Jisr al-Zarqa – The Bridge over the Blue, by Valerie Strassmann
|"Taninim Stream" (2006 - Currently presented at the Haifa Museum of Art)|
"Taninim Stream": Blue water. Yellow-brown grass at the riverside. A couple of cars parked on the riverside. A small group of men sitting on the ground - talking, smoking, staring at the stream. Some others fishing - waiting for something to happen. The horizon crowded with grey and white buildings. A Muslim village - the mosque illuminating it. The atmosphere – Feeling blue!
"Taninim Stream" is one of Ron Amir's photographs on the village of Jisr al-Zarqa and part of the joint exhibition "Jisr al-Zarqa: Back and-Forth" presented at the Haifa Museum of Art, the Israeli Center for Digital Arts in Holon, and the Jisr al-Zarqa High School. The Israeli artist (b. 1973) has spent more than a decade portraying the Arab village located just north of Caesarea at highway no.2 between Tel Aviv and Haifa. In the words of curator Gilad Melzer, "Amir has photographed-created-represented-distilled the world of Jisr al-Zarqa".
Indeed, while looking at Ron Amir's pictures one feels reminded of German romanticist painter Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885). Similar to Spitzweg, Ron Amir captures the present status of a specific society; encompassing its residents, homes, rituals and landscapes, in rather idyllic and unagitated pictures that often seem to be naïve and archetypal. Yet, it is exactly this non-documentary style that allows the artist to reveal social problems, norms and constraints, individual habits, concerns and values in front of the visitor's eyes.
According to Dr. Iris Seri-Hersch, postdoc fellow at the Aix-Marseille University in France, the status of Jisr al-Zarqa can be described as “multiple marginality“: First, as an Arab speaking, Muslim minority within a largely Jewish, Hebrew speaking Israeli society. Second, as a stigmatized group within the Palestinian society on accounts of its real or imagined Sudanese, servile or swampy origins. Third, as people suspected of collaborating with Jewish bodies or Zionist settlers during the British mandate. Finally, as a geographically besieged community, enclosed by its borders: from the sea in the west; from the main coastal Road no.2 in the east; from the separation wall running between Jisr al-Zarqa and its wealthy neighbor Caesarea to the south to the Taninim Stream and the fishponds of Kibbutz Maagan Michael in the north.
Historically Jisr al-Zarqa is the only Arab village that remained on the coast after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Its residents stayed on the territory that became Israel in 1949 and obtained Israeli citizenship. Nowadays they belong to the 1.6 million Arab Israelis that constitute 20% of the total Israeli population.
The village itself was founded in 1924 as a result of the Kabbara land clashes. Until the 1920s, the Kabbara swamps were inhabited by semi-nomadic Arabic speaking groups that lived from buffalo herding, selling dairy products, and manufacturing products from reeds growing in the marshes. During the British mandate the growing interest on draining the swamps for the sake of intense cultivation and under the pretext of fighting malaria lead to an agreement between the British Mandate Authorities and the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). Local Arab residents who wanted to keep their lifestyle and preserve their means of livelihood legally contested this concession. Yet, when facing the threat of total expropriation of communal rights, a group of local residents, renounced their rights to use the swamps in return for financial compensation and participation in the drainage operations. They then moved to the area that became the core of today's village Jisr al-Zarqa and Tantura.
Today Jisr al-Zarqa is one of the poorest communities in Israel. Unemployment is high and wages are very low, leading to frequent interruption of basic services such as water, electricity and sewage due to unpaid bills. In terms of education, the village suffers from one of the highest dropout rate from school (12% in 2006 - Central Bureau of Statistics 2006) and limited access to higher education. Moreover, the number of residents is growing steadily. In 2012 Jisr al-Zarqa counted approximately 13,500 residents - ten times more than in November 1948 living on less than two square-kilometers (!) The density of the city is similar to Tel Aviv or Holon (Central Bureau of Statistics).
Although it seems that the precarious situation of Jisr al-Zarqa will not change in the near future, some visionaries are thinking of supporting the village and in efforts to break the vicious cycle of a "self-fulfilling prophecy". One of them is architect, urban planner and activist Gadi Earon. He suggests to acquire the vacant piece of land that lays between the village core and the sea, and that is currently owned by the Israel Land Authority. It provides enough space to build a Moroccan style high standard hotel(s) whose guests would like to enjoy the vicinity to the sea and the authentic atmosphere of the village. Central for Earon is the aspect of including the Jisr al-Zarqis as partners of the project: "A private investor with capitalist interests is not the right solution for Jisr al-Zarqa. It is more important to open up an opportunity to the residents to invest into their own town, to foster the feeling of participation, responsibility and benefit". However, not everyone is convinced that this idea might actually bring change. Beyond the mission statements, one can also find a strong interest of maintaining the status quo. It becomes obvious that just the combined efforts of people outside the village and leading figures from inside the community can change the future of Jisr al-Zarqa to the better.
It should be noted that I obtained this information by Israeli sources, as opposed to sources from the local inhabitants. While the statistics and facts presented can speak for themselves, often times the complex situation on the ground can lead to a perspective that is missed in the knowledge gained by outside sources.
This article is written by one of Diwaniyya's interns, Valerie Strassmann. Valerie is a Masters Candidate in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University.