This Will Be Gone

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Ilan Ben Zion ●

An­war Mo­hamed beams as he sets down a yel­low-and-white speck­led plate of ful, stewed fava beans redolent of hard-boiled egg and salty cheese — and rem­i­nis­cent of sim­pler times. The heap­ing plate, from a Su­danese eatery near Tel Aviv’s old cen­tral bus sta­tion, is a work­ing man’s break­fast at a work­ing man’s price, a rar­ity in this in­creas­ingly pricey, food-ob­sessed city.

The “Su­daness Reas­t­au­rant” [sic] of­fers an au­then­tic slice of East African cui­sine in the heart of the Jewish state, but spots like these that cater to the tens of thou­sands of Africans who came to Is­rael in re­cent years may soon be a thing of the past.

The neigh­bor­hood sur­round­ing south Tel Aviv’s new cen­tral bus sta­tion — the con­crete be­he­moth that dom­i­nates the ur­ban land­scape — has trans­formed in re­cent years into a mul­ti­eth­nic and mul­ti­lin­gual culi­nary melt­ing pot. The main pedes­trian boule­vard, Neve Shaanan Street, is home to dozens of eater­ies that cater to the tastes of south Tel Aviv’s lat­est ar­rivals: Filipinos, Chi­nese, In­di­ans, Su­danese, Eritre­ans and Rus­sians. Most of these places are not fre­quented by sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion Is­raelis.

An Is­raeli gov­ern­ment plan to boot African mi­grants and asy­lum seek­ers threat­ens the lives and wel­fare of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple. It will also al­ter the face of the neigh­bor­hood and ex­tin­guish the unique food cul­ture that’s grown up within it.

Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties have ap­proved a plan to start de­port­ing the roughly 40,000 African asy­lum seek­ers and mi­grants who ar­rived in Is­rael over the past decade, mostly from Su­dan and Eritrea. Un­der the plan, tem­po­rary visas is­sued to Africans would cease to be re­newed. Those who leave will­ingly will be of­fered an exit grant of $3,500 to re­turn to their coun­try of ori­gin or to Uganda or Rwanda by April. Those who re­main past the dead­line face jail, and re­duced stipends when they leave the coun­try. Their em­ploy­ers will face fines.

“[They] have a clear choice — co­op­er­ate with us and leave vol­un­tar­ily, re­spectably, hu­manely and legally, or we will have to use other tools at our dis­posal, which are also ac­cord­ing to law,” Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said at a cabi­net meet­ing. “I hope that they will choose to co­op­er­ate with us.”

The prime min­is­ter said he vis­ited south Tel Aviv, a for­merly work­ing class Jewish neigh­bor­hood of the city that has be­come a haven for Eritrean and Su­danese asy­lum seek­ers in the past decade, as well as mi­grant work­ers from the Philip­pines, Sri Lanka and In­dia, China and the for­mer Soviet Union. When African mi­grants be­gan cross­ing Is­rael’s south­ern bor­der with Egypt in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers in 2012, Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties would shut­tle them by bus to south Tel Aviv, where they faced poor so­cio-eco­nomic con­di­tions, scant wel­fare and health­care.

A vast ma­jor­ity of the African mi­grants still call the neigh­bor­hood

around the cen­tral bus sta­tion home, and like so many new im­mi­grants, the new­com­ers brought their food ways and opened dozens of eater­ies. The Om and Su­per Dragon mar­kets of­fer in­gre­di­ents fa­mil­iar to East and South Asian kitchens — spices and noo­dles, jarred chut­neys, fish sauces and ta­marind paste — and fish mon­gers, butch­ers and green­gro­cers cater to the cuisines of for­eign work­ers by stock­ing pro­duce less fa­mil­iar to Is­raeli shelves: taro and cas­sava, plan­tains, shell­fish and pork.

By far the most abun­dant, how­ever, are brightly lit and dec­o­rated Eritrean and Su­danese restau­rants dot­ting Neve Shaanan and its side streets.

