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WHOLLY UNHOLY: Jaffa life and the time I played chicken with a chicken

Sharon Offenberger
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PLUS61J 53 (1)

Published: 8 October 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Melbourne-bred SHARON OFFENBERGER spent much of the past 16 years living in Jaffa. In the first in a series on her life in Israel, she reflects on her colourful, crazy neighbourhood

I HAD NO INTENTION of moving to Ajami, a seafront neighbourhood in Jaffa with crumbly buildings. My husband outwitted me by suggesting we “just check out” a few attractive houses which were unlike any other in Israel and a far cry from our uninspired third floor 1960s-era apartment in the old north of Tel Aviv.

It was 2009. Driving into the neighbourhood, I noticed a green Islamic flag hanging over the entrance of a house that looked like it was built from mismatched lego, surrounded by high walls and wire. Do people live there? Is that a Hamas flag?

Our car stopped two doors down and I entered a renovated townhouse with a courtyard and fig tree that had me at hello. We bought the house in Ajami that became our home for over 10 years, and the neighbour with the green flag, who we would later refer to as The Majnoun, was part of a package deal, together with a communal carpark.

Our carpark was an exercise in Middle Eastern peacebuilding, worth further study.  It wasn’t technically “ours” but along with our neighbours, we made a tacit claim over it under unspoken proximity rules. It was built for six cars, seven at a pinch but was used by the five surrounding homes, each with two cars and some with three. Do the maths.

The car park in Ajami; do the maths
The car park in Ajami; do the maths

The car park was built for six cars, seven at a pinch but was used by the five surrounding homes, each with two cars and some with three.

Not a single war broke out over the carpark. Energies were instead invested in figuring out who had blocked you in. Ringing on doorbells is not exactly what you want to be doing when you’re running late for school drop-off, but somehow, we managed. The carpark forced patience and goodwill, not typical Middle Eastern qualities, on all of us.

Being a good neighbour is currency in Ajami. “Shachen tov/Good neighbour” is a calling card that all but guarantees your house will be spared from break-ins. We genuinely loved the neighbours, even the criminal ones. “They’re real people despite their occupation”, I’d tell shocked Israeli taxi drivers whose first question upon arriving would always be “What’s it like to live here?”

The Majnoun was an angry-looking man with an unpredictable temperament, compounded by psychological disability. Majnoun means crazy in Arabic. Not politically correct, but neither is the Middle East. I was versed enough in neighbourhood politics to be polite and keep my distance, but he didn’t keep his.

In Ajami, people live in the streets as much as in their houses. Those who sought a sliver of shade from the oppressive Israeli sun could find it right at the doorway to our house, and I would return home occasionally to find workers eating their lunch leaning on my front door, or a neighbour perched on a plastic chair chatting on the phone. Being Australian, I’d apologise and excuse myself as I moved them to the side so I could enter.

On any given day, the Majnoun might lose his temper and blame you for anything from a parking fine to the rainy weather. On other days, he would preside over the carpark ensuring that our guests were given priority. His all-night crowing rooster would drown out the sound of mosque loudspeaker at 5am booming the call to prayer.

On any given day, the Majnoun might lose his temper and blame you for anything from a parking fine to the rainy weather.

The rooster was later replaced by dogs that never stopped barking. Occasionally the Majnoun was taken away by the authorities and would return a few days later while chatty neighbours speculated on whether he had been arrested or institutionalised.

One day the Majnoun stopped me as I returned from our local shop (think supermarket crammed into the space of a bedroom) and invited me to come and have coffee with his wife. I thanked him in Arabic for his invitation and promptly told my husband that the Majnoun was acting weird when I got home. “He usually just mumbles Shachen Tov to me,” I explained.

My husband smiled. “Yes, apparently there was a Shabak (Israeli intelligence) vehicle parked near our house today and the neighbours are now convinced that I’m a high-level secret agent. They’ve started calling asking me for favours, like the Godfather.”

Aha, that explains it, I thought. The Majnoun was definitely not known for his legitimate earning activities. 

The Majnoun had a lovely wife and daughter, and seven sons who all appeared to be in the family business. When his daughter got married, he approached my husband late one night asking for a bottle of any alcohol in honour of the wedding. Knowing his background and religion, I searched at home for cash instead and found a generous pile of Euros to give him and his daughter. He turned it down. He would only accept a bottle.

Million-dollar views from Ajami, day and night
Million-dollar views from Ajami, day and night

Ajami became gentrified over the past two decades, but before that it was considered the poorest neighbourhood in the Tel Aviv region. Poor neighbourhoods with historic architecture that sit in prime locations on the seafront will not stay impoverished forever.

The economic gap between newcomers and old-timers is immeasurable. Many families that live in State-subsidised accommodation remain in the neighbourhood, with no other housing options available to them, even as attempts are made to push them out by developers.

Decaying buildings abut new apartment complexes with indoor swimming pools. Peacocks, horses, chickens roam the streets from time to time. The neighbourhood is often a backdrop for fashion shoots, movies and walking tours.

Delicious food prepared and sold from genuine hole-in-the-wall establishments with a third-world feel rather than a cool-urban feel. The sweet smell of smoke from makeshift shisha (hookah) bars where men only would congregate at all hours.

Many people move to Ajami for the sea views and fancy apartments. And maybe I did, too, initially. But it is the madness, unpredictability, exposed lives and misfortunes that made me fall in love with Jaffa as well as her breathtaking beauty. Jaffa is a complicated muse, and she is not for the faint-hearted. Ajami would not feel like home without its whacky cast of characters.

Living in Ajami was like living in a movie. There is in fact an excellent Oscar-nominated movie of the same name, where the neighbourhood stars in the lead role.  

Living in Ajami meant learning new road rules, like who gives way to who when you’re facing a line of cars driving the wrong way in a one-way street.

Living in Ajami meant removing a wandering chicken from your windshield so you can get to work in the mornings.

Living in Ajami meant removing a wandering chicken from your windshield so you can get to work in the mornings.

Living in Ajami meant knowing the difference between the sound of fireworks and gunshots.

As was accepted in my neighbourhood, I interacted more with the women, and my husband interacted with the men. I’d drink tea with elderly women, enthusiastically accept homemade food which wasn’t always tasty and tested my neighbourly limits when the sewage overflowed in their courtyard (I didn’t wade in, but I did bring spare buckets).

Gatherings of all descriptions often overtook the airwaves of the neighbourhood. Music was turned up to decimating volumes but always turned off at reasonable hours. My kids learned to fall asleep through ear-splitting noise.

We were expected to attend the weddings, including one which I called “the murderer’s wedding”. I think that’s self-explanatory. I might have cried at that one, but I always cry at weddings. Sometimes pre-wedding parties took place in our combined carpark, and we would happily participate by using our cars to block the surrounding streets for the festivities.

Our million-dollar sea views never blotted out the underbelly of Jaffa, the celebrations, regular police presence, Ramadan lights or the dead horse on the street which is its own story. But somehow when you’re living in it, it all seems perfectly normal.

All photos, courtesy of Sharon Offenberger

About the author

Sharon Offenberger

Sharon Offenberger was raised in Melbourne and made aliyah in 2004. She spent over 15 years in various roles for the European Union, including managing the peacebuilding program, communications officer and spokesperson. She moved with her family in 2020 to Bellingen, NSW where she works as a writer and communications consultant.

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