Acre: the evocation of history and the Intifada of the present | Heba Faisal Zoebi
Acre: the evocation of history and the Intifada of the present Print
Heba Faisal Zoebi   
 
Acre: the evocation of history and the Intifada of the present | Heba Faisal Zoebi
Acre
I passed through the narrow alleys and recently restored streets gazing at the walls of the houses that seemed, to my mind, to speak of those peoples who had lived here throughout the centuries. Their stones conceal a great history, redolent of an authenticity that springs from intimate association with the many and numerous events and adventures of Acre’s past. Acre, city of drums and rifles, which subdued Napoleon beneath its towering walls and held out to the last against the occupation of 1948 is a city of the past not the present. When it finally fell, it suffered the consequences of the nakba [Setback] along with other Palestinian cities and many of its inhabitants fled. Today, it has between 6,000 and 9,000 Palestinian residents, the majority of whom live in Old Acre. Not one square foot of the city belongs to these residents. Most of them live in houses owned by the Amidar Company or the Company for the Development of Old Acre, which go their hands on these homes as soon as their owners migrated or were expelled. Only a very few enjoy their full rights as tenants under the law.

The economic situation faced by the residents goes hand in hand with the lack of security in the city
Most of Acre’s residents suffer the consequences of poor economic circumstance, with the majority living below the poverty line. A lack of educational qualifications is matched by the highest rates of unemployment in the city. While such indicators continue to get worse, the phenomenon of drug addiction creeps ever more swiftly through the community without city officials making any genuine attempt to combat it.
Residents have complained of the spread of nargila cafés, patronized by young people. The danger is that such cafés can be used to facilitate drug dealing. Worryingly, café owners and city officials have made no attempt to dissuade these kids or prevent the growth of the café culture.
Crime and gang warfare is growing. The cause of this, residents believe, is a policy to marginalize the Palestinian minority that deliberately ignores the true scale of a problem that has made life in the city unsafe and arduous. Those with the means to do so have left their homes and moved to New Acre.

An attempt to erase the city’s historical Arab and Islamic identity
When I spoke to Acre’s Arab inhabitants they recounted their experience of the city officials’ policy to gradually erase the historical rights of the Arab population, Judaize the appearance of the city and highlight its Crusader past while deemphasizing its Arab and Islamic history. In the early 1950s the Arabic names for streets, neighborhoods and public squares were changed to numbers and subsequently given Hebrew, Crusader and Latin names wholly unrelated to Acre’s history and Arab heritage. This attempt to strike a line through the city’s Arab and Islamic history was accompanied by the flagrant neglect of Islamic historical sites such as the palaces and the Old Bathhouse.

Burning down the Vitso building: a brazen example of the means by which Arab property is appropriated
Two years ago unknown hands burned down the Vitso building, which at the time housed the Center for Enriching the Mother and Child. Just prior to the incident a certain wealthy investor had attempted to purchase the property and failed. Following the fire it was handed over to him. A number of public buildings have been turned over to investors who have converted them into tourist hotels and restaurants. Not only are local inhabitants not welcome in these establishments they are seen as an active menace to their success.
The burning of the Vitso building is just one instance of the methods used by wealthy capitalists to transform public property into private tourist ventures.
The only publicly owned building that serves the Arab residents interests is the community center: a tiny structure that lacks many basic amenities and is need of repair.

Residents of Acre and other cities face a constant battle over rented accommodation following the land seizures of 1948
The cities of Acre, Jaffa, Lod, Haifa and Al-Ramla experience repeated attempts to raze the homes of Arab residents as part of a wider effort to Judaize the cities and erase their Arab features. This process dates back the military rule, when Arab residents were concentrated in “ghettoes” and the names of streets and neighborhoods changed first to numbers then given Hebrew names. Starting from the 1950s, the authorities began the process of destroying empty houses abandoned by their displaced Palestinian owners. In the 1960s these operations were carried out under the cover of official projects such as “Clearing and Building”, implemented by the competent authorities. These operations destroyed all but 15% of Al-Ramla’s old houses, while in Jaffa the authorities knocked down over 2,200 buildings. The figures are almost identical in Acre and Haifa, while Old Lod was almost completely obliterated.
The State of Israel decreed that these towns would be used to absorb the influx of newcomers from the East and the former Soviet Union. Although these immigrants were meant to live in these empty houses, they chose instead to occupy modern buildings near the town centers. With the passage of time the condition of these buildings deteriorated and as the authorities were unable to maintain them many began to collapse. In the 1970s approximately 40% of protected buildings and 25% of unprotected buildings were sold to provide the state with additional revenue. None of the apartments or houses were sold to Arabs.

