Friday, May 18, 2012

Anybody Alley, Shum-makom, Tel Aviv

I am currently in Tel Aviv ahead of what promises to be a very exciting conference, where I will be presenting work from my ostensible first book chapter. I'll be posting as and when there are academic, medieval, and broadly textual observations to be made.

My flight got in much later than it was originally scheduled for, so I didn't have a full day to explore the city, as I had originally planned. And even if I'd had the whole day, my main goal today was to do whatever it took to not become jet-lagged. So after a brief nap, I went to the home of the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, knowing that it would already be closed by the time I would arrive, but thinking that perhaps seeing the outside and the neighborhood would be sufficient. The little museum there had a few pictures of the interior posted on a board outside, though, and it looks lovely — so I'm going to shoot to go back to visit on Tuesday morning, before the conference begins.

I then visited a street called "Simtat Plonit," or "Anybody Alley," more or less, (ploni, or plonit in the feminine form, in case anybody from the Spanish crowd is reading, is cognate with the Arabic word that yields the Spanish fulano) which the guidebook made sound fantastic: "Walk down this alley to see old Tel Aviv decorative architecture at its best. Two plaster obelisks at the entrance mark the city's first 'gated' community. Note the stucco lion in front of Number 7, which used to have glowing eyes fitted with lightbulbs. The original apartment house is painted pale yellow with a garish orange trim..."

But instead of a history of Tel Aviv aesthetics, it was rather a study in urban decay.

This is the base of one of the obelisks. The sign that is posted says "don't look up!!"

(Click to enlarge any of the images, with the caveat that I had to post copies the files size of which I reduced substantially to be able to upload them on the hotel wifi, so viewing larger may pixelate.)

The lion and the apartment building that had been something completely different in my imagination. (Another photographically-related caveat is that this was meant to be purely illustrative rather than anything resembling a good photo — the sun was high up in the sky and the photographer was exhausted and jet-lagged.):

It was okay, because I happen to find urban decay to be fascinating, and because the urban decay in Israel is so much more visually interesting than anything I've ever come across in the US, though perhaps I've just not looked in the right places. Buildings here, as it seems, are just left to crumble.

And then all of a sudden, there will be a sign of life: a group of people roughly my age, with groceries, who obviously live well in one of the apartments and a man poking his head out of his little bookstore, across the alley from some specimens that weren't so lucky. It gives the impression of Tel Aviv being an ant-hill, with signs here and there that there is much more going on under the surface that is inaccessible until you are really a part of the community.

It did allow me to indulge my obsession with graffiti, though. If I have a text fetish, truly this is it. 

(Translations for these longer ones are forthcoming. I've already translated the shorter ones below.)

And some more from central Tel Aviv:

"We have come to banish the darkness." (A line from a Hannukah song.)

"In a country in which women can sit  get upset in the driver's seat, women can sit get upset everywhere."

"Rosa Parks also changed the world without getting out of her seat."


This one is hilarious if you know the least bit about the visual idiom of Israeli graffiti. One of the most common graffiti is "Na-nach-nachm-nachman me-Uman," which is a reference to a Hassidic story about rabbinic succession. This plays on the look of that graffiti, substituting the word nudnik, which means pest/irritating person, for the name Nachman.

So that's my snapshot, as it were, of the Kulturkreis. (Another reason I like graffiti — it's so good for that!) Lots more English graffiti since I was here last; that's the only major observation I have so far. I was also a little puzzled by the frequency of graffiti by apparent supporters of the Manchester United football club. Tomorrow I go to Jaffa, and so the adventures promise to be a little more medieval. Or Ottoman, at least.

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