The Round Trip part 9: Country living

From Tzemach to Raba via Kurdistan, Morocco, the stone age and the wild west.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

I spend another night in Hukok with Danielle and the dumb but cute Great Dane she is watching, then in the morning return to where I left off. Tzemach junction is at the southern tip of the Kinneret, not far from the graveyard, where a book of poetry is tucked away. I was worried I wouldn’t find a place to have breakfast, this being Saturday in the countryside, but in overpopulated, over-commercialized Israel there’s always a strip mall when you need one.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

My first destination today is a moshav called Beit Yosef, located near the border with Jordan. Again I am in search of my own roots: My paternal grandparents lived in Beit Yosef in the late 40s, when it was one of the most impoverished, God-forsaken Zionist settlements in British Mandate Palestine.

It was around then that not-yet prime minister Ben-Gurion proposed replacing diaspora surnames with Hebrew ones. My grandfather, who was born Mitiu Shmuel Reichman, took this opportunity to speak the truth about himself. “A reich mann [rich man] I’m certainly not,” he later said in recollection of the logical process. “I live in a tent in a mosquito-infested valley, trying to farm impossibly stubborn soil. I had to marry my wife with a borrowed ring, and our wedding feast consisted of cake baked the previous day, because that’s all the coffee shop in town would give us for our money. A name like Ben-Ami would make a lot more sense.”

Ben Ami is a biblical name. It literally translates as “son of my people,” but can also mean “one of the common folk.” It reflected my grandfather’s worldview as a socialist, while expressing a connection to an ancient heritage. By the very virtue of how it contradicts Reichman, it maintains a poetic continuity with Reichman that would never let Reichman disappear from memory. I love my last name and am excited to visit its source.

The landscape changes sharply south of the lake. The grass on the hills is an uninviting brown. The heat is oppressive and the Jordan River invisible, snaking on the bottom of a deep gully, across too many fences. Mountainous Jordan on its far bank is a sorry victim of bad visibility.

Beit Yosef turns out to be a handful of quiet streets, lined with gloomy, unkempt moshav houses. It is 65 years later, it’s a dusty backwater town: no town for reich men or even vaguely affuent ones. It does, however, boast its own archeological wonder: a towering ruin, with bullet holes showing in its concrete pillars.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

This building is a mystery to uncover. I circle it until arriving at a door bearing the words “Shalom – Sawadi” in Hebrew, and something else in an alphabet I do not recognize. A noise comes from inside. Could someone be living in this crumbling disaster? Shalom Sawadi could be a name, perhaps an Ethiopian-Jewish name. Could the alphabet be Amharic? I knock on the door and cry “Shalom?”

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

No answers comes, so I enter. The floors are so perfectly blanketed with pigeon droppings that whoever lives here is certainly worth talking to. Boom! The noise comes again. It is produced by pigeons who are playing in an ancient metal air shaft. Shalom isn’t home. There is no Shalom.

All I find inside is an open suitcase, its contents strewn about it. What a perfect thing to find when looking for my grandparents. Of course, as told in part 3 of this journey, my grandfather lost his on the way, but my grandmother carried hers all the way from a good home in Bucharest to the land of sour milk and pigeon turds. The suitcase as symbol of displacement is enormously powerful for all who grew up with my background, and my fingers tremble as I take this photo.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

Human voices come from the main street. I step out to meet Amnon and Assaf, a father and son on a Saturday walk. They explain that the building “was the moshav” in the early days. When everyone lived in tents, this structure was a community facility that served every possible function that those tents did not. The script on the door turns out to be Thai. “There are so many Thai migrant workers around here, that they outnumber us,” says Amnon.

He explains that that the bullet and shell damage was inflicted by none other than the Iraqi army, which came to support that of Jordan in the 1948 struggle. The moshav withstood the assualt, but was abandoned soon thereafter by its Ashkenazi founders. Four years later it was resettled by Jewish Kurds.

How Kurdish are Jewish Kurds? So Kurdish, so it appears, that even today, in each moshav along the border line, a different dialect of Kurdish is spoken.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

The next lift takes me right past the working class city and impressive Byzantine ruins of Beit She’an. This was the first stop on the September journey, so I feel free to skip it now, but am sorry that I won’t be here come eventide. Tonight the Moroccan community in Israel marks the “Mimouna,” a celebration of the Jewish sage Maimonides. Mimouna parties are often wildly musical and rich with honey-crepes and goofy looking fesses. Beit She’an has its share of Moroccans, but if all goes as planned, a tall fence will stand tonight between me and them.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

The Green Line lies not ten kilometers to the south. It would make no sense to scale the West Bank only on the outside, where little of its drama is felt. The best would be to alternate: walk one day within Israel, another within the occupied territory, compare and contrast.

I choose to start by heading in, despite knowing of a difficulty ahead. When trying to travel west across the fence on that first day in September, I was blocked at an IDF checkpoint near the town of Toubas and sent back.

That checkpoint, however, lies deep within the territory and was not attached to a fence. So it could be bypassed if I walked over the hills. Not near that road, of course, since the soldiers also patrol and man watchtowers, but a ways from it. I consult the map. Between the separation barrier and that blocked road is a big empty void. It separates a tiny village named Bardale, which is linked to the eastern road on which I am traveling, with another village named Raba, which is linked by roads to the west.