Acre: the evocation of history and the Intifada of the present | Heba Faisal Zoebi
Arebiat
“New Acre has no future without Old Acre”
The Company for the Development of Old Acre has implemented a number of projects over the last few decades to develop and protect sites of historical interest in Old Acre, spending millions of shekels in the process. Yet the Arab residents of Acre never benefited from this largesse, as it all went into tourist ventures, excavations and the renovation of buildings they did not live in. The process completely overlooked them and their interests, working instead to erase their presence and identity by excluding them from the company’s projects. They claim that the company tried to appropriate and privatize their property, neglecting the public infrastructure that served them. They feel angry and frustrated with the authorities and at the same time a fierce pride and sense of belonging to their country. They expect to be given the first chance to buy the homes where they have lived for decades as tenants of the state. These Arab residents receive no funds to help restore the dilapidated houses that might collapse around their ears at any moment. Those that do receive aid must carry out the repairs according to strict guidelines that can increase the cost of such operations by tens of thousands of shekels.
In the last two years the municipal council has carried out renovation work in some of Acre’s Arab neighborhoods. Yet these same Arab citizens claim that such renovations are little more than an attempt to efface Acre’s Arab and Islamic history. The renovation and repair projects are poorly organized and timetabled and as a result have not only increased the cost for the residents (who are forced to pay sums that take no account of their economic circumstances) and the company itself but have destroyed many buildings and sites of historical and archaeological value.

A stroll around the renovated buildings of Gush 10: the residents of these homes are asked to pay vast sums in exchange for illusory renovations
As I entered the first house I crossed a long pitch-black passageway and, hardly able to see the ground beneath my feet, was forced to concentrate lest I fall. I made my way up a long and uneven flight of steps, and after some considerable effort on my part finally arrived at the apartment of Salih Shoaib, who proceeded to recount the story of his home that looks directly over the seafront. He originally vacated his apartment for three months to allow renovations to be carried out, but when the company extended this period to a year he was forced to find rented accommodation. Mr. Shoaib provides for a family of fifteen. His new flat is tiny, and he has had to throw some of his furniture away because it doesn’t fit in the space.
When the renovation began, Shoaib was asked to pay a large sum for work on the interior, which he duly handed over. He was shocked, therefore, when the company subsequently demanded that he pay substantial additional sums for exterior work, sums that he was unable to pay due to his reduced circumstances. Shoaib claims that he is the victim of a con trick, and that the renovation project is merely cover for the theft of his floor tiles. He is not prepared to pay any more money in exchange for illusory repair work.
We left Salih Shoaib’s apartment and visited another building inhabited by five families who have divided the space between them. Each family’s area has been divided in turn into tiny rooms. Standing in the narrow courtyard my eye was caught by the building’s high staircase that seemed to hang suspended in midair. I asked one of building’s inhabitants how they would ever be able to use such a flight of stairs. The response to my question seemed illogical, out of place: “All we want to do right now is live. That question will be answered when our circumstances become normal”. The house clearly needed work done on it. It was studded with illegal extensions and its rooms stank of mold and damp. One of the inhabitants, a man called Hassan Qawamna, demanded to know how the renovation company could ask for such huge quantities of money in exchange for the few simple repairs it had actually carried out.
I was told that one of the residents of these houses was Mahmoud Al-Tarashhawi, an Olympic athlete and the Israeli boxing champion.
These residents ever anticipated that the company would demand vast sums of cash in exchange for superficial renovations and the theft, as they claimed, of their property. They are afraid for the future, afraid that their houses will be sold and they will have to move.

