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Yosef Bar-On August 2010
Yosef Bar-On August 2010

Yosef Bar-On is an art photographer and a short story writer.

Born and educated in New York and from 1952 a member of Kibbutz Gal-On. His photographs are in private collections and in the permanent collection of the Eretz Israel Museum. He won the Nikon world photography competition in 1970. Bar-On has exhibited in Israel and the United States.

Bar-On has been writing short stories for some years, though only lately has he felt ready to seek publication. Many of his stories are inspired by life experiences. Others are totally the product of his imagination, and there are stories, which simply came to him almost full-blown, in dreams.



The following work is copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.  


The Chameleon

A Christian Arab mansion sits on top of a hill in a quiet part of Beit Jalla overlooking the stony, fig-speckled hills and valleys facing the south of Jerusalem. The exterior is quite like all the other imposing but decaying houses around—thick cream-colored walls studded with narrow meager windows to keep out both unwanted intruders and the harsh sunlight which the summer brings even here to the mountains. Many of the houses in this once wealthy town are carved from soft warm limestone and embellished with the kind of lavish stonework, especially around the windows and doors, which can’t be done anymore today because of the prohibitive costs of labor and the lack of skilled stone masons.

Once through the intricate wrought-iron door, however, one is suddenly transported back to a slower, more gracious time.

 

I discovered the mansion almost by accident one day, near the end of the olive season while wandering around. Serendipity. The mills all over the West Bank were working day and night. Dark streams of olive juices and oils flowing in the gutters stained many of the village streets and there was a sour oily smell in the air. It was the good year in the two-year olive cycle. I was photographing the process everywhere in the villages. This was before the Intifadah, and it was still possible to wander around freely and safely. There were still quite a few of the older, animal powered mills in operation in those years and I wanted to see them and photograph them, before they became extinct. The process was primitive and photogenic: Loose olives were poured onto a round flat stone surface and a big millstone above was rolled and turned, usually by blindfolded mules, to crush them. The mash was then put into wicker baskets and pressed under heavy weights until the oil flowed freely into basins. All the mills were either in dark caves or in unlighted houses and the lighting was a problem: The contrast between the harsh bright sunlight outside and the often almost pitch-black interiors of the mills was beyond the capacity of the film I was using—even if I reduced the contrast by technical means. But I shrugged; I’d do what I could. I was used to trying to overcome problems like that. Sometimes successfully, not always.

The villagers were friendly and patient with my almost non-existent Arabic. They seemed glad to explain what they were doing and had me taste the thick, dark green oil flowing into big tins or carboys. Of course we didn’t really understand each other; for me the whole thing was a mixture of exotic romance with biblical overtones—for them it was just drudgery and they all looked forward to the day when they could convert to diesel power.

In Beit S’hur village the envious millers told me of a Christian family in Beit Jalla who had been the first to introduce modern machines. I decided to see what they meant and I took the village bus from Jerusalem, which came by once in a while to make a circuit of all the villages. As I said, this was before the Intifadah. I got off in Beit Jalla square and found my way easily enough to the mill.

It wasn’t that modern; it employed the same process of crushing and extracting the oil. What was different was that, instead of mules or bullocks, the miller used an old diesel engine, which looked big enough to power a battleship. It rattled and chugged and big belts ran off from it, turning the large stone crushing wheels. I had to plug my ears against the racket. Of course there wasn’t anything to photograph; the whole place shook and rattled and I could see that if I tried to take a picture it would have been badly blurred. The miller, an affable middle-aged man, spoke Hebrew quite well. I asked about his machine and he obliged by shutting it off. The new silence was a blessing! I looked at the big engine. All of it, all its parts looked gargantuan and clumsy. I’m used to modern diesel tractors. There was an identifying metal plate with raised rusting letters on the left side of the cylinder block, just below the big injectors and I bent over to look at it carefully. I can’t recall the name of the maker, but it said: Lincoln Nebraska, 1912. I looked at the miller.

‘Yes,’ he affirmed, patting the big radiator cap, ‘yes, they made this in America in 1912, for the railways. My father bought it after the war from the British and installed it here. If you want you can take a picture of it.’ I set up my camera on a tripod and posed the miller standing proudly next to his father’s engine and there was just enough light from an overhead bulb so that, perhaps I had a worthwhile portrait.

