Central Station area = Africa + Philippines + Eastern Europe in Israel

Article published on Nov. 27, 2009
community published
Article published on Nov. 27, 2009
Due to some logistical reasons I found myself in the area around Central Bus Station. Although Tel Aviv is considered a very safe city, I heard from almost everyone that it's not advisable for a young woman to walk in this area alone. Due to this image and darknes it felt really scary at first. Big and small groups of immigrants were chatting very loud.
Two junkies leaned against kiosks, closed for Shabbat. However, when my eyes switched to the night vision mode and I adjusted to the atmosphere, I realised how ashamed I, as an anthropologist and so on, should be for giving into these typical stereotypes.

A phone call reminded me that it's not even 7pm, although it felt much later. Streets were full of people who were, as I could finally see, simply living their lives. Many mothers with their babies went for an evening walk, kids (more or less all African) were playing basketball in a closed court, groups of friends were sitting on the grass and chatting. People were enjoying themselves in the area they lived in, as Shabbat fell and there was no need to rush anywhere for most of them.

As I walked past groups of people, contemplating how many lanugages there are in the world in which I will never even learn how to say 'hello', I saw the Central Bus Station building. There is an Indian shop right next to it, from the side of Levinsky street. It sells various spices, dips, wraps and other food ingredients. Indians are not so visible in the neighbourhood though. I would say, 60% are Africans, 30% are Filipino, and then everyone else. I was told many people there are refugees, others are guest workers or illegal immigrants. For many of them Friday night is the day to put on their most glittering outfits and go to have fun with others, who are in a similar situation in the Israeli society.

There are two shops called 'the Kingdom of Pork' next to the central station. They cater for the dietary preferences of numerous African, Thai, Filipino, Russian and other immigrants. Blond butchers, a man and a woman, chop meat so that you can hear it in several meters. Obviously, Friday evening is when the business is very lively. This area is built to be the antonym of kosher, and it doesn't care.

On the way home I notice a street with an open-air market. I think it's called Rosh Pina. A bar playing Mizrachi music hosts Russian-looking people. Two Filipina women with boxes approach Filipinos passing by - my guess is that they are collecting donations for some disaster relief activities in the Philippines. Piles of probably second-hand clothing lie on the street, carefully watched by African (+-75%) or Eastern European (+-23%) sellers, who will advertise their stuff to you and try to convince you to buy something as soon as you touch anything. You can more or less readily talk to every Ashkenazi Israeli in Russian there.

I chat with a woman from Ukraine, who is selling nicely arranged clothes. She came here 19 years ago with her family. "Is this your own business, or you just work here?" I ask. "It's my business, unfortunately..." she responds bitterly. "Why unfortunately?" I allow my curiosity to bother her. "It doesn't pay much, it's hard work - finding the stuff, washing, ironing, sitting here... And it's the worst area possible - thieves, junkies... The lowest kind of people. You shouldn't wear your backpack on your back, you know?" - "Aren't you afraid to work here, then?" I ask, imagining that if there is a local mafia in the neighbourhood, it probably comes to take its share from the already frail micro-businesses. As we talk, a colourfully dressed African woman is looking at a long skirt with interest, but gives it a second thought and leaves. "I'm not afraid, I'm with my husband. But I don't understand what you are doing here. It's not a place for a young white woman to walk alone, you know..." - "I was just going home..." I invent excuses. As she turns to her husband to say something, I realise that I shouldn't bother her anymore. So I leave.

I finished the Friday night at the 'Rogotka' bar in East Tel Aviv (Yitzhak Sade 32), which has vegan nights from time to time, and yesterday they celebrated the International Buy Nothing Day, so they had free food, pin-making workshops and a free exchange of second-hand clothes. I got two best pins ever! I met some activists who regularly go to the West Bank and teach kids music. The atmosphere felt exactly as in similar places in Europe and Japan - I guess the causes they believe in are so cross-cultural that similarities completely overshadow differences. People did not seem to be trying to impress anyone, at the same time doing their best to show that they couldn't care less about impressing others - as if it wasn't Tel Aviv. I had several relatively long conversations, and nobody asked me if I'm Jewish. Speaking English for more than five minutes wasn't a problem. It seemed that people, whoever they are, can be so themselves. Thumbs up.

Related post for comparison: Rock, punk and vegal cultures in Tokyo.