Published in: Ithamar Handelman Smith (ed.), The Unholy Land: An Unconventional Guide to Israel (2017)
Cinema "Keren", Beer Sheba: built in the 50s, demolished in the 90s
How might one define Beersheba? A patchwork city. Like a jigsaw puzzle full of negative spaces that were gradually filled by parts of other puzzles, made of dozens of other puzzles. An urban jumble shaped primarily by a disinclination to remember, the desire to obliterate at any cost, with the residents seeming to move through the town's different parts out of a persistent, insatiable flight instinct.
Modern Beersheba was built in the beginning of the 20th century as an Ottoman county town with a modern grid structure. Wide, crisscrossing streets of houses made of yellow desert sand stone, with arched windows, courtyards, and extensive entrances. The city was meant to assist the Turkish, and later the British authorities, in supervising over the Bedouin population, which stretched over the entire Negev and was uneager to submit to the rule of any central administration.
In the early 1950s, the Zionist leadership of Beersheba adopted an urban plan called Garden City, a blueprint for working class cities, conceived at the end of the 19th century by philosopher Ebenezer Howard and adopted throughout various cities around the world and in Israel. This plan divided Beersheba into neighborhoods with large open spaces between them. Every neighborhood was meant to provide for its own needs. In each one, an urban center was set up with shops, kiosks, and in some cases, a movie theater. The original plan was for green vegetation to grow all over the neighborhoods.
The consensus is that the Garden City plan had failed. The neighborhood gardens remained barren. The wide stretches between each section became wastelands crossing the geometric neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were filled with working class homes, inhabited mostly by North African Jews, and built in line with the visions of socialist construction characteristic of Israel in its first decades. Public housing projects, or "blocks", as we called them, with tiny units for the emerging Israeli proletariat, made up of new immigrants. With these engineered urban spaces, the ruling party controlled the peripheries from its Tel Aviv and Jerusalem offices.
The new neighborhoods sprung up north of the original Turkish center, called "the old city", for the stark contrast between its housing style and that of the more recent architectural projects. The immense empty spaces between the neighborhoods were quickly overrun with insects, turtles and porcupines. As a child, I would come down from our apartment building and follow swarms of beetles and worms around for hours on end.
The planning of Beersheba was the old elites' response to a conflict with the local Bedouin population. In a different way, it was also a response to a conflict with the new, mostly North African, immigrants. David Tuviyahu, Beersheba’s first mayor, gave the city its character, and renowned architect and city planner, Arie Sharon, drafted its urban outline. The new neighborhoods were built as an antithesis to the old city, which represented the Arabic and Levantine elements that the new Israelis of the 50’s and 60’s wished to distance themselves from.
The old city, 50s
Until the end of the 80’s, the old city functioned as Downtown Beersheba, the floundering shopping area where everything was sold from haberdashery and food to clothes and hats. From the early 80’s onwards, it was badly neglected, and after an abortive attempt to develop and make it into an artists’ quarter- an initiative that resembled such restoration programs as in Jaffa, Acre and other Palestinian towns- the old city sank into decay. The Jewish population, which consisted mostly of Orthodox and other observant groups, was forsaking it for newer neighborhoods and other cities: Benei B'rak, Ashdod and Jerusalem.
During the 90’s, with the collapse of many of the city’s older businesses, the state began settling Palestinian collaborators from the occupied territories in the old city, and it was soon filled with brothels, gambling houses, junkies and migrant workers. In recent years there's been a change of direction. The Ottoman architectural style became an attraction. The old city is in great demand. Assets are few and prices are rising. Beersheba is giving students property tax discounts so that they would settle the area, and various associations devoted to “Jewifying” the Negev and the Galilee are acquiring houses in it.
