The Round Trip part 20: Western Sahara

From Eilat to Kmehin via Eritrea, the days of yore, and the middle of nowhere

Tonight at sundown, the Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism will begin. I picked a fitting city in which to pass this evening. Eilat is the one Israeli town that never knew war. In 1948, Palmach units arrived at this stretch of coastline and found it vacant. The forces of the Arab legion withdrew of their own accord, and the minute hamlet of Umm Rashrash was abandoned. The combatants produced a flag using a bed sheet and a small ink jar and got young Israel an opening to the Red Sea. Terrorism did find its way here in later decades, and the occasional missile shot from within the Sinai falls here, but such incidents are rare. I am about to receive Memorial Day in a city of peace.

Before the radio begins to play nothing but sad Hebrew songs for 24 hours, I must go and seek out the community that is currently Eilat’s most talked-about. Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, who made their way here overland from their troubled countries, are to be seen everywhere, but it takes a stroll uphill to Los Angeles Street to arrive in the midst of their small quarter, or “pletzl,” as the Yiddish term goes.

In the small internet cafe and DVD library pictured above, nobody is thrilled to share his or her story. “What good would it do?” is the question they keep asking, “How could it possibly help?” I try to explain that I’m not necessarily here in order to help, but that passing on voices from the community certainly would not hurt. For the most part, the asylum seekers are badly received in Israel, especially by our right-wing politicians. The Knesset recently passed a law that literally outlaws being a refugee. Asylum seekers are to be automatically imprisoned for a minimum of three years without trial. The biggest penitentiary on earth is soon to be built in the desert for this purpose.

The common propaganda line on the asylum seekers is that they are actually work migrants in disguise. Since I will be paying generously with my tax sheqels for their incarceration, I feel that I have the right to check for myself and find out whether this is true. Eventually someone offers his help. His name is Kyubran, and he’s a 21-year-old Eritrean who has already been in Israel for three years.

“I first left Eritrea and went to Ethiopia,” he tells. “They were shooting at me at the border, but I survived. I spent six months in Ethiopia, where they gave us housing and food, everything. We didn’t need to work or anything, but I didn’t want to get stuck there, so I moved on to Sudan.”

Kyubran spent four more months in Sudan, where, he says, the authorities were equally hospitable. Then he paid the equivalent of $5,000 to an Egyptian Bedouin who smuggles refugees into Israel. “There were 25 of us in one Toyota van. We traveled for six days through the desert with no food and no water. Crossing the border was easy, but that was very hard. Since then, I have been moving around, from Be’er Sheva to Tel Aviv, then down here. Here is not Africa, there is no support. We are being treated like donkeys here. I’m lucky because when I slept in a park in Tel Aviv, somebody came over and offered me a job in Eilat, but when I go up to visit Tel Aviv, I see the park still blanketed with people who have no other place to go, and it breaks my heart.”

Why did Kyubran leave Eritrea in the first place? “There is no order there,” he says, “no future.” To most, that would indeed put him in the work migrant niche, but I think anyone willing to endure six days without food or drink to reach a place has won the right to stay there and grow there. My grandfather arrived here on an overcrowded ship and came on shore starved and dehydrated. The lack of order in Europe at the time later intensified into the history we all know.

Suffering doesn’t end at the shores of the Holy Land. After sunset, the people of Eilat convene by city hall, where an announcer reads the names of 84 Eilatis who died in Israel’s various wars or in terrorist attacks.

The following morning, I travel north along the Egyptian border, where a fence is currently being erected mainly to keep the likes of Kyubran away.

My grandparents arrived in this country to escape ghettos and death. Since then, it has turned into a huge fenced ghetto, where death is omnipresent. At precisely 11:00, the bus pulls over by the side of the road. All passengers, mainly soldiers serving in desert bases, disembark along with the driver and stand in silence for two minutes. The siren that sounds throughout the land is inaudible in such a remote location, but we listen to it on the bus’s radio.

I do my best to explain this oddity, and others, to a fellow passenger: Ewan from Texas, who also shared my dorm at the hostel last night. Ewan is rather impressed. “Back home on Memorial Day we all go down and party at the lake. You guys have a sense of communal memory that we may have had back in the 50s, but that we’ve lost.”

I argue that this communal memory has its faults. The emotions that emerge in Israelis’ hearts on Memorial Day are a valuable tool in the hands of nationalist and militarist demagogues. The similarity between the ceremonialism of this day and Holocaust Memorial Day, held a week previously, instill in the Israeli psyche a sense of perpetual victimhood, and the narrative hat presents Zionism as the answer to the Holocaust is reinforced. Memorial day is to end tonight with the opening of the Independence Day festivities. We go from Birkenau to statehood in a week, via our military graveyards, and from tears to joy in a matter of seconds.

