The Bride of the Sea
Ten years ago, the streets of the ancient city of Jaffa bustled with the commerce of its inhabitants and the automotive traffic from the adjacent city of Tel Aviv. On the boulevards of old Jaffa—awash in a golden-beige hue emanating from the Ottoman-era stone buildings—residents could purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, candies, soda, and water; plasticware for household needs like buckets and brooms; and extension cords. Locals could pop into the mosque for daily prayer sessions or visit a church for silent contemplation. Along the smaller, quieter, alley-like-streets, the cloying, fruity aromas of water-pipe tobacco would waft out of men-only clubs where thick Arabic coffee and amber tea fueled the conversations and backgammon tournaments of the city’s male inhabitants.
In 2015, Jaffa, the world’s oldest port city that continues to thrive with the goings-on of humankind, looks very much the same. The kiosks still sell single cigarettes and the random flotation device for children to safely bob in the nearby waters of the Mediterranean Sea. But it would be impossible to ignore the increasingly ubiquitous neon and brightly colored signage of modern appliance stores and mini-department stores, or the explosion of hip restaurants, funky boutiques, Israeli café franchises, and independent coffee shops. Leading to the rather rapid alteration of its human landscape, young Arab-Israelis, Jewish-Israelis, and foreigners—citizens and visitors alike, male and female—frequent these places of business, as well as reside in Jaffa.
AROUS ELBAHAR FOR WOMEN IN JAFFA
Eight years ago, however, Jaffa resident Safa Younes looked around her beloved city and took issue with the fact that nowhere was it especially acceptable, safe, or comfortable for women to congregate in public. Men could meet in the streets, mosques, or dimly lit hookah bars where their most intimate and personal conversations could be drowned out by the din of televisions broadcasting football games or the news. The lack of public-private space concerned Safa since it kept women isolated from each other and thus unable to address socio-economic problems including domestic violence, mental illness, inadequate access to job training, and even basic education. As a proud citizen of Jaffa, she decided to do something about this glaring gap in the city’s negligent infrastructure.
In 2007, she and a group of women established Arous Elbahar (The Bride of the Sea) for Women in Jaffa, a center managed by and for women that strives to respond to the unique needs of disadvantaged Arab women living as an ethnic minority in the joint cities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. She wanted to create a place where Arab women could really talk and face the challenges of high unemployment, illiteracy, high rates of school dropouts, poverty, housing problems, domestic violence, prejudice, and marginalization. She and her colleagues believed that, together, they could help women to overcome the language barrier, family obstacles, and, simply, physical distance from the authorities and institutions of the city and state, all of which hindered the women of Jaffa from realizing their full potential.
The fourth-story offices and center of Arous Elbahar’s activities are located on a quiet street, in a building positioned high above the Jaffa port. I had the street and number written on a small piece of paper in my hand, and passed the building twice before something – a wall mural – caught my eye. Sketched into the mural, in Arabic script, were the words “Arous Elbahar.” It seemed I had reached my destination. The pathway to the front door of the very much dilapidated building was surrounded by a cracked cement floor with tufts of dried grass and weeds sprouting between the fissures. I started to ascend the staircase, unsure of what floor I was seeking. Something told me that this oasis for women was most likely near the top, so I kept climbing. Sure enough, after four flights of stairs, a roughly painted circle with a vague image of a bride floating in the middle indicated to me I had arrived at the doorstep of Arous Elbahar.
After knocking on the door with no response, I turned the knob and let myself in. A glimpse of a woman clad in a sleek black, red-rimmed hijab and hustling back and forth between desks, mobile phone calls, and landline calls made me chuckle. How many women’s organizations throughout the world are doing the work that needs to be done without proper funding, without proper equipment, without the proper number of staff members?
The woman was Zahiyya Kundus, employment and entrepreneurship counselor for Arous Elbahar. As she efficiently dealt with two simultaneous phone calls in Arabic, she quickly flashed me a smile and, in Hebrew, told me to “feel at home—coffee, tea, whatever—whatever you want is around the corner.”
