Migrant-owned bars offer soccer and solace for south Tel Aviv’s African expats
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On the ground in Tel Aviv'I’m the kind of person who lets himself make mistakes'

Migrant-owned bars offer soccer and solace for south Tel Aviv’s African expats

Bylaws are tough and there’s not much money to be made, but a few enterprising Eritreans and Sudanese have opened cafes and hamaras that also aim to marginalize vagrancy, drug use

  • A man smokes nargila in Jimmy's cafe. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    A man smokes nargila in Jimmy's cafe. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
  • Customers drink beer in an Eritrean hamara in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    Customers drink beer in an Eritrean hamara in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
  • Customers smoke nargila at a Sudanese-style tavern in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    Customers smoke nargila at a Sudanese-style tavern in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
  • A small storefront in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    A small storefront in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
  • A woman in a red dress walking in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    A woman in a red dress walking in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
  • The door of Mohammed's cafe is decorated to let customers know exactly what kind of entertainment will be featured on screen.(Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    The door of Mohammed's cafe is decorated to let customers know exactly what kind of entertainment will be featured on screen.(Hadas Porush/Flash90)
  • A south Tel Aviv barber shop catering mostly to asylum seekers and migrant workers. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)
    A south Tel Aviv barber shop catering mostly to asylum seekers and migrant workers. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

Immigrants and asylum-seekers from Africa have opened dozens of establishments in the run-down neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv in recent years. These include cafés, bars, Sudanese-style taverns and Eritrean-style hamaras — tiny bar-cafés where customers drink tea or strong coffee, cold beer, or arak, with simple food refreshments and a place to play backgammon and smoke nargila.

The business are largely run along similar lines: Patrons sit in rows or around tables, smoke nargilas and watch European Champions League or English Premier League soccer games that are broadcast in Arabic and shown on a large screen.

Visitors to the Sudanese-style taverns are exclusively served coffee (and sometimes even espresso), tea, or soft drinks, while the Eritrean-style hamaras also offer alcoholic beverages. The prices, tailored to the patrons’ means, are significantly lower than those in the city center.

Family Pizzeria, located behind Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, sells pizza pies (with extra toppings) for NIS 30. Asking for pepperoni, The Times of Israel is told that it is not available — not because of kosher dietary laws, but because the cost of the pepperoni would price the pizza above what south Tel Aviv’s market can afford. The sole competitor in the area, a pizzeria down the street, sells pizza pies for NIS 25.

Israel’s interior ministry says there are around 42,000 African migrants in Israel, half of which are women, children, or men with families; the other half are largely single men. There are tens of thousands more foreign workers living and working in Israel legally. They are concentrated in south Tel Aviv, which has some native Israeli residents who lived in the neighborhood prior to the newcomers’ arrival up in arms.

The Israeli government’s response has been inconsistent. It has vacillated between allocating funding for social programs, incentivizing migrants to leave, and threats of all-out deportation. So far, the status quo of the impoverished demographic has remained largely unchanged.

Customers drink beer in an Eritrean hamara in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

In Haylet and Tzagai’s hamara, a bottle of imported or Israeli beer costs NIS 10. In line with police regulations for the area, which prohibit serving beer in anything made of glass, the beer is provided in plastic cups.

Haylet and Tzagai, who were opposition activists in Eritrea, say that they started their neighborhood hamara to fight vagrancy and drug addiction in the community. Workshops and talks with community members and their families are held in the hamara every weekend, but on most evenings, their main patrons are men.

“All these people whom you see walking around now, wandering the streets — it’s because of drugs that have become too available, like hagigat and who knows what else,” Haylet says. “We let them come and sit here, see people and have a drink, even if they have no money — and by the way, not just refugees, but anybody who passes by.”

An outdoor scene in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

‘The regulations got tougher every day’

Not every attempt by economic migrants or refugees to start businesses in the area has been successful. Jimmy, 23, came to Israel from Sudan with his parents when he was 13. He attended a boarding school, but did not graduate. It’s something he regrets today, as he would like to enroll in agricultural school here and take his knowledge back to his home country.

Jimmy has worked in a variety of jobs since arriving in Israel: stocking supermarket shelves, waiting tables at a nargila café, selling fish, washing dishes in restaurants. By 17, he had saved enough money to open his first business, a hamara on Levanda Street in Tel Aviv. But it failed, and he lost all his savings.

“The police kept a close eye on us because we sold alcohol,” Jimmy says. “The regulations got tougher every day until we couldn’t keep the business open anymore.”

But he didn’t give up. Together with an Israeli partner, he recently opened a neighborhood café in the style of Israeli-Sudanese fusion.

Jimmy’s cafe in south Tel Aviv. (Ido Dagan)

“I’m the kind of person who lets himself make mistakes,” Jimmy says, justifying the gamble he’s taken. “I’d rather make a mistake than do nothing at all.”

Jimmy grew up in the village of Kasara in northern Sudan. “Even as a little boy, I dreamed of being a millionaire,” he says. “I dreamed of moving to a different, more developed country, where I’d study and start businesses. I started working at washing cars when I was young. I was the kid everybody wanted to be around because he always had money.”

He was happy to come to Israel with his parents. “I was enthusiastic at first, but when I realized where I was and who was against whom, I was very disappointed,” he says. But it was precisely the disappointment and lack of encouragement that he experienced that spurred him to succeed at any price. “I didn’t listen to anyone. I always had a drive to prove that I could do it.”

