The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

From Dan to Mas’ade, via a ski resort, an imposter village, a gathering of Assad sympathizers and a house with a mattress door.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

I spend the night at the gym of Dan, a veteran kibbutz in the very northern reaches of the Hula valley. The celebrated “Israel Trail” begins – or ends – right around the corner, and the kibbutz accommodates backpackers who wish to hit the trail early for only 25 sheqels a head. There are insect-free mattresses, toilets and even a tv set on wheels, but the night is punishingly cold and I’m not having the best time.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

Stepping out in the morning I am greeted by the sweetness of Dan’s petting zoo,

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

but also by a Syrian tank, defunct, of course, a standard feature of borderline kibbutzim.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

The old Syrian border used to embrace Dan from the east and north, meeting the Lebanese one only a few kilometers away. Then came one day in June, followed by five others, and suddenly the border was gone. Today as I head out to the road, no visible signs remain of where it used to run.

It did run here once, though, and was the last internationally accepted border separating these two countries. Hence, according to the concept of my journey, I should now turn to the south and progress along the streams that join to form the Jordan River. It’s clear, however, that entirely ignoring the Golan Heights, especially at this critical moment in Syrian history, would be nothing short of idiotic. So I hop over the invisble line, and head for the hills.

Just before reaching them, I catch sight of Ghajar, that ill-fated place to which I dedicated the first part of this travel tale. Not much has changed there since I visited in 2006. The village still lies north of the border fence. Children still make their way home from school on a street that is an international border. These children are still Israeli citizens fully exposed to Hezbollah’s wrath. Would someone please do something for them? Anything – before a new war erupts, before the combatants step again into the border street, shooting over the school as they did in 2005, before four of their bodies fall again on the road.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

Ghajar seems serene from here. It probably also seems serene from within, as it did then. Hell, it is serene, and yet it leans perpetually into an abyss. So does life around these parts. Violent eruptions, at least on our side of the lines, are infrequent. What grinds us, or at least me, to dust, is the lack of normalcy: the tension, the potential for destruction, the hurt and the guilt, the anger and the claustrophobia.

Come, hills of the Golan, and cure me of bad thoughts. I know you can do it. The word gorgeous does you a grave injustice.

Yes, but beneath the beauty, there hides sadness. Take this pretty church for example.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

There’s nothing the matter with the church in and of itself, but the village that used to surround it is missing. This village, called Banias, was razed following the war of ’67. Only the church remained, and only becase of its significance in Catholicism. This, according to tradition, is where Jesus appointed Peter to be the first pope.

Now check out this delightful tableau.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

The serenity it projects is real, the cherry blossoms are real, the village is also real, but it replaces another village, of which little remains. Neve Ativ‘s vacation chalets village rise directly out of Jubta Az-Zeit’s old Muslim cemetary.

The Golan is truly nothing like the West Bank. The Druze inhabitants of its three remaining Syrian towns were offered Israeli citizenship in 1982. Even those who refused it do not live under an occupation mechanism. There is no “Hebron of the Golan,” movement in and out of Israel is free and a single law applies to all. Only the bitter memory torments the idyll. About 130,000 Syrians were depopulated of the area after 1967. Some of those who remained are still mad.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

There is another source of sadness. In 1973, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad teamed up with Anwar Sadat of Egypt in his October invasion. Assad’s attempt to retake the Golan by force cost hundreds of live and gained him nothing, as the new armistice line was redrawn nearly parallel to the old one. The horror of the battles, in which IDF soldiers were sent to advance up the mountains and push back a determined army, is still being processed by many. I am sure that the Syrian veterans experience just as many nightmares.

And these are certainly nightmares. In one testimony I read, the driver of an armed vehicle tells how his gunner lost his head from a shell, then shot several other loads with no head. This is what the driver saw, this is what he still sees, this is another thing I see when I look at this springtime paradise.

The Golan is an oddity that will take some effort to figure out. I’ll have to speak to different people who live here and understand what they are about and what their views really are. First, however, I head up to visit Mt. Hermon, or Jabel Ash-Sheikh, simply because I’m 35 years old and have never yet been there.

The road climbs up from the town of Majdal Shams through a striking rocky terrain. The Hermon’s peak is 2,814 meters (9,232 feet) above sea level and it’s often snow-crested. I’ve seen its snowy glory from afar many times, but never imagined what a deserty wasteland the mountain is from up close. The Hermon turns out to be more of a conglomeration of various craggy mountains than a unified colossus. It’s rocky and hostile and actually rather stunning, especially in this brisk weather. The sky is dream-blue, and white clouds push their way dramatically but silently over the peaks.

I part hitch, part walk my way to a toll station, where an atrocious 43 sheqel fee is charged simply for the right to approach the crests. The lift ticket is not included. I pay 43 sheqels more for it three kilometers later, upon arrival at the ski resort, where children who have never seen snow before go berserk and bomb their parents with muddy slush next to an overprice shawarma stand.

