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Haaretz | February 8, 2008

Wellsprings of memory

At the end of the 19th century, abundant citrus groves embraced the city of Jaffa from the east, and the aroma of Shamouti and Valencia oranges, marketed in Europe under the famed "Jaffa" label, wafted across the urban landscape. To water the groves, farmers used elevated stone wells with a pumping mechanism comprised of a large wheel and a chain of clay pots that dipped into the well and collected water, then poured it into a pool. The wheel was turned by a mule or a camel with blinkered eyes. At the lower level of the pool, there was an opening through which the water flowed into channels to cavities dug around each tree. The wells were later upgraded by the installation of diesel engines.

The wells were situated at the orchard's highest point and surrounded by stone walls or hedges of prickly pear (sabra) cactus. Within the well compound stood buildings in which the workers and their families lived, as well as other structures to house the animals and prepare the fruit for the market. The most affluent citrus growers built mansions within the well compounds; they served as guest houses and were used during holidays. On hot summer days, the pool was the favorite gathering place for the area's children.

The protagonist of Benjamin Tammuz's short story "Swimming Competition," written at the beginning of the 1960s and set in the waning days of the British Mandate period, recalls his childhood in Jaffa and his relationship with an Arab youth with whom he competed in knowledge and swimming. The swimming competition between the two takes place in the Arab friend's family compound in Tall al-Rish (today "Tel Giborim" in Holon):

"It was square, and surrounded on three sides by a two-story building. Below were the stables and barns. Black and red chickens skittered around the yard, their clucking interspersed with the neighing of a horse. The engine was on the second floor and next to it was a pool. A pipe emerged from the engine room and carried its water into the pond, and goldfish came to the pipe and splashed about in the air bubbles that rose from the water funnel. A wooden banister adorned a long porch, which lay in permanent shadow, and from the porch a colorful glass door gave access to the living room, from which doors led to the residence rooms, the kitchen and the granaries."

In 1948, there were about 200 "well houses" of this kind in and around Jaffa, the largest Palestinian city, socially vibrant and economically prosperous. According to the United Nations partition resolution of November 1947, Jaffa was to be a sovereign Arab enclave within the territory of the Jewish state. But the Arabs rejected the partition plan, and just as the designated Arab state never came into being, so Jaffa's fate was sealed in the first Arab-Jewish war. Two days before the declaration of Israel's establishment, Jaffa surrendered to the Jewish forces, and tens of thousands of its residents fled and became refugees. A small minority of about 3,600 souls decided to stay.

Only about 60 of the well houses abandoned in 1948 are still standing, many of them in danger of collapse. On February 21, an exhibition will open in Tel Aviv (see box) about a project to preserve about 20 of the structures, with the aim of turning them into community centers or medical clinics. The exhibition derives from a planning and conservation study carried out by architecture students at Tel Aviv University under the supervision of architects Amnon Bar Or and Sergio Lerman, who are also the exhibition's curators.

"I've had it up to here with meeting colleagues at conferences in Europe whose only interest is in the Citta Bianca, the White City of Tel Aviv," Bar Or says. "After all, conservation is memory. The cultivation of the Bauhaus heritage has made people forget what is not seen and not preserved. It makes no difference to me that some people claim that to preserve these houses is to anchor the history of the Palestinians. In any case, those people think the orchards of Jaffa and Tel Aviv exist in paintings by Reuven Rubin and Nahum Gutman and in the writings of Brenner, and only there."

Most of the structures were forgotten and neglected, says Bar Or; this is the first time they have been placed in the spotlight with the aim of bringing about a change in their status. "The goal of the exhibition is to put the well houses on the agenda, so the municipality will not roll its eyes and say they do not merit conservation. Just as [Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai was able to designate 1,200 Bauhaus structures for conservation and persuade UNESCO that they constitute a treasure, he will now discover that there are palaces among these well houses."

