ISRAEL STORIES 2014
Elderly, sun-savvy Israelis zipped about in golf carts outfitted with striped canopies as I limped through the suburban lanes of Kibbutz Dvir and past the lemon-yellow, metal arm at the main gate. Surely, my foot would numb up. An hour later, alas, it hadn’t. More bad luck: this morning the Israel National Trail, the Shvil, was a jumble of jagged rocks, vengeful, impossible to avoid. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Christ Almighty Already! In this arid zone north of the Negev Desert, a few miles from the Barrier Wall, I stopped in a wooded enclave to rest. At a nearby picnic table, a young Arab couple looked into each other’s eyes.
He stood, a thin fellow in tight jeans; she sat, her hijab slipped to her shoulders. Gently, he reached out and stroked her black hair with one hand. She’d have none of that and twisted her head away (only to let it drift back), batted at his hand (only to allow its return) and made a razor-sharp comment (only to giggle upon the next breath). He murmured some sweet or spicy thing and brushed a finger, ever so briefly, on her hot-to-the-touch neck. She snapped at him with clawed words. Neither individual turned away. They’d been, I suspected, to this place before; their encounter had the feel of a practiced dance enmeshed in desire and taboo.
When he glanced my way, I averted my gaze and then shouldered my pack and moved along down the trail, a bit embarrassed for studying them.
To Hirbat Tabhan I gimped, my foot recoiling with every step on uneven ground. How could this happen? Would I make it to my day’s destination at Kibbutz Kramim? By mid-morning the Shvil assumed the verge of Route 3325 and every now and then a vehicle sped by at 120 kph. One sporty car made a U-turn and pulled next to me. The passenger’s side window whirred down; an Israeli guy leaned across and asked if I had enough water. He was your 21st century, start-up-nation type: square-jawed, in his 50s, open-collared dress shirt. Alert and direct, a can-do Jew. Yes, I said, I’ve got lots of water. Well, he replied, it’s a great day for hiking, enjoy your vacation, and the window whirred down and he sped away.
Looking around: blue sky high and glorious; clouds scarce up top but thick at the horizon, as if they’d untethered and slid down; dusky hills, browned and frying in 90 degree-heat; no sign of man’s vainglorious works except for road, fence posts and an abandoned car on a hillside. It was, indeed, a great day for hiking. And so I struggled up a long, undulating incline toward Har Ga’at, and the trick was to break it into parts, each one a separate act of self-negotiation and pain negation. Okay, just make it to that rock outcropping, then you can rest. Get to that bend in the Shvil, then your reward is a long drink of water. There, at the top of that steep rise, peace and ease awaits. And on, and on, until I crossed the ridge and began hobbling downhill.
Here, at a trail bend, I ran into two young women, one very fit, the other a bit soft, each wearing day packs. They were weekend Shvil hikers. We’re doing the easy parts first, the fit one announced. Good idea, I said, because the hard parts can be very hard. No, it’s not that, she responded. “It’s a logistical problem.” Ah, yes, of course. The vagaries of mind and heart and body and soul, of sun and vicious rocks and bathroom ridges, of luck and fate – none of that for this iron-Israeli-maiden. It’s logistics, whatever the hell that means. The soft girl smiled, said nary a word. Her boots, I noticed, were new. The socks, clean, the laces nicely double knotted. And off they went. And so did I, but only after they disappeared from view because I didn’t want Jewish Wonder Woman looking back and seeing me limp.
A long, paved road led to the Joe Alon Center, adjacent to Kibbutz Lahav (which raises pigs for medical research and eating; my wife Elahna claims that the forbidden creatures are kept on platforms and therefore, technically, do not touch Eretz Yisrael; I was supposed to report on this workaround for her). The center is named for a founder of the Israeli Air Force, a pilot who was murdered on the steps of his house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, while serving as a military attaché in the U.S. Although Joe Alon was probably killed by Black September, the Palestinian terror group that slaughtered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, his case remains unsolved and has become a magnet for conspiracy theorists. Was the investigation intentionally botched by the FBI, CIA and Mossad? Why did he make that mysterious phone call to L.A. the morning of his death? Did the Israeli themselves execute Joe Alon because he “knew too much,” and what exactly did he know too much about?
Besides commemorating Alon, the center has exhibits about Bedouin life and culture, the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-136 (the rebels hid in nearby caves), and the region’s coarse geography. Alon loved to hike around here, in sites he picked out from the cockpit of his plane. He was drawn down to the land. Now it’s one o’clock. According to the guidebook, the center is open until two on Fridays. No surprise, it’s closed. I banged on the padlocked gate; nothing, nobody. Sloughing off my backpack and poles, I removed my boots (ouch!) and sat in the shade on a low concrete wall. I thought things over. It would take days of limping to get to Kibbutz Kramim. Then days more to make Arad. My foot was getting worse, not better. I’d hiked six and half days out of the planned eight, not a total failure.
