Wednesday, 2 May 2007

History and identity in Jaffa and Salonica

I finally got round to reading Adam LeBor's City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, and the reviewers are right, it really is one of the best recent books on Israel/Palestine, and probably the one book I'd give to someone who hadn't read anything on the topic. The way LeBor tells the story of the last hundred years through the history of one city, and the stories of particular individuals and families on both 'sides', is magnificent. Like all good historical works, City of Oranges makes you want to find out more: about Ottoman Palestine, the Arabic-speaking Sephardic culture of north Africa and Iraq, and the socialist and modernist ideals that inspired the founders of Tel Aviv. LeBor provides no easy answers, but what he does is enable the reader to enter into the experience of groups and communities with radically different perspectives, a process of imaginative sympathy that must surely be part of any attempt to find a long-term solution to the conflict.

LeBor's book is the best historical work that I've read since Mark Mazower's Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, which also took a single city as a prism through which to explore important issues, in that case Europe's Muslim and Jewish heritage, the transfer of ethnic populations, and the Holocaust. Mazower's book conveys powerfully the brutality of uprooting and annhilating communities and cultures that had existed for hundreds of years. (His book Inside Hitler's Greece is also recommended reading, if you want to understand the everyday cruelties of life under fascism and the achievements and weaknesses of partisan resistance.)

It struck me that both LeBor's and Mazower's books demonstrate, among many other things, the tragic consequences of reducing individuals to singular identities. Although it's possible to romanticise the past, 'old' Jaffa and Salonica both represented the possibility of hybrid identities and cultures, while the historical events that transformed them forced their inhabitants to choose one identity: Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim. Although LeBor resists any easy optimism, he ends his book with hopeful signs of Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv/Jaffa at least beginning to listen to each other's stories and with their wish that Israel/Palestine can one day become a 'normal' country, in which ethnic and cultural identities are fluid not fixed, and a cause for celebration and connection, not division.

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