Early Arab aristocracy

The home of Anton Ayoub is known in Zionist historiography as the Biluim House and is designated an antiquities site because of its national and historic importance. This was the first building to house the first group of the Biluim - early Zionist settlers who arrived in Palestine from Russia beginning in 1882. They are considered the symbol of the First Aliyah (first wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine) and of the Zionist movement as a whole. The building is located in what is now South Tel Aviv, at the edge of the Neve Ofer neighborhood (Tel Kabir), adjacent to Wolfson Medical Center. Ayoub's orchard house, built largely from limestone, probably dates to the beginning of the 19th century and is one of the few in the Jaffa area that remain almost complete. The spacious structure, rich with arches and large chambers, is currently undergoing renovation.

According to Israeli historical sources, Anton Ayoub was a wealthy citrus grower who lived in Jaffa's most prestigious quarter in the 1870s and is credited with discovering the Shamouti orange. The group of young immigrants from Russia disembarked at Jaffa harbor on July 14, 1882. Among them was a young woman who brought a Torah scroll. "They recite the shaharit [morning] and minha [afternoon] prayers publicly, and as a residence have for the time being rented a well house in the gardens around Jaffa," the newspaper Hamaggid reported. S. Ben Zion, a writer and publisher, described how the group was taken aback by the overcrowding inside the walls of Jaffa, but was drawn to the orchards: "There, to the east, outside the city, are groves of oranges, there the date palms are shaken like the lulav [of Sukkot] by the wind ... And it is said that each grove owner has a house in it."

Their money had been stolen on the way to Palestine, and in Jaffa their patron, Zalman David Levontin, loaned them 100 franks. In her book "The Biluim," Shulamit Laskov writes that they rented an apartment on the upper floor of a two-story building, the Anton Ayoub house, which was located in an orchard next to the Jaffa-Jerusalem road, about a 20-minute walk from Mikve Yisrael, an agricultural school and farm. The men lived in one room and Devora (Deria) Sirut in the other.

Haim Hisin, who joined the group in August 1882, describes in his diary the friendly welcome extended to him and his friends by the Ayoub family, "early Arab aristocracy" who had converted to Christianity. "We entered a spacious domed hall. Next to the walls were soft Turkish sofas covered in tasseled red velvet, and on the floor lay costly carpets. Lamps stood on the narrow, high tables. There were a few low wooden stools. That was all the furniture. The owner of the house presented us to his wife, his daughter-in-law and his daughters. They extended their hands cordially."

Hisin describes the women's garb in a patronizing tone, notes their hair style and does not ignore their "lovely embroidered shoes." Summing up, he writes, "Everything reflects a gentle blending of Oriental and European culture. We were each offered a nargilla [hookah] and coffee in small cups, and a full-blown conversation developed in French, German and Arabic." Hisin also describes life in the wing of the house the group was renting. The table was made of planks of wood laid on crates. They slept on mats and crates. Hygiene was exemplary and life was communal. Yisrael Belkind, the group's leader, bought on credit in Jaffa and most of the time was able to evade his creditors.

Maps of 1880 describe the compound as the "Anton Ayoub House." However, the students who researched the site's history were unable to find any document confirming that Ayoub was the property's owner, and whether he had sold it. In Jordan, they located descendants of the family of Rajab Khaldi, a District Court judge who died in the 1950s and is buried in Jerusalem. Two of his grandchildren, both professors of medicine, who lived in the Ayoub house as children, helped the Israeli students map the site. The orchard, they say, covered about 12 dunams (three acres) but was looked after by a different family. Sesame was grown on an additional plot. The well house, which was located north of the structure, did not survive; it belonged to another affluent family that owned many orchards in the area.

The druggist Fakhri Jeday, 82, who was born in the Jaffa neighborhood of Al Ajami, still works every day in the drugstore his father opened on Al Hilwa (now Yephet) Street in the winter of 1924, two years before he was born. The drugstore, which has retained its original design, is painted entirely in green. Jeday's son, Yusuf, also a druggist, works with his father.