Shit. My Shvil trek, September 2014 edition, was over.
What next? I didn’t want to bother Elahna, who had arrived in country yesterday but had enough on her mind bringing her mother to Kibbutz Nativ HaLamed Heh to sit shivah for cousin Udi. I could call a taxi…that is, if I had a taxi’s phone number…that is, if I had a smart phone, not my retro flip model…also, just great, I was short on cash. So I scoured my wallet and pockets and found only two American dollars, a couple of coins worth seven skilim and a ragged 50 shekel bill from a previous incarnation of the currency. I’d been trying to pass it off since my first Shvil hike in 2012, eliciting only smirks, scoffs and snorts. Roll a cigarette with that thing, someone joked.
There was probably a caspomat (Hebrew for ATM) inside the Joe Alon Center, so again I banged on the gate. Nothing moved; the place was deserted. And then the volcano-man named Sammi pulled up in his tour company van.
He was a short fellow, cream-in-coffee-skinned, early twenties. I approached him and asked for a ride to Kibbutz Kramim and maybe he understood and maybe he didn’t. His English, I would discover, was worse and better than my Hebrew depending, wildly, on the topic. He was supposed to pick up a tour group from the Lahav Forest, but they hadn’t arrived yet, so he joined me on the wall. We swapped names and I showed him one of my hiking poles, how it telescoped in and out. He took out his Samsung smart phone and showed me its jumbo screen hung with colorful Apps like a Christmas tree. Metzooyan, I said, excellent. And I repeated my request for a ride. Oh, no, no, Sammi replied, he was so sick, so sick. Sick in stomach and throwing up like a preeg-naant woman. It didn’t register – excuse me? Preeg-naant, preeg-naant, he insisted, creating a swollen belly with his hands as he mimicked a fountain of vomit discharging from his mouth. Preeg-naant, yes?
Tap, tap, tap, he worked his phone. “Veer-gin girl,” he said, giggling. “Veer-gin girl.” I got it this time, virgin girl – but why? Why veer-gin girl? Now Sammi spoke rapidly in Hebrew, much faster than I could comprehend, and he sighed and resumed tap-tap-tapping his phone. “I am a Muslim man,” he told me. “Religious man.”
Then he pointed at his small, white van and labeled it garbage, just garbage. Big garbage van with bad engine. I called it a dirty car in Hebrew and we both laughed. Yes – dirty, dirty car. Which led directly to Sammi asking about American girls. Very beautiful, yes? American girls are beautiful, I agreed, tall with flowing hair. He stared at me, eyes and ears at full inhalation. Beautiful girls with long legs, I continued, most of all in California and Boston (my hometown), American girls so beautiful in swimsuits on beaches – I delivered these phrases in an amalgam of baby English and haphazard Hebrew, hoping, somehow, that it would get me closer to a ride. Sammi shifted on the wall, gesturing with his hands as if cupping magnificent, grateful breasts.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he pronounced, flawlessly. “Sex, sex, sex, sex!” He stared at me as he stabbed – sex, sex, sex, sex – the erect index finger of one hand through the finger-thumb ring made by the other, the international sign for coitus non-interruptus.
I laughed, he laughed. How in the world had this started? Right, beautiful American women in swimsuits on beaches. And before that veer-gin girl and sick-as-a-preeg-naant woman. But Sammi didn’t look sick at all. “Arnold,” he repeated. I blurted “Bill Clinton, too” and here we go again with the furiously stabbing finger. I cooled it off but good: “Hilary Clinton.” He stopped, made a yuk face.
I repeated my request. Kibbutz Kramim? Yes, he said, he wanted to take me. How much money do you have? I showed him my two George Washingtons and seven skilim as if they were sufficient and he made a barking laugh. So I brought forth the old 50 skilim bill with its drawing of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who revived Hebrew from a poetic, ancient language used in prayer and study to a muscular form of expression for the modern era. In other words, he helped Israelis speak like strong-armed pioneers, soldiers and engineers, like the power-action man in the U-turning car and the super-hiking logistics lady and not like pale, shuffling exiles in Diaspora alleyways, not like victims and losers. By supplying the right, tough words, he helped Israelis become something new and kick-ass. Sammi took the soiled, dog-eared bill and held it up to the Middle Eastern sun. Ben-Yehuda, the Father of our Language, did not pose like George Washington, the Father of our Country; he was at work, hand scratching head as he studied a page, fountain pen ready between thumb and finger.
