The Palestinian City, the Song, and Settler Colonial Gentrification: On “Better than Berlin”

By Hashem Abu Shama/ Jadaliyya/ 

Palestinian singer, Faraj Suleiman, has released an album in collaboration with the novelist, and songwriter Majd Kayyal. Titled “Better than Berlin,” the album was initially livestreamed on Facebook and then released on various platforms, including Soundcloud and Spotify. Its songs grapple with the conundrums that undergird the Palestinian realities in contemporary Haifa. It covers a wide range of topics from love, migration, the city, gentrification, marriage, to the “monster” that continuously reproduces the city. The album includes eleven songs, and though the wide majority of the songs are sung by Suleiman, there are two songs, namely “Melodies No More” and “Tasteless,” that bring in other characters and artists, including Shaden Qanboura, Sama’ Wakim, Wa’el Wakim, and Henri Andraous.

This album was produced in the midst of the global pandemic. The process was particularly challenging, as Suleiman’s band is based in Paris. “I worked with my band via Zoom, which was a challenge,” he said. The recording, mixing and mastering took place in Paris, and he joined the band via zoom.

The album is an experiment for both Kayyal and Suleiman. Kayyal is a journalist and a novelist, who started writing songs in 2017. While the two have previously collaborated with Palestinian artist Raneen Hanna on a children’s album titled “My Heart is a Forest” as well as on one song from Suleiman’s previous acclaimed album “The Second Verse,” this album tries to use new mediums, reach new audiences, and bring to the surface the frictions between the aesthetic and the political. In an interview, Kayyal expressed that the “novel is different from the song, in that the latter has a particular emphasis on accessibility and concision, while the former offers you more space for complexity and nuance.” Although working in text during his career in theater, Suleiman is a primarily instrumental musician; this album is his second foray into vocal albums. He has performed at the London Jazz Festival and the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. After singing his famous “Issa Jay” (Now you are here), fans encouraged him to produce his first full vocal album.

Reminiscence and Cynicism

At times, the album sounds like the reminiscing of a character who has recently moved to Berlin. At others, it examines Haifa through a critical and even cynical lens. It attempts to address the contradictory realities of Palestinians living in Haifa, a city that has emerged in the last two decades as a de facto urban cultural center for Palestinians living within the so-called ‘Green Line’ (the line agreed upon in the 1949 Armistice Agreement).[1]

In the song “Hymn to Gentrification,” Suleiman wonders:

“But what can I do in front of this mighty beast
Tearing apart the city’s heart
Who said the streets will remain the same?
Who said the city can still be strolled?
Who said the neighborhoods remain our innocent game?
Who stole nature from us and asked us to preserve the environment?

In these lyrics, Suleiman and Kayyal critique the daily realities of the emerging Palestinian urban middle class in Haifa and its relationship to the settler state apparatus. They describe a mighty beast that continues to tear apart the city, redefining its streets and skylines, and narrowing the possibilities of life within it. This is a process of gentrification, which can be defined as the systematic restructuring of a neighborhood by means of real estate investment (capital) and racialized, gendered, and class-based demographic change (state policies of management of control). Demographic change means displacement of previous residents so that new residents with a higher income and different economic possibilities can move in. This process is always gendered, always racialized, always capitalist in nature, as it aims to supplant a way of life with another. Gentrification occurs globally, but that does not mean it is the same everywhere: it depends on historical conditions, the contemporary alignments of power in a specific location, and the responses of the affected communities. In Haifa, for example, gentrification is the result of the intimate alliance between Israeli capital and the Israeli municipality of Haifa under a plethora of projects, including ‘Space 21,’ and the downtown projects which aim to reshape the urban fabric of downtown Haifa. Other areas in Haifa, including Wadi Salib, are also threatened, as the Israeli development companies race to purchase it and transform it into a “village for artists.” These projects do not merely serve Israeli capital, but also the Israeli settler colonial project, which still tries to eradicate and burry the Palestinian city. In this particular context of historical Palestine, settler colonialism and capital collide in their ever-mutating love for expansion.

Houses in Wadi Salib, which belonged to Palestinian refugees and are now classified as present absentee properties in threat of Israeli gentrification. Taken by the author, 2019. 

