Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban

Thursday, 20 August 2015

"Sordid Beauty"

After we lost our mother, my sister and I discovered her diary in a desk drawer. Her diary entries read like a film script, inspiring me to bring them back to life as stories. Today the Australian Jewish News has published one of them, "Sordid Beauty". You can also read another story from the diary here

Garishly painted faces leered at Naomi as she scurried nervously down Jaffa’s dark, unpaved lanes. She shuddered as strange, shadowy figures darted urgently past the workshops, factories, stores and cafes, where the smoke of nargilehs mingled with a heady aroma of spice and perfume. Police seemed to be on guard everywhere.

Passing a police car, she noticed some prostitutes sitting in the back, mostly young girls in skimpy clothes. “They were waiting to be taken to the station and charged,” she would later note in her diary. She had known of course that prostitutes, both Jewish and Arabic, had long been plying their trade in brothels on the roads between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, but this was the first time she had been so close to the action and her discomfort was evident.

“Let’s go!” she urged her companions.

Reluctantly, Aliza nudged Motke, raised her eyebrows and shrugged wryly. “You’re not much of a Sabra anymore, are you?”

The evening had not been meant to end this way. Aliza, fun loving and capricious as ever, had been keen to hear Aris San, a 17-year-old, short Greek singer, who had recently arrived from Athens and was already making quite a name for himself. Motke had been only too happy to oblige, driving the women to the well-known Arianna nightclub.

The sharp metallic sounds of the bouzouki wafted through the thick, sweltering May night air as they approached the Salonican Jewish-owned Arianna, the bastion of Greek popular music in Israel.  Constructed on the ruins of an Arab building, it was not far from Jaffa’s old central bathhouse, which had been converted into another nightclub known as the Hamam.

“The Arianna looks very ordinary from the outside,” Naomi would subsequently record, “but is situated in beautiful surroundings by the sea and close to mosques, towers and ruins of a house – charming indeed”. A few years later, by the 1960s, the Arianna would have become a favorite haunt for army officers and members of the Mapai Government, the forerunner of Israel’s Labor Party. The crowds, which would line up around the Jaffa Clock Tower to get in, included such luminaries as Major General Moshe Dayan and his wife Ruth, who would go there to dance on a Friday or Saturday night. 

For Naomi, however, the spell was broken. The chaotic commotion of Jaffa was too much for her. Perhaps Aliza was right … she had become too Australian. At any rate, she preferred Jaffa by day. Hadn’t she and her cousin Miriam battled through the bustling maze of winding alleys just over a month ago to visit the home of the late War of Independence hero Yitzhak Sadeh? She recalled stopping at the end of the street now known as Zichron Kedoshim to see the house that had belonged to the first commander of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state underground Jewish army, the Haganah.

Perched near cliffs, with panoramic views, it had been easy to picture the charismatic Major General-turned writer, nicknamed HaZaken (The Old Man) while still only in his fifties, hosting his disciples and fellow warriors, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, in the enormous, blossoming garden, with stairs leading down to the sea. Naomi could even visualize the goat that Sadeh had kept tethered to a tree in defiance of then new Israeli laws.

His room was just as he had left it in 1952 – a modest bed and wooden desk, books and photographs, many of him in action against the Egyptians, a collection of military maps and guns, swords and daggers amassed during his military exploits – all as you would expect of one of the founders of the Israel Defense Forces.

That had been a wonderful afternoon, Naomi thought, remembering how they had earlier visited Tamar, lingering over tea and luxuriating in the stunning surrounds.

Tamar had been most hospitable, and the large garden around her Arab limestone villa overlooking the azure sea far below was exquisite, the hilly lawn carpeted with the purple and yellow wildflowers so typical of the Mediterranean coast. Shaded by pine trees and cooled by sea breezes, the stone slabs and fountains taken from the recent excavations in Ashkelon had glistened in the sunny Friday stillness.

“A most ideal place to live,” Naomi would later pronounce. Indeed, situated south of Old Jaffa, Ajami – the neighborhood where Tamar resided – had been founded as a small, wealthy, upper middle class residential settlement by Maronite Christians in the late 19th century under Ottoman rule.

Since the establishment of the Israeli State, however, the roughly 4000 Arabs who had remained in and around Jaffa were now concentrated in Ajami, where many buildings had been demolished. Meanwhile, Tamar’s family had been among the thousands who had settled in homes vacated by the 70,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been displaced.

Ultimately, Ajami would rapidly deteriorate to become a cramped and dilapidated home to the destitute, both Jewish and Arabic … facts that Sabra-turned-outsider Naomi seemed blissfully unaware of during her visit on that day in 1957.


My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. It was only when we sorted through our late mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, seemingly long forgotten in a desk drawer.

The diary reads like a film script, relating the experiences of a young woman I did not recognise in the Israel of the mid-1950s. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Melbourne, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

Now, nearly 60 years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions. For it provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.


A former AJN journalist, Shira Sebban is a Sydney-based writer and editor. She also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Eureka Street, Times of Israel, The Jewish Writing Project, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion. You can read more of her work at

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