An­war Mo­hamed, a soft-spo­ken waiter and cook at the Su­danese restau­rant, said its clien­tele in­cludes Su­danese, Eritre­ans, tourists and some Is­raelis as well. Eritrean news tele­vi­sion plays on a flat screen in the back while a hand­ful of cus­tomers scarf down plates of ful. The dish on of­fer is typ­i­cally Su­danese: fava beans cooked un­til they dis­in­te­grate. But un­like its Le­van­tine coun­ter­part, it’s not served atop hum­mus. In­stead, toma­toes are mixed into the beans, then the re­sult­ing mix­ture is topped with grated egg and salty cheese.

Mo­hamed said he learned to cook at home and in restau­rants in Su­dan’s war-wracked Dar­fur re­gion be­fore com­ing to Is­rael. He worked in the ser­vice in­dus­try in Ei­lat be­fore mak­ing his way to Tel Aviv. The owner is a Su­danese man with doc­u­men­ta­tion, and Mo­hamed has worked there for a cou­ple years. Mo­hamed said he’s con­cerned be­cause he has a visa that ex­pires every two months.

“For me, per­son­ally, what I would pre­fer is to get my visa re­newed. Right now I’m on un­sta­ble ground,” Mo­hamed said. “Ev­ery­body here hears what’s hap­pen­ing and reads in the news­pa­per. How can you have sta­bil­ity like that?”

Other mem­bers of the com­mu­nity are more re­luc­tant to chat. At an­other un­named Su­danese restau­rant a block away, the aroma wafts onto the side­walk from a kitchen crowded with sim­mer­ing pots. What the Su­danese owner Adam lacks in conversation he makes up for with cui­sine, dodg­ing ques­tions as he heaps bits of lamb ribs into a bowl along­side okra in tomato sauce and a mound of rice. A fiery chili sauce — one that burns the

tongue but leaves the si­nuses un­im­paired — and sliced veg­eta­bles ac­com­pany the main dishes.

Eritrean restau­rants abound along Neve Shaanan, their store­fronts im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fi­able by the danc­ing Ge’ez let­ters on their signs and east African beats em­a­nat­ing from within. Ha­gos Med­hane runs one of a dozen or more hole-in-the- wall Eritrean restau­rants on the main drag that con­nects the new and old cen­tral bus sta­tions.

Like many Eritre­ans, he fled the op­pres­sive dic­ta­tor­ship in his east African home­land and came to Is­rael in 2008. Af­ter nine and a half years, he has two chil­dren and man­ages Te­dros, a restau­rant serv­ing tra­di­tional food from his home­land: in­jera flat­bread (known in his na­tive tongue Ti­grinya as taita), served with mounds of stewed meat and cur­ried len­tils or beans.

As Is­rael has taken more se­vere steps to de­port Africans, he said the neigh­bor­hood has grad­u­ally emp­tied and its for­tunes have suf­fered. Is­rael’s con­struc­tion of a bar­rier along its bor­der with Egypt has stemmed the flow of Africans en­ter­ing the coun­try in search of eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity and free­dom from op­pres­sion. In 2017, no African mi­grants en­tered the coun­try, and since 2013 at least 4,000 have left vol­un­tar­ily.

“This en­tire street, all year round in 2011, ’12, ’13, ’14, it was packed with peo­ple. Now there’s noth­ing,” Med­hane said. Busi­ness is suf­fer­ing as a re­sult, he said, and will only suf­fer fur­ther as more and more Africans leave. “I have some Is­raeli clients, but not like the Eritre­ans. With­out them, busi­ness will be weak.”

For now, Med­hane said, he doesn’t think the new Is­raeli reg­u­la­tions will af­fect him and his kids, “but in Is­rael, you never can tell.” He ac­knowl­edges, how­ever, that the new pol­icy has added stress to al­ready dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances for Africans like him liv­ing in Is­rael.

Some day he hopes to re­turn to a demo­cratic Eritrea, but for now he wants to re­main in Is­rael with some sem­blance of se­cu­rity.

“What will be to­mor­row? We’ll see,” Med­hane said.

Ilan Ben Zion is a free­lance writer based in Is­rael. He is a re­porter at the As­so­ci­ated Press.

RESTAU­RA­TEUR: Ha­gos Med­hane runs an Eritrean eater in Tel Aviv.

A THING OF THE PAST? The Su­daness Restau­rant of­fers a slice of gen­uine East African cul­ture in the heart of Is­rael.

SU­DANESE SPREAD: Above: lamb ribs, rice, okra and chili sauce are on the menu.

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