The legacy of the oldest Palestinian pharmacy in Jaffa

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Jaffa – In dark-green lettering, matching the rest of the storefront, is a proclamation in three languages – Arabic, English and French – that stands as a reminder of a lasting history in what was once regarded as the biggest Palestinian city before 1948.

El-Kamal Pharmacy, or saydaliyya, or pharmacie, lies on one of the main commercial streets of Jaffa and remains relatively unchanged since it first opened back in 1924.

The pharmacy, which has spanned three generations, was opened by Kamel Geday, the son of one of old Jaffa’s middle class families, after he completed his studies in Istanbul 14 years earlier.

Inside, the pharmacy feels like it was stopped in time. The domed ceiling and arches may have had a lick of paint now and then, but the dark-green cabinets and countertop have remained untouched since the elder Geday’s days.

In one of the glass cabinets is a prescription register on display, featuring every sale handwritten by Kamel Geday up to 1964.

‘Miracle’ pharmacy

Today, Kamel’s grandson Yousef stands behind the counter, carrying on after his own father Fakhri, who in turn had taken over from Kamel.

Kamel Geday’s pharmacy registry details every sale made until 1964 [Linah Alsaafin/ Al Jazeera]

The 34-year-old, who studied at the University of Liverpool, smiled when he was asked whether this profession was imposed on him out of a sense of duty.

“No,” he told Al Jazeera. 

“I grew up and breathed in this environment,” he added, gesturing around him where two framed photographs of his fez-clad grandfather and bespectacled father hung on the walls.

“I wanted to do this. It’s a miracle this pharmacy stayed.”

Of the many obstacles and problems the pharmacy had to overcome, most were political in nature. The 1936 Great Arab Revolt resulted in a six-month strike that brought commercial and economic activity to a standstill.

The Revolt, which stemmed from Palestinian dissatisfaction with British Mandate rule, economic disorder, and large influxes of legal and illegal Jewish immigration, drew punitive measures from the British police, who embarked on night raids, arrests, torture, beatings and imprisonment. Military reinforcements were called in, and large areas of Jaffa’s Old City were demolished.

Then came 1948, that fateful year for Palestinians, where two-thirds of the population – 800,000 people – were forcibly displaced from their homes by Zionist militias in what is referred to as the Nakba.

“The clientele that this place once served was devastated. The pharmacy used to have its own popular base of customers made up of the city’s Palestinian residents.”

“There’s a whole generation that left with the Nakba,” Yousef added.

On the Mediterranean coast, Jaffa was known as a vibrant and prosperous city with a combined population of about 120,000 people – 80,000 in the city itself and 40,000 in smaller towns and villages in its vicinity.

Then on May 13, 1948, it caved in to the three-week siege by Zionist paramilitaries, and was ethnically cleansed of a staggering amount of its residents.

“Jaffa was the largest city demographically, as well as the most important economic and Palestinian-Arab cultural centres during the British Mandate era,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, an activist and resident of the city.

“But in 1948, 97 percent of its Palestinian population were ethnically cleansed, and only 3,900 remained.”

Ruining ‘Bride of the Sea’

Those who stayed were rounded up and forced into the Ajami neighbourhood, which was transformed overnight into a military prison, complete with barbed wire, guard dogs, and a military curfew that lasted for two years – although military rule didn’t end until 1966.

The once affluent neighbourhood built adjacent to the sea transformed into a ghetto over time, where drug use and crime were reported at high levels because of municipal neglect and a housing crisis.

Jaffa itself was diminished, much of its Arab character effaced, and is now known as the southern district of Tel Aviv – a deliberate scheme put in place before the establishment of Israel, Abu Shehadeh said.

The pharmacy has remained relatively untouched since it was opened in 1924 by Kamal Geday [Linah Alsaafin/ Al Jazeera] 

“Tel Aviv began as a Jewish neighbourhood in Jaffa,” he said. “And in the east and south there were Jewish colonies such as Holon, Beit Dagan and Rishon LeTsiyon.”

While Jaffa was designated by the UN 1947 Partition Plan as part of the Arab state, the colonies in the north, east and south were counted as part of the Jewish state.

“That’s why Jaffa – a prosperous Palestinian Arab city in close proximity to the Jewish state – was seen as a strategic threat by the Zionist leaders,” Abu Shehadeh continued, “and a decision was taken to depopulate the city and take over it by force.”

