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Artificial Borders and Natural Diamonds: The Alienation of an Arab Village in Israel

January 19, 2017 /

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Photo © Rasmus Svane Høj 

By Rasmus Svane Høj

Colourful fishing boats rock calmly by the shore of Jisr az-Zarqa on Israel's West coast as the minaret points skyward and a colourful city gate greets anyone happening upon it a friendly welcome. There, completely unspoilt by tourism in spite of its location on the white and sandy banks of the Mediterranean Sea, the only Arab coastal town in Israel could sound like paradise for many a daydreamer.

However, the reality of life in Jisr az-Zarqa is much less rose-tinted; as a matter of fact, if you look at it statistically, it is rock bottom of Israeli society. Sky-high mortality rates, drug issues and rampant crime are all symptoms of a village that has been socioeconomically excluded from its surrounding society, and in physical terms too: the town borders are sandwiched between Israel's arguably wealthiest kibbutz to the north and a rich, gated community of to the south, thus making expansion impossible. Architecturally speaking, housing is the foremost issue facing the city, though the problem presents itself in a peculiar way that sets Jisr az-Zarqa apart from other stereotypically 'bad neighbourhoods'.

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The Mediterran ean Sea at the edge of Jisr az-Zarqa.  Photo © Rasmus Svane Høj 

Wandering through, it seems that almost all recent attempts at augmenting the building mass - and there is a lot of that - have been vertical. Odd concrete structures rise brokenly out of the roof of the existing, half-finished and left to wither; dirty, stony monuments to the day when money ran dry. The urban fabric itself, however, is not all that densely knitted, and this is the peculiar part - there is mass, there are voids, but then in between emerges a third entity. So much lost, redundant space, occupied by piles of trash and walls of rubble in every imaginable nook or cranny, rendering the mere footprint of the village unnecessarily large. In turn, the next step on the ladder of bad city life is reached as public space is reduced to curious faces peeking out of garages or children playing among the cars on the tarmac outside. On discoloured plastic chairs outside the small kiosk downtown, I walk by squatting groups of the town's men as they sit around looking disillusioned, waiting for nothing.

A resident tells me that no one in Jisr az-Zarqa feels any sort of ownership of the city any more. You worry about your family, your house - the rest is survival at this point. He remembers how in his childhood he would skip school with his friends to go fishing in the small creek on the town outskirts (known by its official and hilariously misleading name of Crocodile River); but today, that area has become a designated natural reserve with a fence and a guard employed by the Israeli government. 'Kids need a place to skip school', he says, and the streets are now the only viable hangout. For young and old both.

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An old man has been sitting around in the hummus place for many hours with his soda. Most men in Jisr az-Zarqa are unemployed and have seemingly very little to do with their time.  Photo © Rasmus Svane Høj 

A variety of factors has trapped Jisr az-Zarqa in what seems like a generation-long downward spiral, some of which are spatial in nature - or at least reinforced by it. To counter this, a proposal for a new masterplan has been made between the city council and the coastal planning authority of Israel: A plan focusing on a tourism-and-residential strategy by the beachfront in fair hopes that the city will suddenly flourish and thrive in a fresh wave of tourists. Personally, I would be wary to put all my eggs into that basket.

The reason is that Israeli legislation would force the proposed residential buildings to go on public offer. Given the location directly on the shore of the Mediterranean, prices would be likely skyrocket in an instant, short selling the inhabitants of Jisr az-Zarqa of the housing they so desperately need. But not only that - it could potentially further trap the city behind yet another self-secluding wealthy neighbourhood, alienating once more the last muslim Arab Israeli coastal city from its own country.

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Each day, the women of the city are picked by busses to work in larger cities nearby. Photo © Rasmus Svane Høj 

It is a public secret of sorts that Israel has used, and still uses, urban planning as an effective tactic to slowly pinch-choke existing communities that are detrimental to its various causes, which, according to the eyes of the beholder, can be fair enough; understandable. Moreover, Israel, like many governments around the world, may seek to validate a financial bottom line, which could make a seaside hotel and fancy residences a very good idea in the shorter term. By a more humanistic aspect, however, a lot of quite unique opportunity could go lost by doing so.

Realistically, it might be hard to imagine things looking radically up for the people of Jisr az-Zarqa in the near future, but the small measures might do all the difference over time: A public realm for young people to redevelop a pride of place and a will to share the burden, working together on minimizing it load by load. Historically, such has happened time and time again in similar poor villages, and there is no reason it should not be doable here; that is of course unless the process is being proactively hindered by forces more powerful.

The earth (and sea) that makes the canvas behind Jisr az-Zarqa's urban sprawl is ripe with 'natural diamonds', as one woman called it, but sadly, it will be hard to sustainably cultivate those into profitable resources of tourism before the city regains its self-value and begins ridding it of its diseases.

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The view of the city as seen from the 'Crocodile River' in the adjacent Nature Reserve. Photo © Rasmus Svane Høj 

The first, hopeful seeds have been planted with a small local guest house-plus-café having opened up recently, and hopefully such initiatives can provoke a snowball reaction for the remaining residents of the city to take matters into their own hands; in fairness, this reinvigoration process has to come from (and benefit) the citizens themselves.

The story of Jisr az-Zarqa is unique by definition, but also poses some fundamental questions on architecture's role as a medium to alleviate socioeconomic issues. In this case, building a big, shiny, foreign-owned hotel, or two, on the beachfront seems like a knee-jerk answer to an unrelated question - potentially erecting yet another artificial, insurmountable barrier for a marginalised population to overcome. The potential for something wonderful is definitely out there, but in areas like Jisr az-Zarqa, it's a very fragile richness that often does not play well with shortsightedness and generic bang-for-the-buck solutions. The real diamonds of planning do not always come easy.

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Rasmus is an exchange student at the Bezalel of Academy of Arts and Design in Israel, where he is enrolled in the Liminal Studio. He is currently making a student project dealing with the city of Jisr az-Zarqa. 



Last updated: January 24, 2017

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