They way up, though, is serene and sweet. Since the lift seats fit only one pair of buttocks each, I volunteer to help a couple with three kids and accompany the older girl to the top. Her father is Israeli, her mother is Thai, and she lives in Bangkok.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

Will wonders never cease? Here I am hovering over Middle Eastern snow, next to a girl who speaks both fluent Hebrew and fluent Thai, in a land with no name. It is not really Israel, not really Syria, it is nowhere. Clouds obscure the rest of the world from view and at one point we rise over them, and they extend below us like your cloud clichee of choice.

Up near the top, the snow is considerable.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

The highest point of the mountain, however, isn’t to be reached by lift. It is a buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan. Hermon Hotel, the highest permanently manned UN position on earth, rests there. I tread through the snow, away from the upper lift, to a road where IDF vehicles park, then gaze over it to the northeast, trying to see Syria.

All I see is this:

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

Then a loud voice comes from behind, spoken through a loudspeaker calling “You, on the road,” telling me to get back immediately.

I cooperate. In any case seeing Syria today calls for much more than a zoom lens. So what If I get to see one barren slope or another. The foot of this mountain is inhabited by people who identify as Syrian, and I must descend and speak to them.

I take the lift down and then hitch a ride back towards Majdal Shams with uniformed reserve soldier. He’s kind enough to also pick up an older Druze man who holds a bag full of something he picked on the slopes. “It’s called Ma’akub,” the man explains. “It’s for cooking and only grows around this time of they year.” By the tone of his voice I judge that he isn’t very thrilled to eat it, but the walk in the country must have been refreshing.

“What do people in Majdal think of what’s happening in Syria?” I ask him.

“Some are against Assad,” he says. “Some support him, but everybody agrees it’s a tragedy.”

“Are the Druze in the Golan happy now that they are under Israeli rule? It keeps you guys out of the civil war.”

“You know how it is,” he says, “If a teacher hits you, would you rather study with him or with another teacher? Syria is not attractive to us at the moment, not even for travel. We have 500 students studying in Damascus. They are all home now. The apples still go to Syria, the students don’t.”

I didn’t realize that Golan Druze could travel to Syria, much less study there. How can Israeli citizens travel to Syria? “How many people in Majdal Shams are Israeli citizens?” I ask.

“Only 300,” he says, “that’s all.”

The town is over 8,000 strong. The figure he gave stuns me, but internet research proves him right or nearly right. It makes sense. Why would Golan Druze accept Israeli citizenship, if “resident” status grants them decent rights and allows them to travel into the old homeland? What doesn’t make sense is my ignorance.

I walk into the Peace Restaurant at the town’s gates, where three cherry farmers are chatting about the Syria situation. Not all of their Arabic works its way into my brain, so I beg their pardon and ask for a translation.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

“We are talking about what will happen in case Assad falls,” says one, “We are worries that the Islamists will take over. Everything bad that’s happening in this world is result of the Islamists’ activities.”

“Can you really say so?” I ask, “I mean, Look at the Assad regime, they slaughter thousands, and they don’t represent Islam.”

Instead of replying directly, the man moves the conversation 500 kilometers to the south. “Look at Egypt,” he says, “When Mubarak was in power, everything was fine. You could travel everywhere, feel free. Now Islam is in power.”

In so many words, this man just justified Assad’s behavior as a means to a just cause. That sounds brutal, but please recall the catchphrase so common both around these parts and in Foggy Bottom: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” It stems from precisely the same place. The Druze feel threatened by the prospect of an Islamic Syria, so they can stomach a pile of corpses in Homs. Israelis feel threatened by the Hamas, and choose not to question a school or two that went to smithereens in Gaza.

Lunch at the Peace restaurant is superb and gives me energy for a very long walk through apple and cherry groves to another Druze town, Mas’ade.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

I notice in the distance a row of run-down, cookie cutter structures, and walk into a restaurant to ask the proprietor what they are, though I already guessed. “It’s an old Syrian army base,” he tells me. “But we never go there. For us it’s still an army base, and civilians aren’t supposed to enter army bases.”

By his moustache and white skullcap I learn that this man is among the “wise” – the Druze who have received the secrets of the religion in return for a vow of piety. His name is Amer. “How many of you identify as Syrian?” I ask him.

“All of us,” he says, “but we are also loyal to Israel. Here is not like the territories. You can feel here like your own neighborhood.”

In my own neighborhood, I don’t respect too much the military facilities of dictatorial Syria, and feel free to visit them. The only problem are the puddles on the way.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned

But the soggying of the socks pays off. I arrive at a place of dark magic. Some of the structures serve as barns, proving that not everybody is loyal to the taboo. For some reason, mattresses have been used to block the doorways. I take a photo of one and feel that this is the most beautiful one I have taken today. So long as darkness hides behind beauty, beauty cannot be complete, once they engage arms – the ibex cub and the tank, the ski resort and the shell shock, then something true happens, and maybe the gift of this something, this incomplete completeness, is how we manage to tolerate all of this terrible longing.

The Round Trip part 7: The beautiful and damned


The Round Trip thus far!

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