From Baram to Metula via the Caucasus, the Great War trenches, Zakopane, Libya and South Lebanon. Trying to walk straight.
This journey is an easy one to navigate. First the sea provided a clear course, then the border fence kept peeking over the hills. Besides, at every turning point stands some unmissable landmark. Rosh Hanikra’s white cape sent a clear signal to turn right, and now, where the border with Lebanon curves towards the north, we are confronted with the sight of Mt. Meron, the tallest mountain in Israel proper.
Adi and I are tired of exploring for the day. We decide to head to a kibbutz in the area, buy some groceries and pitch a tent on a lawn. The roads lead us to a kibbutz named Baram, which is literally locked off from the world.
While we ponder what to do, a car arrives. Its driver tells us that the kibbutz is “private property” so we are not allowed in. She also reprimands us for not having “prepared better.” We ask her how to get to the town of Reihania, where dinner groceries may still be available. Surprisingly she invites us into her car, gets Baram’s gates to open, then drives us straight through the kibbutz, gets another gate to open, and dumps us off on the other side. “Reihania’s that way,” she says.
Be that as it may, but how far that way? We’re in the heart of a thick forest of pines that obscures Mt. Meron, preventing us from estimating distances. The iPhone provides a map, but we are no longer sure where we are on it. Going through Baram disoriented us and the forest adds to our confusion. Could the lady have driven us all the way out of Israel and into the region of Zakopane in Poland?
While I’m enjoying myself, reminiscing about pleasant hikes in the Rockies, Adi is less relaxed. Darkness is falling. Should we pitch the tent here and feed on our leftover nuts and kosher-for-passover cookies? We both vote nay. These cookies are no dinner. They are the second-worst food on earth after kosher-for-Passover hamburger buns.
Eventually we reach a road where cars do pass, catch a lift, and arrive at the exact spot from which we caught the original lift to Baram.
So we pick another way now, and head towards the town of Jish. On the way I think of the good soldier Schweik. He had to report to a base in the city of Budejovice, but kept winding up in two other towns named Putim and Tabor. I later learned that a Czech saying goes “all roads lead to Budejovice,” and that the joke was on the Budejovice’s townsfolk, who are known for their excessive patriotism.
Where do all roads lead in this strange land? To the state of being lost, I suppose. The unusual thing about our current lostness is that it is physical, geographical, but we were certainly lost already before we got lost. On the way over Adi debated out loud whether she should stay in Tel Aviv. She mentioned dilemmas shared by Israeli women, and those particular to Mizrachi women. She said “I need a journey,” without acknowledging that she is on a journey, and then added “India.” There was a tiny question mark at the end of every sentence she spoke. Same as at the end of mine.
Jish is a very pretty hilltop town that may have been the home of Mishnaic sages in ancient times. There’s a restaurant here, and it’s all red, white and green.
Upon Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in the year 2000, it opened its gate to combatants of the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia that cooperated with the IDF. The ex-combatants received new homes south of the border, and many of them went on to open Lebanese restaurants. A little research reveals, however, that the Cedar Restaurant in Jish isn’t SLA-owned. Its Lebanese branding simply helps it ride on the popularity of ones that are.
So we found food, but what about sleep? The night is growing cold. Too cold for my tent, which is missing its external flap. All local B&Bs are all full due to the holiday. We stand out on Jish’s main street. Desperate.
Somebody calls us from a high window. “You guys need any help?”
And then it happens. Those of you who’ve read the previous post will remember Adi’s question on Palestinian villages and how the two of us would be received in one of those. Albert and Leena, a young couple, bring us into their home, feed us traditional easter cookies and provide us with cigarettes (which I usually don’t touch).
They also put us up in the beds of their two daughters who are away visiting grandma. Here’s to perfect strangers who offer perfect hospitality. Here’s to doubts dispersed.
In the morning, Adi heads to Nahariya by bus and from there continues home by train. I head north and finally reach Reihania.
This is neither a Jewish nor an Arab settlement. It is Circassian, or “Adyghe.” Its founders arrived here from the northern Caucasus in the late 19th century. They have their own language, which they preserve beautifully, their own heritage and their own unique appearance. I have heard that Circassian men are particularly handsome, and this appears to be the case. Their town is pretty too, and resembles a Jewish moshav more than it does a Palestinian village.
If I sound as though I’m visiting a Circassian coomunity for the first time ever, it is because I am. This being the case, I head directly to the tiny local museum, but it is shut and its caretaker turns out to be out of town. The old mosque is truly unique but perfectly empty at this time of day.