As an urban center, Haifa has undergone major transformations since the early-twentieth century. In 1909, a Palestinian walking the streets of Haifa would have anxiously noticed the first Jewish settlement of Herzeliya, owned by both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews,[2] spring up on the mountainside. In the 1920s, and following the establishment of the colonial British mandate in Palestine, other European Jewish neighborhoods started emerging. First, there was Hadar HaCarmel, then Bat Galim, then upper Carmel. These urban developments did not only constitute separate physical neighborhoods under the Mandate, but also separate architectural styles, neighborhood and electoral systems, streets renaming, and a relentless attempt to create an independent economic sector for the European Jewish settlers.

Crucially, these developments were also the material products of an intimate, yet conflictual, relationship between the colonial mandate and the settler colonial parastate. This relationship reaches its most eloquent articulation in the demolition of the Old City of Haifa at the hands of the newly established Israeli state between May and July of 1949 with an order issued by its first Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, David Ben Gurion.[3] The plans for the demolition were gradually designed by the British Mandate—the first plan was issued by British urban planner Patrick Geddes in 1920[4], then a detailed survey for demolition of areas in Haifa was produced in 1936, then another in 1938. In 1947, a plan was introduced that called for a complete demolition in order “to clear the slums [read Palestinian space], along rebuilding that would ‘enable property owners to develop their properties on up-to-date lines.”[5]

It is important here to note the colonial language: the Palestinian space was dirty, had to be surgically excavated and replaced with ‘up-to-date’ (i.e., colonial) design and planning. The British could not execute these plans, as the compensation for the Palestinian locals proved costly. It is only after the establishment of the Israeli settler state that this wholesale demolition of the Old City of Haifa becomes possible. In the words of Uriel Sharon, the settler Head of the Municipal Development Unit at the time, at a 1951 open competition to ‘design downtown Haifa’: “Only with the evacuation of Haifa’s Arabs after the city was conquered was a radical solution possible.”[6] The colonial mandate, which was concerned with management and policies, designed and planned; the settler colonial apparatus, whose logic of elimination is specific and unique, invaded Palestinian space, evacuated Palestinian presence, and fully demolished the urban fabric.

The Palestinian, the Arab, and the Urban

“Who put al-Souq in a mall?
Who evicted us from the houses
Divided them, then rented us studios smaller than coffins
Who came from Tel Aviv
I mean, who came from Poland?
Who built glass towers and destroyed our balcony?”

-Faraj Suleiman, “Hymn to Gentrification”

Since then, Haifa has gone through a constant process of transformation that defined and redefined the everyday of its inhabitants along settler racial, gendered, and class-based hierarchies that have the Palestinian space and body as primary ‘Others’. The most recent is the gentrification scheme that Suleiman and Kayyal refer to. It is a process that has moved al-souq into a mall, evicted Palestinians again, divided them, and defined their presence through the lens of private property—studios that are smaller than coffins.

An advertisement by an Israeli development company of a gentrification development scheme in Wadi Salib. Taken by the author, 2019.

The settler space that is continuously imposed on top of the Palestinian space, however, cannot be conceptualized as homogenous. These hierarchies reach the Arab and black Jew, whose place within the settler racial state continues to be contested. Consider, for example, the history of Wadi Salib, which is a historically Palestinian neighborhood located in the heart of downtown Haifa, on the lower slope of Mount Carmel. It is adjacent to Hadar HaCarmel, one of the earliest Jewish neighborhoods in Haifa with which Wadi Salib is often juxtaposed. It was a central neighborhood before the 1948 forcible expulsion of its Palestinian inhabitants. Soon thereafter, the settler state reformulated the regulations “that had been devised in 1939 by the British for wartime conditions as the 1949 Emergency Regulations on Property of Absentees, creating a Custodian of Absentee Property similar to the British Custodian of Enemy Property.”[7] These legal structures made it possible to redefine the parameters of property and land ownership according to the settler racial hierarchies. The homes of Palestinian refugees in Wadi Salib were designated ‘absentees property’ under the 1949 Regulations. Israeli scholar Yfaat Weiss argues that the “legal term absentees’ property perpetuated [the previous occupants] and preserved their presence. The property of the previous tenants remained “abandoned” even after it was occupied by new residents.”[8] However, in reality, this legal designation perpetuated the absence of the previous occupants, rather than their presence; the designation was not to preserve, but to legally become able to reshape this urban fabric and the political and socio-cultural identities encompassed within it. ‘Abandoned’ connotes notions of relics from the past voluntarily left by their occupants, and by doing so, conceals more than it reveals. Until today, the properties in Wadi Salib are designated absentee properties.