“Garbage,” said Sammi, “I tell you, this is garbage,” and he pantomimed ripping up the bill. But it didn’t rip it up, and this told me that we could do business.
I reached out, gently, and took back the 50 skilim bill. I put it in my wallet and noticed, folded up, a bill for one Guatemalan quetzal from a trip to the ruins at Tikal. When I unfolded it, a mustachioed general stared back. I gave this piece of paper to Sammi, who rubbed his thumb across the general’s face. “This I want!” he said, eyes afire. “This I keep, yes?” I nodded, sure, it’s all yours, but the bill was already in his pocket. And now he appeared deeply pained. “I want to help you,” he said, “but you have no money.”
Ein ba’aya, I replied, no problem, drive me to a caspomat. I’ll get money for you. He looked away. I repeated the statement and then repeated it again. I showed him my bank card and a VISA card. Shabbat was coming, he reminded me, everything was closed, but he tap-tap-tapped on his Samsung super-screen and announced, yes, there’s a caspomat at the market on the highway interchange. He touched my shoulder and spoke to me, man to man, with more conviction than any person has addressed me since the rabbi on the day of my conversion to Judaism: “You use caspomat? You know for sure, for sure that your credit works there? For sure, at that caspomat?” I stared back at him. Of course I didn’t know if my card from an American bank headquartered in Scotland would work on Shabbat at a convenience store caspomat in the Middle of Nowhere, Israel.
“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely, I know it.”
I flung my arms up, gave him a big smile. A long pause. And I wondered: what happened to that tour group he was supposed to ferry? Did it exist? Now Sammi asked me where I’d used my ATM card. In Tel Aviv, I said, Jerusalem, everywhere in Israel. Okay, he said, okay, but why did I have no money. An American, with no money? I did not even consider explaining my incompetence, my improvisational ineptitude. It works, I repeated. Be-tach! Absolutely, be-tach! C’mon, let’s go, let’s go. You can do it! He didn’t move and I told him I would pay 120 skilim, about 30 dollars at that time, for the ride to Kramim. He shook his head – 160. I shook my head – 130. We settled on 140 skilim for the seven-mile drive, not counting caspomat detour, and Sammi exploded from the wall.
“Hurry, hurry,” he yelled, climbing into the van’s driver’s seat. I shoved my feet back into boots (ouch!), gathered my pack and poles and stumbled into the second row of seats as he claimed that he must return for his group in ten minutes, a statement that violated the limits of time, space and human behavior, and he spun the shuddering, shrieking van in a tight circle in front of the Joe Alon Center and gunned it downhill.
“Garbage van,” he called out, as if lashing a beast. “Garbage, dirty engine!”
Sammi, gripping the wheel with both hands, turned onto Route 3325 and headed west, back the way I’d hiked in. The van bucked and seized when it reached 75 mph, so he eased back, but not much, and he shouted to me over its pleading gears. “Tell the truth,” yelled Sammi, “the truth right now. This day, this week, this month, are you fucking beautiful Jewish women?” The van dove uphill, the engine revved, and Sammi bounced in his seat. “Beautiful Israeli woman, are you fucking them? Every day, every night – tell the truth!”
The hill seemed to be winning; the van slowed, shaking side to side; and I contemplated my answer and its consequences. Now, it’s true, my wife is beautiful and Jewish and technically an Israeli, at least according to her passport, but I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks…maybe, I considered, maybe I should tell my driver what he wanted to hear, weave a tale about insatiably horny Jewish women, a different one every night on the Shvil – perhaps I should disgorge forth a saucy tale of red-headed Jewish women in IDF uniforms, ravishing Delilahs and Mayas and Shiras and Ronis with sex-smudged Magen David tattoos…
“My wife,” I said, feebly. Sammi waved that shit away, with a backhand swipe worthy of Rafi Nadal. “Wife not count,” he pleaded. “Tell me, please, are you fucking beautiful Israeli women?” I felt an odd urge to please him – what was that about, the guilt of white sexual privilege? – and almost initiated an epic, debauched lie, but thought better of it. Best not to put too much fuel on his fire. Nor did I say that knowing a woman intimately in marriage can, indeed, count, can count to a million-billion-trillion. Playing the highly evolved westerner wouldn’t get me to Kibbutz Kramim. “Just my wife,” I admitted, and he nodded and seemed to deflate and the van was buffeted by side winds on a flat stretch between chewed-over grazing lands. “Bravo,” he offered, a dispirited morsel of praise, and he sighed, and I felt ludicrously bad for letting him down. “Maybe tomorrow,” I added. “Tomorrow I will have sex with a beautiful Israeli woman.”
