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Israel's Ajami neighborhood in Oscar spotlight

The neighborhood in Jaffa, a mix of Jews and Arabs, rich and poor, hopes the Oscar-nominated 'Ajami' wins, though not all residents are pleased with the area's portrayal as a hard-knocks crime hub.

March 07, 2010|By Batsheva Sobelman

Reporting from Jaffa, Israel — The gym is packed with dozens of children, all dressed up for the Jewish holiday of Purim: Spider-Men, Batmen, fairies, Aladdins and princesses.

Mothers sit on the side in bubbly chatter, some wearing Muslim head scarves, others gold or silver crosses. The clown hosting the event invites the childrenon stage to show off their costumes and sing a song in Arabic that everybody knows. Even though most of them are Arabs, they can't think of one. They ask to sing a Hebrew Purim song instead.

The seemingly odd mix at the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood is one of many in this seaside city that is a joint municipality with Tel Aviv: Arabs and Jews, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians, old and new, Palestinian and Israeli, blue-collar and bourgeoisie, criminal and genteel, authentic and gentrified.

But "Ajami," the movie named for the neighborhood that is up for an Oscar in the foreign language category Sunday, doesn't candy-coat its reality. Writer-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani offer a raw portrayal of Ajami's rough-and-tumble side, and vividly illustrate its melting-pot nature.

The directors, an Arab and a Jew, worked for several years on a shoestring budget with non-actors from the neighborhood and a very loose script to present a biting slice of a brutal life of crime, hardship and violence that is not very pretty but is very real.

The movie transcends boundaries, co-producer Talia Kleinhendler said after the nomination. "Compassion, humanity and authenticity, the special people, the non-actors -- these transcend language and culture," she told Israel Radio last month. Pain and compassion are universal, she said, "and that's what works about this movie."

Ajami residents are proud of their native filmmaker son -- Copti is from the neighborhood, and two of his brothers appear in the movie -- and hope the film will win. But not all are happy with the neighborhood being shown exclusively as a hard-knocks crime hub. Some say the movie should have also shown the reasons for the crime: years of neglect, marginalization and insensitivity, whether deliberate or accidental.

Ajami sprawls across a small hill by the sea. On the seafront, the salty air is bracing and the gardens landscaped. A turn inland yields a mix of disrepair and clutter but also freshness and renovation, old houses given a new facade that pays tribute to Jaffa's past, and sometimes present, existence as an ancient port town and center of Arab culture.

And then there are the high-rises by the seafront, a changing skyline reflecting change on the ground.

Most Arab residents of Ajami could not upgrade to the towers even if they wanted to. They can't afford it, nor are they really wanted. Some of the new developments are group projects, the lot bid for and bought by organized groups of Jews. Arabs are not formally banned on ethnic grounds, but when completed, some of the projects will become private neighborhoods for the new residents.

Gentrification breeds tension.

"The landscape has changed, the people are changing. This isn't the Ajami it used to be," says Abir Abu Ajweh, seated in the gym as her three children celebrate Purim. But she can't imagine leaving.

"This will always be my home," she says. "Someone born in a certain place will always be connected to it. This is my home and I'm not leaving it. One doesn't leave home, even if people of a different kind move into it."

Community activists are trying to fight the exclusive gentrification some see as a plan to empty Jaffa of Arabs. Aside from campaigning and demonstrating, Abir doesn't know what can be done about it. It's not fair, she says.

An occasional moviegoer, Abir made sure to see "Ajami," curious to see how her neighborhood comes across. "I have mixed emotions," she says. "What it showed definitely exists, it is very real. But there are many other sides to Jaffa and Ajami too that weren't shown. There are many educated, good people here, people who know to solve problems without resorting to violence."

But if there is division in Ajami over the harsh portrayal in the film, most who live here are united in pride and Oscar dreams.

Abir hopes for success on Oscar night for the movie, and for her neighborhood, she hopes that it "goes on being the same Ajami -- with all its parts that are good, and helping those that aren't."

Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau.

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