"Anton Ayoub was my grandmother's brother," Fakhri Jeday says. "As a child I visited his home with my mother. He lived with his family in a building that has since been demolished. My parents lived at 19 Salsala Street in Jaffa, which was then known as Roch Street, because of the status of Alfred Roch, the neighbor. Ayoub worked in the [British] Mandate health office. They were a well-known family in Jaffa and only the [workers] and the animals lived in their orchard houses. Citrus growers built palaces in the orchards and boasted about them, but did not live in them."

Murder in the orchard

Alfred Roch was a public figure and entrepreneur, one of the richest men in Jaffa and a Christian. His family commanded great respect in the city. One of the biggest citrus exporters of the time, Roch was a member of the Citrus Board established by the British High Commissioner. He and his family owned large tracts of land and orchards as well as a number of houses. Roch was also involved in shipping. Receptions and soirees were held in his home; a contemporary photograph shows the participants at a masked ball, held in his home at Easter. In another photo young Alfred is seen in the company of his wife, Olinda, and their little daughter, Orteia. "The Roch family lived in Jaffa for about 150 years," Jeday says. "Their roots lie in Ein Kerem, next to Jerusalem. Alfred Roch had a big office in Jaffa, close by the French Hospital. His brother, Alfonse, had a house next to ours, which is now used as a kindergarten. Edmund Roch, who was a consul, lived behind the building that now houses 'The Israeli Experience.'" Alfred Roch represented the Arab Greek Catholic community in Palestinian politics of the pre-state period. He was an opponent of the Zionist project and fought against the sale of land to Jews. A supporter and confidant of the Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, Roch was elected to the Seventh Palestinian National Congress in 1928. Seven years later he was elected vice president of the Mufti's Palestinian Arab Party and in 1936 he became a member of the Arab Higher Committee, which was established in order to lead the general strike and the Arab Revolt (1936-39).

Dominique Roch, the granddaughter of Alfonse Roch, grew up in Beirut and was until not long ago the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Radio France. She spent five years in Jerusalem and is now in Paris, awaiting her next assignment while researching the family history. She first heard about the family's well house, which is located in the compound of the old Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv, from the architecture students.

The Roch family's structure stands behind the clothing and vegetable booths at 6 Hashomron Street. Only its tile roof and upper floor are visible from the street, and attest to its being an exceptional building in the local landscape. Entering the inner courtyard, one finds a crumbling, dilapidated structure. The well is blocked up and its northern section is now the back wall of a flower shop.

"Alfred was a leader and an extraordinary and special person," says Dominique Roch. "He had a rich life and in the family was known as a man of the world." Was he involved in land transactions with Jews? Dominique Roch, who never knew him (he died in 1942), says he was not. She does confirm, however, based on what she heard from her parents and her grandmother, that the family sold land during periods of economic hardship. It was the Israeli students who informed her that the building in the Central Bus Station was apparently sold in the late 1920s to two Jewish families named Klein and Shafir, who owned property and other assets in the area in which the Neve Shaanan neighborhood was founded in 1921. In 1937 the two families donated the Roch house and the area around it to the Tel Aviv Municipality for the Central Bus Station, hoping that the development would generate a business boom and increase the value of their other properties.

Dominique Roch wonders why the first citation of the property's ownership in the Land Registry is only in 1937, when the two families transferred the area to the municipality. "It is strange that there is no mention of the Roch family's previous ownership of the property," she says, "and not least because the students told me they found aerial photographs of the building from the end of the 19th century. Maybe an attempt should be made to locate more credible Land Registry documents. I know," she adds, "that my grandmother was compelled to sell very expensive land in areas of present-day Tel Aviv in order to pay off debts after my grandfather's death. Business also fell off during the Arab Revolt, and maybe it was then that the property was sold."

About two weeks after the massacre perpetrated by Jewish forces in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, on the edge of Jerusalem, on April 9, 1948, Dominique Roch's parents left for Ramallah. She herself was born in Beirut in the 1960s. The Roch family, she says, dispersed and most of them now live in Europe, Lebanon and Jordan.

