The Last City I Loved: Tel Aviv

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The haircut was the last thing on my list. The woman in the salon on Ben Yehuda Street is telling me about the uncle who smuggled her out of Morocco when she was five and brought her to live with relatives in Israel. At some point, she says, he was caught, interrogated, sent to prison for a couple of years. After that, he made his way to Israel with her parents, and the family was reunited again. She’s in her mid-fifties now, her hair dyed blonde, her fingers nimble with scissors and comb. It’s a Friday afternoon, that liminal time of the week in most parts of Israel, and the last day of my trip to Tel Aviv. I used to live here in the 1980s but moved to London about fifteen years ago.

“So,” she says to me, “do you like it there?”

I tell her that after all these years, I’m about ready to leave. My life can be divided into fifteen-year chunks: the first in South Africa, then Israel, now London. I tell her I’m just waiting for the right moment, the catalyst, the final straw to ease my exit. In Tel Aviv it was the same: for the last five years I lived there I dreamt of escape. In general, I’m good at beginnings, the drama of wooing and seduction, the honeymoon phase. That’s what it’s like with me and relationships; I’m not very evolved when it comes to attachment.

Earlier that day (although I don’t tell her this) I’d been to the Muslim cemetery–what’s left of it–alongside the Hilton Hotel on the beachfront. It’s a derelict place with sun-bleached tombs like blocks of concrete amongst dusty shrubs and parched earth. A white cat roams the place like a ghost. I’d planned to take pictures, maybe write something. Not many people in Tel Aviv know there’s a cemetery there, right in the middle of their city; you can ignore it, behind the stone wall that flanks the path that runs along the cliff. A guy with a large DV camera on his shoulder is filming the place. We get talking. He’s from the Waqf, the Muslim charity that oversees the upkeep of sacred sites.

“We need to do something about this,” he says.

He takes me to the spot where people have been having sex on mouldy mattresses, amongst discarded condoms and debris.

“The ho… ho…” he says, struggling with a word I assume will be “homeless,” but in the end turns out to be homos. I don’t come out to him; don’t tell him that these are my people, that I, too, used to pick up men not far from here in Independence Park. “The hotel,” he says, pointing to the Hilton, “is on top of the other half of the cemetery.”

That’s the kind of place Tel Aviv is. If you take in what’s around you, the onslaught of history can drive you mad. Everyone’s in some stage of recovery from trauma. The Naqba and the Holocaust are never far away. It’s easy not to know this. The food is good and plentiful; cafes are open till late; the weather’s glorious; people are beautiful; it doesn’t take much effort to get laid.

When I think of my time in Tel Aviv, I think mainly of the two years on Sheinkin Street, in that flat in a typical three-storey building with its large balcony overlooking a backyard cluttered with broken furniture. I lived with Melissa first, then with a guy called Pierre. Our flat was on the not-so-fashionable end of fashionable Sheinkin Street, still today the city’s trendy epicentre.

Those years were also my last years in the military. I’d chosen to do my service in Israel rather than go back to South Africa where I grew up, and where I’d probably have been drafted anyway. It seemed the lesser of two evils, and I dreaded the thought of being far away from my family. When I finished the army I went to London for a while, but homesickness got the better of me, and I came back to what I knew. Even though I eventually got away and have been in London all this time, Tel Aviv is still one of my heart-homes.

Friday afternoons the city changes pace. Those winding-down hours are the best–everything becomes quieter, traffic thins out, people retreat into their homes in a siesta kind of way. In the mornings, if I wasn’t at the base, we cleaned the flat then went out shopping for food, stocking up with fruit and veggies from the Carmel Market at the other end of Sheinkin Street. The market is a long thin street of fresh food stands, and stalls flogging fake CK underwear, cheap T-shirts. The smell of fresh herbs and over-ripe fruit is everywhere. There was a place around the corner from the market where we’d buy cheap alcohol, and where Pierre and I stocked up for the party we had that summer of my second year on Sheinkin Street.

We knew people, but we didn’t know many, so we walked around with business-card-sized invitations and handed them out to cute guys on the street. People came; you could hardly move in the flat that night. At some point it got so loud, so crowded that I gave up changing the records and got increasingly drunk. In those days, I drank more than I smoked, although hash was always easy to come by. This guy I knew from the army grew it on his moshav. Eventually the flat emptied out and a group of us went to the beach for a late swim, down through the market, which was empty at that time of night. If I was barefoot, which I often was, I loved the feel of fruit squishing between my toes.

Towards the bottom of Sheinkin Street, just before the market, there used to be a second-hand bookshop, Bibliophile, run by Albert, an Algerian guy in his sixties. He was short, as intense as a French intellectual, a chain-smoker. For the last two months of my army service, I worked in that shop. It was my first writerly job, although I’d already done some of the shitty jobs writers do to include in their bios. I’d been a bartender in a crummy bar where the guy who owned the place liked to fuck me. After that I worked at Señor Sandwich, one of the only places in the city where you could get ham in those days. We had to peel it off the sandwiches at the end of the shift for the next day and the rest of the leftovers we were allowed to take home.

When I worked in the bookshop, I was having sex with a guy called Moshe, who’d been in one of the elite combat units during the war in Lebanon. I remember how he used to shake when we were in bed, how he wanted me to hold him, his tight muscular body. He’d tell me how he was in love with this guy from his unit, a guy from Jerusalem called Adam. They’d gone through the beginning of the war together, the worst part of it. At one point they got stuck in a bombed-out building and just huddled there in a corner, too afraid to do anything.