School was where Jimmy got to know Israeli culture up close, and he proudly combined it with his Sudanese roots. He describes himself as a bon vivant who frequents Tel Aviv’s trendiest bars.

Residents greet each other in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

Now Jimmy wants to bring something of the Tel Aviv nightlife scene to his own community. When anyone asks him why he hasn’t arranged the chairs the way they are in other places in the area, he answers simply: “We decided that our place would be nicer, with style — that people wouldn’t sit in rows of seats, like in a movie theater.”

His hamara is designed in a clean Western style, with nargilas and a fruit stand. The background music is African, mixed with Latin pop. The space, which is divided into intimate seating areas on various levels, is appropriate for small events, groups, and couples. While the patrons are mainly members of the community, Israelis also come here to smoke nargila.

“This place didn’t do so well when I first opened it,” Jimmy says. “People didn’t know about the café, and that dashed everyone’s expectations that it would be full of people the moment it opened. But I knew that wasn’t the way things worked.

“We started getting the word out on Facebook, and the place started to wake up during the second month. Last month was good, but the business still hasn’t reached its peak. I think that it will happen only in the spring and summer. Even I go out less in the winter, and I go to bars a lot.”

A woman in a red dress walking in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

Either nargilas or alcohol — not both

Mohammed’s tavern in the heart of the neighborhood suffered financially this winter and he’s thinking about whether to keep it open. He says that his property tax debt has reached NIS 17,000 (about $4,700), and that aside from his hard core of 10 to 15 loyal customers who have made his tavern their regular meeting place, there is no other traffic.

Mohammed was among the first refugees to reach Israel from Sudan and one of the very few who received Israeli citizenship a decade ago. He says the reason for the low level of traffic is the supply — or more accurately, the lack — of major televised soccer matches.

“There aren’t as many important games in winter, so fewer people show up,” he says. “On days like this, I don’t make a thousand shekels [$280] in a day; not even 700. That’s when I lose money.”

In order to keep his business afloat, Mohammed is considering going over to the hamara concept and adding alcohol to the menu. According to his calculations, the move would be worthwhile even after he paid for a liquor license.

Customers smoke nargila at a Sudanese-style tavern in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

“I have to go to the municipality to cancel something, maybe the nargilas, and bring in beer,” Mohammed says. “The municipality doesn’t license businesses that have both nargilas and alcohol — it has to be one or the other.

“In order to add beer and other alcoholic drinks to the menu, I have to pay an engineer at least NIS 4,000 ($1,100), and I need a police permit. I might also have the place painted before the summer. With God’s help, we’ll cover the losses and start turning a profit as well,” he says.

As if that weren’t enough, businesses in south Tel Aviv have to cope with another restriction: the rule that all businesses there must close at 11 p.m. instead of midnight. The business owners believe that the regulation stems from the authorities’ desire to keep order in the neighborhood.

Like other business owners, Mohammed is not sure that he will obey the rule this summer.

The door of Mohammed’s cafe is decorated to let customers know exactly what kind of entertainment will be featured on screen.(Hadas Porush/Flash90)

“We work here according to the game times. Premier League and UEFA Champions League games start at 10 or 11 p.m. and end around midnight,” he says. “If I throw my customers out at halftime, they’ll never come back, and in the end, the business will close.”

Police: We set ‘basic rules’ so the businesses can stay open

A high-ranking police official told The Times of Israel that the regulation requiring businesses in south Tel Aviv to close at 11 p.m. is not applied across the board, but depends on the individual business.

“The hamaras are a main hangout for many foreign nationals, whose lives are tough as it is. When they get drunk, the violence starts,” the official says.

“Most of the brawls, 99.9 percent of them, have taken place inside the hamaras or nearby, and the glass bottles play a major role in these brawls. There are stabbing incidents on a daily basis, mostly with no real reason, just because of drinking alcohol and getting drunk. When we see drunk people gathering in groups, we make sure beforehand that it won’t end in stabbing incidents,” he says.

Residents of south Tel Aviv walk through the streets. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

The police official adds that, “We need to realize that most of the hamaras operate without a business license and with severe safety violations. This puts people’s lives in danger. Representatives of the Business Licensing Unit of the police — the ones who issue the business licenses — have visited all the hamaras, all the businesses, and closed every one that was operating without a license and that had severe safety violations.”

A spokesperson for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality says that by request of the Israel Police, a decision was made in 2011 to restrict the hours of operation of businesses near the old bus station to reduce the amount of crime there. The spokesperson adds that there was no regulation regarding the use of glass bottles in hamaras in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood.

But the police official says law enforcement has realized that businesses run by asylum-seekers have an added significance.

“We realize that people often sleep in these hamaras, so we try to avoid closing them down completely. Instead, we set ‘basic rules’ that they must follow in order to stay open, such as limiting their hours when they are open and when they sell alcohol, and the use of glass bottles,” the official says. He says the police regularly hold inspections, “just like the enforcement of regulations that’s done in any business in the center of Jaffa.”

A small storefront in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

“If we see that the place is also being used as the person’s home, we don’t throw him out with all his belongings. If we did that, where would he live? On the street? We just tell him that he can’t run a business there with alcohol and music, like in a café.

“It’s in our interest that they prosper financially, since the moment they’re under pressure, they’ll turn to crime,” says the police.

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