The architect who planned this area did not want to create a symmetrical design. He chose to design the streets in the shape of a Menorah, a symbol of Judaism and emblem of the state of Israel. It is an ancient Hebrew seven-lamp stand with six branches. We saw this lamp in the background of a little room in Masada Fort where the scriptures of Judaism were being physically copied. The Municipality is now planning to re-develop this area and the poor owners of these old shops will be given ‘compensation’, but no space to set-up their business again. This is the story of ‘urban development’ projects and the informal economy everywhere in the world. The apparent reason is the fear that these areas are dens of smuggling and drugs. The tension escalates.
|Transcribing the Jewish scriptures with Menorah in the background, Masada|
As we waited for our guide Rikki we noticed a set of three photos of people named Abraham who were Christian, Jew and Muslim. What a wonderful way to depict the mixing of cultures in this region. But what we saw on this tour were all the ingredients of conflict though the three religions originated from the same soil, the Holy Land.
There were three large Television screens and we wondered who would watch three at a time? Rikki explained that the community lived in very tiny apartments, often sharing with others. These shacks become the meeting place for the community. They converge here in the evenings, watch different shows on TV, singing along and drinking coffee with nuts and eating their meals.
‘Chalo’ Eritrean Shack
|WI FI at ‘Chalo’|
The ‘Chalo’ Shack provided WI- FI facilities to attract and get the customers to stay. The language of Eritrea is Tigrinya and it is spoken in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, a bordering country. The two countries were locked in a border conflict!
Israel has a ‘Right to Return’ law for Jews all over the world. Ethiopian Jews are welcome in Israel. The Eritreans are generally Christian, so they come to Israel as refugees. There were also a large number of Muslim refugees, but many left for Canada in the recent years. There is a family reunification scheme in European countries. So some refugees were able to move to where their families resided, UK, European countries or even the US. The country also a scheme for ‘Voluntary Return’ to Africa, which according to Rikki is not so voluntary! The refugee population in Israel reduced from 7000 to 4000 with all these efforts, which was hardly 1% of the country’s population. The popular media depicted the refugees as creating conflict and racial tensions in the area and in the country leading to a hostile environment for the refugees.
Next we visited a Sudanese restaurant again with no name. This was however, in an established shop and not in a tent as our previous Eritrean restaurant. The Sudanese refugees have had a sad past in a country faced with genocide in Darfur since 2003. The Sudanese libertarian movement fought the government and the latter began ethnic cleansing of Non-Arab Darfur population. Hundreds of people lost their lives. Refugees escaped across the desert of Egypt. In this conflict ridden region, Israel is considered the only democracy. In 2006 Israel let in the refugees and gave them tickets to go to Tel Aviv, but no further arrangements were made for them. They arrived and settled in squatter settlements in the city. Later some efforts were made by the Israeli government and international NGOs to help settle these refugees. They have still not been given legal status, but are allowed to work informally.
|Sudanese Restaurant served chick peas topped with salty cheese & chicken curry,Tasted very Indian!|
|Eritrean Restaurant Shiro|
|Teff plant and grain|
|Discussion at Shiro|
At the restaurant our group of 3 Indians, 2 South Africans and 2 Dutch had a discussion on racial conflict with our Israeli guide Rikki. According to her the news media projected that there was tension between communities and the original residents were pushed out of this area by the refugees. However, Israeli youth who live in the area due to it being cheaper, are quite friendly with the refugee population according to Rikki who also resides here. In the recent local elections there were two parties, one was pro and the other anti-refugees. The pro-refugee party won the elections if that can be seen as an indicator of acceptance of the refugees. The Israeli government does not issue the Eritreans passports, while the Eritrean embassy will issue a passport after payment of a large tax or a bribe. The Israeli government has set up separate schools for refugees and is accused of racial segregation. Refugees do not have work permits, are informally employed and do not get minimum wages. These informal enterprises are set up by the refugees in ‘partnership’ with sympathetic Israeli citizens. This practice is followed in many countries including the Gulf countries.
Most refugees have been in jail and Detention Centers for long periods. This according to Rikki is to done to make it difficult for them to stay. Israel provides tickets to allow anyone willing to leave to go back to African countries.
Finally we visited a Chinese restaurant. There are many East Asian stores catering to the East Asian population of the area. The Chinese restaurant served genuine Chinese Chinese cuisine, unlike spicy Chinese food in Gujarat. We tasted a delicious Chinese spinach dish.
While paranoia intermingles with
Shifting physical boundaries
And tense co-existence of diverse cultures
While feet trample on wishes
That lost the battle for space in the crevices
And are strewn on the ground
And a paste of its soil
Cleanses the bodies of the believers and the non-believers alike!