From the Jaffa Hostel rooftop – recalling the guided tour of Jaffa with Abu Omar.

From the northern location near the Tel Aviv port, David and I moved to Jaffa to the Old Jaffa Hostel, yesterday, after Jack and Maria’s departure.  It was cheaper and much more the type of place I feel at home when I travel, even though the boutique Port Hotel was fabulous, perfect, and classy.

The hostel on the other hand is funky, eclectic, cluttered, informal and basic.  The inhabitants mirror this image.  It falls nothing short of the Pension Roma in Cairo.  A plaque at the entrance is dedicated to the owner’s parents who started this hotel.  The building itself is easily 300 years old and in need of a few repairs here and there; nothing major.  The charm of the place lies in its imperfections and its laid back nature.  Novels could be written about the people coming and going here, but I have to write my blog and socializing will fall short a bit.  We have to share bathrooms, breakfast is basic.  A roof terrace is open to all, with an array of chairs and tables, knickknacks, and a kitchen, refrigerator and laundry facility.  There are no TVs, no phones, no maids, no room service; but there is wifi.  🙂

Your room gets cleaned when you leave; in the meantime you take care of it yourself.  You have a key to get into the door, the receptionist leaves by 6 PM.  The guests here behave a lot like this is their home.  It feels a lot more like a home, not a hotel.  For those on a shoestring budget, mattresses are rolled out on the rooftop to sleep under the open sky.  For the most part that is OK, but since it recently rained quite a bit, a few mattresses got soaked and are now drying out lined up sideways along the banister…  Our room is huge and has a wonderful balcony overlooking the flea market below.  It’s our alarm clock:  By 7 AM in the morning, the vendors are starting to set up and the banging, shouting, shoveling and bargaining begins.  Four of the vendors have been playing backgammon for hours accompanied by hollering and howling.  How do they keep this up all day?!

The 1906 Ottoman clock tower rings the time at every hour, just like in European cities.  It was the starting point of a city tour of Jaffa, the four of us took part in two days ago.  Abu Omar, the Ottoman Governor, was our guide.  What a hoot he was!  Perfectly in character for three hours, he guided us through this port city entertaining us with loads of historical facts, anecdotes, observations, and insights.  He had dressed up in Ottoman costume to go with his persona and even walked bent over for the most part since he was an “old man”.  He rolled the “rrrrrrrrrrrrrr” like no one else, and I was sure he was Scottish.  We finally got him to admit some of his real person:  He is a history teacher for 7th graders; tour guide is a sideline of income for him.  He is from the UK.  6 years ago he made Aliyah, the trip back to Israel to resettle here with his wife.  He teaches a mix of Christian and Muslim Arab children as well as Jewish kids in Jaffa.  He must be a treat for them!  He knew his stuff and I wish I could retain just half of what he told and showed us.

Jaffa has such an interesting, controversial, and complex history.  It was one of the three most important port towns of this region along with Gaza and Akko and constantly sought after by the powers that be.  It supposedly was founded by the son of Noah, prospered under Solomon, and was ruled eventually by the Egyptians.  Islam swept in as elsewhere in this region and from then on it is the familiar sequence of Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and British rule. Recent history is as sad as it is hopeful:  Jaffa was a predominantly Arab town.  Immigrant Jews in the early 20th century settled in what became Tel Aviv and formed a separate community.  Violent clashes between Zionist and Communist Jews spilled over into the Jaffa community and between 1920’s and 1948 anti-Jewish riots were common.  After 1948 the town was in Jewish hands, but has always had a sizable Arab-Muslim and Christian community.  For several decades the Jaffa community has tried to solve problems between them in the communal theater through “venting sessions” which served to express problems verbally rather than violently.  It seems to work.  The nearly abandoned old city was revitalized by an artist community which settled here.  Today it is filled with galleries, studios, and beautifully refurbished artists’ homes.

We wandered with our guide along the ancient port and into the winding streets of the old city.  We marveled at the blue windows and doors – blue is the color of good luck which would dispel the devil.  We admired the only orange tree left in all of Jaffa, hanging from a suspended basket…!  Never mind that Jaffa oranges used to be famous the world over; they still are, but no longer do they come from Jaffa.  We peeked into St. Peter’s church built here to commemorate the dream St. Peter had in a house nearby to teach no longer exclusively to Jews but to the Gentiles at large.  An Arab family lives in the house which reportedly is the location of this dream and an early mosque with a terracotta minaret commemorates the spot.  We saw archaeological evidence of the Egyptian rule in Jaffa and admired a brand new gate with Biblical scenes erected on top of the Old City framing the new skyline of Tel Aviv.  Abu Omar did not tire to relate the stories and the details; but after three hours we did!

Jaffa is a great town to “hang out” and relax. Its proximity to the ocean with wonderful sandy beaches makes for a great escape.  The mix of flea markets and up-scale boutiques makes for great shopping.  Every corner features another restaurant with most wonderful local foods or the occasional exotic thing like Shakshuka, a Libyan specialty.  It is exactly what Tel Aviv is not:  a town with a history and character.

Good night.

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  1. You can find Abu Omar also on face book under : Freetelaviv Tour”