Kamal Aljafari Has Built a City

Recollection, Kamal Aljafari’s mesmerizing film, is the dream of a cameraman, recapturing the city he loves. The dream veers from transcendental to nightmarish as the beautiful old buildings morph into concrete monstrosities. Carts become wildly veering cars, and plows become bulldozers. But none of this happens sequentially; we see the city and its changes as a dreamer does, in flashes without obvious narrative and in an order that is sporadic rather than chronological. In his description of his film, Aljafari writes, “As in a dream, the search for answers cannot provide any.”  In making this film, Aljafari has perhaps not provided answers, but his art is deeply political in the felt but inarticulatable way that great art exists.

Many of us look at the cities of our childhood and note the changes with varying degrees of disapproval. Mr. Aljafari has been deprived of commenting on the gradual passage of time on place because he is from Jaffa and the Jaffa of his childhood is gone.

The 1945 Palestinian population of Jaffa (excluding outlying areas) is generally thought to be about 80,000.  After the city was crushed by the Zionist military, the Palestinian population was reduced to about 4,000.  These former residents were initially detained in the area of Al-Ajami behind barbed wire fences.

When future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whom Aljafari cheerfully erased from one of the Israeli films) learned that Jaffa had fallen, he wrote in his diary: “Jaffa will be a Jewish city. War is war.” Israelis then moved into the ‘abandoned’ homes on a first-come, first possess basis. Although I couldn’t find similar statistics on Jaffa: Palestinian bank accounts in Haifa containing 1.5 billion Palestinian pounds were seized by Israel.

Recollection was made from over 60 Israeli films of the 1960s through 1990s.  Mr. Aljafari went through a process of digitalizing the films and then carefully erasing the Israeli actors, in a sense doing to them what was done to the Palestinians in these films. The resulting thousands of digital photos were colored in or reshot from the edges to recreate the Jaffa that surrounded the films.

But Aljafari found that the Israelis were not wholly successful in their attempts to erase the Palestinians. Once he removed the Israeli actors, Aljafari found some Palestinians, including his uncle. In the credits he identifies a number of the vaguely seen Palestinians. The views of these blurred figures become the witnesses of the film.

Why did Israel make so many films in Jaffa and not in its more cosmopolitan neighbor Tel Aviv? Aljafari speculates that: “Film needed Jaffa to make the point that Israelis have a history there too. But they could only show it as they left it: ruined, neglected, abandoned, destroyed – and with not a word on how or why it came to be that way.”

Devastating, not only did Israel appropriate the country of its imagination, it portrayed the destruction of its former cultural center as a ruin of its own past.

Eve Mykytyn graduated from Boston University School of Law and was admitted to bar of the state of New York. Read other articles by Eve.