 

Sometimes I know when I have something solid—but not always. Too often, back home in my darkroom I find that whatever had excited me in the field turns out to be faulty. Either it’s technically poor, maybe under-exposed or not sharp enough, or more often what had seemed profound or vibrant while photographing now turns out to be just mundane and trite. Unfortunately, of course it’s always much easier to deal with and to overcome technical problems. This time however, I really thought I had something.

 

‘Come to my house,‘ the miller said, locking the big grilled gate to the olive mill. ‘It‘s right here. We‘ll have coffee.‘ The house was just across the narrow street and it looked at first just like all the other houses around. The miller unlocked the door, turned and ,with a flowing, smiling gesture, invited me in.

It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the cool darkness in the foyer of the miller‘s house. The first thing I saw was an umbrella stand, like all the umbrella stands in the country; an empty artillery shell. But above it was an elaborately carved marble sink fitted with brightly polished bronze faucets. The marble was pink, incongruously veined in green. The sink wasn‘t in use anymore; a wooden board covered it and an old fashioned black upright telephone stood in the center of the board. There was a rococo framed mirror above the sink and I saw the miller smiling at my astonished reflection.

‘We don‘t need the sink anymore,‘ he said, ‘so we put in the telephone here. Come upstairs, my daughter will make us coffee.‘

I looked around. The whole place was like a dream; Stuffed animal heads on the walls around, gazelles mostly but there were even the antlers of some kind of deer. Wherever did that come from? Lebanon? Syria? Below the heads were a series of family portraits - stern looking men wearing fezes and European suits, ladies in wide frilly hats.

‘Come,‘ he said, and started up the stairs.

The stairs, I couldn‘t believe them: a wide curving flight of black and white marble stairs leading to the second floor and looking like so many piano keys in a movie extravaganza of the nineteen-thirties. I could just imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in evening dress spinning and gliding up and down. There were luxuriously carved marble banisters in pink, and the wedding cake combination of black and white and pink was so ludicrous that I began to get a headache.

‘You take sugar in your coffee? Or saccharine?' the miller asked.

 

‘Tell me about this house,' I asked. I had waited impatiently until the proper moment to ask. It took time; first he introduced me to his wife, and then to his daughters, then we took coffee out on a shaded veranda.

‘My grandfather built it,‘ he sighed. ‘I never tire of this view,‘ he said, gesturing out at the broad white expanse facing the east and the desert. He was right, the scene was impressive. Nearby, just below us, were the yellow-white stone houses of Beit Jalla, sprinkled onto the landscape and looking, from this point of view, like a map. Further out the bare stony hills, dotted with black Bedouin encampments, were beginning to round out in the setting rays of the sun. And in the far distance the hills faded slowly into a sort of blue-grey fugue, melding into the white blue and cloudless sky. Church bells rang softly and the voice of a muzzein came faintly across the hills from a loudspeaker in one of the villages.

‘He lived for years in Chile; our family has lived both here and there for a long time. He invested in mineral mining and alpaca wool. Then, after making a fortune he decided to build a mansion for the family here, where we come from. You smoke?‘ he asked, holding out a pack of Rothman‘s.

I shook my head.

‘He hired builders, imported marble from Carrera for inside and had stone cut for the exterior walls from the best Hebron quarries. He spent a lot of money,‘ he laughed. ‘He squandered money like water!‘ One of the miller‘s daughters came out of the kitchen bringing us a tray filled with grapes, figs and watermelon slices. The fruit glistened with drops of icy water and I suddenly realized how very hot it must be down there in the streets of Beit Jalla. Here we sat in the shade and the cool breeze on this veranda. I took several of the large green grapes and I grunted as they burst in my mouth.

‘Yes,‘ he grinned. ‘s‘ good. Nothing like our grapes. I, too lived in Chile for some years. We‘ve all lived there, at one time or another. They grow grapes there, for the table and for wine, for export to America, but nothing as tasty as our local type. Excuse me,‘ he said, getting up and fiddling with a big old-fashioned record player standing on a table against the stone wall behind us. He wound it up, carefully placed an old record on it and one of Rudolfo‘s arias from La Boheme came wafting out, engulfing us. I think it was Titto Gobbi singing; at least it sounded like him. I shook my head in disbelief.

‘You like that?‘ he asked.

‘Sure,‘ I said. ‘When did your grandfather build this house?‘ I asked. This was crazy.

‘He started it in, oh, I think 1910, or so. Do you know when he finished it?‘ The miller smiled mischievously.

I shrugged, how was I to know?