As early as Jewish Beersheba's first decades, Bedouin presence was distanced from the old city as part of the subjugation and Jewification of the territory. Many transformations were imposed on the traditional Bedouin markets, which included livestock, clothes and rug markets, in order to distance them from the Jewish areas. At the level of regional geographic and demographic planning, the Bedouins, who dominated the entire Negev up until 1948, were now concentrated in a narrow geographic triangle, like the "Pale of Settlement" designated for Jews in Imperialist Russia, between Beit Kama, Arad and Dimona. The Bedouins' land was confiscated by the state, which to this day continues to claim there is no proof that it belonged to them. The Bedouins themselves were forced into semi-desolate permanent settlements and entirely desolate piratic settlements, without water or electricity. Being a very non-compliant group with an aversion to authority, some of them have turned to the twilight-zone of protection businesses, burglary, drugs and "illegal"- at least in the eyes of the state- settlement.
As a child, my father would take me to Beduoin areas that were still somewhere between nomadic tent encampments and temporary settlements of rickety tin shacks. The head of the family would sit in the central tent and receive his guests. During each visit, I would straddle one of the donkeys and journey the endless, open territory with a wooden rod in my hand. I'll never forget these jaunts, the evening light, the desert soil spreading everywhere in yellow brown colors. Meanwhile, a lamb would be slaughtered, and blood came flowing from its neck in a long, black stream. Two hours later, we would feast on the wonderful Bedouin Mansaf in the tent; slices of lamb and rye served on a bed of thin pitas.
During that period, the late 70’s and early 80’s, the remaining migrating Bedouins settled in the outskirts of Beersheba's then nascent southern industrial area, with the paradoxical name: "The Valley of Sarah" ("Emek Sara"); perhaps the same desert to which Hagar, according to the biblical story, fled from her mistress Sara. Today, many of them are still living in impoverishment, in what the state calls "Illegal settlements”, between this area and where most of Israel's chemical waste is handled, south of industrial area Ramat Hovav. Every time rockets from Gaza are fired at Israel, some are intercepted above the skies of the familiar cities, and some are allowed to fall in "open areas". Only recently, two Bedouin men, two girls and a baby were mortally wounded following such falls in "open areas". The state insists that it will continue to refrain from shielding unrecognized settlements.
The new neighborhoods of Beersheba were given the names of Hebrew letters, Neighborhood Alef (A), followed by Beit (B), Gimel (C), Dalet (D), and so on. "Shikun Darom" (south housing) was erected on the ruins of a transit camp south of the old city. Shikun Darom, and Beersheba's northernmost neighborhood – Dalet, became the roughest neighborhoods in town. In the 70’s and 80’s, Dalet Tsafon (north) Neighborhood, which we called "North Dallas", was known as one of the roughest neighborhoods in Israel. Hordes of junkies hung around there, and grenades casually tossed into balconies were a common sight. We would meet the neighborhood youth around the pubs of the old city. Some of them kept razor blade halves under their tongues, which they would draw during brawls to carve "lines" in their adversaries; the lifetime memento of a long and ugly gash.
Between these two neighborhoods, new ones were being built, which later came to be perceived in the local bourgeois jargon as "islands of sanity". The first among them, built in the early 1960s, was "Hei Ledugma" * modeled on the "Carpet Settlement", which consisted of single floor patios connected to each other by paths. Next to it was the "quarter kilometer block", inspired by Le Corbousier, which became a hotbed of crime and drugs. Contrary to plan, the socialist housing of "Hei Ledugma" became an attraction for the sated Beersheba bourgeoisie. More bourgeois neighborhoods were built in the following decades, such as Rasco City nearby the old city in the south, and Vilot Metsada ("Masada Villas") up north, not far from the crime scenes of neighborhood Dalet.
Following the founding of these neighborhoods, the middle class began leaving in droves for satellite settlements Omer, Lehavim and Meitar; homogenous villa suburbs that provided their residents with high living standards, and most importantly, distanced them from the rest of the Beersheba population and its derelict houses. By the beginning of the 90’s, Beersheba consisted of neighborhood-islands, each surrounded by the wilderness of the collapsed Garden City. The carcass of a socialist vision, that never took shap.
