LeBon, Adam. “City of Oranges”. W.W. Norton, 2007.
Some of the most memorable experiences of my life took place in the city of Jaffa, Israel. It is a fascinating place occupying its own little area outside of the thriving metropolis of Tel Aviv. Jaffa sits as a city within a city much like the French Quarter of New Orleans, Jaffa has great restaurants, art galleries, shops and a port but above all, it is a historical site. The streets are narrow as they have always been and the people are a mix of Arabs and Jews, also just as it always been in Jaffa.
Adam LeBon’s “City of Oranges” is a balanced look at the history of modern Jaffa and the birth of the State of Israel. LeBon looks at the lives of six families and by doing so makes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict more personal.
Jaffa is a city of layers of people, events and times, of Arabs and Jews living peacefully together, sharing lives and experiences. LeBon looks at the history of Jaffa by looking at Jewish, Christian and Moslem families to show that the struggle in the Middle East is a human struggle. It is the story of longing for a homeland and fortunes that changed and also the history of a multi-ethnic city that was changed by what was happening in the area. LeBon emphasizes the needs of the Jewish people to have a state and shows the tragic consequences this has caused for Arab neighbors. He names neither villains nor heroes but shows us people, like you and me, trying to find a way through what is going on. Adam LeBon, celebrates the capacity for endurance as we read about the ways people come to terms with themselves and each other.
The families that LeBon writes about are Christian Arab notables, Muslim aristocracy, Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi refugees from Europe. We see the story of Israel told in a microcosm, the struggle for land and the fight for political supremacy and the Jewish ambivalence to fight with their neighbors. We also see Jew and Arab helping each other through the years.
Many of the aspects of the Israel-Arab conflict are captured here. We see the proletarian Jews of Tel Aviv defeating the rich Arabs of Jaffa with their nationalism and we see how violence separated a community that was once solid. It is extremely poignant to read how refugee Jews were chased out of Arab countries and then lived in the lands that once belonged to Arabs who themselves became refugees when the Jews chased them out.
Throughout the book there is an interweaving of history with what was going on in everyday life. This is an intimate history and to me, at least, I did not feel the author’s biases as I read. He attempts to understand without judgment and this is not an easy task. He looks at one town and from it gives the history of the State of Israel and the catastrophe of Palestinians by using the lives of Jaffa’s Arab and Jewish residents.
LeBon has a wonderful knack for detail and allows individual opinion to be expressed without any type of judgment. Courage and trauma mark the histories of both Arab and Jew and we see clearly that neither side has really listened to the other because as LeBon states “any recognition of each other’s losses is a kind of surrender” in a battle for territory as well as memory.
LeBon does condemn (but does so quietly) the excesses of both sides. He talks about the Israeli occupation and the corruption of the Palestinians, Israeli racism, and Palestinian suicide terrorism. His conclusion is one of compromise and I am sure that because of this, there will be readers who find cause to object.
LeBon has done extensive research especially in the lives of the families—two Christians, two Muslims and two Jewish. It is from his interviews with family members, memoirs and private archives that he is able to give us vivid portraits to show us the narrative of the modern Arab/Jewish and Palestinian/Israeli relations. He brings us into the lives of each generation as we witness both political and social upheaval and urban decay and redevelopment and war and its aftermath. It is through the family members that we see the issues of everyday life in Israel today. The families share so much and still sit on opposite sides of issues that are violently divisive yet they still manage to live together, as friends, in the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. It is this look at the human lives behind the volatile headlines of the world press that gives us a new look and understanding of an area that is often described as the “powder keg” of the world.