The tower blocks seem to go all the way up into the sky. They form a never-ending mess of sand-coloured concrete, all of which blend into one another, creating the Rishon Lezion skyline. Everyone here lives right on top of everyone else. I hear conversations going on in other people’s apartments, gain insights into the intimate moments of complete strangers.
We walk past a knot of old women talking their lives away on the street corner just as they did the day before and the day before that. Pushing a buggy ahead of me, and with my mother-in-law as guide, we move uphill past what was once grandly called a souk, but is now a couple of tables with fruit and vegetables on them. A tower of boxes and bits of rotten produce blocks our way. Opposite sits a building, crumbling to nothing.
I negotiate the wheels of the buggy around the boxes. My navigator doesn’t skip a beat as we move past a brand new apartment bloc. It stands alone among its older brothers and sisters, serving either as testament to modernisation or as a point of comparison to every other building on the street.
The centre of town looms into view. “Rishon Lezion was the first settlement in Israel,” she says.
“The sultan came here one day and saw how beautiful we had made it and said the Jews can have land all the way to the sea!”
She points out the ever-expanding museum dedicated to Rishon Lezion and the first school to teach Hebrew as a spoken language. The buildings have been done up to resemble their former glory. A man fishes through a rubbish bin just outside.
The old centre of Rishon is on a gentle slope. We walk down, from top to bottom, passing small shops selling crap. Outside a cafe, a man stands arguing with a woman as she fills up a dispenser with napkins. She continues her work while shouting back at him.
“There’s actually a bit of an argument between Rishon Lezion and Petah Tikvah” my other mother says. “We were the first settlement in Israel and they claim they were.” I think of third division football teams whose rivalries are unknown in the league to anyone but their few fans.
We walk past a mock up of a kiosk that existed during the British Mandate, where kids would come to get their sweets and where you could buy a soda. The revival continues all around old Rishon, where wonderfully renovated buildings sit alone surrounded by hulking modern monstrosities and dilapidated buildings doomed never to be deemed worthy of investment.
A man stands outside a bank with a trouser leg rolled up to expose his infected leg. He holds a cup which he thrusts into the faces of those walking past. An old woman sits in a cafe, her face lights up as a bowl of ice cream arrives at her table. The woman serving her calls her by name, they laugh at something together, before one returns to her cafe and the other picks up a spoon. There’s a cherry on top of the ice cream. A real one, not one of those bright red sugar things.
We take a right turn and walk into a park. “This used to be so much bigger. They used the land to build a new city hall right here.” She gestures to a building overlooking us. There are double rows of palm trees on either side of the path we walk on. One row on each side consists only of stumps. “A fly came along from Africa and laid eggs in the trees. They had to cut them all down,” she said.
We stepped into a cafe. I ordered a tuna sandwich, she drank coffee. A woman walked in holding a cigarette between her lips. She asked us for money and tutted when I flicked my wrist for an answer. She walked out; I turned back to my meal. The couple next to us ate soup. They were young and spoke in whispers. Occasionally, their fingers would find each other next to the soup bowls.
I thought about the sultan coming to Rishon Lezion and being so impressed with the Jews he decreed the whole land to the sea would be theirs. I imagine him wearing colourful robes and riding a horse. He has a jewel-encrusted, curved sword hanging from a belt. With a single word from him, the Jewish project, so tenuous, so filled with hope, has a better chance. I remember what my wife told me about the sands of Rishon, the rumoured burial ground for victims of the mob.