I stood on the street that my grandmother once stood on nearly 70 years ago. I listened to the sound of the same waves lapping onto the shore. I saw and touched the same beautiful old Arab, unmistakably Arab, buildings that she had walked past hundreds of times.
I told myself it didn’t matter whether I found her house or not, but of course I knew that nothing could replace the feeling and the fact of actually knowing that this was her home, this was the place she had grown up in, the setting of all those stories we had been raised on, this was the place from which her and her father and siblings had fled in terror.
I spoke to her on the phone yesterday, back in London. Ever since I told her I was in Yafa, each time we speak she reminds me of the name of the street she used to live on. “King George Avenue, Tamara, share3 Alnuzha”. Share3 – street in Arabic. King George Avenue as it was known during the time of the British Mandate. Share3 Alnuzha as it was named by Palestinians from the time of its construction in 1915. The first avenue ever built in Palestine, according to a Yafa historian. Today, Palestinians in Yafa still call it by its Arab name, but its official name is Sderot Yerushalaim. Jerusalem Street.
Yes, I tell her. I found the street! It’s the biggest one in Yafa, easy to find. I spent half a day last week walking up and down that street. As I’m walking, I call my grandmother and start asking her questions about what the house was like. How many floors? Did it have balconies? Was it on a street corner? That last question proved to be the most fruitful. Yes, it was, replies my grandmother. That narrows down my possibilities by at least 70%. And since I’m looking for an old building, and there are not many of those left, I figure there could not be more than ten or so houses that fit the criteria. Of course I know in the back of my mind that there’s a good chance the house is no longer there, that it was demolished long ago to make way for a more modern building, but there’s no way of knowing for the moment, so I keep looking.
I take photos of every house on a street corner that looks old enough, that has balconies, and that is clearly built in an Arab style. I don’t make it all the way down the street – I can’t even tell how far it extends – but since the architecture begins to change the further up I go, I figure the odds I have passed it already are high. The street runs almost perpendicular to the sea, so that when you look back, you can see that hopeful flash of moving blue. While talking to my grandmother, I ask her whether the house was on the right or left of the street if you have your back to the water. She can’t remember. But she does remember that it was quite far from the sea, further up the street. So I eliminate one of the houses I thought it could be (secretly my favourite, and the one I was hoping might be hers) and continue up. I ask an old man sitting on the pavement by his shop whether he knows anything about my grandmother’s family and where on the street they lived. He doesn’t have any idea, but he tells me that right across from the crossroads where we are standing used to be a Palestinian home that a family fled from in 1948. He was a child back then. He went into the home a few days after they had left, and found plates still on the table, food half eaten. He tells me that, soon after, he took all the furniture from the house. Today, we’re standing in his shop where he sells second-hand furniture, and I wonder whether he has been doing this job ever since that time when he was 11 or 12 years old.
I continue walking up the street, away from the sea, taking photos of whatever houses make sense. Once I feel there is no point going any further up, I turn back and head to a street off of the boulevard to stop in a café. I go through my photos and realise there are only four houses that I found. If one of them was my grandmother’s, it won’t be difficult to identify. I send the photos to my father in Dubai to show his mother. He replies to me the next day and tells me that she thought one of them looked familiar, the third house I passed, but she really wasn’t sure. So we leave it.
I was only halfway through my trip to Palestine at this point and decided to come back the day before I was set to leave. The first part of that day in Yafa, on my first visit, I had joined a tour by a local Palestinian who had a deep knowledge of the city’s history. The tour was given in Hebrew to a group of Palestinian and Israeli doctors, and I spent my time walking with the head of the paediatric unit, a Palestinian man from outside Yafa, who took the time to translate the main points for me. From the start, our tour guide warned that this was not an “objective” tour – in other words, that he might well say things from a perspective that the Israelis in the group wouldn’t appreciate – but that this was simply one perspective he was putting forward that people could take or leave. With this disclaimer, he was able to explain to the group how systematic policies are used against Palestinians living in Yafa. His tour took us around some beautiful old homes. But these were homes that were practically caving in on themselves; cracks and unfixed structures everywhere, homes left in a sad state of neglect.
