More from a friend traveling in Israel - way more intriguing than what I've come up with lately!.
July 1, 2005
The driver of our Masada-bound van, 75 year-old Ari, was about as fearless as the Jewish Zealots, weaving our Econoline along bumpy two lane highways with little regard for traffic niceties like the passing lane. Probably figuring that if the Nazis didn't get him in his native Poland that a traffic accident was unlikely to catch up with him either, he sped us through the West Bank in record time.
The West Bank, or the Palestinian Territories as they're typically referred to here (unless you're in favor of keeping them inside the country, in which case they're called Judea and Samaria), is no garden spot to be sure. After dipping down from Jerusalem and slipping past the Palestinian city of Jenin, Highway 1 plunges down to sea level through barren, parched hills. The road keeps falling until it hits the city of Jericho at about 250 meters below sea level.
There isn't much to see on this drive, but what you do see isn't pretty. "Bedouins," and it's hard to imagine any nomadic people living this way, inhabit grimy stick and tin shacks along with their herds of goats and sheep who have successfully stripped the surrounding moonscape of every blade of grass. They live in apparent poverty so complete it makes an American Indian reservation look like Club Med in comparison.
We traveled the eastern edge of the Territories on the way to the Dead Sea, passing a few small beach "resorts" and farms of date palms laid out with geometric precision. The Dead Sea comes as advertised:
salty, inert, and warm as tubwater. I can also report that it's the only body of water in which I've reliably been able to float, owing to my freakish density and the steel plate in my head. The Sea is entertaining, but your body can only take being pickled, slathered with salinized mud, and left to bake in the 100+ degree sun for all that long, so I took a short dip. The Sea is slowly drying up because of increased water usage by Israel, Jordan, and Syria so maybe if it dries up completely the Palestinians will be able to fight over an even more worthless parcel than the one they want presently.
Regardless of it's drying up, though, the Dead Sea earns its moniker as the "Lowest Place on Earth" in more ways than one.
The drive back to Tel Aviv illustrates the dichotomy inherent in living here. After having every lick of moisture osmosis-ed out of my body by salt water and the Judean sun and doing my best impression of a sedated iguana on the ride back, one of my co-riders broke the van's briny silence -- "the goats are on the move," he observed. Indeed they were, a flock was topping a ridge no doubt hoping to annihilate what little grass remains here. But goats? Here I was less than an half-hour's drive from the capital of a nuclear-armed nation with a burgeoning hi-tech sector and people are still making their livings herding goats? And this was not an industrial goat operation, mind you, but goat herding the old fashioned way -- perfected in about 600 BC.
While some Israelis spend their days herding the goat it seems like all the non-goat herding population has been seized with a puzzle game called SoDoKu, which is published in books and in the daily papers.
SoDoKu, which, if you ask me, looks devilish enough to have been invented by the Japanese, is essentially a crossword puzzle with numbers. The puzzle's grid consists of 81 squares (9 columns by 9 rows), which is further divided into nine 3x3 boxes. The aim is to fill in the values 1 through 9 in each row and column, as well as in the 3x3 boxes, so that no number repeats in any row, column, or box.
Easier puzzles have more numbers filled in by the Satanic SoDoKu editors as prepositioned clues.
Israelis are consumed with the game, they work on puzzles everywhere and its popularity has elicited a number of editorial cartoons and opinion pieces theorizing why it has grown in popularity -- especially among children -- so quickly. I imagine that we in the U.S. will be seeing SoDoKu soon, although I despair for it 's popularity in the States seeing as it is, after all, vaguely math-related. But for now Israel has one foot stuck in SoDoKu and one foot stuck, so to speak, in goats.
My last field trip out from Tel Aviv was spent over two days in Galilee, Israel's breadbasket. Galilee, at least from the window of a bus, is bucolic with expansive fields of wheat, alfalfa, olives, and, at lower elevation, bananas and mangoes. It's also home to a substantial slice of Israel's Arab population, descended from local residents who (for whatever reason) didn't flee after the country's founding and thus became Israeli citizens instead of stateless Palestinians. Israeli Arabs cluster around the northern cities of Nazareth and Haifa, and live light-years away from the Palestinian cousins, who live, geographically speaking, only a few miles away.
Nazareth lives in an uneasy peace between its Muslims and Christian residents (many of whom are also Arabs) who have set up shop around the city's Basilica of the Annunciation, built on the spot where the Archangel Gabriel broke the news to Mary that she was to bear the child of G-d. Wisely, Israeli Jews have opted out of Nazareth's political fix. The city itself is charmless and tense -- its residents eyed us more than a little as we ascended its narrow streets on our way to the Basilica. Nazareth's limited charms were easily bested by our spry guide, a 65 year old Austrian Catholic who has lived on a kibbutz on the shores of Lake Tiberias for the past thirty years. When I asked how an earringed, chain-smoking, Teutonic Christian managed to find a job giving tours in the Galilee, he responded with the classic "As with all good stories, it begins with a woman..."
Nazareth, surrounded by beauty and plenty, is yet another microcosm -- the city's Muslims want to build a replica of the great mosque of Mecca next door to the Basilica of the Annunciation, dwarfing the church and placing it within earshot of the call to prayer broadcast over loudspeakers five times a day. "This is their custom," I was told by a Christian Arab. "Anywhere in the Muslim world where there is a church they build a mosque near by and disrupt our worship."
Christians, however, generally are bit players in the current Israeli drama. They are political quietists, content to take care of shrines and restoring churches and sites that figure prominently in the New Testament.
Tiberias, along the Sea of Galilee, is a historic city close to Jesus'
occasional home of Capernaum and across the shore from the Golan Heights, the region seized from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Golan, like Galilee, is beautiful, its topography ranging from dramatic cliffs that plunge towards the Sea to giant slabs of farmland that dip towards the shore like massive tabletops. (The Golan lies on the Asiatic continental plate and someday will split off from Galilee and slide towards India -- it might just be that long before the Syrians get it back.)
Israelis live in the Golan, although not in "settlements," as they technically enjoy a different legal status than do Israelis who have moved into the West Bank and Gaza. Sitting on the patio of my hotel in Tiberias, drinking excellent Gold Star beer on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, I can see the twinkling lights of the homes and farms high up on the bluffs of the Golan, their residents no doubt enjoying the cool highland breezes and looking down, in turn, onto the lights on the bars and beaches in Tiberias. Their placidity hides how close to danger they might soon be. The darkness hides the flags they fly.