A plan to establish an artists’ quarter in Acre follows similar projects in Haifa and Ain Hud
The weekly newspaper Kol Hetsevon revealed that the Acre city council, the development company, the Ministry of Housing, the Ministry of Culture and the Israeli Land Authority are working together to establish an “artist’s quarter” in Acre, which will initially be comprised of 40 homes out of a total of 250 closed properties owned by the Land Authority. This project is being planned even as Acre’s Arab residents continue to suffer from an oppressive overpopulation that has forced many to live outside the city boundaries in neighboring Arab municipalities. Ahmed Awda, a citizen of Acre and representative of the Front on the Acre council stated: “We are not bothered by these artists, or indeed any Jew, coming to live in the city so long as that is their personal choice and not part of a racist settler project implemented at the expense of the Arab residents. This we utterly reject. What bothers us is the ignoring of Arab citizens who suffer from overpopulation and difficult social and economic conditions, failing to take them into account, hiding these plans from them and considering natural population growth in the Arab community as an attack on the state.”
Accounts by local residents prove the existence of a racist policy designed to deny them their rights, which, while it fails to serve the interests of Arabs, is perfectly tailored to the needs of artists. So, we have to ask, why are these same incentives not given to local artists to enable them to live in their city?
Acre: the evocation of history and the Intifada of the present | Heba Faisal Zoebi
Welaat
Acre: a land of art and artists
Art in its many forms is nothing new to Acre, indeed it is rooted deep within the city and its residents. Statistics have been released that show that some 30% of Acre’s inhabitants are artistically inclined. The declining living conditions in the city have generated ever greater numbers of artists protesting against the oppression of the marginalized and abandoned residents, rebelling against the difficulties they face in their daily lives. Indeed, they do consider what they do to be art, but rather a ringing scream of protest against a reality that isolates them from their history and surroundings.
Acre towering walls have long been a haven for artists. Prior to 1948 the city was noted for its cultural events. Mohammed Abdel Wahhab and Youssef Wahbi both came to Acre to display their talents. Shukri Sidqi emerged during this period, a singer and composer and teacher who founded a school that produced a number of artists, not to mention his own children and grandchildren. Take for example, his son, Samir Shukri and his grandson Bassam Biroumi, who sang in the Khalas band. His brother, Ahmed Sidqi, was an internationally acclaimed tap dancer who founded a tap dance academy. During the same period many Palestinian poets would frequent the Dalalin café, owned by the resistance fighter Salim Al-Najami. Although artistic activity in the city declined following the 1948 defeat, Samir Abul Ful, the monologist celebrated for his mellow voice, continued to appear in special evening concerts and the Golden Candles troupe, still famed today for their performances, began its stellar rise. Throughout this post-1948 period the city continued to produce artists working in every field imaginable.
In the last decade Acre has been a vibrant wellspring of new artistic movements, producing a number of rap groups some of whom have achieved international and regional recognition. Many of these performers first appeared on the First Night stage. I met with Hashim Dhiab (producer, the creator of the First Night project and organizer of various concerts and evening shows) and he talked with me about the project and how some 3,000 artists, including most of Acre’s troupes and bands, had climbed onto the First Night stage at some point in their careers: “The First Night stage is a mobile stage that travels all over the country. It was started by a group of artists who got together on the stage and felt as though it was their artistic wedding night, hence the name. They gathered on the stage to express their views freely and independently unimpeded by religion or the opinions of others. The stage has helped reform many of the ties with other Arab countries and societies that were lost after 1948, when our society was transformed into a series of cantons that communicate with each other through the Israeli state. The project has also had an impact on art in Acre, bringing most of Acre’s various groups and troupes to prominence.”

Acre’s performing artists are known for injecting a note of protest into all their songs.
Heba Faisal Zoebi
(3/07/2007)