The City Hall, 70s
In 1972, after a number of setbacks, the current Beersheba City Hall building was erected near the center of town, on the main road that crosses the length of the city. A flat cement structure, engraved with horizontal lines, which veil narrow windows, with a tall tower from its front to its left, reminiscent of the torch held aloft by Lady Liberty. City Hall is located next to what was once "Cinema Keren"- Beersheba's largest auditorium, built in the50’s and demolished in the 90’s- and not far from "Beit Ha'am" (House of the People). Both of which were quality modernist structures, singular in the city, inclined with straight, clean lines. Beit Ha'am, similar to the Culture Palace in Tel Aviv only smaller, was home to the Beersheba Theatre, where various films played every afternoon. My father was among the theatre’s founders, and as a child I saw many movies there. One of them was "Planet of the Apes", its final scene etched in my mind forever. Charlton Heston standing on the beach, facing what's left of the head and torch of the Statue of Liberty as it is being submerged by the sand. His hope to flee the doomed planet crashes before his eyes. The place from which he'd hoped to escape is the very place he aspired to reach. The freedom of the future is engulfed in the sands of the past. In various stages of my tangled relationship with Beersheba, my plans to escape it alongside its reappearance at the edge of my life's tunnel, I had similar feelings towards the city; as if my future was leading nowhere but to the past, in ideal cyclic motion which resembles the idea of Chris Marker’s featurette “La Jetée”.
During my early childhood, my father was Beersheba’s Deputy Mayor. I spent many hours in the municipal building where his office was. As a small child, I walked around the straight and dark hallways made of bricks and concrete, charmed by the mysterious structure and its insinuated secrets. One day, as I was walking down one of the hallways, a man suddenly appeared and drew a handkerchief out of nowhere. The handkerchief in his hand quickly became a rabbit, and immediately afterwards he laid it on my hand and pulled it again, leaving in its wake many pieces of a spongy substance that miraculously reassembled into one complete sponge. It was Meir Buyom, the legendary magician of Beersheba, who worked in maintenance at the City Hall during the day, and concocted his magic tricks by night. Spellbound, I began following him around in all of my many visits to City Hall until I became his shadow.
In my childhood memories, Buyom's magic merged with the municipal offices' dim corridors, leading into each other as in an ideal rectangular prison, going round and round, and with the no man's land of Garden City that surrounds the City Hall, barren areas where the desert left its bite marks. Neighborhoods and desert, round and round. And beyond this, virginal industrial areas divided by mixtures of tin shacks and Bedouin tent encampments. If man is "nothing but the image of his native landscape", such are my landscapes and images: cement mixing with tin and sand, and the primal, suffocating pain.
The stages of maturation and disillusionment from the enchanted realms of childhood resemble the processes of rationalization circumscribed by Max Webber with the term "The Iron Cage". Initial enchantment is followed by the "Saint's Cloak" of strict rules, and then by the "Iron Cage", which is made lengthwise and crosswise, just like the city, and which encases our lives with a grip of steel. In this journey we abandon the enchanted days of childhood, in which we've been poured into the world, and become barren structures ourselves. Most of us still remain trapped in an early sphere where the magic cycle that surrounded us is enclosed by square and rectangular cage structures. The faraway dream remains trapped in a shell which itself became a dream. Open spaces between heat, spell-stricken tenement islands. The indigested remains of our real, severed lives, surrounded by barbed wire fences.
With the collapse of the soviet bloc and the wave of Russian immigration to Israel, the face of Beersheba was transformed completely. A "development momentum" was set in motion to settle the tens of thousands of new Olim (immigrants to Israel). This was mixed with intersections of capital and power, as well as more than a dash of contractor interests. The empty spaces that remained from the Garden City skeleton were quickly occupied with high rises. Gardens were wiped out, old buildings were demolished and the residents seemed relieved to finally see the mound of memories from the city that never was sinking into oblivion.
Anyone who enters Beersheba now would hardly recognize the city it used to be. Patches over patches of precariously and incidentally related structures, meant only to fill empty urban spaces, and perhaps a large void felt by the residents. The development momentum, which suffocated the city also eliminated its urban centers. From the end of the 80’s, shopping malls were built in their stead, and more recently shopping centers have opened in the eastern outskirts of town as well, near the old road to Hebron. The residents work, sleep and shop, because that's what there is to do in Beersheba, just let life pass; in the Israeli periphery at the turn of the 21st century, in the rubble of our childhood, in the ruins of our primordial Garden City.