Books: Everyday miracles in the city of Shifting sand

Tel Aviv by Joachim Schlor, trans. Helen Atkins Reaktion Books, pounds 19.95, 400pp
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The Independent Culture
TEL AVIV is where the planes land, so it's the first part of Israel you see. Out of the air-conditioned, man-made flying machine, down the steps and onto the soil of the man-made city. Usually it is the heat that hits you first - wham, flat in the face like a pancake. Then you drive into the city, and all day, and all night, it is alive and agog.

Maybe because it is the landing post, here the waves of immigration are most evident. So on the beachfront now in Tel Aviv, you have Russians drinking lemon tea out of glasses, and Ethiopians plaiting beads into hair. Just one city, but people don't blend, really. They form distinct colonies, like in London, but in Tel Aviv the space is so small you can cruise past five national groups in a half-hour stroll.

That is how it started, and that s how it is continuing. In the early 20th century, the European Jews bought land here. Sand, actually - expanses of sand on which nobody lived. On 11 April 1909 there was a ceremony on the sand, to draw lots: 60 pebbles bearing the names of families, and 60 others marked with building plots of land. And so a city was founded. In the north of the city, the Europeans; in the south, those who fled out of Yemen.

The city was given its name after the title of the novel by Theodor Herzl, Altneuland, translated into Hebrew as Tel Aviv. The novel was Herzl's Utopian vision of the Jewish homeland, of "how much justice, goodness and beauty can be created on earth if only there is a decent will to it." In the novel, Arabs and Jews live side by side as friends.

Well, it didn't work out like that. Israel's founding fathers used to talk about "normalisation" rather than Utopia. Jews will be normal when there are Jewish prostitutes and Jewish burglars, they said.

There are all those, now. But nobody envisaged a Jewish assassin killing a Jewish prime minister. In Tel Aviv, the place of Rabin's assassination has been re-named "Kikar Rabin". There are new flowers there every day, but they have also left the graffiti.

Tel Aviv's motto is "Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built". Many come to the city, and remark on its ugliness, peeling concrete and unplanned streets. Joachim Schlor's book confronts that vision of Tel Aviv head-on.

"Before the clamour of the day begins," says Schlor, "and after it has died down, the city seems to open up, and has, like the light, a surprisingly gentle quality. This miracle occurs every day, and yet it never loses its sensational, sensuous effect."

This is not a conventional travel book. It is one of a series from Reaktion which this very good publishing house calls a "new literature of place". It is, perhaps, closest to Jan Morris's writing.

You could take this book walking round the city with you, but it would not help you find your way. However, it would waken your senses to what you are seeing.