An Ajami Backgrounder

Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film, “Ajami,” is coming to Chicago this Friday and I’m looking forward to seeing it. It’s been getting great reviews and attracting particular attention for its being directed by two best friends, Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew and Scandar Copti, a Palestinian Christian.

The film’s website describes it as “a powerful crime drama set on the streets of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood – a melting pot of cultures and conflicting views among Jews, Muslims and Christians.” From the sound of it, “Ajami” certainly seems to highlight aspects of Israeli life that don’t tend to get much attention in the general media.

For those who are interested in the seeing the film (or even those who aren’t), here’s a bit of background on the complex history of the Ajami neighborhood:

Toward the end of the 19th century al-Ajami Neighborhood, stretching south of Old Jaffa and projecting into the Mediterranean, started to be built outside the walls of Old Jaffa. The neighborhood is named after one of prophet Muhammad’s companions, Ibrahim al-Ajami, who is believed to have been buried in the neighborhood, next to al-Ajami mosque…

In the beginning of the 20th century hundreds of families, mainly Christian-Arabs, from different financial background and different places in the country had settled in al-Ajami, the neighborhood expanded to the south as a narrow strip between the seashore to the west and orchards to the east, until in merged with al-Jabaliyya neighborhood…

During the war of 1948 the majority of Jaffa’s population (that was mainly Arab) fled the country and were not able to return. The deserted neighborhood was soon settled with Jewish immigrants from East Europe, the Balkans and North Africa. A large Arab population from different parts of the country moved to the neighborhood as well. Al-Ajami changed into a crowded and lively immigrant city. To accommodate the influx, its palaces-houses were subdivided among many families. Gradually, however, it became inflicted with poverty and crime.

The municipalities of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv merged in 1950. As time passed, new plans developed to transform Ajami into a modern neighborhood, in the spirit of Tel Aviv. This decision was immediately followed by the demolition of houses and evacuation of al-Ajami’s inhabitants. The neighborhood’s conditions drastically and quickly deteriorated, while modern infrastructure was not built. In addition to this, the neighborhood was badly harmed by the casting of construction waste into its once beautiful shores. The pile of waste accumulated to the height of 20m, blocking the beautiful neighborhood from the sea.

During the 1980’s the architectural and historical values of al-Ajami neighborhood were finally recognized by the municipality of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa. It stopped the demolition and developed a conservation plan, trying to save what remained. Today, the opulent past of al-Ajami is still visible in its alluring ‘palaces-houses’, colorful plastered walls, ample spaces and decorated elements. At the same time the wounds of its history are still present in the abundance of empty lots and in the mound of waste obstructing the access to the sea. (from Archnet Digital Library)

Some troubling recent news: Ha’aretz has just reported that the Tel Aviv District Court has upheld the legality of a Jews-only housing complex in the Ajami neighborhood:

Attorney Gil Gan-Mor of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said afterward that the petitioners will appeal to the Supreme Court. Kemal Agbariya, who heads the Ajami neighborhood council, said that activists and elected officials in the city also intend to organize protests.

4 thoughts on “An Ajami Backgrounder

  1. Michael Levin

    Zochrot [“Remembering”]– “a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948” [ ]– held a tour of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood in 2007. Their report, with pictures, is available [in English]on the web: Tour and Signposting in Ajami neighborhood, Jaffa /

    In conjunction with this tour Zochrot produced a booklet: “Remembering Jaffa’s Ajami Neighborhood.” That booklet, written in Hebrew and Arabic, is available [free] from a link within the web report, and can be downloaded directly at

    For further information also see:
    “Jaffa: from eminence to ethnic cleansing,” Sami Abu Shehadeh & Fadi Shbaytah, The Electronic Intifada, 27 February 2009,


    “The Nakba Continues: The Ethnic Cleansing of Jaffa’s Ajami Neighborhood,” Encyclopedia Britanica, July 2008. [Excerpt] ” Jaffa is one of Israel’s so-called “mixed” cities, but a simple walk around its neighborhoods shows the lack of “mixing”–the rundown and overcrowded streets are a stark contrast from those of Tel Aviv, Ajami is the lowest income neighborhood of all Tel Aviv/Jaffa’s 60 neighborhoods. How has the Israeli government managed to stay within its own legal system and still concentrate so many demolition orders in one neighborhood? Explained Jaffa Popular Committee member Sami Shehadah: “Between the 1960s and the late 1980s municipal authorities placed a total freeze on all permits for new building or renovations with the intention of demolishing the whole area for redevelopment. Unfortunately for the Arab residents crowded into the Ajami neighborhood, 80 percent of these houses were built pre-1948, and without any renovations the ceilings would quite literally fall in on their heads. With a freeze on allocation of permits for renovations they had no choice for the safety of the families but to go ahead without permission from Israeli authorities.”

  2. Brian Walt

    I look forward to seeing Ajami. One sentence in the description caught my attention: “During the war of 1948 the majority of Jaffa’s population (that was mainly Arab) fled the country and were not able to return.” Were not able to return? Not quite accurate, were not allowed to return by the Israeli government. Thanks to Michael Levin for his excellent list of resources about this painful and hidden history.

  3. Pingback: Ajami update: Protests Begin | The Only Democracy?

  4. Trayf

    Terrific piece, Brant. I added yours and Michael’s links to my blog story on the Ajami Jews-Only housing complex. Head on over to The Only Democracy for news of growing protests.


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