Oranges in the Orient
4th May 2023
By Yara Taha
The city of Jaffa, known in Arabic as ‘Bride of the sea /عروسه البحر is famed for its mesmerising coast and its history as Palestine’s hub of cross-regional and international trade during the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, Jaffa was home to the most advanced commercial, banking, fishing, and agriculture industries of the region, accommodating a large number of factories from textiles to cigarette making. Yet, most famously, the city built an international reputation for its production of oranges known as ‘Jaffa Oranges’ from the mid-19th century with exports growing from 200,000 per annum in 1845 to over 38 million in 1870. The thick skin, bright colour, and sweet flavour of Jaffa's citrus fruit made them popular all over the western world and gained the city the title of the ‘Land of Oranges’. However, in 1948, upon the creation of Israel, all orchards and land designated for fruit were confiscated and control of them was transferred to Israeli ownership under which "the citrus industry was presented as a pioneering Labor-movement project," which Israeli quarterly Zmanim claimed to be "void of any Arab presence, economically prosperous and enveloped in the scent of oranges."
Living in Nazareth, which is a two-hour, north-easterly drive away from Jaffa, my family and I have visited several times. A stroll on the promenade soon diverts you into cobbled streets flanked by limestone facades of the old town, and it’s this clean-cut, amber-lit serenity that attracts many visitors on the weekends. Yet it’s these same modernised streets, furnished with boutiques, art galleries, and craft shops that conceal the truth of the city and its people. Through this tourist commodification the danger emerges of this being a part of the erasure of Palestinian identity which aids the Zionist project in feeding a tailored narrative to the Western world.
Conversely, the reality of Jaffa doesn’t lie in the picturesque sunset and the bustling atmosphere of weekend visitors, but in the daily context of people arriving in buses from the West Bank, all of whom are required to gain permits from the state of Israel to visit the city, and most of whom are visiting for the first times in their lives. The reality of Jaffa lies on its beach - filled with individuals who desired the freedom to access their own land.
Understanding the position of Jaffa in the wider context provides an answer to why the city is an important example in highlighting the project of ethnic cleansing currently occurring in Palestine. For example, Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism provides an accurate analysis of how the land is viewed, and why the west is complicit in this project through its support for the Israeli occupation. Being an ex-colonial land, Palestine (Said’s birthplace) is fundamental to his philosophy, reminding us that colonialism remains a contemporary issue because it isn’t just a historical process, but has left its presence in lands all across the world long after the last colonial officer boarded his ship back home.
The narrative of the orient is imbedded in the history of Jaffa. Before the naissance of Israel, the city was portrayed as an exotic place which added to its markets for oranges and other products a certain ‘romance’ and ‘mystery’ as can be seen in old travel adverts and posters, much like Lebanon during French colonial rule which for two decades after was seen as the city for Europeans to enter and experience the ‘Orient’ up until the late 60s. In 1948, the narrative of Jaffa then shifted, depicting the native Arabs not with this exoticism and mystique, but as barbarians, threatening the prosperous Israeli ownership. Here, the fundamental notion behind Said’s concept of Orientalism is realised: that it functions purely as a means of control.
“In a sense the limitations of Orientalism are, […] the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region.”
-Edward W. Said, Orientalism
The city's name, originally Jaffa or 'Yaffa' in Arabic, since 1948 has become overshadowed by its colonial neighbour of Tel-Aviv Yafo which is constructed beside the original city.
The name 'Tel Aviv' in Hebrew means ‘Hill of Spring’. It was the Hebrew-translated name given to Theodore Herzl's book Altneuland (Old New Land). The book is a Utopian novel, covering the story of two men who, on their way to a remote Pacific island to escape European decadence, stop in Jaffa on the way to find Palestine a 'remote, backward, and destitute land', and who, when returning in 1923 from their years spent on the Pacific island, find Palestine to be an entirely renovated, flourishing land as a product of Jewish citizens who have settled there to reclaim 'their destiny in the Land of Israel'.
This story’s essence encapsulates the fundamental narrative that Jewish ethnic emancipation depends on to establish the state of Israel and the eradication of Palestinian identity. It also coincides with the racist Zionist denial that there were Palestinians in the area prior to Israel, who were not only present but prosperous on an international level. Yet, despite its attempts, this narrative continues to fail in its concealment of history and truth that Jaffa was a modern city, developed by Palestinian merchants, and revered by the West.
In 1886, Henry Gelman, the American consul, sent a report after his visit to Palestine praising Jaffa’s oranges and the pioneering techniques employed by the Palestinian farmers who controlled the land. Moses Montefiore, a British financier and activist who founded the first Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem in 1860, also described in his diary how “the straight and paved streets of Jaffa lead to beautifully planted fig, pomegranate, and orange trees in the orchards. The advanced channels in these orchards allow watering the aligned trees and accumulate the excess water in the pond that runs in the stone channels.”
The contrast between the narrative of Herzl’s novel and the views of these individuals (as two of many examples) demonstrate that Jaffa and the land of Palestine were depicted to suit specific narratives that were designed in order to justify the colonisation of the land. The city’s identity itself became a commodity, and the identity of the people residing there was brushed over.
Tel-Aviv Yafo, founded in 1909 as a suburb of Jaffa, was then given this name, with the attachment of the Hebrew version of Jaffa (Yafo) as a form of appropriation. Today, the name Jaffa is known far more in its context within the name of the Israeli capital - or to the British native, as a brand of luxury oranges popularised by the biscuit Jaffa Cakes. What was the original city and its history has become overshadowed by these associations, and this has the danger of the city's physical and historical destruction also becoming overlooked.