No prior ownership

Bella Krebs, 58, was born when her parents were living in the Roch house. Her father, his brother and her grandfather bought the building in a key-money arrangement from its Jewish owners - "three Jewish families who owned Hashomron Street and the Central Bus Station compound. Later," she says, "my uncle and my grandfather left, and my parents stayed on in this wonderful house, and here I and my big sisters, Hanna and Malka, grew up. That is where we celebrated Hanna's bat mitzvah."

Krebs relates that the building had a high ceiling and an unpolished marble floor. Waxing nostalgic about the beauty of the house, she recalls it had an area of 450 square meters and she remembers how much she loved the backyard. Her father had a mosaics plant in the building and the family lived on the floor above.

"There was a large foyer and two spacious bedrooms," Krebs relates. "I attended Bialik Elementary School. The grocery store was on the corner and I had friends I played with on the streets of the Caucasus neighborhood, where the new municipal park is located. Wine was produced on the roof. We wrapped our feet in canvas and stomped on the grapes. The juice was collected in bottles that were placed in the bedrooms. The family's social life was conducted on the roof. The house was abuzz with visitors and there was always a reason to have a drink and eat and sing."

The well, she says, has been blocked up since she was a girl. Her father covered it with boards so no child would fall in; it is about four and a half meters deep. In 1969, when she was 11, the family moved to North Tel Aviv, but continued to keep watch over the building's fortunes. In 1974 her mother opened a plant nursery that borders on the well's limestone wall. Entering the yard from the nursery, one encounters the beautiful Roch house. Under the architecture students' conservation plan, the building will become a community house for the migrant workers who live in the area.

According to Yitzhak Rokach's book, the Roch family's orchard covered the area between today's Levontin Street and Petah Tikva road. In it, a well was dug in a boulder, and its size and shape drew many visitors.

Jeday has his own version of how the Roch well house in the Central Bus Station ended up under Jewish ownership. He maintains that Alexander Roch, who was many years older than his brother, since he was born from a different mother, allowed Protestant missionaries to live at the site in the Turkish period and had a hard time getting them to leave, and then the building somehow passed into Jewish hands.

The Al-Azi clan

Al-Azi house is known to many as the Gadna (Youth Battalions) building, where the legendary Kabir target- shooting club operated for some 50 years. It stands west of the police detention facility of Abu Kabir, at the junction of Tel Giborim Street and Ben Zvi road. The large, impressive stone structure still belongs to the Al-Azi family, which leases it. A carpentry shop currently occupies the premises. Large sections of the pool were destroyed over the years.

The Al-Azi family owned a number of buildings in Jaffa, four of which stood on land adjacent to the historic road to Jerusalem. The Al-Azi house was occupied by Khalil al-Azi, a large-scale property owner who hosted senior figures from the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine. Another building in the compound was leased to foreign consuls, among them the French deputy consul. Khalil's grandson, Yunes al-Azi, is a 73-year-old farmer who lives in the community of Al-Azi, located not far from Masmiya junction on the way to Be'er Sheva and home to about 200 family members.

Yunes al-Azi remembers Jaffa as it was before 1948. "I was about 7 and I remember the ticking of the diesel engine as the pool filled with water," he says. "The fruit had a sweet taste that has no equal today. We had 46 dunams [11.5 acres] in Jaffa, mostly orchards, and there were also the buildings, one of which is the Al-Azi house. It was built about 150 years ago by my grandfather, Khalil, who was born at Tall al-Safi [a Palestinian village, destroyed in 1948, about 30 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem] and had about 50,000 dunams with 30 villages or so on his lands. There were eight sons and eight daughters. My father was born from his second wife. The Al-Azis loved land and bought it wherever they could. My two grandmothers lived in Jaffa, and when the children reached school age they were sent to Jaffa."

Khalil al-Azi died in 1942. His son, Yunes' father, followed in his footsteps and maintained good relations with the Jews, believing they would bring progress to the region. Prof. Amatzia Baram, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Haifa, who grew up in Kibbutz Kfar Menahem, near Kiryat Malachi, shares childhood memories with his friend Yunes al-Azi. Kfar Menahem was established in 1939 on land purchased from the Arab village of Idhnibba, and after the 1948 war, additional village land was annexed to the kibbutz.

