A story of a house

How I came to live in an Arab castle not far from the Jerusalem hills, and what happened when the original owners dropped by for an unexpected visit...

May 4, 2017 10:45
Arab castle Israel

An Arab castle not far from the Jerusalem hills. (photo credit: ARIEH O’SULLIVAN)

It came to pass that I live in a castle.

Not just any castle, but what some call the Khan of Ajur. It’s not really a khan, or caravanserai, an 18th-century version of a motel, but more a notable’s house built around 1770, that used to belong to one Abdel Hamid al-Azza, of the once powerful al-Azza clan.

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This is a story of this castle on a spur off the Eila Valley. It is a story of the Ottoman Empire as it crumbled away, rebellions, colonial explorers, the Great Arab Revolt, the War of Independence and, finally, me – all passing through this house.

People come and go; this old house remains. Like a postcard from history, haunted perhaps, definitely one of a kind, it is a microcosm for everything this land has experienced in the past 250 years.

I suspected it was haunted the first day I moved in. I was sweeping the floor when the window blew open and wind rushed by me. My dog barked. Being from New Orleans I understand ghosts, so I calmly laid my broom down and said with open palms: “Can I help you?” In the years I have lived here I have felt their presence. Noises. Sometimes the ghost will for no apparent reason kill the electricity on the north side of the house, or the east wing. I knew right from the start I’d have to perform a ceremony to rid it of evil spirits.

The magnificent stone house is immediately recognized with its three massive arches over vaulted rooms downstairs. An outside staircase leads to a large veranda. The second floor has many rooms, with its salon boasting six-meter-high ceilings, perfect for an indoor swing and huge walls for art.

I FIRST became enchanted by the place in the mid 1990s when I moved to a nearby community.

The house lies just south of Agur, a moshav in the vicinity of Beit Shemesh that is mostly inhabited by Kurdish Jews, which received its name from the Arab village of Ajur that existed here until 1948. There’s a bare hill just before the moshav gates where that village once stood. Its stone and mud houses were destroyed, partially in the early ’50s and finally by bulldozers in 1964.

Only four houses were left standing.

One of those was the doctor’s house, a pretty stone structure that today forms the core of a wedding hall, the abandoned olive mill, the half-demolished “villa” on the hill, which was completed in the winter of ’48 and never inhabited, and the khan, the house that is the star of this narrative.

There are two intricately carved Roman- era stones, florets, in the middle of the twin pillars holding up the three arches. It began as a one-story stone structure with three adjacent rooms that open to a covered porch. Sometime after the railroad arrived in Palestine, two rooms were added on the roof, and at the turn of the 20th century a third room, each with meter-thick walls and arched windows with deep sills.

ONE FRIDAY afternoon, a jeep drove into the yard. A man, about my age, got out with a woman and two teenage daughters. I was walking with my dog across the wheat field, and came up to them to ask as friendlily as I could: “Shalom, who are you?” The man turned to me and said with slight aggression. “Who are you?” “I live here.”

“This is my house!” “Ah, you must be from the al-Azza clan? Yes?” He was taken off guard by my knowledge and friendship.

“Yes, we have never been to the house before.”

“Well, would you like to come up and visit? I said, completely disarming him.

They followed me up the stairs to the big house.

He pretended to know a lot about the house. It was old, 500 years at least, he said.

“My mother, Hilma, was born here,” he said.

His wife, Naima, says the old woman told her that in 1948, as the Israelis soldiers were approaching, they gathered all their gold and her father buried it in the caves around the house.

A few weeks later, I ran into Yehezkel,a local Kurdish grave robber. He was driving his old electric scooter down the street in Agur. “I never found anything,” he said in his best Kurdish accent, in response to my question.

“Perhaps I’ll look for it,” I declared.

SLOWLY THE house was giving up its secrets and the al-Azza clan had much to do with it. They originated from Egypt hundreds of years ago and settled in three villages; Ajur, Beit Jibrin and Tel a-Safi. They grew powerful, owned huge tracts of land and aligned themselves with the Ottomans. After Muhammad Ali conquered this area in the 1830s, he sent his son Ibrahim Pasha to enforce his rule (i.e. collect taxes), and a revolt broke out. The leaders of the rebellion, including the al-Azza sheikhs of Ajur, were beheaded.

In 1863, the French explorer Victor Guerin passed through Ajur, describing this house built with ancient stones.

Times must have been good for the al-Azza clan at the turn of the century, and a second story was added. The owner was Yusef, and it was said he had lots of gold. One son, Abdel Majid, was an enterprising man and built the mill whose remains lay before the khan. The other son, Abdel Hamid, lived in this house as his father ruled the village.

