Tel Aviv Noir

Our fondness for gore and intrigue is as old as the hills, but still you have to ask why; and when a writer sees the murky underbelly of his hometown as a badge of honour, it’s worth looking into. The American publisher Akashic’s Noir series, which started in 2004 with the very successful Brooklyn Noir, has since become an original and fascinating showcase for dark corners around the world. The series, which focuses on cities, not only includes sprawling metropolises that you might associate with the noir genre like Detroit or Delhi or Bogota, but more surprising locales like Cape Cod, Addis Ababa, Singapore, and Tehran. Tel Aviv Noir, edited by hip Israeli writers Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, is one of the more recent and unexpected additions, with Jerusalem Noir also now in the pipeline.

One thing that the Tehran, Singapore and Tel Aviv collections have in common is that the editors wanted to challenge the existing perception of these cities within the popular imagination. So, Cheryl Tan said that she hoped to prove that Singapore isn’t just a tiny island full of rules, where nothing remarkable ever happens; and Salar Abdoh sought to reveal the many layers of Tehran with a realism usually barred by censorship. Meanwhile, a few months ago, in an interview with Haaretz, Gavron said, “Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world. I like to be grouped with other cities in the world and not in [the] usual context that Israel is given.”

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In all three cases, noir, and by necessity everything associated with it—crime, immorality, failure, greed—is a sign of complexity; it is proof that your city is interesting and (paradoxically) worth visiting. What’s curious about Gavron’s statement is that it suggests that it’s good for Tel Aviv to be seen as just another city rife with sleaze and corruption because then it’s removed from its typical parameters (i.e., as the sunny part of a controversial Jewish state in the Middle East). Perhaps this is what Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, meant when he said that the country could only be really considered normal when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conducted their business in Hebrew. But then, contrast this Zionist ideal of ‘normal’ with Judaism’s tremendous emphasis on Israel being different, a nation of Chosen People, etc., and Keret and Gavron’s foray into the Akashic series certainly becomes food for thought. 

Each collection in the series also has the imperative to come up with a different kind of noir to everyone else: a universal genre with a local flavour. Each of the books in the series has a front cover photo of a dramatic cityscape in muted tones of grey, mauve and industrial orange. The Tel Aviv picture, which depicts a nocturnal thunderstorm with menacing black clouds on the beach, is a far cry from any standard representation of the city: sunshine, nightclubs and parties—the antithesis to a repressed Jerusalem. The map of Tel Aviv on the first page (and there are maps in each of the Akashic Noir books) is bereft of its usual markings, showing instead a smattering of body outlines, each one lying next to a particular spot in the city, like the Dizengoff Centre or Rabin Square. This is a map you’d find in a police detective’s office, not a holiday brochure, though you could argue that the Akashic series—with its Lonely Planet-style tour of the globe—is all about tourism.

You’d be forgiven after reading Keret and Gavron’s anthology that Israel doesn’t actually have any classic noir fiction, and you’d be right. With very few exceptions, the stories stretch the concept considerably, but this is absolutely fine: the Akashic series would be pretty boring if everyone stuck to familiar tropes and clichés that are in any case grounded in a now-distant 1930s and 1940s America. Tel Aviv Noir is peopled with the proverbial selection of losers and drifters—drug addicts, mafia thugs, and desperate widows—but it also has less familiar characters, such as obnoxious teenagers, ghosts, and even Death chatting with customers in a cafe. 

Not counting the otherworldly visitors in the latter examples, the anthology stands out because several of the writers deviate from the norms of Modern Hebrew literature and show a scarred cross-section of Israeli society that isn’t obsessed with identity—be it Jewish, Mizrahi, female—but isn’t flat and soulless either (as it is often depicted in Israeli postmodernist fiction). Others authors are less convincing. For instance, while Keret’s introduction is thought-provoking, his own surreal contribution, “Allergies”, which Keret describes as an allegory of life in Israel, seems completely out of place in any type of noir anthology.

One story of note is Gadi Taub’s “Sleeping Mask”, where the narrator is a pimp who runs a sex-ad magazine and falls for one of his girls, the victim of an Orthodox loan shark who has suggested escorting as a way of earning a quick buck. The nastiness of the Tel Aviv prostitution scene and its impact on young women comes across in a fairly hard-hitting way: “She had this joy in her eyes, the kind of light that wouldn’t survive in this line of work for long. But in the meantime, that light was worth lots of money.” When you later realise that the girl’s younger sister has also been tricked into prostitution by the same Orthodox crook, the cruel perpetuation of the sex industry, which is oblivious to age or family, becomes all too apparent.

Another story, Deakla Keydar’s “Slow Cooking”, centres on a woman who works at a shop called Plenty Market. Her husband leaves her and gets partial custody of the children, so to pass time she takes on the unpopular Thursday evening shift, when frantic customers ring up and make last minute food orders for the Friday night meal. Although “Slow Cooking” begins with the divorcee’s loneliness and her foolish crush on one of her regular shoppers, it is more interested in the fifty thousand African asylum-seekers now living in South Tel Aviv, hundreds of whom have made Levinsky Park (the focus of the story) their permanent dwelling. Keydar’s Tel Aviv isn’t a Jewish oasis of beach volleyball and trendy restaurants, but a network of squalid, unfamiliar streets: “Blinking lights. Whorehouses. Makeshift casinos… Asians, Russians, Africans… going in and out of businesses.” But there is no racism in this tale; the Israeli mistrust of Tel Aviv’s African refugees that is frequently reported in today’s Israeli press is not replicated here; the protagonist, who is initially fearful of the park’s ‘black’ inhabitants, quickly overcomes her prejudices. 

The memorable “Swirl” by Norwegian writer and journalist Silje Bekeng describes the turmoil and instability in Israel through the eyes of an outsider—namely, the expat wife of a European diplomat, who is living in Tel Aviv during a period of political unrest. Unable either to speak Hebrew or leave the apartment, everything she knows comes from specialised news bulletins addressed to foreign personnel. Outside her elegant and secure living quarters, civil violence mounts slowly, at a nerve wracking pace, before exploding into a devastation of bombs and gunfire that almost shatters her walls. The increasing aggression in the streets is mirrored by strange happenings in the apartment: someone has been secretly leaving her thoughtful gifts: origami birds, books, postcards, and even a personalised playlist on her computer. She eventually catches sight of the anonymous giver in the hallway, about to leave, a very tall man “dressed as an unconvincing construction worker.” Is this kind and attentive stranger also, then, a terrorist who has been using her flat as a hideout?  We never know, but the possibility is terrifying.

Tel Aviv Noir contains fourteen stories, each one associated with a well-known place in Tel Aviv. They are of varying quality, but together they achieve the desired effect: that of a dark cloud moving across the city, alerting the passer-by to the shadows in the background that are always ready to pounce.     

Giulia Miller is an academic and critic living in Keele. She is the author of Reconfiguring Surrealism in Modern Hebrew Literature: Menashe Levin, Yitzhak Oren and Yitzhak Orpaz (Vallentine Mitchell, 2013).

Edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron (Akashic Books, 2014).

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