Bardale is in Area C, which Israelis are allowed to visit. Raba is in Area A, where Israelis are banned by order of the IDF. This is the region I must penetrate in order to keep my course, but how long will that take? I measure the map. On flat terrain such a walk would last about five hours, but there must be some unmarked natural obstacle on the way, or else the villages would have been linked by a road. Oh well, if worst comes to worst I can always tent out in the wild, then continue tomorrow.

Being confident in my decision, I catch a lift that takes me past the checkpoint and fence and into the West Bank. The driver is Shiri, an Israeli in her 40s who shares with me a dilemma. She’s newly in love with a man who has every possible virtue but one: He does not live in Israel. He lives ten minutes south of here.

“I keep trying to make up my mind about that.” Shiri says, “In the end, our current borders were defined by a war, so if I accept them, I accept war, which is not like me.” Of course the 1949 borders which I follow were also defined by war, but I’m pleased that Shiri takes issue with her lover’s address, and say nothing, in hope that she will someday draw him back north of the line.

I like Shiri. She’s an honest to God Israeli who runs “singing tours” in the region of Beit She’an, allowing hikers to sing Zionist Hebrew songs as they wander through nature, yet she drops me off by Bardale without a flinch. Where is the typical “you’re out of you’re mind” usually spoken in such situations? Turns out it’s waiting for me in the village.

“Raba? You’re out of your mind. It’s far!”

Lafi, the shopkeeper at the local grocery store, walks me to his Mazda pick-up and drives me to the edge of the village with his 9-year-old brother Mohamed. Mohamed isn’t too thrilled about my idea either: “The wild animals will eat you,” he says.

Wild animals? Maybe I should rethink, and now would be a good time, because Lafi is facing me with an option. If I pay him 50 shekels, he will drive me further and save me an hour’s walk, but then, of course, there would be no turning back. I decide to pay, and the Mazda hops unbelievably over the rocky terrain.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

We reach the rim of a deep wadi. This is as far as any car can advance. Lafi directs me to enter the gully and follow the dry riverbed west. Looking north I can still see the fence and the gravel road adjoining it, running between me and Israel’s green fields, but soon I enter the wilderness and all signs of humanity have vanished.

Two hours later, they reappear, in the shape of primitive fields of barley which no tractor can reach.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

Then I come across the most spectacular Bedouin encampment I have ever seen. The tents are made entirely out of wool and no year-round structures are visible. As I approach I meet Khalil, a spectacularly blue-eyed shepherd, who confirms that his tribe remains nomadic. “This is our last day here,” says Khalil. “It’ll soon become too hot around here. We’re moving on.”

Being of suitcase stock, I am thrilled.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

Khalil invites me into the tent, which is separated by cloth into men’s quarters and women’s quarters. I’m served wonderful tea, made of herbs picked in the hills. This is the world as it was before tea bags, before electricity, before running water, before alienation and unfriendliness.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

Na’er, Khalil’s brother, steps into the women’s qurters and returns with his younest child, Fares. The baby is practically blond. I learn that half of those present belong to a Bedouin tribe called Turkman, which hails from southeastern Turkey.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

Southeastern Turkey? But that would mean Kurdistan. Amnon, Assaf, Khalil and Na’er are all somehow from the same place. The former two reside in what used to be a tent colony, the latter still live in tents. All four live simply, in very different senses of the words simple. How strange is the current of history, which swept them into this particular corner of the world, how strange the maelstroms of civilization that made them so different.

The Turkmans will drive me to Raba by truck. They are anyway moving livestock up the hills as part of the migrating process. First, however, the cattle must be loaded onto a trailer. I watch amazed as my new friends corral four cows, then lasso them and struggle with them – sometimes holding them by the horns, sometimes pulling their tails. Finally they yell at me to stop taking photos and come help. We all lift the fourth cow into the trailer. My nose is filling up with flies, the my hands with mud and cow hairs. This is the most intimiate I’ve ever been with the animal kingdom.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living

When we’re done, Khalil brings us tea from the tent. A cowboy named Samir smiles and tells me: “The Palestinian people is a strong people.” He doesn’t know me to be Israeli. “Son of my people” or not, I must make it to Raba, then safely out of Raba, and while I trust the Bedouin entirely, a secret is best kept a secret.

They all know be to be Greg, a student of Arabic from London, and Greg gets to hear what Yuval wouldn’t have. “The Israelis come here every night and shoot loads,” says Samir. “Every night they come.” With all due respect to the IDF’s night vision equipment, it’s a good thing I didn’t end up tenting out. Samir shows me the scars he got during the second intifada, when a bullet penetrated his wrist. Then everyone else shows me theirs.

We reach Raba, which is poor but beautiful. There’s no accomodation to be found here and I must travel on. The Bedouin vanish without saying farewell, and as I rest in the local grocery store a pair of identical twins in festive dresses walks in. The crossing succeeded. I have truly entered another realm.

The Round Trip part 9: Country living


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