The colonial taint is left on the names of places around the world: take what was Rhodesia in southern Africa, named after Cecil Rhodes or the nation of Kenya which was named as such because the British couldn't pronounce the mountain Kirinyaga after which it was originally named. While these alterations may appear trivial, they’re integral to this method of compelling people to fit around colonial narratives, and despite the reshaping of Palestinian land around these narratives, the only constant element of Jaffa’s history is its oranges which, following the Nakba of 1948, were split between a patriotic symbol for Palestinians, and the Zionist, ultra-nationalist symbol of “a dessert we have made bloom.”
In Israeli filmmaker, Eyal Sivan’s Jaffa, The Orange’s Clockwork, Sivan depicts the city as a thriving commercial centre based around its communal industry of picking, packaging, and exporting products that brought people from all over the Levant and became its main source of revenue. The film shows the famous oranges used in French advertisements to characterise the ‘orient’, a source of marketing still used today – the phrase ‘Jaffa Orange’ still being employed by Israeli fruit companies to sell oranges that aren’t even from Jaffa.
Sivan’s film shows that before Israel took control, the oranges were seen as a source of threat to its establishment; all the historical photos displayed in the film were deleted from the country’s archive and replaced by images of destitute lands filled with tents. There was a wide range of presentations of the land made to show the false fabrication of an empty landscape for Israel to justify its colonisation.
To produce a whole new nation, the urban forms of Palestinian cities had to be completely transformed. Jaffa provides a great example of this - its civic streets connecting the sea and port with the old town were entirely erased, having used to display clear order of residential and public space. Alongside this destruction was the end of the cohesive form that connected its Arab and Jewish residents with nature. Instead, since 1948, Jaffa was growing continuously further towards the northerly Tel-Aviv suburb until 1954 when the two cities switched roles, and Jaffa became a sub-urb of Tel-Aviv and since which, the two places have become known under the same name. The shrinking of Jaffa’s old town and decay of its port, along with the diversion of shipping to Ashdod instead of Jaffa (another city built upon the Palestinian town of Isdud which was ‘depopulated’ in 1948), shows the death of the city as it was.
Jaffa, like Isdud, became a ‘planned city’ and the erasure of its true identity is seen everywhere from the micro-scale to the major, with the alteration of street names still evident of this: Jaffa’s main clock tower square is now called ‘Kikea Hagana’ and its main street ‘Rehev Mifrats Shelomo’ - changed from ‘Bistress-Iskandar ‘Awad’. A large portion of the residential neighbourhood of al-Manshiyyah also became a public park. The transformation was strategic, displaying a clear plan that did not attempt to understand the land or purpose of existing spaces, and the changing of names also altered the activities that occurred in those places. While the clock tower square used to be a functioning market, it is now home to marches and activist movements against the occupation.
The city has also been used in films such as The Delta Force - an American action movie telling the story of an airliner being hijacked by Lebanese terrorists in Beirut. The film indulges in the Orientalist view of the Middle East, using shots of Jaffa’s streets claiming that they’re in Beirut, demonstrating the faulted view that because these two locations are within the Middle East, they’re indistinguishable.
Palestinian visual artist Kamal Aljafari used the real story of these film shots to produce his film Recollection (2016). Using 20,000 images from 50 movies, Kamal re-created the city of Jaffa to tell its real narrative. It follows the story of a character visiting the city in his dream, and his memory becomes the film and the story of Jaffa:
“We hear his footsteps, later he hears voices [...] at times, he loses himself, he hears the rain but doesn’t see, he is jet-lagged by some seventy years. Jet lag he will never overcome [...] There is no Tel-Aviv, there is no Jaffa, there is only one place called Mahallas. [...] It is a post-catastrophe film. A film about all the ruined cities of Aleppo, Detroit, and Berlin. Let it be any place that had endured catastrophe, where the fiction films were shot, where the camera aids the place it shoots to live.”
The character in the film represents a typical Palestinian resident whose access to the city is prohibited, and the only way to visit is through memory. The visited places are void of identity, known as ‘mahallas’ in Arabic. The jetlag that Kamal refers to is the shock and hangover effect of a war which left inescapable consequences. By removing the main actors from the original films and rescuing the backgrounds of shots, Kamal reconstructed the spaces of Jaffa, saving it from cinematic injustice.
Real narratives about Palestine today are still being prohibited as a threat to the state of Israel. The film ‘Farha’ (2021), told the story of a fourteen-year-old girl living with her father who aspires to go to school during the Nakba and was threatened by Israel during their attempts to have it removed from streaming services such as Netflix.
The film captures the tragedy of the war from a personal level with the girl’s refusal to leave home, being trapped in the basement awaiting rescue by her father from armed troops. Released in 2021, the film communicates the idea that after more than seventy-five years, the truth is yet to be known. Jaffa’s narrative is key to this, being home to many Arabs who, like Farha, stayed in their land and yet lack ownership of their own homes and are being evicted.
From the 120,000 Palestinians living in Jaffa before the Nakba, in the Ajami district alone, over 1,400 eviction notices have been served to the 3,200-numbered population. The 1972 ‘Protected Tenant Law’ saw Palestinian residents have to pay huge sums to own 60% of their homes while the state controlled the remaining 40%. The residents then paid reduced rent to Amidar, the state-controlled housing company for three generations, however, the ‘three generations’ is legally recognised as the tenant, his/her spouse, and the child. Once the three-generation rent decrease is used up, the state demands the residents pay an exuberant amount of money to buy their own property, or leave. With most residents not having the necessary finances to purchase their own houses, the project succeeds in expelling even more Palestinians. The experience of the city is still being transformed through legal actions that are indirectly changing the identity of Jaffa. With the existence of organisations such as Amidar, the state’s project is travelling toward the complete erasure of the identity of the city. What we see is further displacement. What begun in 1948 with guns not only continues in the same way, but has spread through real-estate and economic opportunities to cause the mass expulsion of people.