‘Israel Is Like Purgatory’ – Life in South Tel Aviv

Two Eritrean boys stand outside a church in south Tel Aviv (source: PRI)
Two Eritrean boys stand outside a church in south Tel Aviv (source: PRI)

In the past fifteen years, tens of thousands of Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel. The majority of these people now live in south Tel Aviv.

Shapira, a traditionally blue-collar area, is one of the neighbourhoods they have ended up in. Hipsters have also begun to move into the area, complete with fixie bikes and yoga lessons. These newcomers have come into conflict with Shapira’s original inhabitants, most of whom are religious Jews from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Greece.

Add lady-boy prostitutes, drug addicts and several hundred Philipino care-workers to the mix and it’s easy to see why Shapira, a neighbourhood that isn’t much more than a square kilometre in size, is a microcosm of so many problems relating to identity, tradition, immigration and crime that countries across the world are facing today.

During the past twelve months, I interviewed people in Shapira to see how they wound up there and what they think of the things happening in the neighbourhood. Here’s what two Sudanese guys had to say.

B, 29 and M, 36

M: We were discussing it the other day. This guy was in the shop and we were talking about how you have to be Jewish to be Israeli. And this guy was saying, ‘no, they are separate things. You can be Israeli and not be Jewish.’ Really? Come on. You might be Jewish and not Israeli, but you can’t be Israeli unless you are Jewish. You can’t make a separation between them.

B: That’s not true. There is a difference. You can see Arabs and other people here that have Israeli documents and everything. Even a lot of the Philipinos here in Shapira have Israeli passports and all those things.

M: Listen, I was here already for more than 10 years. I didn’t get anything, no papers – nothing. Why is that? Because they don’t want non-Jewish people to be here. But let’s say I did. I get my ID, I get my Israeli passport. I go to Germany and I say, with my face and my skin, ‘I’m Israeli.’ They would laugh at me.

B: No, it’s not true. The majority is Jewish and the country is Jewish. But you can still be something else and be Israeli. Think of all the Arabs here that have passports and so on.

M: You can have all the papers you want. Just because you have a passport that says ‘Israeli’ on it, doesn’t mean that you are Israeli. We are from Darfur and we’ll always be from Darfur.

B: In truth, we want to be in Darfur. There is no life here in Israel. I’m finishing work now. It’s 1 am. I will go home, take a shower and then study for maybe 30 mins. Then I wake up at 7 and it’s back to work. That’s not a life, it’s just work. Even for Israelis it’s hard, you can see with the house prices and everything. You really cannot buy a house here. Really, it’s impossible.

DM: Maybe if you save money you can do it?

B: Save what? 2 million shekels? 3 million shekels? No one can do that unless they are rich. That’s why all the people buying houses in Tel Aviv are from France, from Russia, from America. Jews outside of Israel have a lot of money so they can afford it but not regular people in Israel. I know a lot of people in Shapira, Jewish people, they come to the shop and it is so hard for them. They live in one room, two rooms with their family. Is that really a life? To rent a tiny apartment for 3000 shekels a month and your whole family lives in it?

M: Even people from abroad struggle with life here. All the time, I see people from France, America, from England. They come here for 6 months, 1 year and then khalas they are done. They can’t live with all this shit here. The government even lies to them to get them to move here. I met this guy who moved here from Zimbabwe. He was even born in Sudan – a Jewish guy. So because of some problems in Sudan, he moved to Zimbabwe. I don’t know why. But he moved there but then there was some balagan with the government, they hated white people or something like that. So the government here said, “come, we’ll give you an apartment, some money to live, no taxes.” He comes and the things they give him are shit. Then after six months they take it anyway and he has nothing. He said he had something like 2 shekels in his bank account. So khalas he left.

DM: But there must be some good things here?

B: The best thing here is security. I’m telling you, if you have security in your country – that’s all you need.

M: Right, the problem in Sudan is there no security. You can’t feel at ease. But when you have security, you can do whatever. You know that Sudanese people love to work. Not like here, we really love to work. If there was security in Sudan, in truth it would be the best country in Africa. Better than Egypt, than Ethiopia – the best. I even have a plan, I’ll start selling products from Dubai and Kuwait in Sudan. I’ve got the connections. One or two more years and I’m done, I’m going home. I can’t live here anymore.

B: Me too. The day that there is peace in Sudan, the next day I will go back. I need a family and a life. Here it’s just surviving. You can never sit, relax and think, ‘ah, everything is ok’ here in Israel. There’s always something stressing you out. Yes, maybe you have more stuff here but there you are content. Listen, you can live on the 10th floor of a big building, everything new but you aren’t comfortable, you aren’t at ease. I prefer to live in a shit house with one floor but my mind is at peace – that’s better.

M: That’s right. You are in Sudan, everything is good. Here, you fight over the bill in a restaurant – everyone just pays for what they had. If we are in Sudan, I’m going to pay for everything and it’s not a problem – it’s all good. The food too. Here you have fake avocados, fake tomatoes, fake meat. In Sudan it’s natural, it’s from the ground. You know what you are eating and it tastes excellent.

DM: What about the law, corruption. It’s better in Israel than in Sudan, no?

B: Law? What law? In Israel there is maybe law on the outside but there is always some combinot or protectzia. You can always find you’re way around it. Look at all the shops in Shapira. So many of them are illegal, with people working in them that have no documents and nothing happens to them. I know people that drive a car with no license and the police don’t do anything. And they bought that car from Israelis, obviously. In Israel there is security but I don’t know about the law.

M: There is also a lot of racism here. I think they teach it in schools – really! I’m saying that seriously. ‘Why are you here? How did you come here? What religion are you? When are you leaving?’ All those things. People ask me all the time. They are nosey people.

B: Even the Arabs do that. ‘Are you Muslim?’ They ask that all the time. I was in the mosque in Jaffa [an Arab area south of Tel Aviv] praying and an Arab guy asks me, “what? Are you Muslim?” I’m in a mosque praying! Of course I am a Muslim.

M: Honestly, we are saying shit about the Jews. The Arabs are worse. In the mind of an Arab, a black person is a slave and that’s it. That’s why there are all the problems in Sudan. They think we are slaves. Here if an Arab guy asks, I say I’m Arab even though I’m Darfuri. They think Sudanese are black Arabs so it’s better for us if we say that we are Arab.

B: You know there is no refugee status for us here, right? I have one friend, we were together in Libya. I was there for almost one year and then I decided to come here. But my friend he went across the sea, made it to Italy and eventually the UK. Now he has a job, papers and everything. It’s all good with him. For us it’s hard. We don’t get anything. Seriously, when you come here, you have nothing. No family to support you, no friends, except maybe people you meet along the way. And without papers, you can’t get married. There are women but it’s just for your day to day needs!

M: Right, I can’t get married here because I want to be at ease. When I go back to Sudan, I will do it. I’ll have a wife and house and children. You know the Jews like to say here is like Gan Eden [paradise]. No, it’s like hell. All the time a struggle.

B: He’s exaggerating. It’s not hell, it’s like purgatory. You are stuck. You don’t want to be here and it’s not so bad. But you can’t leave.

Notes for readers:

‘Khalas’ is an arabic word, roughly translating to ‘stop’ or ‘enough’
‘Combinot’ and ‘protectzia’ are Hebrew words that refer to forms of corruption

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