Yet that was still not enough for the Zionist leaders, who then embarked on a systematic erasure of the Arab-Palestinian history of the city, he explained.

Street names and landmarks were replaced with the names of Israeli and Zionist soldiers or figures. Prominent Palestinian mansions were looted and taken over by Israeli state institutions, and Palestinian homes were freely given to newly arrived Jewish immigrants.

Alienation in Jaffa

The forced changes felt like an open wound to Fakhri Geday, and it was a great challenge for him to keep the pharmacy open amid the disillusioned reality he had come back to, his son Yousef said.

“Staying in Jaffa was considered to be akin to having super powers,” he said.

“My father took over the pharmacy when he returned from Beirut in 1950 where he was studying, and was keen to keep it in the same shape and character out of loyalty to his own father,” he said.

“It also alleviated his feeling of alienation in Jaffa after the Nakba.” 

Yousef Geday said most of his clients are Palestinians living in al-Ajami neighbourhood [Linah Alsaafin/ Al Jazeera] 

Yousef graduated and came back to Jaffa in 2003, where he began working alongside his father.

“Until the day he died in 2013, my father had never missed a day of work in six decades,” he said.

Fakhri was revered as a respected and learned man as well as a published author. Upon his return, and standing witness to his beloved city being stripped of its identity and character, he described Jaffa as a “body without a soul”.

He wrote the book Yafa – Bride of the Sea and as a form of preservation in the Palestinian collective memory, captured the vibrant history of Jaffa at its height before the Nakba.

The book includes the Arabic names of institutions, buildings, streets, theaters, cafes, sports and social clubs, and cinemas – such as Apollo, where the legendary singer Umm Kalthoum once came and sang.

Fakhri’s love for his city remained boundless.

“Today and tomorrow and forever, Yafa is my heaven,” he said in an interview with a local outlet shortly before he passed away. “It is the most beautiful city, the city that strangers loved and were loved by in return.”

Symbol of bygone era

The influence of Fakhri is felt even after his death. Described by Yousef as a nationalistic and patriotic man, Fakhri refused for the pharmacy to be connected to the four main Israeli health service organisations – despite it being more economically beneficial – because, Yousef said, “he did not want anything to do with Israeli state institutions”.

Under Israel’s public health policy, the four organisations – Clalit, Maccabi, Meuhedet and Leumit – offer services such as rehabilitation, hospitalisation, and emergency room services, and prescriptions at pharmacies contracted to them for free or at discounted prices.

Yet the Kamal pharmacy still thrives. Customers came in and out of the green door, mostly Palestinians living in Ajami who peppered their conversations with Hebrew words, exchanging pleasantries with Yousef with a sense of familiarity.

“Jaffa is diverse in terms of its Palestinian population,” Yousef said. “But this area here, where we are at, until the sea, is where a lot of Jewish people came to settle.”

Nowadays, there are about 20,000 Palestinians living in Jaffa. Many come from Palestinian towns in Israel such as Umm al-Fahem, al-Taybeh, al-Tira, and Bir Sabe’.

Not missing a beat, Yousef paced back and forth behind the counter, opening the glass cabinets and calling out questions behind his shoulder directed at his customers.

“How old is the boy? Does he have a fever? Are the Advil’s for adults or kids?”

The pharmacy remains the only one on Jaffa’s main commercial street in the Old City [Linah Alsaafin/ Al Jazeera] 

Subtle changes to the exterior of the pharmacy, such as the number 65 instead of 140 that it carried in the British Mandate era, barely reflect the generational and political flux the property has withstood.

What has changed, however, is the name of the street referred to by two different names by the two populations living here. Palestinians call it by its pre-1948 name Hilweh Street, while the Israelis use the Hebrew name that the municipality replaced the Arabic word with – Yefet Street.

The pharmacy is still to this day the only one on Hilweh/Yefet Street.

For residents, it remains a comforting, familiar sight that despite the effacement attempts it has managed to retain its Arab-Palestinian identity.

It is also a symbol that harkens back to a bygone era where a Palestinian coastal city, described as the beating heart of the country, prospered on several fronts.

“That the Kamal pharmacy is still running and operated by the same family is a unique case in Jaffa,” Abu Shehadeh said.

Follow Linah Alsaafin on Twitter: @LinahAlsaafin

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