TEL AVIV — Purple fireworks sprayed off the roof of Tel Aviv’s City Hall last week to open festivities marking a century since Zionist pioneers began construction of the “first Hebrew city.” Watching among the crowd in Rabin Square, Marko Martin wept.
A German journalist, Martin travels the world to write cultural articles for Die Welt, filing from Myanmar to El Salvador. But he returns again and again to this Mediterranean metropolis, where his Israeli friends call him “Mister Tel Aviv.”
“No other place on earth makes me feel so much at home as this hot and shabby town, built by immigrants from all over the world,” says Martin, whose book “Tel Aviv — A Lifestyle” will be published in Germany this summer. “I was born in Communist East Germany, so I know how to appreciate an island of tolerance in an ocean of bloody fanaticism.”
At its centenary, Tel Avivians have many complaints about their city, from lack of parking to smog to the plain ugliness of most of its architecture. But they all agree with Martin that they’ve built a city that seems almost out of place in the Middle East. Where the rest of the region (including Israel’s capital, Jerusalem) is bigoted and hardline, Tel Aviv mirrors edgy European centers of social liberality like Martin’s native Berlin, even down to a flamboyant Gay Parade and a throbbing nightclub scene that brought you some of the most annoying “trance” music ever recorded.
In 1909, the area that’s now Tel Aviv was “a wilderness of sands,” according to the Zionist mythology. It had been a Canaanite settlement in the third century BC. When Napoleon besieged nearby Jaffa over two hundred years ago, he camped here. The early Zionists who decided to move the short way up the coast from Jaffa wanted to found a “Hebrew city,” unburdened by the biblical past.
They clashed with the Zionist establishment, which favored socialist collective farms and agricultural labor. Tel Aviv was home to tradesmen and shopkeepers. They called their new city “Spring Hill,” which sounds exactly like the bourgeois suburb it originally was. When the British army came through during World War I, it had a population of 2,000, compared to 50,000 in Jaffa.
But the Zionist dream was built around construction as much as agriculture. One of Israel’s national poets, Natan Alterman, immigrated from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in 1925. In his “Song to the Homeland,” he wrote: “We will clothe you in a robe of concrete and cement.”
Alterman might have specified that the robe would be a muumuu, because for a relatively young city Tel Aviv has the girth of a sumo champ.
These days Jaffa, where the Biblical Jonah took ship on his date with the whale, is the minor partner of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, an Arab slum with a smattering of gentrifying yuppies. Tel Aviv is a town of 390,000, and its greater metropolitan district has swelled to a population of 1.3 million. Not huge, but pretty good going for a city that was an outpost in a British colony until 60 years ago.
Tel Aviv has its detractors. Jerusalem has a more religious, conservative population and is inclined to see the city 40 miles away on the coast as a modern Sodom. (The ancient city which gave us the word “Sodom” is, of course, south of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea.) Certainly the gay community is very much accepted in Tel Aviv and also provides a refuge for Palestinian gays who flee their own intolerant towns. By contrast, Jerusalem grudgingly allows a Gay Parade. But over the last few years Jerusalem’s religious zealots have attacked marchers, including one gay man who was stabbed.
Tel Aviv isn’t the loveliest place to look at, either. “It is shabby, like a neglected old woman,” wrote Yossi Klein in an Israeli magazine earlier this month. (An aside: the same magazine included an interesting article on Israeli sexism.)
Personally, having grown up in a mountainous country, I’m constantly lost in the featureless landscape of Tel Aviv. I’ve been there every couple of weeks for 13 years, but it’s always as though I’m visiting for the first time, clinging to a couple of identically sycamore-lined, grubby streets which I believe will get me to the highway and back up the hill to Jerusalem in the end.
The city has been through a number of attempts to pin a name on its unique character. In the 1990s, the municipality came up with “The City that Never Stops,” which gets a cheer when visiting rock stars parrot it at concerts, but is mainly used tongue in cheek by locals. (They know it’s a third-rate reworking of “The City that Never Sleeps.”) More recently the central district — built by Bauhaus architects fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s — has been somewhat spruced up and Tel Aviv dubbed itself “The White City”. In 2003, UNESCO made it a world heritage site.
It’s undoubtedly among the ugliest of the 878 world heritage sites (If you don’t believe me, check out the list. But one would be churlish to say that this cosmopolitan oasis in a desert of hate didn’t deserve some recognition.
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