Friday 2 June 2017

Jaffa - the people in the Shuk

Jaffa's Shuk HaPishpishim (fleamarket) is one of Tel-Aviv-Yafo's most popular attractions. It is also one of my favourite places in Israel. Full of shops and stalls selling antiques, carpets, clothes, bric-a-brac, food and drink, it's a great place for strolling and browsing. I love looking at the items for sale, occasionally picking up a bargain and regularly stopping for a drink or a snack. But the thing I enjoy most of all is watching the people that make this place so special - the merchants, the shoppers and on Friday, the musicians and entertainers. I recently spent a week in Jaffa, visiting the shuk every day and getting to know some of the people who work there. Several of them agreed to pose for photographs whilst I captured others in more candid shots. This post features just a few of my favourites.

The merchants

Along Oleh Zion Street, there are several shops selling carpets, rugs and other handmade floor and furniture coverings. These are not just any old carpets but beautifully crafted pieces from Turkey, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Many of them are antique and were made up to 100 years ago. The merchants are happy to show their wares to visitors and serious shoppers will be treated to Turkish coffee and long discussions before coming to a decision to purchase. The shop owners are not only merchants - they are also craftsmen who can be seen sitting outside their shops repairing carpets whilst waiting for customers. 

Many of these craftsmen were born in Iran, learning their skills there at a young age and coming to Israel after the Khomeini regime was established in 1979. There were once 100,000 Jews in Iran, with major communities in Isfahan, Shiraz and Teheran with a history going back to the sixth century BCE. Today there are probably no more than 10,000 Jews living there. The two men pictured at work were both born in Iran and have shops on Oleh Zion Street. I was struck by Shalomo's expression, clearly delighting in his work and by Reuven's chic style with his hat and scarf. Both continued to work as they told me their stories.

The shuk has changed significantly in recent years with fewer of the older merchants and more and more modern boutique shops selling a range of products including soaps, candles, furnishings and food items. I like both styles. The mix is very appealing and attracts a most eclectic audience but it will be a terrible shame if the older more serendipitous concerns disappear all together.

I met Mikhail in the Greek Market, just north of Oleh Zion. He has a small shop there selling antiques and vintage items. His collection includes hanukkiot, siddurim (prayer books) with silvered Bezalel School of Art designed covers, small sculptures and a range of old household items. We got talking when I asked him about a tiny, blackened metal item that turned out to be a small cooker, more than 80 years old.  Mikhail told me he was born in Afghanistan and came to Israel as a child about 60 years ago. He was very happy for me to take his picture and reminded me several times to come and see him again when I next visit the shuk. I liked his kind, open face and those bright eyes that remain the eyes of a much younger person. I asked him about his beautiful kippah with it's bright colours and decorative detail. He told me it came from Afghanistan along with the family.

The shoppers

The shuk attracts many kinds of people. Some come to buy expensive items from the modern shops. Others come to the real "flea" section at the back of the market. This is a browser's paradise with goods spread haphazardly over stalls or on sheets on the floor. In this part of the shuk you can find just about anything - vinyl records, Russian military pin badges, books, second (third, fourth, fifth) hand clothing in great heaps, shoes, hats, electrical goods and glass or metal items. The stall holders here are diverse as are the shoppers who include religious Jews, Arabs, Africans, Chinese, Filipinos and tourists from all over the world. You might even see one of the more established stall holders in here searching for items that they will later sell from their own shop.

One of the things I enjoy most here is watching the faces of the serious browsers as they hunt, pounce or consider whether they will make a purchase or not. Then of course comes the discussion about price. The man looking at the books and discs is deep in thought, having a "buy or not to buy moment". I wonder if he went ahead with a purchase.

On first site, I thought that the man with the guitar was one of the many musicians and entertainers who sometimes turn up in the shuk. Then I realised that he was trying the instrument out before deciding whether or not to buy it. As with our other pensive shopper, he appears deep in thought and somehow aloof from all around him. I really like his very cool shirt. Speaking of fashion, I also spotted a rather fabulous lady wearing leopard skin print, leafing through a book.  She had picked it up from a chaotic pile of "stuff" that includes bags, clothes, more books, an old radio and one of those revolving electric fans. A veritable department store.

The entertainers 

Friday is my favourite day at the shuk. As well as the regular shops, traders and cafes, there are extra street stalls in the Greek Market where local artists and artisans sell their work. It is also the day when singers, musicians and other entertainers come along to perform. One of my favourites is a musician who plays the kamancheh, an Iranian stringed instrument, sometimes accompanied by two other players. Their traditional Persian music is hauntingly beautiful, always attracts a crowd and on at least one occasion provoked loud ululation  from a female passerby!

Others include the wonderful mime artist who puts on an amusing, witty and sometimes sad performance to a variety of songs ranging from French chansons to modern pop music. Elegantly dressed in trousers with braces (called suspenders in North America but definitely not in the UK!) he fits in very nicely to the surroundings of the Greek market and could easily have come directly from Saloniki. Just a few steps away from him you can see another kind of street theatre as a young woman produces enormous bubbles by soaking a hoop in detergent and then letting the wind catch it. As a child I loved those small bottles of bubbles we would be given from time to time so this is a real throwback for me. And clearly not just for me as she gathers quite a crowd of adults (and children) taking pictures or trying to catch or burst the bubbles.

Then there are the people passing through, stopping to chat with friends or just enjoying the atmosphere like those in the pictures below. Watching people must be the best free entertainment there is. I can't wait to return before the end of the year...

Shuk HaPishpishim is open from Sunday - Friday. Most of the shops and stalls are closed on Saturday for shabbat although several of the restaurants are open.

Read more about the Fleamarket here.


  1. I lived in Tel Aviv for two years and got to know that new, beautiful, Bauhausy city very well. But Jaffa was a culture shock. It was a snap shot of an earlier era, or indeed of many earlier eras. Great photos.

    1. Thanks - it was a pleasure spending time there.