Still, Ewan has a point, and had it not been for the bloody occupation, and how much I know about it, I could probably let go and be far more engaged.

He himself resides now in Cairo, where he studies archaeology, and has recently taken an interest in the history of the Nabateans, this region’s ancient nomads. I tell him that my course today should take me close to the ruins of the Nabatean trading posts and invite him to join. Ewan accepts gladly.

Before getting to those ruins, the closure of the road running along the border forces us inland, where we pass the lunar expanses of the Ramon crater, a geologist’s fantasy.

An hour north of here, we leave the bus and hitch west again, towards the border. Before reaching it, we turn to a tiny road that leads to Shivta’s ruins. A local bus picks us up here and takes as as far as a base of the Armored Corps. From the base we should be able to see Shivta, but we don’t. The desert past the rows of tanks barrels is empty, vast, and silent. This one Nabatean city may be too far to reach.

Then a car stops for us and takes us there. Ami and his wife Dina run a small B&B by the ruins. Theirs is likely the only car to head down this road today. We’re in luck.

It’s great luck, because Shivta is well worth our time. Many old ruins in this country are marketed as the remains of ancient cities, partially because they are identified with sights mentioned in the bible, and biblical literature does not use the world “village.” But Shivta is a right city, miraculously preserved by the desert. Its many streets are clearly defined, and the remains of three imposing Byzantine churches tower above them. It takes Ewan all of 30 seconds to make a first find: a piece of earthenware.

He later makes a discovery of a different sort: It is an inscription left here by Palmach combatants in 1948, mentioning that they were trained next to the Sea of Galilee.

Satisfied with our research expedition, we are now ready to head back out, and so we offer Dina and Ami to pay them for a ride to the road, or at least as far as the tank base. They are unwilling. “Maybe you’ll catch a lift with someone,” Dina says.

“With whom?” I wonder out loud, “Your house is the only one found down this way. It’s a cul de sac surrounded by a firing range, and your car is the only one parked here.”

She shrugs. She doesn’t feel like helping us, and we are forced to walk the long walk back to the base in the heat of day. Would a Bedouin have acted that way? Not from my experience near Raba. Many Israelis would have helped, and yet I am brought down by the symbolism of this event. My people used to be nomadic, like the Bedouin, like Nabateans, but we longed for a home, and now here we are, too cozy to help those who sleep in our parks or wander through our deserts.

Finally we reach the base

and then return to the main road and continue west, where more attractions await. Here is the boulevard of columns, each bearing the word peace in one of hundreds of different languages and alphabets. It is the work of Israeli artist Dani Karavan, which I glimpsed on the September Journey.

Here, seen from the same spot, is the “small” imprisonment facility, known as Ketziot, where many asylum seekers are held as the bigger one comes into being.

Eleven more kilometers down a slender lonesome road, which follows the border, we reach Ezuz, Israel’s most remote community. It’s sustained by visits from Israelis who appreciate remoteness.

But this place was not always so remote. It was a popular oasis station on the perfume road from ancient times until the closing of the border to Bedouin caravans in the previous century. West of Ezuz, virtually in the shadow of towers overlooking the not-yet-fenced border, petroglyphs cover the rocks, to Ewan’s great delight.

The ancients drew animals common to the barren land in their day, from lizards to ibex. One modern artist added a representation of today’s desert fauna.

We can touch on the past, but it makes no sense to live in it. Ewan and I thus follow the border back to the tiny moshav of Kmehin, where the residents of this small cluster of desert communities gather to celebrate Independence Day. There’s is a really cute bash, complete with animal costumes, which we find strewn around in the local community center,

and with Israeli flag baseball bats. These replace the annoying plastic hammers, with which Israelis mischievously bang each other on the head on this holiday for the sake of cheerful amusement. The hammers’ handles were made of hard plastic, which actually hurt upon contact with one’s scalp. I much prefer the bats.

Then come the fireworks. And I love them, regardless of my critical spirit. When a day in the wasteland ends like this, April doesn’t seem quite as cruel, fences, inhospitable desert dwellers, and imprisonment camps notwithstanding. I can’t help but love it here and look forward to the few more days of rambling still ahead.

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The Round Trip thus far!

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For more of The Round Trip

Relive the first two journeys:
The September Journey
The Christmas Journey