Geographical Notes: A city that inspires affection and hatred

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The Independent Online
IN THE heat of the day Tel Aviv seems like any normal city, garish, noisy, dirty. But before the clamour of the day begins 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. Even those who dislike Tel Aviv admit that this city has a special way of engaging all the senses: it heightens our seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and touching, and also our imagination. This city is fascinating and alarming. More of the many people in Western Europe who engage in debate about Israel and the Middle Eastern conflict should make contact with this contemporary city, question it and listen to it.

Tel Aviv represents a provocation. From the moment of its foundation it was called into question - by those who built it and voiced conflicting views about its future, by visitors who came with certain expectations and could not believe what they saw, by its enemies, who made a point of writing its name in inverted commas. But Tel Aviv lived and by its very existence posed other questions - about the ability of immigrants to settle successfully; about the course and the portrayal of Jewish history, which here faced a new challenge; about the city's neighbours and their ability to tolerate its existence; about our assumptions and the methods we normally use when thinking about and studying large cities. The city's motto is "Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built".

In cities we look for what is distinctive, the special character that sets one place apart from another. As a rule the urban centres which we examine are hundreds or even thousands of years old, they have a long cultural tradition, and their buildings reflect that history. Historical research into cities always includes archaeological work in the extensive field of urban mentalities, work and communication patterns and ways of life.

Tel Aviv, founded in 1909 as a garden suburb of the Biblical town of Jaffa, still has some residents who are older than itself. If you dig too far down, you strike sand. This is a boon to researchers: the archives are complete, the material history of the city is well documented, and, if despite this there are legends about the city's foundation and sentimental stories about the early years, these only add to the interest of the research. Tel Aviv can be "read" as a microcosm of which one can easily gain an overview, both chronological and spatial, as a model of modern urban development.

The city has undergone a rapid development, almost like a speeded-up film, from garden suburb to metropolis, and the transformation can be studied in two ways. One is to focus on the concrete process of urbanisation: how did this growth take place, what phases and periods did it pass through, when and how were the houses, streets, shops and factories built, and who lived and worked in them? A second approach is more concerned with people's mental concepts and memories: how did this development appear to contemporaries, what were their comments on it, what terms did they use to describe what they saw taking place around them? What did this development mean to them? More than almost any other city, Tel Aviv has inspired both affection and hatred. How were these feelings expressed?

The two approaches cannot easily be separated - why should a house be seen as possessing greater "reality" than the significance which it has for those who live in it? Why is a street more "concrete" than the feeling that one can walk freely along it? Every city has its own atmosphere which distinguishes it from others. What is special about Tel Aviv can be summed up in a phrase: it is "ha-ir ha'ivrit ha'rishona", "the first all-Jewish city", "la ville cent pour cent juive", the first - modern - Hebrew city.

Joachim Schlor is the author of `Tel Aviv: from dream to city' (Reaktion Books, pounds 19.95)