shadow of it.

The old port city of Jaffa and southern Tel Aviv still have a ways to go. The waterfront area of Jaffa has been carefully restored. I was amazed by the Jerusalem-like solid stone reconstruction and facades. Jaffa has been around for about 3400 years, since the late Bronze Age. It's well-known for its oranges and being the embarcation point for Jonah's strange journey and encounter with a whale. Speaking of whales, next to the old seawall in Jaffa harbor, is Andromeda's rock, which somehow became identified as the place where she was rescued by Perseus from the sea monster (Cetus or Ketos - a whale).

Jaffa harbor and seawallIt was probably the same whale making his rounds and showing up in all the stories.

A walk outside Jaffa port led me past the restored Ottoman clock tower into the emphatically unrestored neighborhood. This is a mainly Mizrachi (Oriental) Jewish area and lacks the resources of Tel Aviv's northern neighborhoods or the expensive northern suburbs beyond. The first set of streets made up Jaffa's famous flea market. Some people think it's just scuzzy, but it has a firesale charm to it. There's a lot of junk for sale, but now and then you see something worth a long look: some preserved old furniture, an old Beduin rifle, and quite a few nicely kept Turkish swords. This is one of the places where the remains of the Ottoman Empire ended up. Many of the old Ottoman countries have experienced a wave of nostalgia for those days recently. Looking at a pre-1914 samovar set, restored to luster and functionality, got me to thinking.

I walked a circle around the Mizrachi area, had lunch at one of its famous restaurants (Doctor Shakshuka), then walked back through the older, original part of Tel Aviv back into the newer and more modern center. A few buildings remain from the old Ottoman days - a mosque here, a church there - that once sat alone outside the protective walls of Jaffa port. The modern city has grown up around them. Directly to the south of Jaffa is the neighborhood of Bat Yam, Tel Aviv's only Arab neighborhood proper, although there are some mixed areas along the Jaffa-Tel Aviv line (which is no longer official, since the two cities make a up a single municipality). There was no sense of tension. Although Tel Aviv was the scene a few years ago of some terrorist attacks (including the horrific Dolphinarium massacre in 2001, along the beach promenade), there's only a weak sense of politico-religious rivalry. Tel Aviv's modern and secular character reinforces that.

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