This is a guest post by Andrew Hughes
I didn’t hear the blast. In fact, I didn’t know there had been one until my dad called. It was the last day of his visit to Tel Aviv, and he had been told by a cab driver that there had been a suicide bomb and that many of the roads were closed. He was going to be late back. Now I understood why my two-year-old daughter was on the balcony calling, “Daddy, helicopter”. The sky was full of them. I spent the next hour issuing assurances via phone, text and instant messenger that we were all safe. We lived less than one kilometre from where the attack had taken place.
I had met my Israeli wife in India. After three years of living, working, getting married and becoming parents in London we decided it was time for a change. In January 2006 we left for Tel Aviv. Our decision to leave was met with a variety of reactions ranging from puzzlement to horror. The seeming absence of any good news stories from Israel ever appearing in the UK media leaves many with a pessimistic and inaccurate vision of the place. I found myself continually quoting the minuscule number of Anglo-Israelis who had been victims of terrorist attacks during 2005 as if to justify our decision. In the meantime, my wife’s Moroccan Israeli family were thrilled.
What came as a bit of a surprise was the reaction of many of the Israeli people I met. They seemed to share the confusion of my friends and family in London that I would leave there to live here. Did nobody appreciate the year round sunshine, sandy beaches, alfresco dining and 24-hour living of the White City, I wondered?
What really sent Israelis into a spin, though, was when I told them I lived in Schunat HaTikva (literally ‘Neighbourhood of Hope’). To leave London for the heart of Tel Aviv is one thing, almost permissible, but to live in Schunat HaTikva is something else. Located in Tel Aviv’s South Eastern corner, the wrong side of the Ayalon motorway, HaTikva is one of the city’s oldest residential neighbourhoods. And it comes with a bad reputation. Home to predominantly Mizrachi Jews, Tikva is a maze of narrow streets and ramshackle housing and is unquestionably a poor area. But compared with Lewisham on a Friday night it is paradise.
The one bedroom apartment we lived in used to belong to my wife’s grandfather and had been in the family for more than 40 years. Every day our certifiably mad Russian neighbours treated us to a fantastic side show while we sipped our morning coffee. One used to walk out into the street wearing a woolly hat and scarf (in the Middle East!) and screaming “achoti zona” – “my sister is a whore” – which was usually greeted by the appearance of her sister armed with a mouthful of saliva ready to be unloaded in her beloved sibling’s direction. Priceless. In our first three months living in the neighbourhood we got to know almost everyone in our street and many of the neighbours regularly brought us small gifts and sweets for my daughter. For all the obvious poverty there was a real and genuine sense of community that seems to be absent from the towns and cities of Britain these days.
While I studied and my wife was at work our daughter attended the local nursery. Just two minutes walk from our apartment, and open six days a week from 7am until 7pm, I could talk about it for hours. It was just so good when I compare it to the childcare nightmares we had encountered in London, not to mention the costs. The Tikva nursery provided a daily lunch (from a menu specifically designed by a dietician) and each class of 18 children was staffed by two qualified nursery teachers and an assistant. This cost under £200 a month.
I’m not Jewish. Following an amicable divorce, and despite the fact that my daughter was Israeli, I became an illegal immigrant living next to the Central Bus Station on Salame Street. I hadn’t crossed any deserts or fallen foul of any Bedouin to end up there. But I was poor, with limited Hebrew, few friends, and a 60-day Deportation Order.
What I did have, though, was a connection with the local people and a job, given to me by a trader in Shuk HaTikva. I worked in the Shuk for nearly two years, where, despite my thick South London accent, and my efforts to convince them that my name was Shimon Tzuberi, my father was from Yemen and my mother from Dublin, I was affectionately referred to by customers as the American. The people were kind, the pay was fair, the hours were horrendous, and Friday afternoons were always the highlight of the week. Thinking about it now, that job was my lifeline. I probably learnt more about myself and about other people during those two years in Shuk HaTikva than at any other stage in my working life. The people were all kind and open, and also full of advice and guidance.
In Tel Aviv, I guess it could have appeared slightly surreal to see groups of tall muscular Africans hanging out on one side of the street while on the other families of Filipinos were doing a BBQ. In my building of nine apartments there were two African families, two Filipino families, one Arab family, one Israeli couple, two Israeli singles, and me.
I lived in that building for three years and in that time the only crime which concerned any of us was that of bicycle theft. People were quiet and respectful. Families cared for one another and neighbours looked out for one another. The park was vibrant, multi-cultural and filled with civic responsibility. Doctors offered free healthcare advice and medical tests. Local businesses employed the migrants and anyone who was willing to work hard seemed to be given a chance.
The recent news reports about tensions between the communities in South Tel Aviv are a worrying development. My gut feeling is that the residents of South Tel Aviv will always have time for someone they can see is willing to work hard. But they don’t suffer fools gladly. While the Africans are unable to work, they will never be in a position to interact with the local residents in a meaningful way.
I hope the people of South Tel Aviv will rally behind the refugees in their fight to stay and live in Israel and that they will use their entrepreneurial skills to harness some of that latent labour pool to help develop their businesses and the communities they serve. By working together there is tremendous potential to develop the neighbourhood.