After this process of legalizing theft, Wadi Salib became the living quarter of the North African Jewish settlers, the majority of whom were Moroccan. It is not a coincidence that the Arab Jews were placed there. A similar process took place in Jaffa where the ‘Arab’ was put in the place of the Palestinian. Binyamin Halfon, head of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Jewish Affairs in the Middle East, visited Wadi Salib in 1948 and noted the ‘rumors’ spreading amongst the Arab Jews. Some of these ‘rumors’ were that “The place and quality of housing were found unworthy of absorbing immigrants from Europe… and they therefore assigned them to you,’ or ‘After all, they think that in any case you are accustomed to such conditions from the mellah [ghetto] of Morocco.’”[9] These Arab Jewish residents did not live in properties purchased through the market, but in ones allocated by the State after the mass plunder of Palestinian property. Nonetheless, they were racialized as natural proprietors of these places as they were presumed to come from similar ‘mellah’ living conditions in Morocco. The racial codes of the Israeli state created an urban typology that pushed Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, into Wadi Nisnas under military control; placed Arab Jewish settlers in their ‘natural place’ within Palestinian properties; and naturalized the privileged presence of European Jews in newly-established neighborhoods, such as Hadar HaCarmel. For the Arab Jewish settlers, this resulted in insufferable living conditions that eventually caused the 1959 Wadi Salib riots/events, when the Arab Jewish residents of Wadi Salib protested against the structural racial inequalities within the city. The struggles of the Arab Jews within the framework of the settler state were about further inclusion within the citizenship apparatus, for they were legally entitled to a citizenship. Eventually, after the riots, the Arab Jewish residents of Wadi Salib were evacuated to other neighborhoods in Haifa.

The Gentrified City, the Settler Colony, and Arts

“Does the police still fuck with Arab youth?
Does rage still eat at us?
Do we still fight with the Russians?

….

I heard the neighborhood expanded
They brought in many Ethiopians
And you moved with your partner to the Germany Colony”

-Faraj Suleiman, “Questions on My Mind”

This history is important to fully grasp the value of Suleiman’s and Kayyal’s work and the spaces they sing of. In Haifa, gentrification projects are specific, for they happen in the context of a continuing Nakba (al-Nakba Al Mustamerra) that continues to displace, push out, and discipline Palestinian bodies and spaces. The artists capture this beautifully in their question: Who came from Tel Aviv?” Then, they quickly ask: “I mean who came from Poland?” The demographic change within the context of Haifa, they mean to tell us, does not connote a socioeconomic relocation from a city to another; it is also a continuity of an Israeli settler colonial project that predicates itself on the displacement of the Palestinian body, the reshaping of Palestinian space, and the imposition of a settler colonial reality and settler bodies in their place. The monster here is the Israeli settler capitalist machineries, for both capital and the settler colony intimately intersect in their lust for expansion, frontiers, and cooptation of oppositional spaces.

Kayyal noted that this capitalist monster “is capable of coopting your opposition to it and use it as raw materials to reproduce itself. This is what has happened in Haifa in recent years.” In many academic and journalistic accounts, Haifa has been portrayed as a de facto cultural capital for Palestinians living in Israel. The emergence of cultural venues and spaces, including Fattoush Bar and Gallery, Kabareet Bar, al-Khashabi Theatre, Al-Maidan Theatre, and Al-Rai, has been noticeable and has attracted Palestinian youth from Palestinian villages within the so-called Green Line. This cultural scene has produced a wide range of important cultural productions, including plays, poems, songs, contemporary dance shows, novels, and comedy. It stands in stark juxtaposition to the neoliberal and tokenistic attempts by the Israeli municipality of Haifa to coopt Palestinian presence through the apolitical categories of ‘Arab culture’, ‘Arab food’, ‘the Levant’, as is the case with the municipality-organized Arab Food Festival and the Holiday of Holidays Festival. This is partially why the Palestinian cultural scene in Haifa is often portrayed through the lens of ‘cultural resistance,’ for it resists this direct cooptation and attempts to boycott—to the extent possible—the funding structures of the settler state. Kayyal defined cultural resistance as “the presumption that cultural work is a sufficient strategy for liberation from anything.” Kayyal further notes “that this is a simplified understanding that helps us escape the political and social responsibility of the artist through the lexicons of ‘creativity.”

