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Sumayl — Tel Aviv’s Shadow Village

April 16, 2014

by Laurie Winestock

After so many years I am here once again.

4-Sumayel-ArlozorovEvery year I visit my family, and I am faced with an indelible image that is somehow buried in the heart of Tel Aviv. As a young woman I thought it a strange curiosity: wedged between skyscrapers and three-story apartment houses, a ramshackle village of small stone houses and thin trailing alleys. It was like seeing a wigwam on Wall Street. More bizarre in the fact that it was totally ignored by everyone and everything surrounding it.

I speak of the remnants of the Palestinian village of Sumayl (pronounced Soo-Mey-l). No one ever mentioned to me that there had been a Palestinian village in the heart of Tel Aviv. Maybe it was just too obvious to mention.

When I first noticed Sumayl in the late 1970s, I had already been living in Israel for many years. I had walked up and down the streets of Tel Aviv many times. No one had ever mentioned the name Sumayl. There were remnants of the reality of Palestine everywhere in Israel — in Jerusalem, in Haifa, in the many Arab villages that had remained intact throughout the Galilee in particular, and in other places too. These Palestinian locals were acknowledged, even if at times begrudgingly. The first place I lived after emigrating to Israel was a school next to the large Palestinian village of Abu Gosh, outside of Jerusalem. We used to buy popsicles at the corner store in Abu Gosh in the summer heat. I was 15, then. That was 1971. Abu Gosh is now the size of a town. No one denied Abu Gosh then, or now.

But Tel Aviv was an Israeli invention, an Israeli city. Even though it sat right next to Jaffa, a largely Palestinian port town, the city proper of Tel Aviv was known as Israeli through and through, as though there had been nothing there previously. We were told it had been built on empty sand dunes, by industrious Jewish settlers years ago. It was a very modern city, without the exotic taste of the middle east or Palestine anywhere in site, for better or worse.

Except for Sumayl — a village that stood in what is now the very center of Tel Aviv, squatting on Ibn Gabirol Street, wedged between Jabotinsky and Arlozorof Streets. If you know anything about the history of Israel, you might find this even more symbolic and ironic, Jabotinsky being the main leader of the rightwing faction of Israeli Zionist history and Arlozoroff being an important leader of the leftwing Labor Zionist movement. (Arlozoroff was mysteriously assassinated in the 1930s.) Sumayl, a town stuck between the two streets named for these two main political forces of Zionism; Sumyal, crumbling, fading away, almost obliterated, but not completely gone. It is still there in 2014.

This is, to a degree, a picture of the reality of Israel/Palestine. This has always been, to a degree, a picture of the reality of Israel/Palestine. Everything has changed in the past sixty years, and nothing has changed.

In 2013, after living near San Francisco since 1990, I decided to try to live out a long-lost dream and learn conversational Arabic. I found a meet-up group online, and within a few weeks I was learning Arabic from a man named Uncle Saleh. We called him Uncle because his niece was the organizer of the meet-up. At our first meeting I thought he was 68, until he corrected me and said, “No I am 86.” Uncle Saleh is Palestinian, which did not surprise me. What was surprising is that he was born in Sumayl.

Shortly after the 1948 war ended, the houses of Sumayl were occupied by Mizrakhi Jewish settlers placed there by the new Israeli government. The situation was thought to be temporary, but became permanent for different reasons. But that is a story all by itself. Some of these people and their descendants are still in these homes today.

What I wanted to know was Uncle Saleh’s story regarding Sumayl. Would he tell me? Would he be willing to write it down?

I wanted to know for many reasons — but mainly I wanted to see Uncle Saleh breath life into these ruins before they completely disappeared. Many places have their “Sumayl,” but in most places it is totally invisible. Here it was real. Passersby might dismiss it and say it was just a smudge on the face of Tel Aviv, but once you looked at it closely and thought about it, it was much more. I wanted to acknowledge Sumayl before it disappeared — because Sumyal for me was more than just a village. It was a reality, a truth about life.

For me Sumayl was an enticingly perfect illustration of how we, the Jews of Israel, had created a living fiction that we saw as reality. That we had ignored Sumayl was too big an issue to forget forever. If Sumayl was dissolving, at least the story of how we could not see Sumayl had to be preserved.

Uncle Saleh starts telling me about Sumayl. We were in a cafe in Walnut Creek, near San Francisco, where he now lives.

“I was born in the Village of Sumayl. I remember the village downtown and the butcher where everybody bought meat. Through the unpaved streets, there used to be a lot of cows, they call them ‘Jarmoosh’ in Arabic, here they call them buffalo. They used to take them to the slaughterhouse right through the village — they would go through, a big flock and really make a lot of dust.