Cities are about sex. And the most licentious of all are those by the sea, Tel Aviv being one of them. Even though it’s hot and humid most of the year and there’s not much room to breathe with the buildings so close together, after a while you become addicted to that stuffiness, the general sense of decay, and you stop thinking about space. We’re a people used to ghettoes, familiar with confinement. Wide boulevards and sprawling parks are for the goyim. The heat makes you melt into each other. Nights can be as hot and sticky as the days, but it’s when the city begins to exhale. The temperature drops slightly after the relentless and unforgiving sun has set, and like most Mediterranean ports, the city comes alive as a place of pleasure: eating and dancing and fucking. If you want a horizon, there’s always the sea.

And then there is balcony. The mirpesset!

Balcony life is a big part of living in Tel Aviv. Often in the summer we’d sleep there, or make out in full view of the neighbours. Afternoons, we’d eat watermelon with salty Bulgarian cheese, read a book, or just lie on the tattered sofa, desperate for a cool breath of air. The mirpesset was the closest you got to a back garden, a yard. It was different to a balcony; balconies were in other cities, meant for other things, more genteel. Even when we spoke English we used the Hebrew word. Now, more and more people are sealing up their balconies to extend the size of their living rooms. It’s a bourgeois thing, but it’s also a way of putting up walls. I grew up in South Africa; I’ve seen this happen.

Towards the end of my haircut, a guy comes into the salon who, from what I can gather, is a hair products salesman, but he’s not here to sell anything. He was passing by, he says, though it feels like there’s more happening between him and the hairdresser. It’s Friday, so talk comes around to hamin, that overnight, slow-cooked casserole of beans and potatoes and meat that Jews have been making for centuries. It goes by different names in different places: Tebit in Iraq, cholent in Europe, skhina in Morocco. They compare recipes. His family’s from Tehran and he’s proud to be the one in charge of the hamin in his house.

By then my haircut’s done and I leave them chatting, making a note-to-self to buy a hamin cookbook before I go back to London. I want more things in my life to connect me to the city. I take the long route back to my hotel, up along Ben Yehuda Street, then left on Bugrashov, and I head towards Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv’s first shopping mall. I love these side streets, the grimy pavements, the large ficus trees, the way people amble, the way in some cities it can feel like nobody ever goes to work. There are cafes on every corner, chairs and tables outside, glass doors open to the street.

Tel Aviv is easy to love. It’s a full-on city, crammed and crumbling and suffocating. Like other big cities–San Francisco, New York, Melbourne–it likes to think it’s better than the rest of the country. London tends to do that, too; or is it us who need to think that it’s unique. And in many ways it is, but at the end of the day you can’t ignore the context.

I fell out of love with Tel Aviv in the end, though it was more a falling out with the country, its politics, by which I mean its people. It became hard to love anything. After four or five years of political activism, I stopped believing peace was possible. I saw the entrenchment of the occupation, the deepening of the Jewish right wing, the way their sentiments trickled down and poisoned the Left, the dehumanising of everything, the self, the other. No matter how much Tel Aviv pretends to be an entity unto itself, at some point you can’t ignore what’s around you. It’s complicated. For a long time, and probably still, I loved Tel Aviv for its smell and its heat and its people and its markets and its clubs and its beaches and its parks, and also because of its trauma, the never-ending dramatics that are the lives of the people who make up the city. It’s a writer’s hog pit.

How do I tell the whole story of my Tel Aviv love affair? What do I pick that will, as Mary Oliver says, “cast its shadow or its light over the whole body of my telling”? Do I keep talking about the Sheinkin Street years and how, most Saturdays, we’d hitchhike to the nudist beach just north of the city? How, towards the end of those years, my friend Sara got married to this cute Yemenite guy just so she could get out of the army. I was the wedding photographer, but somehow the film got lost on the way to be developed, so I hardly have any pictures of that time.

Or do I write about the Gulf War months in the early 1990s and the bombing of Tel Aviv, and how we sealed a room in the flat with tape on the windows, plastic sheeting over the doors, and hid behind the sofa, our gas masks on, while Scud missiles fell. But also how, at night, before the sirens began, we’d go out drinking and wheel each other around in abandoned shipping trolleys through the streets singing god knows what. This was after we came back, after we’d initially run for safety to places like Jerusalem or Eilat, but in the end came back, bombs or no bombs. We wanted to be there.

Most of the shops in the mall are closing for the Sabbath. In the inner courtyard downstairs, near the entrance to the cinemas, a DJ is playing music for a crowd with headphones on. They dance to music only they can hear, so it looks like a kind of performance, something you’d want to be part of. This has probably been going on all afternoon, but by now there are only ten or twelve people left on the dance floor. A large woman is sweating profusely; it’s as if the shadow of her spine is printed onto the back of her T-shirt. A young Japanese guy stands to one side, watching the last city ravers, headphones cupping his ears, nodding gently in time to the music.


Shaun Levin is the author of Seven Sweet Things, Snapshots of The Boy and three other books. He is a South African writer based in London, where he teaches creative writing. He is the founding editor of the literary journal Chroma, and the director of Treehouse Press. He lived in Israel for all of the 1980s and some of the 90s. You can visit him at www.shaunlevin.com. More from this author →