A few months later. It is 11pm on a Sunday, and I am collapsed on a bench on Allenby Street, a main Tel Aviv thoroughfare. I came searching for a metropolis, my guidebook promising ‘it’s indeed possible to forget you’re actually in the Middle East’. But I have only been in the city for five minutes, and already I have to disagree. The alleyways stink of piss. The closed shop fronts reveal tired mannequins in garish dresses, a gypsy girl’s dream. And even at this time of night the air feels close, like I am trapped inside a giant sock.
It is a relief when my couchsurfing host Asbury arrives, even if he is wearing more kohl liner than Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s a one-time New Yorker, and we regail tales as I unpack and we drink rum in his sprawling studio flat. It is decorated with photos of Springsteen and the Himalayas. The floors are covered with ethnic rugs from Indian markets. Young Israelis travel a lot.
Out into the hot night, we keep on chatting as we sip cool beers at Riff-Raff on Gruzenberg 22, voted the best alternative bar in Tel Aviv by Timeout. A dishevelled mix of mosaic tiles and potted plants, wooden chairs and androgynous creatures in polo necks, I feel like I have wandered into the threadbare home of a cool old Middle Eastern poet. But according to the website, the decor is ‘minimalist-socialist chique to match its proletarian stand’. Ahem. Yes it is pretentious, but the music is excellent and the bar snacks are healthy and delicious, as Israeli as they come. We receive pots of warmed kidney beans and chickpeas, topped with salt and spices.
The next morning Asbury takes me to the old city of Jaffa. It’s a thirty minute walk South. I was warned not to take a bomb magnet, sorry, bus in the city. The soldiers are sitting ducks for enemy terrorists, as they chat or sleep inside. But I hop on the tin-can vehicle, because the city feels safe and the air is as unbearably sticky as having ice-lollies melted over my body. The soldiers I notice on the bus are the gorgeous girls with tousled hair and deep brown eyes, wielding heavy guns in khaki and combat boots.
We get off close to Jaffa flea market – a web of dusty pavements covered in used jeans, old toasters and yellowing family photo albums of dead people. Arab charmers try to lure us into a sale. But it is the buildings that hold the eye. Elegant and shuttered, their pastel facades peel from the salt of the sea a few streets away. Yet gentrification has changed the atmosphere of a once wild market from the 19th century, and the cafes now serve Eggs Benedict for brunch.
Old Jaffa proper is similarly twee, with coachloads of tourists exploring stone alleyways full of galleries and expensive restaurants. Down tiny cobbled steps lies Jaffa port, one of the oldest in the world. But I am more interested in the view up on Jaffa hill, because it looks out to the metropolis I was promised. Glass skyscrapers glint in the sun. Torquoise surf slinks down a beach of golden bodies and white sand. This is one sexy city. Tel Aviv is all the more impressive because it is just over a century old. Jews tired of the dirty, cramped and often hostile conditions in the Jaffa of the late 19th century, decamped to dunes on the sandy coastal plains just North of Jaffa.
A few families quickly became over sixty. And, under the auspices of businessman and politican Meir Dizengoff, the town was expanded into a garden city of simple streets surrounded by greenbelt land. It is now a twenty-four hour hub of over 400,000.
We head to the most famous houmous institution in the Holy Land, Abu Hassan. Asbury promises he nearly cried the first time he came, which says more about him than it does the food. Famous across Tel Aviv, the canteen is on Jaffa’s Dolphin Street. No frills, just some formica tables and plain walls, gruff service and big warm bowls of houmous. Topped with crunchy fava beans, the textures slide against each other beautifully, and the pitta is perfectly pillowy. But it is 35 degrees outside and my tongue hangs hot in my mouth, like I have just swallowed a hamster.
At 2pm the cafeteria closes, and we are briskly ordered out. So we grab fresh pomegranate juice downtown at the bustling Carmel market, the largest in Tel Aviv. Rails of cheap clothes from China compete with stalls of spices and the shouts of street hawkers. We wander its wild alleys with Asbury’s mum and dad, who give me a headache with their New York wit and Jewish chutzpah.
A shower, a fleet of Asbury’s friends, and we are back at Riff Raff. It starts filling up at about 12, after all this is the Med. Then it’s pictionary back at his place until 5am. I just want to go to bed, but a kind stranger has offered me his couch for nothing, and I feel I have to be polite. Until he tries to discuss the ‘philosophy of sleep’ as I am drifting off. I have to stifle my groan. Get me out of here…
I received this email from a guy named Hussain today, and I found it quite humbling. However much of a good time you can have in Tel Aviv, it’s important not to forget the pain and suffering of thousands of Palestinians less than thirty minutes away. Hussain’s words are more beautiful than mine, so without further ado,
Hey Ailsa , after going thru your profile I went thru your website it was quiet informative and interesting espicially articles Tel Aviv: The Ibiza of Middle east. I wonder to what extent is that true as you know the history of Tel aviv is bloody and has not been an island of the free spirited from there a lot of suppression is passed to the nieghbouring countries such as Palestine, Jordan , Syria and Lebanon … I like the way you write its a gift you have , my point being when one travels he or she should be open minded to see and observe . I hope you would be able to tell the world of how much suffering and pain the people of palestine bare each day, each moment . In true spirit hoping for a better world today, tomorrow and after ………..
May we all grow in abundance of love, harmony and peace.’