This is especially important to note and stress in light of the Israeli plans for gentrification in Haifa. Gentrification as a strategy often deploys ‘cultural strategies’ that attempt to neutralize, marketize, and commodify ‘the cultural’, such as the festivals alluded to above. Wadi Salib, which was evacuated in 1959, still stands today but is being systematically sold to real estate agencies that plan to redevelop the neighborhood as ‘an artists’ village.’ Downtown Haifa has witnessed a sweeping wave of gentrification that has reshaped its demographics and redesigned its Palestinian spaces. No wonder, then, that the singer asks about the expanded neighborhood, the Ethiopians (in reference to settler black Ethiopian Jews) that were moved in. Some of the Palestinian cultural venues mentioned above have been purchased as private properties from the settler state and participate in this gentrification scheme. As Kayyal noted, “we have participated in gentrification under the banners of ‘culture,’ ‘nightlife,’ and ‘entertainment.’ In reality, practically, we purchased places that historically belonged to Palestinian refugees—from Israeli companies that have stolen these places and turned them into private properties. Then, we moved to re-open a ‘cultural scene’ through them.” Kayyal is referring to private property not as a neutral category, but one that is part and parcel of how the settler state functions. The relationship here between the settler state, private property, the city, and arts is complex, multilayered, and worthy of further examination.

Better Than Berlin

“Berlin hurts a bit
It is beautiful and bursting with people
But I miss Um Sabri and I mostly miss you
Tell me what news they tell
Give me the gossip you have.”

-Faraj Suleiman, “Questions on My Mind”

Why Berlin in the title of the album, then? Suleiman noted that “it is a metaphor—it can be replaced with London, Paris, or any other city. But we chose Berlin because it is a youthful city that often attracts Palestinian youth from Haifa. Also, if you want to connect it to the Arab world, Berlin is a place of refuge for many Arab youth and has become a center in that sense.” They noted that “it is a metaphor, and what makes the metaphor stand is its ability to carry multiple meanings.” In its attempts at gentrification, Haifa has also been described by some as “Israel’s Berlin”.[10]

Travel in today’s world is strictly defined by hierarchies of passports, access to money, access to education and language training. It is my sense, then, that the ability to travel to Berlin is emblematic of the emerging Palestinian middle class in Haifa, which has emerged over the last two decades from patterns of rural-urban migration for the purposes of education, work, and improvement in ‘standards of living’ as well as from political realities of protest and activism. This nascent middle class started emerging after the end of Israeli military control over Haifa in 1966, but intensified in the last two decades, after the transformation of the Israeli economic system to a neoliberal order in the 1980s.[11] During this same period, a generation of Palestinian students who came to Haifa received their artistic and academic training at Israeli universities or abroad.

Needless to say, the emergence of a middle class is not merely an economic phenomenon, for it connotes transformations in the way of life too. Institutions and categories that define the everyday life, such as marriage, education, entertainment, and culture are reshaped according to this socioeconomic positionality. Another song in the album, Marriage Disposal, comments on this middle-class emergence. In it, Suleiman asks a woman: “A question: what do you want from your husband? I know he has money. You go to Milan together and he takes the kids to the Safari.” The list goes on to describe what seems like a rigid middle-class life that revolves around the gendered notion of the ‘happy nuclear family.’ On this, Kayyal and Suleiman note that this song is about “class mobility from a woman who was born, like many of us, in the tired neighborhoods of Haifa. Then, she grew up in the midst of this ‘cultural life’”. In another song, Questions on My Mind, Suleiman sings to his ex-partner: “I heard you moved in with your partner; that you now live in the German colony.” As an urban neighborhood, the Germany colony is the center of this recent Palestinian cultural scene, and the couple moving there signifies this spatial and discursive class mobility.

Kayyal continues: “This song is about class mobility for a woman that, like many of us, comes from the tired neighborhoods of Haifa. Then, when we grew up, we were in the middle of this cultural scene; we sit in cafes and talk about theatre. But we came from Halissa [a neighborhood in Haifa] and from the villages. This is the contradiction. You live in two places. You live in this so-called urban cultural scene with all its lights. But you are also on the other side. This is the contradiction that happens when you leave your neighborhood and move to the German Colony. This is a form of class mobility that happens in the heart of Haifa.” In Marriage Disposal, they critique this linear idea of progress from the ‘traditional marriage’ to the ‘middle-class’, seemingly open-minded, marriage. Though different in content, marriage in both iterations is strictly defined according to societal categories that work to discipline people.

