Painful story of Palestine
Janine di Giovanni

City of Oranges
by Adam LeBor
Bloomsbury 18 £

Palestinians voted in their first-ever municipal elections in the Gaza Strip
Palestinians voted in their first-ever municipal elections in the Gaza Strip

EVERY good journalist knows that the best way to engage a reader in a complicated story is to create a great narrative and build a microcosm from the macrocosm. City of Oranges is a fine example of how to tell the story of an otherwise complicated and twisted historical tale by putting it in the hands of a rich cast of characters.

The story of Arabs and Jews in Palestine is perhaps the most emotional and challenging story for any journalist to report. There are pitfalls in every incident, from the Six-Day War to the Jenin offensive. Each side, Arab and Jew, has a passionate and painful different story to tell. But Adam LeBor, a former journalist for The Times and The Independent who has previously written books about Slobodan Milosevic and the Muslims of Europe, knows very well how to listen to each side and to convince his subjects to relay their story.

He does this by portraying the complex history of six different Arab and Jewish families in Jaffa to tell not only the story of the city, but of the entire country. Given the recent election of Hamas which stunned the Middle East and will have huge ramifications, City of Oranges could not have come at a better time.

City of OrangesIt’s a great idea, and LeBor chose the perfect location: Jaffa, a languid, cosmopolitan city, much like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, with a heady population of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Copts, Arab Christians, Armenians, and in recent years, arrivals from Ethiopia and Russia. While Jerusalem was Palestine’s religious capital, Jaffa was its cultural and commercial one.

LeBor also chose his characters wisely. His six families are a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, Christian Arabs and Muslims. They are a rich tapestry: businessmen, bakers, merchants, the leader of Jaffa’s Arabs after the al-naqba or catastrophe of 1948; citrus growers turned sheep-herders, musicians, wives and mothers; former fighters in the Stern Gang.

LeBor does not fall prey to cliches; he just delivers a strong tale that leads us through the winding streets of Jaffa. It becomes so evocative that one can almost see the bakeries, smell the souks, see the seaside cafes, the Italianate apartments and the buzzing piazza known as Clock Tower Square. But most of all, Le Bor conjures up the mix of faces, the mix of cultures and blood that did and still do make up Jaffa.

Each of his six families is radically different, yet joined by their love of their land and their city. There are the Cherlouches, a revered dynasty of Sephardic Jews who can trace their ancestry back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492; and the Andraus family, whose Christian Arab father, Amin, becomes the leader of Jaffa’s Arabs after 1948. There are his elegant daughters, whom LeBor meets and interviews.

City of Oranges opens with the Jaffa community in the early part of the 20th century when Arabs and Jews more or less still lived peacefully, if warily, together. Around the Cherlouches’ sphere, we are gradually introduced to other characters. Le Bor sought out Arab families who had lived in Jaffa since before 1948, but also brings in Jewish emigres, such as Yaakov Yosefov, a Bulgarian Jew who refuses to wear a yellow star and escapes to Palestine in 1941 to become Yoram Ahorani, who fights for Israel’s independence.

Le Bor leads his families through history, though he wisely does not get weighed down with analysis and minutiae. There are plenty of great books on those subjects written by experts, and it would have been a mistake for him to try to match them. Instead, he follows our characters against a backdrop of events.

And what a spectacular time of history it was. There is the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which carves up the Middle East between the French and the British; the 1917 Balfour declaration in which Britain expresses support for a Jewish homeland and thus gives rise to Zionism; and the Arab Revolt against the British in 1936. Finally, there is the al-naqba of 1948, in which the Palestinians are forced off their land after the Israeli war of "independence".

By the end, one is convinced how history and fate, what the Arabs call maktoub (literally, it is written), plays such a huge hand in their lives.

It’s good reading because one becomes immersed in a rather classy soap opera: a Middle Eastern version of Coronation Street, but on a grander scale.

My only complaint was that six families, with all of their comings and goings, marriages, births and deaths left me slightly breathless. I had to keep going back to the first few chapters several times to make sure I had associations right, and to check to see if so-and-so was the sister or cousin or brother of someone else. I wondered if LeBor had been too ambitious taking on such a vast dramatis personae.
But then, this is what great Middle Eastern families are composed of.

Every time I have sat down with a family in Gaza or Ramallah or Tel Aviv, relatives are brought forth and one is suddenly dizzy with the number of siblings, cousins, aunts and friends. It all makes up the fascinating social fabric of the region. If one can’t get to Palestine today, then the next best thing is to read City of Oranges.

LeBor captures so well the spirit of the country, but also the ambience, the smells, the light, the passion, the tragedy. You can almost smell the rotting orange groves, the cuminseed scent from the coffee in the souk.

This book is for anyone who loves the Middle East, but also for those who do not yet know it and have been too timid to take on a weighty and more political book. LeBor succeeds in telling the story of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and by doing that, tells us the painful story of Palestine itself.

— By arrangement with The Independent