The Round Trip part 4: Turning the corner

From Haifa to the Lebanese border, but I mean all the way to the border, via two self proclaimed republics and a Persian paradise.

The train rolls north from Haifa, through an industrial hell I’d rather not describe, and I anyway already did, when passing here on the September Journey). I’m not staying here, I’m headed for a pretty place.

Outside the ancient city of Acre is the tomb of Bahá’u’lláh, the Persian-born founder of the Bahá’í faith. Bahá’u’lláh was brought to Acre as prisoner by the Ottomans and kept in a cell in the city’s grand crusader castle. He later moved to a house in the countryside, yet remained a prisoner and was forbidden to leave the disrict. He died here in 1892. The mansion was turned into a mausoleum and surrounded with splendid gardens in the best Bahá’i tradition.

After walking through sands the first day and visiting Atlit’s depressing barracks the second, I needed a garden, I needed to feast my eyes on the perfect flowers, fresh lawns and water fountains. Among the neatly cropped hedges I met American Bahá’i volunteer Jasmine, who arrived here ten months ago and is now looking forward with excitement to her first visit of Tel-Aviv. The Bahá’i elders forbid the faithful from living in this country, where both prophets of the faith are buried, and where its institutions are centered. Bahá’i may either come as pilgrims of volunteers. This way they avoid contributing to the Middle East conflict.

Outside the gardens, the communion with nature continues. Enormous eucalyptus trees line the road leading north, bringing out the tree hugger in me. Like Jasmine, they were also brought for a foreign land on a mission. Thirsty Australian gum trees such as these quickly drain swamps and reclaim agricultural land. Early Zionists recruited them to produce fields where no fields were before. This was before we discovered the gun, which can produce fields that are miraculously ready-plowed.

Zionist lore is rich with botanical symbolism. This is natural in an ideology that was born as a dream of a utopian agrarian society, but the poetry runs deeper. Think back to my comment about needing a garden after traveling excessively and visiting an interment camp. Who could blame the Jewish people for wanting to grow some cabbage and forget it all, like old emperor Diocletian?

This idea was bound to appeal to copycats, and it did. Inspired by the Jewish people, Israeli bohemian Eli Avivi and his wife Rina declared their own state just north of the city of Nahariya in 1962. Welcome to Achzib Land.

Essentially, Achzib Land consists of one large house sourrounded by several other structures, in the fashion of Armenian monasteries or Zoroastrian temples. It’s a nice house. Some of the structures are remains of the Palestinian village of Az-Zab, depopulated in 1948, so the state of Achzib has its own share of Nakba memories, just like its neighbor to the south, north and east (and actually to the west as well, since the nearby beach isn’t included in the Avivis’ domain), but at least this small, Hebrew-speaking country, never got itself mangled up in an occupation.

In fact, it’s where people go to seek peace. The Avivis run a guest house which has been a favorite with free spirits for over four decades. Their small country is indeed mostly a garden, equipped with a delightful coushioned swing, and many lovely grassy niches. Those are filled this evening tents. Holiday traffic has gone over the border and Eli and Rina are doing their best to cope. I decide not to trouble them with asking for my passport to be stamped (which I’ve seen them do).

Instead I go over to the edge of the property, which overlooks the beach, and take in the sunset. This is to be the last time on this trip I will see the sun set into the water. The Lebanese border is a cricket’s hop away. I plan to hit it early in the morning and turn east, but something goes wrong. My camera broke. Some mechanical thing, don’t even ask. I’m forced to head ten kilometers south, to Nahariya, and seek a camera store.

Nahariya is big enough to have three such stores, but none of them offer repair service. I would have to take the camera back to Tel Aviv, then wait between a week and a month for it to be returned. No go. A new one must be bought.

The bright side is how absolutely sweet the store crew is. They even offer that I take a bike belonging to one of them and take a tour of the town, while the battery is charging. Soon I peddle along the Ga’aton, a natural stream made to look like a drainage canal, thanks to questionable design concepts of the 1960s.

Nahariya itself was once an independent country too. The 1948 partition plan placed the border between Jewish and Arab-controlled territories just south of Acre. This town, then inhabited mostly by Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, remained isolated. For a few weeks it was besieged, maintaining contact with Haifa by way of sea. Then the Palmach came and conquered the entire western Galilee surrounding it, as far as the mountains known as “The Ladder of Tyre,” which marked the post-1917 boundary between English and French control.