I did as I was told and mixed myself some coffee, refilled my water bottle, and started to look around the modest rooms of the center. Peach-colored cement walls that were cracked and peeling, old school desks, older chairs, display cases of handmade dolls, and random stacks of literature sparsely punctuated the open spaces. Yellow-white sunlight pouring into the rooms drew me to an open door that led to a patio overlooking the rooftops of Jaffa—houses, black-barrel water heaters, churches, minarets, the cemetery, the port, and the shimmering sea in the nearby distance. I heard voices and followed them to discover the women I came to meet.
Ilyll Sne-Or, an entrepreneurial young Israeli woman and student completing a master’s in Mediation and Conflict Resolution, introduced me to Arous Elbahar. Ilyll conducts cultural, urban tours in Tel Aviv-Jaffa that bring to life the rich, multi-layered histories and realities of the places and people living there. In offering a partnership with her company, Encounters – Cross Cultural Tours & Workshops, she discovered a way to support and promote the women participating in the catering program currently in development at Arous Elbahar. Women associated with Arous Elbahar welcome Ilyll’s clients into their homes for a cultural-gastronomical experience, called Jaffa: Comfort, Food. Currently, three women associated with Arous Elbahar prepare foods particular to their families and traditions and share the stories that may be associated with the flavors and delicacies they present to their guests. In doing so, Encounters and Arous Elbahar provide an opportunity to generate income for women who are unable or unwilling to seek employment outside of the home. With guests thus far coming from the United States, the Netherlands, within Israel, and a handful of other international locations, the Jaffa: Comfort, Food experience is indeed quite a cross-cultural experience.
When I found Ilyll and Safa engaged in a light-hearted conversation, they greeted me with smiles. Taking our conversation indoors to escape the intensifying heat of the sun on that mid-March morning, I asked Safa to share how she came to do the work she does, what it entails, and why she pursues this line of service to her community.
MEETING THE COMMUNITY’S NEEDS
According to Safa, 85 percent of Jaffa’s residents are Muslim, and the remaining 15 percent identify as Jews and Christians (or a denomination thereof). While Arous Elbahar primarily serves Muslim women, the center is open to all. The two main branches that best encapsulate Arous Elbahar’s work are: economic empowerment of the women of Jaffa, and community empowerment (specifically, increasing women’s participation in civil society). Indeed, different women come to the center for different reasons.
The first patrons who walked through the doors of Arous Elbahar were Muslim women between the ages of 40 and 50. For this generation, working and socializing outside of the home was not the norm. Thus, the center provided a unique locale to gather, share each other’s problems, and to brainstorm ideas for income generation within the home. Eight years later, one of the greatest challenges facing Arab women of this age group in Jaffa continues to be that many of them do not speak Hebrew. In a country where the majority of business and social interactions occur in Hebrew, illiteracy in Hebrew drastically diminishes opportunities for employment. Women of this generation also share that being a responsible mother to their children, who are awash in technology to which they never had access, creates a frustrating gap between mothers and their offspring. Furthermore, providing children with the technology that is so commonplace these days requires extra income. Efficiently addressing these concerns, Arous Elbahar provides Hebrew and English language courses, computer classes to women of all ages, and occasional parenting seminars.
For women between the ages of 20 and 40, work outside the home is appealing as well as socially acceptable. However, due to the poor state of education in Jaffa and the discrimination that accompanies the previously mentioned obstacles to employment, these women are hard-pressed to find viable work that helps to provide for their families. Arous Elbahar meets these needs by working with this generation and matching them with the resources and opportunities they require to become gainfully employed. In an attempt to cover all the necessary bases, the center also educates women between ages 18 and 23 on how to manage their earnings and general finances.
Realizing that the services offered and ideas promoted by Arous Elbahar have to start even earlier for women than age 18, the center now devotes time and resources to the female teenagers of Jaffa. Arous Elbahar recognizes that these high school girls are the next generation of change-makers and provides them with career-building seminars, financial management courses, and other tutorial opportunities. Doing so, said Safa, helps to balance out the male-student-dominated classroom environment and supplements the inadequate public education the girls receive.
