On a hot summer’s day, the sea started to beckon, and we set off for the picturesque town of Jaffa, that holds a special place in the hearts of many Palestinians.

Jaffa is an ancient port town on the Mediterranean coast, that has been inhabited for thousands of years. It features in several Biblical stories and previously held great strategic importance as the primary arrival and departure point into Israel and Palestine. Jaffa Gate, in the Old City of Jerusalem was named as the place where visitors entered Jerusalem after arriving from overseas into Jaffa.

The town took on greater prominence during the 19th century as the export of goods internationally boomed. The name ‘Jaffa’ is synonymous with the famous Jaffa oranges which were grown to have a thick skin ideal for export. It was from this great industry, that the much-loved British Jaffa Cake[1] came into existence.

The population of Jaffa continued to expand during Ottoman times, and in 1909 a new suburb was founded which burgeoned over time to become modern day Tel Aviv – which now dwarfs Jaffa with a population nearly 10 times greater. Before 1948 the population of Jaffa were predominantly Muslim but there had always been Jewish and Christian communities present. This led to the 1947 UN Partition Plan advising that Jaffa should be part of the proposed Palestinian state. This was hotly contested as Jaffa held too much strategic importance as a key port . In 1948, Israel took Jaffa by force and removed the majority of the Arabic residents. Those who remained were largely confined to the Ajami neighbourhood in the South where they were strictly controlled.

Jaffa old town
Intricate designs in Jaffa

Jaffa is still characterised today by its Ottoman and Arabic architecture which is in stark contrast to the modernist feel of Tel Aviv, where high-rise buildings with quirky designs and Bauhaus architecture reign supreme. These days, it is predominantly Israeli businesses, art galleries and shops that line the cobbled, quaint lanes of Jaffa’s old town.  

We ambled along, the air thicker and more humid than it had been in Jerusalem, despite the sea breeze. Past the port area, where a few families still sold fresh fish, past the restaurants catering to the Arab and secular Israeli families who ventured out on Saturday (Shabbat) and towards the eclectic streets of downtown Jaffa.

The market area is a fun and quirky neighbourhood jam-packed with record shops, vintage clothing, antiques, brick-a-brac as well as trendier more upmarket boutiques. Many shops were closed on account of it being Shabbat but there were plenty of restaurants, coffee shops and ice-cream places to escape the hot sun and watch the more bohemian side of Israeli society go by.

The clocktower in Jaffa

Standing proudly in the middle of Jaffa is the iconic clocktower which the Ottomans had built here and in several other Palestinian towns in the early 20th Century. Passing the clocktower, we turned down to the beach promenade where we fell into line with Tel Aviv culture and took out electric scooters to zoom along the promenade with.

On this occasion, we were travelling North where crowds throng beach after hipster beach along the Tel Aviv coastline. The contrast with conservative Jerusalem is extreme and the vibe here is tiny dogs, tiny swimwear, bronzed bodies and a real love of beach ball games. The air vibrates with the click, clack of highly competitive bat and ball games ticking incessantly like an angry clock. 

The scooters are a great way to accelerate life to movie reel speed, and there will always be more outrageous people to people spot. Stepping off the scooters, we remembered too late, that we actually hate the beach. The heat was oppressive, the sweat was still clinging to us, and the sand was too hot to walk on. Oh, and the sparkling emerald, inviting sea already had jellyfish the size of dinner plates in it, lurking dangerously close to the shore.  

Enough complaining though, as this sea is a privilege not bestowed on everyone. Most Palestinians had no access to the sea at all and their memories were either remembered first-hand from childhood weekends and holidays spent at the Sea or they were passed down from the older generations as a lost part of Palestine. Many mourned it deeply and mention of Jaffa remains a bittersweet reminder of what has been lost.

Tel Aviv beach life

On a previous trip to Jaffa, we had headed South towards Ajami beach. It was immediately obvious that this attracted a very different clientele than the hipster Tel Aviv beaches with much more modesty and decorum being the norm. There were more families, and they came with several generations trailing along, big picnic baskets and a more relaxed vibe than the Tel Avivers who looked like they would club you with their wooden racket if you got in the way of their ball game. Swimwear and normal clothes were interchangeable with both modestly dressed Jewish and Muslim people wading into the sea.

It is hard to not be struck by contrast at every turn here and for my money every trip to the coast should start at Jaffa as the jewel in the crown and head South for a look into the past and North for the present future. There is a lot to discover and the touring and the scooting may well be more enjoyable than the beach you find!

[1] non-Brits: this is a chocolate biscuit with orange jelly (not a cake, despite the legal case) that is very average but holds a strange allure.

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