‘It was finished during the war, in spite of the war, in 1917. My grandfather arranged a big banquet for the housewarming on, would you believe it? Christmas day, 1917!‘

I looked at him. ‘That‘s the day General Allenby entered Jerusalem, isn‘t it? That very same day?‘

‘Yes!‘ he said, nodding vigorously. ‘We were so proud. He had no choice but to invite them, the Turkish authorities, but of course they were gone by then and the English, Christian like us, replaced them. My grandfather invited all the notables; the foreign consuls, the Mufti of Jerusalem, the heads of the great moslem families; Nashashibi, Dajani, Husseini. All the Patriarchs of the churches, even the Hakim and the chief Rabbi. Of course the British were too busy to come that day, but they all came to visit later on, General Allenby came calling, Sir Herbert Samuel. Sir Roland Storrs; Enver Nashashibi brought him. All were our guests, taking coffee sometime or other, right here on this veranda!‘

 What was I to make of all this? Those names, all those names. I stood up and looked out again at the view from the veranda. It was hard to make anything out in the glare.

 

As a boy I had had a school chum who lived down the street from me. He had a funny name—at least to me it seemed funny; Wilbur Beaver. But he was Jewish, like all of us. His father was something almost inconceivable to us: a Scottish immigrant who had served during the Great War in Palestine with the British Army. In the living room of their house was a fading photograph of Wilbur’s father in uniform, khaki kilts, putties and all. Otherwise I don’t think we would have believed it. Once Wilbur showed me a memento of that time. He brought out from the back of his father’s desk drawer a strange looking object. It was a Turkish rifle bullet and the ball had been sawn lengthwise and a curved brass blade, shaped like a stylized scimitar inserted and soldered into the slot so that the whole thing was now a knife; the bullet and cartridge forming a handle. There were curved Arabic letters inscribed along the blade. Wilbur held it in his hand but he wouldn’t allow me to hold it. Of course it couldn’t cut anything yet how I coveted that knife! I really wanted to pinch it, but how could I? Wilbur, after all, was my friend.

 

‘May I see the rest of the house?‘ I asked.

‘Oh yes,‘ the miller said. ‘You should see the balcony. Go see the balcony.‘

 

On the second story there is a small balcony surrounding a large bay window overlooking the street and the Cremisan monastery not too far away. The balcony is very narrow and there isn’t enough room to place a chair there, even if someone should want to sit out there in the harsh sunlight. No one is sure what the balcony was for—but on the wall, right alongside the large window is a bas relief of a very fashionably dressed mustachioed gentleman of the late nineteenth century carved into the soft limestone. The bas relief cannot be seen from the neighboring houses or the street below. Who then, was it for? Whoever did the carving it was a skilled workman; all the details are meticulously done. It is however, the work of a naïf—bringing to mind certain paintings by Hicks, ‘The Peaceable Kingdom,’ say. The carved gentleman, wearing what looks like white tie and tails, stands facing forward, with the uneasy smiling expression often encountered on Greek statues of the archaic period. A stone watch-fob and chain crosses his vest and a flowing stone handkerchief peeps out of his sleeve. In one hand a tightly wrapped umbrella, in the other he languidly holds up a flower, a poppy, and there is another flower, a cornflower, in his buttonhole. There is a carved chameleon on his trouser leg. The chameleon has gem-like sparkling eyes and a long curving forked tongue. Its limestone skin is cunningly carved to resemble the shading of color changes. The chameleon looks up at the gentleman and the same archaic Greek smile is carved onto its reptilian lips. Why is the chameleon there? What is it for?

 

I stood looking at the bas relief of the gentleman and I grinned: its smile seemed aimed at me.

‘Ahh,’ said the miller. ‘You’ve found our little secret.’

‘Who is it?’ I asked. ‘Your grandfather?’

The miller sighed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s not him. It doesn’t look like him at all. There’s a photograph of Grandfather on the wall near the door, you saw it. No, we don’t know who or what it is. Grandfather never said.’

‘And the chameleon?’

The miller just shrugged. ‘I don’t know that either. We’ll never know now. Grandfather died without telling anyone, not even Grandmother. It must have been someone he knew, someone important to him, in Chile.’

 

‘Goodbye,’ the miller said, smiling and firmly closed the outside door of the mansion on the side street in Beit Jalla. It was still terribly hot outside and the sky was like burnished aluminium. I squinted against the glare and as I started down the street towards the Jerusalem road I smelled the black greasy smoke rising from the burning truck tires and I heard far-off gunshots.