“A lot of the villagers lived in the orange groves around Sumayl. My father was managing an orange grove for a rich man in Jaffa. My father had a vineyard he had planted on a hill and from the hill you could see the water of the Mediterranean sea. We had a lot of fruit trees, figs, but grapes mostly. As a child I had a tin can I would beat with a stick to make the birds go away so they wouldn’t eat the fruit.

“Sumayl was a small village. In Sumayl they had about four to five different stores besides the butcher. There was a main street. It had a dirt road. The buildings were just one floor high. And downtown there were just a few houses because most of the people lived in the orange groves. In our house we had one room, in the orange grove, and another room next to where my grandmother lived, my mother’s mother. My brother Mohamed was a teenager and he used to come and sleep in that room with my grandmother. And then next to that we had a kitchen with a roof made of tin. When it rained it used to make a lot of noise. Outside there was a courtyard, and in the middle of the courtyard their was a big mulberry tree. All around was a wall and there was a large gate, and in the middle was a big pool that we filled with water to irrigate the orange trees. The house was made of stone.

“We had a grammar school until fifth grade, with one room. The teacher came from Jaffa to teach us. Before grammar school I went to preschool. You learn the Koran and how to read and write and a little math, and then in the third grade you transfer to the grammar school.

“As children we would play with marbles, ‘jool,’ we called them, and if you had good shiny ones that was your treasure, you would show them off. And then we would play with sticks, we would put it on a rock and hit it with another stick and when it jumped then we would hit it again. It makes it go way up in the air, so the farther it goes you win. We played like you play here, hopscotch . . . and we played ‘dama,’ a game like checkers

“People would go hunt ducks and geese. My uncles would go with their friends. There were a lot of birds. One of them was very big and came down in our mulberry grove. He was wounded. He didn’t die, but he couldn’t fly anymore.

“We would go to the Yarkon river, El-Auja in Arabic. I remember people would rent a little ‘flokah,’ a little boat — I would just look at them. The life in Sumayl as I remember it . . . was very quiet and calm, very peaceful. Not many people around, and the people were nice to each other. Easy going.

“When there were weddings we would celebrate for a few days . . . and the music in the streets was very loud. They would feed the whole village. Everybody would bring something. They would take the couple through the street and there would be such loud music. And at night women would come to dance, and we would put money in their cloths. The bride would wear seven different dresses, different colors, in one night. And the people are sitting there and the dancers dance. We used to hire them from Jaffa to come, and musicians. They kept shooting guns. Sometimes people would get hurt. My cousin, he was hurt at a wedding. A bullet hit him so it made him paralyzed.

“They used to talk about Tel Aviv. My uncle, who was a teenager then, he used to go to Tel Aviv and learn how to fix cars. He spoke Hebrew very well. He lived in Jaffa, downtown. He would visit and tell us about Tel Aviv.

“We had an extra house in the orchard, and we rented that to a Jewish family. I was 3 years old. They gave me a very red tricycle, and I still remember that tricycle. One night the Jewish man came and he told my father, ‘Haj’ — that means pilgrim, ‘don’t stay here in the vineyard, go home because they are going to attack.’ They used to raid each other, the Jews and the Arabs. That was around 1929. My mother told me about this. I was very young.

“Hawajah Musah was teaching my older brother Mohamed Hebrew. Hawajah Musah was the Jewish man who rented the house from us. After my brother had learned Hebrew, he went to Tel Aviv and sold vegetables with a stand, and he used to sing, ‘Cybileh Shayna’ (beautiful onions), I guess that’s Yiddish, ‘Giveret Shayna’ (beautiful lady), so people laughed and they came and bought from him.

“My father made a living managing the orange grove and then he started a vineyard. We had plum trees and fig trees, but mostly grapes. Then he sold the vineyard and bought an orange grove in Bayt Dajan. (Bayt Dajan is now an Israeli town called Beit Dagan.) We moved there in 1936. I was nine or ten years old when we left Sumayl.

“My father died in the summer of 1947. He predicted that we would become refugees.

“I came to the U.S. in 1947. When I came, they took my passport away. They told me it was no good. I became stateless. They told me, ‘If you leave we will not let you come back to the U.S.,’ but I was a student. I was in the U.S. alone.

“In 1948, my family went to the West Bank, to a village called Abood, and lived there for a year. They were afraid, and they left. They put their furniture in Ramleh, but after that they lost Ramleh too. Then my mother’s brother took her to Nablus. She came to the U.S. in 1962.”

Remembering Sumayl again, Uncle Saleh says, “It was easygoing, very peaceful. People didn’t worry. Just one main street, not very long . . . very short, with roads coming between orange groves to the village. Every road was a dirt road — a lot of dust. We had sycamore trees in Sumayl, that made fruit. A lot of trees.”

When he mentions the sycamore trees, I remember that just days before I had been walking around the Helena Rubenstein Museum, not far from Ibn Gabirol St., and had seen the two ancient sycamore trees that are preserved there in the courtyard garden, between the buildings. They seem to be almost the only ones left now.