These houses often sat meters away from refurbished, glimmering homes that maintained the spirit of the historic Arab architecture, and sometimes even some of the original building’s old stones, but that had been completely renovated. My doctor friend who was keeping me company explained how you could be sure that the dilapidated building in front of us was home to a Palestinian family, while the beautiful new home belonged to an Israeli one. He explained to me how Arab families in Yafa are legally not allowed to renovate their homes, which are deemed “archaeological sites” by the Israeli government*. The family continues to live in a house that is falling apart until it becomes dangerous and they can no longer live there, effectively forced out of their home. When an Israeli person or family expresses interest in buying this same house, they apply to the government for a permit, which then revokes the “archaeological site” status of the house and allows the family to renovate the home. The result is that Palestinian families are gradually pushed out of the centre of Yafa, forced to live in poorer conditions, as Israeli families begin to take over.
I went back to Yafa three days later. The historian who had led the tour on my last visit gave me the number of the grandson of an elderly man who has lived in Yafa all his life and who remembers many things from the time that my grandmother was living there. I arranged with the grandson to meet in a local café, Ahwet Yafa (Café Yafa). While I was there and meeting with a Palestinian activist, a local older Palestinian man called Abu George walked in. I had heard of him from two different people who suggested I try to find him – he was another person who had been around a long time and who knew many of the families in Yafa. I spoke with Abu George briefly, and it seemed he was not familiar with my grandmother’s family. As I was leaving the café and preparing to go meet the grandfather, I was quickly introduced by Abu George to his friend Yossi. Yossi is an Israeli who has lived in Yafa for the better part of his life, and who has written books on the city’s history. I mentioned my grandmother’s family name to him and something seemed to register. He told me to wait while he called his Palestinian friend with whom he had written a book on Yafa. Within seconds, he had handed the phone to me and told me to speak to him. As I spoke to his friend on the phone and gave him my grandmother’s father’s name and the street on which she lived, the friend all of a sudden became very animated and said, Wait, wait, I am sure this name is in a book I have on Yafa, and if that’s the case I think I know where they lived. I couldn’t believe it. He asked me, did the family own the local cinema? I told him, No I don’t think so, otherwise I’m sure my grandmother would have told me that. I handed the phone back to Yossi so that his friend could explain to him exactly where the house was.
I was about to set there on foot – it was only a ten minute walk away – but Abu George and Yossi insisted on keeping me company and showing me exactly where the spot was. And so the three of us headed towards where my grandmother may or may not have once lived. We walked down the street I had stopped in three days earlier after having begun my mission of house-finding, and Yossi stopped on the side of a road where a beautiful mosque stood.
This is where your grandmother lived, Tamara. Ana asef, I’m sorry to say that the house isn’t here anymore.
But we were not yet standing on Share3 Alnuzha, where my grandmother told me the house was. I called her to double check. Did you live next to a mosque, Teta? No, she said. Our house was on King George Avenue, Share3 Alnuzha. On it for sure, not in a side road near it? No, on it.
This wasn’t the right place.
We continued down the street, realising by now that we probably wouldn’t find the house, if it was still standing, this time around.
A few days later, I was back in London. Sitting with my aunt, I was telling her some of my stories and showing her photos. She couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was. The old streets of Jerusalem, the markets, the sea. I started showing her some photos from Yafa, explaining how I had gone up and down her mother’s street and taken photos of the old houses on a street corner. As she flicked through the photos on my phone, she suddenly stopped at one of the buildings and said, this one. Is it this one? Why this one, I asked her? I don’t know, she said. I just have a gut feeling about it. Plus it looks like what Mama always described to us when we were younger – they were on the top floor, the neighbours below them, and a shop at the bottom. Funny you say that, I told her. That’s the same house that Teta, her mother, had said looked most familiar to her. That couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?
I still don’t know whether my grandmother’s house is there or not. Whether I passed it or not. But I do know that I stood where she once stood, and I do know that I breathed the atmosphere of her home town.
As I was leaving Yafa, criss-crossing through the roads with my trusted guides, Abu George and Yossi, I told them I wanted to take something back for my grandmother from there. A piece of old stone, perhaps. Within a second, Yossi walked up to a beautiful old building right in front of us that happened to have some loose stone by its foundations, pulled out a piece, and gave it to me. This is the original Palestinian stone from Yafa, he said. Give it to your grandmother.
*Note: I couldn’t find the exact information to support this claim. According to Adalah, Legal Centre in Israel, Palestinians are regularly evicted from their homes for what is deemed “illegal construction”.