Wednesday, 10 January 2007

The Family Home

Shukri's old house wasn't easy to find. I had seen the photograph online many times - an old black and white taken before 1948. The text underneath said it was now part of the Weizmann Institute. But after looking around the Weizmann Institute for half a day, I managed to find only one old villa, now cut off from the rest of the centre by a high barbed-wire fence, and disused for years. No one could tell me the origins of the house. Although the surroundings, and the fact that staff seemed uncomfortable talking about it, seemed to say that it might have originally been a Palestinian home, it didn't match the photograph I had seen online. I had to start the search from the beginning.

Looking up Shukri's name online, I eventually found an old Al-Ahram article about the house. It was not written from the perspective of someone like me, tracing their roots, but from a journalist investigating the origins of Israel's secret biological weapons programme. Salman Abu-Sitta, president of London's Palestine Land Society, had uncovered documents proving that the same house, the house that once belonging to Shukri Taji Al-Farouky, had immediately after the war of 1948 become the Israeli Institute for Biological Research. Abu-Sitta claims, to the Israeli government's denial, that the research facility is, in fact, the centre of a clandestine and illegal weapons programme streatching back to Israel's very origins in the war of 1948.

The article goes into considerable detail about not only the house, but the life of Shukri following his, and his family's, expulsion from the house. Most crucially, the article also included exact directions to reach the house, as well as its map coordinates. I copied them down, and the next morning, returned to Nes Tziona.

As you would expect from a secret government research centre, no one in the town knew what I was looking for. I read the directions out, exactly as they had been written in the Al-Ahram article, but they seemed to lead out of town. I know from Abu-Sitta's description that the centre was immedaitely in the centre of town, it couldn't have been more than half a kilometer from where I was standing, but no one at the taxi station had any idea. The map coordinates were no good without a GPS.

The taxi drivers, huddled around my map and written instructions, asked other taxi drivers. They asked a hairdresser. Eventually, they even stopped someone in the streets. No one had any clue. I tried to explain "research", "biological", "old house" but their English was limited, and my Hebrew non-existant. I could just keep repeating the one word they seemed to understand: "Bee-o-log! Bee-o-log!"

Eventually, and for some reason I still don't understand, after repeating the world endlessly, something finally snapped.
"Ohhhhh!" one of the taxi drivers yawned. "BEE-o-log...bee-o-log..."
"Yes! That's right! Bee-o-log! You know it?" I asked hopefully
"Bee-o-log. Yes. Around the corner."

I walked around the corner to the beeolog. It was, as described, directly in the middle of town, less than five minutes from the taxi stand. No wonder no one knew about it. I later read that Avner Cohen, senior fellow at the university of Maryland and author of a comprehensive paper on Israel's biological weapons programme, described the centre's location as "classified" and it was not shown on any map. I approached the main gate, a discreet guard post surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. I was greeting sternly by Ori wearing wrap-around shades and cradling an Uzi. My name was Sam, and I gave him my architecture student story, now expertly rehearsed. After a little dialogue, a few innocent questions, his final response was clear:
"Don't waste your time. I'm not even allowed in there."
He was very polite, even helpful, and he was just being honest, but he wouldn't budge. As usual in cases like these, I kept talking, perhaps hoping to annoy him into letting me through, evne just for a second, to catch a glimpse of the house.

"What if I speak to the administration and tell them I need to photograph the house for my thesis?"
"Look, even employees are not allowed in with camera-phones."
"Ori, thanks for your time. Hopefully I'll see you again." I couldn't see the house at all from the main gate, and it wasn't visible form any of the roads around the facility. The only place to find a contemporary photograph of the house is online, on the IIBR website, where the house is proudly displayed - still looking almost exactly as it did in 1948 - as the centre's headquarters.

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