Never mind, the best way to learn about any culture is, anyway, by eating. I head for a tiny diner named Nelchick, made invitingly un-quaint by a naked shawarma skewer and a freezer full of “Angry Birds” ice cream bars. A sweet middle-aged lady in a white headscarf offers me a plate of qulaq and another of majamaq. The first consists of steamed dumplings, stuffed with cooked chick peas and served in red pepper sauce with yogurt on the side. The second is a lentil dish, drowned in olive oil and cilantro. I can’t remember when I last had such a great meal on the road. Nelchick quickly joins my list of great local culinary experiences. So much so, that I try and arrange a promotional photo shoot. The owner’s son, Hani, volunteers to pose, and brings along the Circassian flag.
Hani tells me a bit of his people’s history. When the Russians took over the Adyghe homeland in 1864, they expelled the natives. Ottoman ships arrived to ship them as cheap labor to Turkey. Many of the overcrowded ships sunk, and for decades traditional Circassian fur hats would come ashore around the Black Sea.
On the 21 of April, Reihaniya will hold the Circassian holocaust memorial day. Hani estimates that the entire tragedy, including the ill fated war with the Russians, claimed between a million and a half to four million Adyghe lives. Those who did survive became instant nomads. Israel’s Circassians settled first in Greece, then were transferred here. I’m sure a few have already immigrated further.
We are all of us lost, and would have been even more lost if it weren’t for good food.
The next town up the road is Alma, an impoverished moshav inhabited by Libyan Jews. According to Wikipedia, Alma once was also home to several Christian Italians who wished to repatriate in the holy land, but they left. Then came a group of Jewish families from Cochin in India, who also left, claiming the mountaintop location was too cold. Now the Libyans are leaving as well. A man on the moshav’s only street tells me: “There’s nothing here, nothing. Everyone’s gone.”
“But why?” I ask, “it’s the fertile Galilee, this place could be a garden…” I’m about to say “like Reihania” but stop short of it. The man turns his back on me abruptly and walks away. We are all lost. Those who remained here, and also the Italians and Indians who chose to keep moving. Alma, which smells strongly of animal droppings, certainly looks like the kind of place you reach halfway between Tripoli and death, and wonder: should I have taken that other exit?
Further up the “Finger of the Galilee” and down in the valley is the small city of Kiryat Shmona, a rather pleasant place when it isn’t being bombed. The border runs along top of the mountain range rising over the city’s rooftops. Consequently, this is another place where people seldom settle of their free choice. As happened elsewhere, the state brought here its less beloved children, first Mizrahi immigrants and later Russians, to populate the periphery, strengthen the frontier, or, as some would put it: to serve as buffers for katyusha rockets.
Some, of course, consider it a privilege. Not to live here, but to die here. Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor, who settled here after World War I for the same reason, was killed by Bedouin militants who regarded both the French soldiers stationed in the region and the Jewish settlers as their enemies. Israeli mythology attributes to him the catchphrase: “It is good to die for one’s country,” which he supposedly said in his dying moments.
The next time I drop by Trumpeldor’s monument, I’ll bring a can of spray paint and grafitti the words of poet Wilfrid Owen, who died before Trumpeldor did, in the trenches. In one poem Owen described the corpse of a friend who fell in battle. He tells the reader that had he seen “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” or heard “…the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
How can we not be lost, when our ideals are blind to such poetry? How can we not be lost when our villages are locked up behind bars, when our beginnings are in Tripoli and Hungary and Circassia and Palestine and South Lebanon, but where we’re headed remains so unclear? How can we not be lost when we place traffic lights in the most implausible places? I came across this one 200 meters from Trumpeldor’s grave.
How can we not be lost, when we can’t see the bombs we ourselves shoot and have nowhere to hide from ones shot at us? All we can do is scatter around, hoping to avoid a hit. How can we not go insane when the entire view seen in the photo below, but for the blooming field nearest to the camera, is situated in a land we can never visit but lies right at our doorstep? We don’t even have the privilege of being lost in a vast landscape. We are lost in a basement. We are nuts.
I climb up to Metula, Israel’s northernmost settlement, in hope of ending this day with a bit of healthy focus. I know just the right company for that: Zami Ravid is a musician and collector of ancient musical instruments, and a lovely human being. I met him while researching for a book about oddities in Israel (“Wonderland,” which came out in 2005, with striking photography by Daniel Tchetchik), and learn more every time I visit.
Collectors are always a bit mad, but on a day when my country feels to me so much madder, the dulcimer string, the face carefully carved in the soft wood and the tale of the bargain hunting in Budapest’s flea market all calm me. I listen to Zami play a Jig on the Hurdy-Gurdy,
and instantly post this photo on Facebook. Within minutes I see that Ruthie has commented, quoting a book called “All the Strange Hours” by Loren Eisely:
“Nothing perishes,” she wrote, “it is merely lost till a surgeon’s electrode starts the music of an old player piano whose scrolls are dust. Or you yourself do it, tossing in the restless nights, or even in the day on a strange street when a hurdy-gurdy plays. Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was. You will only find the bits and cry out because they were yourself.”
The Round Trip thus far!
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