As I listened to Safa’s description of the careful attention Arous Elbahar gives its patrons and the multiple programs it sponsors to meet the needs of the community, tears began to well up in my eyes. Again, I looked around the room in which I was seated, taking in its shabby, cracked walls and randomly collected pieces of old furniture. How many women had come to Arous Elbahar and found solace, friendship, opportunity, reprieve, and livelihood? And then the constant question that follows me wherever I go: Why, as a global human society, do we not seriously invest in women? Why is it so difficult for the people who do the true work of strengthening our world—through the empowerment of the disempowered, of women – to do exactly what needs to be done?
On approximately 300,000 Israeli Shekels (roughly $75,000USD) per year, Arous Elbahar welcomes any woman seeking assistance. Grants from the New Israel Fund, private family foundations in the United States and Europe, and in-kind donations keep the doors of Arous Elbahar open. Fees collected for Arabic classes taught to visitors and volunteers wanting to learn the local language provide roughly 20 percent of the budget. Safa shared that the center has plans to grow, but of course this is contingent upon more funds. I thought to myself, if only there were many more Safas and many more Arous Elbahar centers for women… in 20 years’ time I could only imagine how things would be different for the better, for the communities of Israel.
Daily life in the Middle East requires the ability to manage and cope with constant conflict. On occasion in this region, as the world knows, conflict escalates into war. Decades of this sorrowful reality harden people to each other. In the context of Israel, Arabs and Jews within the state continue to struggle to live with each other—not just parallel to one another—and to reconcile years of violence and hatred. Complex personal identities, the character of the nation, history, and, above all, suffering, color the relationships of the country’s inhabitants in somber shades.
Acknowledging this facet of life that, of course, permeates the world of Jaffa’s residents, Arous Elbahar also sponsors a Jewish-Arab women’s group. The women associated with this aspect of the center carry out three projects: 1) meeting with students to promote coexistence; 2) coordinating with like-minded groups and organizations to build a network of support that gives and receives ideas for promoting coexistence; and 3) running a leadership program to increase the number of female Arab and Jewish leaders in the public/political sphere. Unfortunately, during times of war and aggravated internal conflict, political differences between women further challenge this already daunting work, and may keep them from carrying out their mandate. But, through it all, Arous Elbahar maintains a space to work toward a more peaceful future between the community’s Arab and Jewish inhabitants.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE WHERE IT MATTERS
Growing up, my mother would often remind me of the expression, “Charity starts in the home.” Her message to me was: If your calling is to make a difference in the world—to contribute to fixing and healing the parts that seem or certainly are broken—you are usually most effective by looking around your surroundings and seeing how you can help. I honestly cannot say that I have always taken that advice. But in learning about Safa’s work through Arous Elbahar for Women in Jaffa, I see that I should probably still try listening to my mother. Better late than never.
Arous Elbahar’s work is far from complete, however. In order to be truly successful, the center’s activities must continue for generations. As the local and global world in and around Jaffa continue to change, there is no better way to ensure these transitions suit the residents of Jaffa than to strive for 100 percent of its inhabitants to possess the ability to contribute to its well-being. In the face of gentrification, rising housing costs, and fluctuating economies, the women of Jaffa must be equipped with the tools necessary to face these developments. As women of relative disadvantage, they will continue to require a space where they feel safe, supported, and encouraged, and where the standard for achievement is both high and expected of them.
Each year, Arous Elbahar welcomes approximately 200 women to its numerous projects and services. Certainly, Safa is quite proud of this impact, but I sense she is particularly excited by the fact that some women, after a few years, join the center’s staff. In doing so, these women give back to the place that supported them in their quest to self-realization. I imagine for Safa that this revolving door is incredibly satisfying, not only because she can hire trustworthy associates, but also because she gets to witness how her efforts actually realize the mission of the organization: A women’s center, guiding Jaffa’s women on their way to financial and social empowerment.
To learn more about and to support the different projects and programs of Arous Elbahar for Women of Jaffa, visit their website by clicking HERE
To learn more about scheduling your tour with Encounters – Cross Cultural Tours & Workshops, click HERE