Tel-Aviv is a city for the initiated. It is shrouded in words and in a language comprehended
by a rather limited community of Hebrew-speakers, who tell themselves what Tel-Aviv is.
Silent observation - devoid of verbal explanation, apologetics and pretension _ is cruel to the city and its dwellers. It might expose a wretched, ragged Asian city, unglorious, insecure, its houses peeling, its streets patched up, its people shorn of grace and calm.
An especially long and penetrating look -like that of Joel Kantor's camera _ might also unveil the frailty and existential uncertainty of it all, and, moreover, the self-denial and inner contradiction of the "struggle for normalcy" - a struggle which is the very essence of the city's spirit. Urban routine, which in every city is a byproduct of commercial and cultural life, is still an aim unto itself in Tel-Aviv: it is a source of comfort, and, at times, of self-infatuation. Tel-Avivians welcome every semblance of the Standard and the Normal, every delusion of the cosmopolitan sense of a Great City. Each turning of one's back on whatever betrays the geographical, political and national context (the Conflict, nationalism, religion) is deemed an achievement: this row of shops looks just like those in any normal city in the world; isn't that unbelievably standard and normal? That wall is flaking just like in Soho; is this not proof that we are just as stable and urban as New York? Here's a famous cafe. No-one in the world has heard of it but us, no-one in the world knows the cultural heroes in it but their friends - still, are we not a cultural empire,
a veritable Paris?
Indeed, countless lines of Hebrew prose and verse, dozens of popular songs, and hundreds of thousands of words cramming three local weekend papers strive, week after week, to explain Tel-Aviv to the Tel-Avivians, to persuade those of the same persuasion that their city is not what it seems. Through the words, the shaky grows firm, the squalor glows bright, the provincial is crowned with a halo; all wretchedness is misted in semi-private associations, which must be reinvented and rejuvenated every week. A stranger wouldn't understand, although there isn't always much to understand.
Therefore, a distant, wordless look directed at the city always disappoints the Tel-Avivians.
They always feel the photo hasn't captured the "proper" and the "representative" - namely, the city's yearnings not to be Here at all, or, at least, to be Here as a bubble or a Free Zone, officially exempt from the trials of the Middle East. Thus, to the Tel-Avivians, a person looking with no words or explanations at the people in gas-masks, the ragged walls, the barely populated sidewalks - that person is like one who sees an exhibition without
a catalogue, a play without a programme.
But Tel-Aviv has no men of world renown, no splendid monuments, no nameplates of Caesars or Churchills, no palaces to remind it of past glory. In Tel-Aviv, only the heart remembers and knows, and that - only in Hebrew.
Joel Kantor's camera ignores the verbal and conceptual shell enveloping the city in an ambience of solace and pretension. And since he does not photograph belief, self-image or self-delusion, this book does not provide us with any snapshot proof that Tel-Aviv - or, for that matter, Israel - is necessarily a story with a Happy End.
We would gladly go on explaining to ourselves in many words that this isn't exactly the case - that everything is far more stable, secure, normal, urban and cosmopolitan than meets the eye. But then again, if this is how it looks, it looks like this is it.