Baram, whose parents were among the founders of the kibbutz, notes that from the beginning, relations between them and the local Arabs were excellent, thanks to Sheikh al-Azi, "who was an anchor of stability. Whenever a problem cropped up, he intervened. Until 1948 the area stayed quiet. Al-Azi's grandfather, and afterward his father, was the notable of the region and dominated the Arab villages. He was a social leader and known as a mediator. My father was the coordinator of the ironworking industry in the kibbutz, and they came to him to repair their plows. My mother was a nurse and treated the trachoma of the Arab children. I remember the Al-Azis visiting us at home, and the adults and the children spoke Hebrew."

Tall al-Safi (today Tel Safit) was conquered in the War of Independence by the 51st Battalion of the Givati Brigade. It was then, Baram relates, that "the flight of the Arabs began. My father and other members of the kibbutz went to the nearby village of Al-Tina and assured the residents that they would guarantee their safety, but the flight continued - we have to remember that this was also after the Deir Yassin massacre. The Al-Azis also fled, some to Jaffa and afterward to Gaza. Yunes al-Gazi was caught by the Haganah [pre-state defense force], which suspected him of being a spy because of his Hebrew. David Karun, a member of the kibbutz who was in Haganah intelligence, released him."

Karun, who helped found Kfar Menahem after fighting as a volunteer against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, was recruited in 1942 to Shai (the Haganah intelligence service) and afterward created the unit to implement Arab agents. One day, the kibbutz guards encountered an Arab from Tall al-Safi in their fields, and shot him. Karun undertook to organize a sulha (conciliation to end a feud). As he tells it, a kaffiyeh was tied around his neck with seven knots and he was taken to the mourners tent and handed over to the son of the murdered man, who identified him and forsook the blood revenge. Yunes al-Azi relates how a sheep was brought in, and instead of killing Karun, the sheep was slaughtered and its blood smeared on Karun's shirt.

Karun's son, Yehuda, a member of Kfar Menahem, is against publicizing the good relations of the Al-Azi hamula (clan) and the kibbutz. Yunes al Azi: "My father helped everyone and maintained good relations with the Jews, the Arabs and the British. In drought years he distributed wheat to the fellahin. He was a modest man who was one of the people. He was not a coward and did not work for any side, only for the side of truth. There was no tension in this region thanks only to him. David Karun came from Russia as a boy and my father raised him. He would visit us and play backgammon with the Arabs."

Yunes al-Azi was 12 in 1948. "I do not remember the days of war in the area, only that people ran. Our family moved to Beit Jubrin and Hebron. David Karun came to father and told him that his home was being demolished and his land confiscated and that he must return, and he brought us back. In 1951 we carried out family unification. My two older brothers stayed in Hebron, and today the Al-Azi diaspora numbers 15,000 souls. In the 1950s and 1960s people still thought we had spied and sold the land to the Jews. After 1967 people said we were a symbol of summud [steadfastness] in the homeland."

In 1954 the Kabir target-shooting club was established in the Al-Azi house, which was "mobilized" by the Gadna Brigade command in Tel Aviv. The yard was converted into a shooting range in which youngsters honed their skills. Gadna activities continued there until last year. The commander of the club was First Sergeant Major Dan David, who lived with his family in a building next to the well.

Over the years, the Al-Azi family was paid rent by the government for the use of the compound. In an aerial photograph from the mid-1960s, there is no trace of the uprooted orchards. Where the orange trees once grew the Neve Ofer (Tel Kabir) neighborhood now stands, and to the east is the police detention facility mentioned above. Large sections of the compound were demolished in the 1990s and more buildings went up on the hill for the use of the army and the Gadna. At present there is a well and a pool, with an access path leading to the family plot and three other buildings. Yunes al-Azi sometimes dreams that one day he will return to the house.

Posted on 10-02-2008

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