It’s time that I finally reached those mountains. I take one snapshot of the shopkeepers,

Then catch the bus up the coast, past the people’s republic of Achzib, to where the ladder of Tyre sticks out into the sea. This chalky cape, known in Hebrew as Rosh Hanikra, marks the ends of the earth for an Israeli. Beyond here no travel is possible.

The cape itself is a sponge of grottos, into which the sea gushes at will. A well developed tourist facility allows visitors to descend by cable car to a causeway, which once carried the now obviously disused Jaffa-Beirut railway. From there they may reach into the mountain. This is the first time in my life that I pay the entry fee and do so. I am disappointed that Lebanon is visible neither from the cable car nor the causeway.

The grottos would have been a compensation, but holiday rush hardly does justice with their subterranean/submarine magic. There’s also a Passover theme thing going on that doesn’t seem quite relevant. One of the guides, a woman, is dressed up as a bearded Moses and leads her people to freedom, or rather to congestion in moist tunnels. Illustrations of the ten plagues of Egypt are posted on the walls.

The plague of wild animals (“Arov”) gets a weird interpertation.

I emerge into the open air, only to find myself facing directly what I’ve been waiting for all this way up the coast: the border, or better still: a border crossing. There are only two of those along the Lebanese border, and neither is used by civilians today (The other one, at Metula, used to serve south Lebanese laborers, who would work in Israel while it controlled their region.)

This crossing, at Rosh Hanikra, has been the site of much drama. Most recently: The bodies of the two soldiers whose capture spurred the war in 2006 were returned here by Hezbollah, in return for the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. The Israelis did not know what state the soldiers would be in, and when the coffins appeared an entire nation reacted with shock and anger.

I can’t help, however, but think about another container that once passed here, one that does not even remotely resemble a coffin. In Tom Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he describes arriving at this gate in the 80s with unusual gear. “The Christian and Shiite militiamen who stopped me at the checkpoints in Southern Lebanon were endlessly fascinated by my golf clubs.” Friedman wrote, “They assumed that any long steel shaft with a malletlike head at one end had to be a weapon. The golf clubs also held me at the Israel-Lebanon border station, because the girl soldiers there knew what they were but simply refused to believe that anyone could be arriving from Hobbes’ jungle carrying a set of Wilson Staffs on his shoulder.”

My own sport of choice is hiking. I first walk up a road ascending the ridge, since it’s the only road in sight beside the one on which I came. Finally signs screaming: “Stop!! Border ahead” and “No entery. Closed military Area!!!” convince me and I turn back, which is when I notice a perfect little gravel road, leading directly away from the coast, parallel to the border. I gladly step onto it.

It leads me through natural beauty that renders Acre’s Bahá’i gardens forgettable,

and offers views to the coastal plain that revive in me again that thought from yesterday, the one about Israel as a much longed-for vegetable patch. If any Lebanese were permitted to stand at the very top of the range and look down, she or he would be seeing at the garden of our dreams.

Soon I get a sight of that imaginary Lebanese’s own garden. Having wound up at a silent road lined with fences, I soon realize that everything to the north of it (left hand side in this photo) is in fact abroad. I also realize that this is a patrol road, and that I am standing directly inside the “closed military area” mentioned before. I also realize that I had better scram.

How, though? The breach that allowed me onto the road is gone behind me, I wouldn’t know how to find it. Elswhere, the side of the road not lined with the actual electric border fence is lined instead with standard barbed wire. Should I chance it and try to climb over? There’s a watchtower down the road. What if they saw me attempt to climb, mistaked me for an infiltrator, and shot to kill?

I postpone the decision until catching sight of this:

It’s a UN marker, marking the “Blue Line” which is the international border in earnest. I’m standing not three meters away from it. Let my jeans tear over the barbed wire. Another pair already split in two in the middle of Area A in the West Bank during the Christmas journey. This couldn’t be worse.

I make it through, with only minor cuts.

It’s natural that we would have some thorns in our dream rose garden, and that they would tear through our skin from time to time. Do we grow more thorns than roses? I used to think we do, but strangely now am not so sure. It’s been a good day. It’s being a good life. The afternoon sun shines gently over the green hills and I’m in love with this border that scared me half to death a few minutes ago. Harsh though this land is at times, ugly and unjust though it so often is, I somehow feel that this is exactly where I need to be. I lift the backpack from the thick brush and travel onward.

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For more of The Round Trip

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