The Aesthetic and the Political

Last year, I visited Haifa and stayed there for a while. I walked around the ‘parallel city of Haifa,’ as the Palestinian playwright Bashar Murkus once called it. This parallel Haifa exsits despite the settler colonial order, but also because of it. Wadi Salib, in particular, left a huge impact on how I saw the city. The ghostly presences of its refugees still haunt the settler colonial city, as well as the contemporary Palestinian presence within it. I felt drawn to Suleiman’s and Kayyal’s album because it raises all of these questions, amongst many others—because it articulates this existential alienation of being within and working against. It gently brings to the surface the contradictions that permeate the very context that allowed this album to emerge: the Palestinian city of Haifa. The lyrics involve cynicism and criticism and attempt to deal with the past as that which still informs and structures the present. In most of the songs, the music portrays the sad and contradictory reality of Haifa and works to enunciate and reshape the meaning of the lyrics.

This album challenges the perspective that often detaches Palestinian cultural production from the categories of property, land, commodity, and capital that limit and delimit it. Lyrically and musically, the album pushes the limits of what we see in our Palestinian cities, what we tell about our cities to different audiences, and what contradictions we are willing to admit and work through. As Kayyal notes, “a truly emancipatory cultural field is always stitched to political and socioeconomic realities.” By saying so, he does not mean that the cultural should merely serve the purposes of the ideological. Rather, it should, as the album does, aim to make palpable the contradictory realities that define our everyday life. What Kayyal describes here is not an ideological function for the cultural field, but, as the album demonstrates, a vigorous examination of the contradictions and categories that define the everyday life from which the cultural field continuously borrows. The cultural here can also serve to elaborate our ways of living within and against these categories, and glean from them the vocabularies, images, metaphors, and visions capable of producing—even if just imaginatively, at the beginning—a different reality.


[1] For more, see Yara Sa’di (2018), “Haifa’s Utopia and the Taming of Palestinian Bodies”. Jadaliyya.  http://www.alqaws.org/مقالات/يوتوبيا-اختلاف-حيفا-ومحاولة-ترويض-الجسد-الفلسطيني?category_id=0. Important to note here that I refuse to use the signifiers of difference in relation to the settler state (1948 Palestinians, 1967 refugees, within and outside the Green Line, Occupied Territories) as they tend to perpetuate settler geographies of fragmentation of the Palestinian political polity.

[2] Kolodney, Ziva, and Rachel Kallus. 2008. “From Colonial to National Landscape: Producing Haifa’s Cityscape.” Planning Perspectives 23 (3): 323–348. https://doi.org/10.1080/02665430802102815.

[3] See Khalidi, Walid. 1988. “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine.” Journal of Palestine Studies 18 (1): 4–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/2537591.

See also Khalidi, Walid. 2008. “The Fall of Haifa Revisited.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37 (3): 30–58.

[4] For more on Patrick Geddes, see the National Library of Scotland, “Patrick Geddes 1854-1932”.   https://www.nls.uk/learning-zone/politics-and-society/patrick-geddes

[5] See Kolodney & Kallus (208), p.337.

[6] Kolodney & Kallus (2008), p.339.

[7] Home, Robert. 2003. “An ‘Irreversible Conquest’? Colonial and Postcolonial Land Law in Israel/Palestine.” Social & Legal Studies 12 (3): 291–310, p.295.

[8] Weiss, Yfaat. 2011. A Confiscated Memory: Wadi Salib and Haifa’s Lost Heritage [Electronic Resource]. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, p.29.

[9] Halfon as quoted in Ibid, p.11.

[10] See Haaretz, The Fall of Haifa: The city Supposed to Be the Berlin of Israel. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-the-fall-of-haifa-the-city-supposed-to-be-the-berlin-of-israel-1.8229329

[11] Hanieh, Adam. 2003. “From State-Led Growth to Globalization: The Evolution of Israeli Capitalism.” Journal of Palestine Studies 32 (4): 5–21. https://doi.org/10.1525/jps.2003.32.4.5