2-Sumayel-bulldozerWhen I go to photograph Sumayl during my winter visit, 2014, I see several men bulldozing a large part of the village remains. What will I find here on my next visit? When the tractor tears away the walls which have been plastered over with modern stucco, you see the stone and mud mortar underneath. I come back some days later and walk over the rubble and take more close-up photos as if I might uncover some hidden clue to the life that existed here at one time, not so long ago. I keep taking photos of the incongruous combination of the “Tower Of The Century” skyscraper and the tiny remaining houses of Sumayl, clustered at its feet. There are doves lining the roof of one of the houses. The people who live in Sumayl now have made some interesting adjustments to their surroundings. One of the houses has now become a plant store with a small nursery out front on the main street of Ibn Gabirol.

1 -Sumayel-TowerAcross the street is a cafe full of people. I stand in the traffic island between the busy street and try to photograph the intensely busy scene, with the tiny buildings of Sumayl dwarfed and clustered in the small city block between all this hustle and bustle. Somehow it is hard to capture this surreal set-up with a camera, but I do my best.

Looking back now I wonder, should I have asked passersby what they thought of Sumayl; of the fact that there were still remnants of a Palestinian village here in the heart of Tel-Aviv that nobody seems interested in acknowledging in any way? I hesitated, afraid of the answers I might get, but while taking photos of the plant store, two men came up to me and asked gruffly where I was from and why I was taking photographs. They kept asking me again and again, “Where are you from?” For a while I ignored them and just continued photographing. Finally I turned to them and in a polite voice I said ’ ”Where are you from?” in Hebrew. They looked at each other with a smirk and said to each other, “It’s okay, she is from here.” Did they think I was a foreign journalist, or just an eavesdropper that might want to expose some kind of illegal structure they had put on the street? Who knows?

6-Sumayel-artWhile photographing I found an interesting group of naive paintings posted all along the fence of one of the homes of Sumayl. There were paintings of the Rabbi Baba Sali, Bob Marley, Che Guevara, and signs on the front gate saying “Beware Of Dog” and (in English) “We Don’t Dial 911” (with a picture of a handgun). There were also many lively paintings of animals and critical comments about politicians, and a sign saying “Equality and Social Justice.” I was reminded of the huge demonstrations that had happened only a few years ago, down the street, demonstrations for economic and social justice. Over half a million demonstrators had showed up within a few months. They had succeeded in starting a new political party, but they had not really involved themselves with the plight of the Palestinian question, which also involves economics and social justice. As the demonstrations began to look like they might soon draw a million people into the streets, the government quickly found a pretext to invade Gaza, thus turning the public’s attention away from the original issue. A million demonstrators in the streets of Israel/Palestine would have been the approximate equivalent of having 45 million demonstrators in the streets of the United States.

All this had happened the summer before Occupy Wall Street, but had received almost no international media attention. Would there have been an opportunity here for a dialogue to begin regarding the economic and social justice issues of the Palestinians, those who live in the occupied territories and those who were citizens of Israel? Most people I had asked about this doubted that this would have happened, but who knows? If the government had not invaded Gaza, maybe this question would have arisen.

But speculation is just that. Here in Israel/Palestine one could speculate endlessly, there are so many loose ends and unresolved issues pressing at every juncture.

Sumayl still seems to me to present a deep metaphor, but I don’t know exactly how to unravel it. It is too obvious. It is too hidden. There are too many blinders. There are too many reasons not to see it, even when you see it every day of your life. There are too many reasons not to acknowledge its existence, even though you acknowledge it every time you walk down the street of Ibn Gabirol and buy a plant in the plant store or glance at the doves lined up on the rooftops, and you wonder why, suddenly, you are looking at a village scene while you sit at your main street cafe with your newspaper, and suddenly you feel the need to think of something else.

The father of a close friend grew up down the street from here. His family, Jews from Russia, had settled here before he was born. He had told us once how he used to go to Sumayl as a small boy in the 1930s to buy birdseed for the doves he raised in his backyard. “We would buy seed — ‘dura’ they called it — from the Arabs in Sumayl. They spoke with us in Yiddish, a few words.” Enough to understand each other, it seems.

The doves are still settling here. Everything has changed since the 1930s, and nothing has changed. I look at Sumayl: my mind goes blank and my body burns with an inner sadness. I think of Uncle Saleh, I smell the smell of the engines grinding down the street, and I imagine what it was like to smell orange blossoms here. In our minds, as Jews, this was a desert, a desert which we Jewish Israelis made blossom — so we told ourselves and the world, repeatedly. Now, thinking of Sumayl, I wonder who to tell this very new yet very old story to.

Laurie Winestock is a poet, artist, and activist. She grew up and lived in Israel/Palestine during the 1970s and 1980s. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.