Sifting through the ruins :: Historic Wadi Salib Under Pressure ::

Haifa –” When you look out to the Mediterranean from the ruins of Wadi Salib, the most impressive piece of the skyline is ironically a government building which houses the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. It looks like the sliver of a bloated disco ball beckoning to the waterfront serving as a testament to Israeli modernity.

Nearby, before you reach the slopes of the Carmel Mountains somewhere between the Hadar shopping district and the taverns of Kikkar Paris not far from the Haifa waterfront lies the historic Arab neighborhood of Wadi Salib. You feel its age when you see the sign of the abandoned barbershop still there since 1948. But that’s only the beginning of the story.

Wadi Salib literally means Valley of the Cross. Some say when you look down towards the waterfront, the neighborhood is shaped like a cross and others like the nuns who used to live in the Latin monastery nearby claim that as the neighborhood swerves to its upper hillsides, you can see the outlines of the symbol. Billboards for new developments are up next to the newly constructed arches, though pleasant to look at, serve as a rococo façade to the aging staircases.

The old stone houses, empty and dilapidated, full of memory are juxtaposed against the modernity of the more recently constructed buildings in the vicinity –” the contours of the massive new Law building rip through the neighborhood several stories high dwarfing the aging one and two story stone flats across the boulevard creating an architecture of fear. Many Arabs see this as a metaphor for power relations in the country between Jews and Arabs. One can’t help but draw parallels to the regional narrative – a Jewish nation western in mindset in the Middle Eastern Arab world trying to overcome differences over language, culture, religion and historical interpretation. Wadi Salib could become a case study in reconciliation in the mixed city of Haifa where Jews and Arabs live together in relative peace. Although the Maxim Restaurant was bombed here in October of 2003, Haifa is still seen as the model for coexistence in Israel.

Haifa is mentioned in documents dating back to the 2nd century but is over 5,000 years old. Jews and Arabs practiced coexistence for centuries here long before it was fashionable. Here the Carmelite order of monks was founded near Elijah’s cave after European crusaders persecuted the Jewish community in their efforts to convert them. By 1256 Haifa was destroyed by Muslims and was eventually abandoned and became a small seaport after the nearby city of Acre fell in 1291.

From Wadi Salib you can see the Old City walls of Haifa which were originally built in 1761 under the Ottoman Empire. There were Muslim and Christian Arabs living side by side within the walls until the middle of the nineteenth century when development in Haifa was pushed to other parts of the city. Napoleon and his French forces were eventually defeated in nearby Akko.

The development of the German colony near Ben Gurion Street began in 1867 and by the early part of the 20th century new Jewish settlers began arriving and settling near where the Haifa Hof Ha-Carmel train station sits today. At the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the British Mandate, the Jewish community grew in population, often sailing in to the port of Haifa from Europe and other destinations. Wadi Salib and nearby Wadi Nisnas remained the main Arab neighborhoods in Haifa and were the sight of numerous riots in the 1930’s and 1940’s relating to frustration with the British Mandate and the increasing Jewish population.

Following the Holocaust and the Second World War, internal pressure from the Zionist movement as well as support from the Allied powers for a Jewish state created the conditions for the establishment of the State of Israel. It left in its wake thousands of displaced Arabs and dozens of destroyed villages. 60,000 Arabs were forced out of Haifa alone beginning the process of cultural effacement – only 3,000 Arabs remained.

Families who had lived in Haifa for generations fled to the West Bank and nearby countries like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Neighborhoods like Wadi Salib and Wadi Nisnas faced challenges as the former centers of Arab culture in the area along with cities like Nazareth, Jerusalem and Jaffa. The remains of Wadi Salib are part of the larger story of Haifa and the establishment of the State of Israel. It today still serves as an historic fracture on Haifa’s urban landscape.

