on 28 February 2006
In this vividly written book the tale of the lives of 6 families from Jaffa is told through the events in Palestine and Israel from 1920 to 2000. The families include Christian Arab notables, Muslim aristocracy, a large Sephardi clan and Ashkenazi refugees from Europe. This is the tale of Israel in microcosm as told through this community and its sister city of Tel Aviv. The book is strong on understanding the inner workings of the Arab and Jewish communities, the many cleavages and changes coming about in this period. Here we see Muslim and Christian Arab women shedding the veils and housework to become independent, we see Arab notables visiting Jewish prostitutes in Tel Aviv, we see the unending struggle for land and political supremacy and then we see the great folly of 1948, the Arab aggression and subsequent flight. The tale examines the lives of Arabs who became refugees, those who fled and returned and those who refused to flee. We see the inter-Arab infighting and accusation of collaboration. We see the Jewish ambivalence to the flight of their neighbors, but we also see poignant stories of Arabs and Jews helping each other down through generations.
This book captures well many of the aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It also captures the spirit of the times and changes in society. It shows how the rich Arabs of Jaffa were defeated in their nationalist rhetoric by the proletarian Jews of Tel Aviv. It shows how mob violence drove these communities apart. It shows how the post war era in Israel shaped up, how poor immigrant refugee Jews were driven from the Arab countries and housed in the former lands of Arabs who themselves became refugees. The author does a great job of interweaving history with the simple events of everyday life.
The greatest drawback of this book is that it is a tad popular and journalistic in its historical telling. However it means at times the explanations for events are wildly biased or inconsistent. However it appears the author is as unbiased as he could be given the circumstances and does not get bogged down in the Arab-Israel endless debate/rhetoric as is common in many publication on the subject. The book tries its best to understand with minimal judgment. A class A read, very insightful and well written.
Seth J. Frantzman
on 11 January 2006
City of Oranges is a refreshingly balanced account of the modern history of Jaffa and the birth of the Jewish state.
LeBor's eye for detail and the rich family accounts bring the story to life, turning a historical account into a thoroughly enjoyable read. Reading about the lives of the six families and their truly amazing experiences manages to personalize the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.
It's an innovative approach that makes this book worth reading for anyone interested in Israel/Palestine.
on 20 February 2006
City of Oranges is must reading for anyone with even a glint of interest in the Middle East, and should be required text for those working the policy desks at Whitehall or Foggy Bottom. Lebor's City of Oranges adds a rich layer of oral history and substance to today's headlines. Coming on the heals of Lebor's lauded biography of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, City of Oranges is his most thought provoking work to date.
on 27 June 2008
Adam Le Bor's heart is in the right place. The oral history aspects of this are great. As a former Zionist, I was especially struck by the image of the Arab jaffa-ites flight from the city in boats, under fire from Jewish artillery.
It's not an authoritative history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, so it's a bit annoying that he feels the need to put such big slabs of 'what happened next'. Surely by now everyone who is interested knows what happened in the six day war? And if not, is this the way for them to learn about it.
And he has a funny idea about balance too. I'd fully expect an oral history approach to tell the story from the participants' perspective - no problems with that. But sometimes the authorial voice seems to do the same thing, so that he's both Zionist and anti-Zionist at the same time.
Still, this is an enjoyable, interesting, warm and informative book, and well worth reading.
on 8 April 2009
This is a book where the people living in the eye of the storm do the talking. The big causes are in the background - much more the holocaust than wacky American preachers - but centre stage are the citizens of Jaffa, the city of oranges, and their usually sad stories. LeBor has a large cast, helpfully credited at the start in case you get mixed up. He starts us off with a wedding where Jews and Arabs attended, and then we are straight into the 1921 Jaffa riots when Arabs lashed out against Jews after their betrayal at Versailles. The violence never stops. We're soon onto the birth of Zionism, the extraordinary Theodore Herzl and the slogan - `A land without a people for a people without a land'. Another brilliant proposition - but of course it wasn't true. There were people there. And in the midst of the tit for tat killings, the rumbling of tanks in old and narrow streets, the forced marriage of old Arab Jaffa with new European Tel Aviv, they tell their stories. LeBor brilliantly also works in family histories that not only stretch from the 1920's till today, but also across the racial divide. The one that stands out is that of the Jewish Chelouches with the Arab Samarra family. The relationship began in the late 19th C with an act of kindness when Aharon Chelouche gave some money to a young boy of the Samarra family who had been robbed. After the Second World War the Chelouches family were in dire straights, and help comes from the boy, now a successful business man. He sends camels loaded with food. And more - he gave the Chelouches enough money to pay his debts, start a business - and for years the loaded camels arrived. The friendship was lost as the violence increased in the 1930's, but we stay with the Chelouche family, and hear much of the Jewish side of the story from them. After the brutal war of 47-48 the great grand son of the kind patriarch who helped the Arab boy, Aharon Chelouche is the military governor of Jaffa. In 1949 the Jewish policy is to expel all Arabs who are not official residents of the new Israel. As the governor, Aharon was the man who could give the all important exception to the thousands who faced deportation. One day his officials failed to turn away a stubborn supplicant who insisted on seeing the top man. When Aharon opened the file he was stunned. It was a Samarra, and after a few questions he knew it was the Samarras who had helped his family so much. He phoned Tel Aviv and made sure the man was allowed to stay. And this is the brilliance of the book. In the midst of all the brutality, we are never allowed to forget that there are many Jews nor Arabs who have not allowed the demons of tribalism to erase human kindness from their hearts. It would be good reading for Tim LeHaye and John Hagee. They would also find out that the first would be Christian end of the world settlers to the area in the late 19th C were led by an out of work actor, George Washington Adams, who ended up a drunk on the streets of Jaffa.
Adam LeBor offers an excellent introduction to this complex topic. He weaves the personal stories of several families from Jaffa, charting their lives from the beginning of the British Mandate, right up to the 21st century, and placing these events within the context of wider world history. Although the Middle East is so often in the news, there is a great deal of ignorance about the history of the region, and this is an ideal book for those who want to learn more but don't want to read something too dry or academic.
Adam LeBor seems to be scrupulously even-handed. Another reviewer comments that he appears to be Zionist and anti-Zionist in turn, and this approach seems appropriate for a conflict about which people feel so passionately, sometimes to the exclusion of the other side's perspective. LeBor, like a novelist, gets into the skin of all his different characters in turn - and suggests that they are all, in a sense, `right'. After he's described a profound injustice or atrocity from one side, he'll often quickly bring in a balancing counterexample.
Both sides in this struggle attract zealous supporters, often with no links to the region. Because LeBor avoids this partisan approach he manages to elicit far more sympathy for both sides , from me at least, than do those who can only appreciate the sufferings of one side in the conflict.
on 10 December 2008
I picked this up as someone who has a curiosity about the middle East but with limited knowledge. What LeBor does brilliantly is not only does he educate the reader, but he immerses one in a whole different world. The way that the book is written brings a great familiarity to the characters; you leave each family at one point but LeBor refers to them throughout the book and will then come back to them at another part of the book. LeBor is sympathetic to both sides of the conflict and creates a very impartial and balanced viewpoint, something which I imagine is difficult to do. Simply put, this book is essential reading for anyone who is deeply interested in the Palestine/Israel conflict or for someone who has no prior knowledge of the subject. Well done LeBor!