The tale of three houses (1948-49 and mid 1950s)

[……….] After the wedding, for which I got one day off from my army duties, I looked for a place to live. When I returned to my unit the next day, my army commander said to me: "Since you have just married, accept my congratulations. I imagine, though, that you don't have a place to live. I will give you and your wife a special permit to enter Jaffa. Look around, choose a house and give me the address. I will arrange it with the authorities that you will have it."

Jaffa, at that time, was fenced and closed by the army. Most of its inhabitants had fled because of the fighting so close to the Jewish city of Tel-Aviv. Having the permit, we were allowed in. We walked for hours in the dead city. Most if not all of the houses were empty and abandoned. There was not a soul in the streets, except for an occasional military vehicle driving through. We could choose any house. The entire city was at our disposal. We looked at a few houses, took down a few addresses and then, worn out, went back to Tel Aviv, sat down in a cafe to discuss which house to take.

After discussing this or that house, a sort of uneasiness enveloped us. We had visited a dead city, a ghost town. People had lived in those houses but had fled because of the fighting, because they wanted to stay alive. Now, we, the victors, were distributing the loot. Since I happened to belong to the victors, I would get my share of the spoils: a house to live in. And, luckily being one of the first to arrive on the scene, I could choose the best house. The term ethnic cleansing had not yet been invented, but this is what it was. Having just said how I was converted to Communism, you might think that our unease was political. No, it was not. Politics never entered our heads. I don't know about Naomi, but my uneasiness was more of an aesthetic nature; I will call it a disturbance of my moral symmetry. There was something wrong there that I couldn't pin down. At the end we both declined to take up the offer, and found ourselves a room in a shanty town of corrugated huts on the beach north of Tel-Aviv that was known at the time as Shunat Mahlul.

This was not the only time that I had that feeling of an upheaval of my moral symmetry. Twice more I had been offered an Arab house. The second time that it happened was a few months later. I was still in uniform and limping, and I resumed my studies at the art school. One day one of the students came rushing in with sensational news. We could all have studios. Every one of us could have a studio for himself in old Jaffa. All we had to do is to clean a cellar of the rubble.

Jaffa, like any other big Arab city, had an old quarter – the Kasbah. This was a burrow of very old and crowded houses, with narrow convoluted alleys, many of them cul-de-sacs. During the Palestinian revolt against the British in 1936, the Kasbah was a source of trouble. The authorities then decided to get rid of it. And so they did. They flattened the place and filled the cellars with the rubble. These cellars had now been discovered, and since nobody owned them, the first one to clean a cellar, could have it.

We all ran to the ruins of the Kasbah in old Jaffa. The cellars were filled to the brim with rubble and rubbish; not only old mortar, stone and bricks, but also simple, shit smelling rubbish. But we aspiring young artists didn't care. To own a studio was one of the ultimate artistic achievements. Every one of us chose a hole, because this was all that was left of the cellar, and started to clear away the rubble. It took me a week to clear my cellar. All I had with me to do the job was two buckets and a spade, but this was enough. After a week of hard labour I could see my studio and the light that shone through a window, far up, near the domed ceiling.

Once the place was clean and mine, I looked at it with pride. Suddenly, the same feeling of uneasiness crept into my soul. The cellar was much more kosher than a house in Jaffa. Nobody else had owned it before, nobody had escaped from it to save their skin, and yet… I could not understand it myself. After brooding on the subject for some time I decided not to take up the studio. Another young artist took it over. It was next to what is now a nightclub, which was also a dirty cellar taken over by a young painter who had cleaned it. A few years later, the young painter found it more lucrative to turn his studio into Omar Kayam, a glossy night club and restaurant.

And there was also a third time. Some years later, in the mid fifties, I received a letter from the Painters and Sculptors Association, of which I was a member, saying that the government had allocated a village at the foothills of Mount Carmel, to be a village for artists. It was called Ein Hod. All I had to do to get a house there was to pay fifty Israeli pounds as a registration fee and choose myself a house. I borrowed the money from a friend, Chana Shofman, the daughter of a Likud MP, paid the money and rushed to Ein Hod to choose a house. I found a very nice Arab house for a weekend retreat. A few weeks later when I came to Ein Hod and walked around the village, I met a Palestinian shepherd boy with two mongrel dogs. The dogs started barking at me while the boy tried to keep them away. By and by we started a conversation. The boy spoke Hebrew quite well. I asked him where he was from. He said that he was from Ein Hod. It was the same Ein Hod where I had just acquired a house. The boy told me that a few years before the Israeli army had come to the village and asked its people to move for a week to the neighbouring Arab village, a few kilometres uphill, because they were going to do some live ammunition manoeuvres around the area and did not want anyone to get hurt. Since then they had not been allowed back. That was how the village became deserted and had been given to us, the artists. I relinquished the house and asked for my £50 registration fee back, which I promptly returned to Ms Shofman.