Johnny Mansour, a professor of history at Mar Elias University in the Galilee, often talks about how the disintegration of culture and history in the Arab community has historically been done systematically and that the community has not had the capacity to respond. In his tours of the neighborhood, he tells listeners that he doesn’t want the stories of the families who left in 1948 to be forgotten. They should be part of the city’s memory.

In Wadi Salib, where many of the buildings are still abandoned, the neighborhood is a contested space where development pressures combined with private ownership of these historic buildings will mean greater interest in reviving the neighborhood. The challenge will be in how to stop historic buildings from being torn down and in developing the neighborhood in a way that respects its history. Wadi Nisnas, though it was never abandoned, was remodeled for tourists, but serves today as a residential, cultural and commercial center for the Arab community in Haifa. Many believe that Wadi Salib can be brought back to life but that it needs to be done with patience, care and attention. Rehabilitating Wadi Salib will serve as a challenge to the Arab and Jewish community in Haifa. With the many destroyed and unrecognized villages throughout Israel, Wadi Salib is part of the broader attempt to work out Israel’s present development needs with its past obligations.

Johnny Mansour likes to point out a series of buildings that now house some taverns and a theater just off of Shivat Zion Street. One of these buildings used to be known as the Palace of the Pasha, a remnant of the once ruling Ottoman Empire. The Pasha’s son went on to become a judge in the Haifa district court. Next door was a Turkish Bathhouse where families used to frequent with their children. In the building which now houses the Roof for Demobilized Soldiers, there used to be an Oriental club which used to bring in musicians and dancers from Cairo. The hulva shop which was taken over by a Jewish family after 1948 and where many Arabs frequented after Al Nakba was torn down just a few years ago. The Jjrar family house still sits on the hillside overlooking Wadi Salib reflecting its time once as home to one of the wealthiest Arab families in the region. The Haifa University Geography Department recently looked into purchasing the building.

Part of the Muslim cemetery in Wadi Salib was uprooted and split in half to make way for the highway between Haifa and Nazareth. The Istiklal mosque still operates in Wadi Salib. The construction cranes and the scaffolding can now be seen on the outskirts of the neighbourhood foreshadowing the development to come under the City’s new plan.

After 1948, many of the buildings were confiscated after the government passed the Absentee Owners Property Law which allowed for the confiscation of Arab property in the early 1950’s. Immigrating Mizrahi Jews soon took over many of the Arab flats and but also faced discrimination from the ruling clique of Occidental Jews in their early days in Israel. In 1959, they rioted over “bread and work” and criticized many of the institutions of the state including the powerful elites in the Labour Party and the Histadrut labour union. These protests led to changes and eventually many of the Mizrahi Jews moved out of Wadi Salib and in to new neighborhoods in Haifa as the city grew up the slopes of the Carmel.

There is now talk in some quarters that Wadi Salib could be designated as a UNESCO heritage site if people in the community led the effort to recognize it. Tel Aviv was recently given the designation for its large supply of Bauhaus architecture much to Tom Wolfe’s chagrin.

A few months ago, community activists organized to stop the demolition of Arab intellectual Emil Touma’s house situated between Wadi Salib and Wadi Nisnas. There is now a plan for the Institute which bears his name to move into the building when the funding becomes available. These kinds of community efforts to reclaim part of the history of these neighborhoods are gaining support in both the Jewish and Arab communities as a means of reconciliation and in working towards equal rights and a shared history. Many Arabs still feel singled out and are given differential treatment in attempting to find housing in certain neighborhoods in Haifa.

Ultimately, what happens to Wadi Salib and its future development cannot be removed from the reason why it became a dead neighborhood in the first place. The development must be gradual, there must be leadership from the Arab community, support from the Jewish community and the development must find a way of negotiating through the tensions that clearly remain.

As these tensions work themselves out in Wadi Salib over the next fifteen years, this will be a neighbourhood to watch. In the mean time the buildings sit empty carrying memories of families long gone continuing to serve as a textbook example of urban blight.