In 1936, the Arabs in Palestine revolted against the British and some 15 men from Ajur joined the fighting. The British raided the village and rounded up every male. Collaborators pointed out to the British the rebels, who were arrested and some exiled. In 1946, Yusef was approached by agents of the Jewish Agency and sold some of the land he owned a few kilometers to the south on the condition the Jews not live there as long as he was alive. However, on Yom Kippur the Jewish Agency set up 11 settlements in the Negev to establish facts on the ground to ensure it was included in the future Jewish state. This included the lands of Kibbutz Galon, which Yusef had sold to the Jews. A short while later, he was murdered.

It was a turbulent time for this village, which had lived in relative isolation under the Ottomans and British, but history was closing in on them and this house. At the other end of the Eila Valley was Kibbutz Kfar Menahem, where the colorful character David Karon, a Russian-born Jew and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, was forging ties with the al-Azza clan. He was an intelligence officer who later went on to help set up the Mossad.

In the summer of 1948, the Givati Brigade was fighting to liberate the Negev.

Deputy battalion commander Yuval Ne’eman proposed conquering the village of Tel a-Safi near Kfar Menahem.

“If we take it, it will cause the collapse of all the neighboring villages,” he said.

When the attack was launched, a call went out and Arabs from Ajur rushed to join the battle. Givati prevailed and the Arabs, fearing for their lives, fled to the neighboring villages. When the fighting ended, Karon came to Ismail al-Azza (who may have been a collaborator) and begged him to stay, promising him that his unmarried sons would be allowed to remain in the new Jewish state.

Meanwhile, in Ajur, Abdel Majid al-Azza took his money from the mill and built a fancy villa on the hill, completing it in the twilight of the summer of 1948. He never moved in and was later murdered in Hebron in mysterious circumstances.

His brother Abdel Hamid continued to live in the big house inherited from his slain father, Yusef.

IN OCTOBER 1948, a platoon of Egyptian troops led by a Yugoslavian officer entered Ajur, armed the men and prepared barricades, but as a Givati battalion approached, the Egyptians suddenly disappeared, abandoning the villagers to fend for themselves. Givati troops took over the al-Azza house, which was on the southeastern side of the village, and began shooting toward Ajur, mostly into the air, causing panic and massive flight. The Arabs fled to Halhul, near Hebron, and later to the el-Arub refugee camp and to Jericho. Abdel Hamid took his family to Jericho, where he died shortly afterward, leaving his daughter Hilma a teenage orphan.

Enter David Koren. He got permission for Ismail al-Azza to bring home his son Yunis, who had fled in the summer. Yunis arrived with his cousin, Hilma, and they were soon married and had a son, Muhammad, who waited all these years to finally pay a visit to me at his clan’s house.

The al-Azza family formed a blood bond with Kfar Menahem. Their children were educated there. They bought all the junk vehicles from the kibbutz.

Yunis had lots of money but never drove a new car. Today, the small encampment of al-Azza south of Kfar Menahem has some four large buildings housing the mushrooming clan, offspring of the only Arabs in the entire region who stayed during the War of Independence.

In the months after that war, the Arabs tried to return; first to try to harvest the wheat and other crops, but as the years passed, to pilfer through the abandoned villages for gold and other treasures left behind.

And then to murder.

The country began to organize settlement by new immigrants of the abandoned Arab villages. Kurdish Jews were sent to Ajur and struggled to scratch out a living.

In January 1955, the Jewish Agency sent down two young tractor drivers to help them plow their fields and they stayed here. It was a time of fedayeen infiltrations, and on January 17 they sneaked into the house and slit the throats of Hector Eidman and Eliezer Katz, whose bodies were only found the next morning. The tracks led over the fields they had just plowed in the direction of the Hebron hills. More ghosts? Afterwards, the moshav used the downstairs rooms for a short while as a school, but it was abandoned. In the late 1970s Mordechai “Antar” David squatted in it and set up a metal workshop until the Israel Lands Authority chucked him out in 1987.

In 1994 Itzhak Taragan, who fought in all of Israel’s wars and had friends in high places, retired from Israel Radio. He had a gift of endearing people to his crazy ideas and convinced the ILA to give him the house for cultural events. He took this house without any electricity, windows, plumbing etc. and transformed it into a magnificent villa. He and his wife, Kochava, called it the “Khan of Ajur,” and in the 1990s and 2000s they opened its doors to musicians, mostly from the former Soviet Union, and hosted concerts on weekends. Taragan made it his home and was in constant battle with the authorities to stay.

He won. He lived out his life here, dying at age 87 in October 2014, and then I came to watch over the house.

Shortly after I moved in, I figured it was best to conduct a ghost-cleansing ceremony. I summoned my best friends.

We burned sage. I stuck pins in voodoo dolls as friends played a guitar, Jew’s harp and harmonica. Others chanted.

I grasped a shrunken monkey head and recited biblical verses, an ancient Assyrian text and an Irish-Catholic poem – praying for the house to be protected.

We all sipped from a kiddush cup that had been salvaged from a synagogue gutted by Hurricane Katrina in my native New Orleans.

So far, the ghosts are at bay, and I still hope I can stay here forever to see how the story develops.

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