There is a park in Ashkelon we used to call The Big Lawn. I spent most of my teenage years in Ashkelon, a small seaside town in the south of Israel. The park isn’t big. It’s L-shaped, from what I remember. It’s been almost thirty years since I last walked through the park. But I remember walking through it to school, or home from school sometimes, though mainly I took the bus, or walked along Sderot Drom Afrika (South Africa Boulevard) to where we lived, first in a small flat in the Canada House Absorption Centre, then a while later in a bigger flat on Sderot Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Boulevard).
The Big Lawn starts at the shopping precinct in Afridar, one of the older neighbourhoods in the city. The entrance to the park is next to where the Rachel Cinema used to be. The cinema’s been knocked down, and is now, from what I remember, although I could be wrong, a block of flats. Or a shopping mall. I spent five years in Ashkelon, between the ages of 15 and 20. What I remember of the Rachel Cinema is the eating of sunflower seeds throughout the movie, so that when the lights went up you were faced with a floor covered in sunflower-seed husks, a carpet of them, in the days before carpeted floors in cinemas in Ashkelon. The seats were wood.
Turn right out of the Cinema, cross the road and go down a few stone stairs, and you’re in the park, The Big Lawn. These memories are thirty years old. Three decades since I was in the park. Strange to have memories older than one or two men you’ve been in love with. Strange in a way that makes you think of age and time and memory. Strange in a way that makes you feel weird in your body. Like time passes and doesn’t. You move away from a place and you carry it with you. I remember that park the way you remember places you’ve walked through barefoot. The feel of sharp gravel on your soles, the softness of the grass, though in summer it must have been yellowing and parched, brittle, and the hot soil and sand. Houses backed onto the park, gardens, patios.
There was a playground at the edge of the lawn and to the right; the ground got more earthy there, with trees and gravel paths. There was something dense, magical, slightly threatening about that section of the park. It was no longer The Big Lawn. The Big Lawn was behind you, a large square of green grass, and then a fairytale wood that is probably smaller than I remember. The swings and slides and see-saw were planted amongst the trees, probably for the shade. Here, too, there were houses with backyards facing the park, but they seemed more run-down, arid. Neglected. And there was a primary school further on. At the corner of the park where The Big Lawn became The Woods was a small cultural centre, Beit Ha’Am, The People’s House, something straight out of the Socialist’s Handbook, straight out of what Israel had hoped to be. They held meetings there, music recitals, and courses in handicrafts, but I could be making this up. Maybe that’s where the choir practiced, but what choir?
You can see a bit of the neighbourhood in this clip. At the 1:45 minute mark, the glass-fronted building is where the Rachel Cinema used to be (now we know what it has become! a monstrosity!), and to the left of that is The Big Lawn, although you can’t see it.