Sammi swiveled around, his face bright: “Yes, tomorrow!”
Ah, tomorrow. A sad day, indeed, it will be for me and the wide, wide world when tomorrow no longer beckons like a lone carob tree on an Israeli mountaintop. Tomorrow, when my dreams come true. Tomorrow, when peace is triumphantly negotiated and sweeps like a honeyed wind across the Middle East, when Jerusalem, finally, reigns as a beacon of brotherhood and hope. Tomorrow, in the land of the beautiful, horny Israeli girls…
Then not one minute later: “Tell the truth – do you have anal sex? Anal sex, are you having it?” I paused, flummoxed. Sammi repeated himself, aggressively, demanding – do you have anal sex, do you have it? It was the first time I’d ever been asked this question, and it sounded a bit like a threat. No, I informed him, I don’t engage in anal sex. “It is ugly, disgusting,” he shot back, grimacing, angry. “The blacks in America, they have anal sex. The slaves, yes, the blacks – all the time, anal sex, anal sex.”
At this point, my mouth may have frozen agape. Sammi, my driver, seethed with disgust and fascination, with projected anger and strangled desire. I wasn’t about to encourage him further, but part of me wanted to drill down. Where did he get his ideas about blacks and anal sex and slavery? Had he tried anal sex? Any sex? Was Sammi the Muslim man, the religious man, in fact a veer-gin boy? Perhaps a closeted homosexual, a man in painful denial? Did he even allow himself to masturbate? And what did Islam say about sex – anal, premarital, the whole magillah? Soon enough I’d go to Google and find that the Hadith, a revered commentary on the Koran, states thusly: “Cursed is he who has sex with a woman through her back passage.” If you’re not married, according to the Koran, front and back passages are verboten. Penalty: 100 lashes. Prohibitions against being gay? Don’t ask. Above all, it is written, avoid temptation outside the sanctified garden of matrimony. Practice modesty.
Gently, he reached out and stroked her black hair with one hand. She’d have none of that and twisted her head away (only to let it drift back), batted at his hand (only to allow its return) and made a razor-sharp comment (only to giggle upon the next breath).
Sammi dialed the van’s phone and talked rapid-fire in Arabic. Was he recounting our sex conversation? From the defensive tone of his voice, however, I guessed that he was explaining this diversion to his boss. Out the window, arid hills rushed by. The West Bank was two miles north of here, and I imagined the van swerving right as Sammi babbles some frenzied excuse for the change in plans, and then we wheeze to a stop and he disappears with my Guatemalan quetzal note as a gang of black-hooded men with Soviet Kalashnikovs rush the van and pummel me with rifle butts and stuff my carcass in the back of a truck which somehow makes it through the Barrier Wall checkpoint because the kid-guard is dreaming of his beautiful, horny Jewish girlfriend and from there it’s a rumbling nightmare ride through Jordan to Syria and then weeks of inconceivable torture followed by a starring role in a hi-res beheading video brought to you by those masters of mayhem, ISIS. I’m no Joe Alon, of course, no heroic son of the desert, so for me there’ll be nothing but a brief Israeli news report (he seemed a bit lost, said the driver guy; sweaty and confused, remarked the hiking gal), grieving wife and stone marker over empty grave back home…oy vey, stop it already! He’s harmless; harmless and a ticking time bomb, that is, but let’s not exaggerate theories linking terrorism to institutionalized sexual frustration and its toxic byproducts of shame, humiliation and rage. He’s harmless enough, and yet. I gripped both hiking poles in my right hand, ready to use them as spears if Sammi detoured from the main road, and this time I imagined myself stabbing the pole tips deep into his neck.
Fortunately he turned off the highway in the direction of Eretz Yisrael, away from the so-called Territories. Rumble, shudder, shriek, we pulled into the parking lot of the convenience store where just yesterday a clerk kindly, yet rudely – an Israeli combo-special – showed me where to snag super-cooled water bottles from the cold case. Sammi urged me to hurry inside. “Go where that black man is,” he ordered, but I saw no black man. A Jewish soldier of Ethiopian descent, maybe, ducking into the market? The afterimage of his anal fantasies?
“Two minutes,” he continued, “you have two minutes.” No, I told him, “three minutes,” it’ll take three, not two minutes to get caspomat cash. Of course, it would probably take ten minutes or the machine would seize up or Sammi would drive away but this was about getting the upper hand, not making sense. Our haggling bogged down. Finally I slapped him on the shoulder and just departed the van. Halfway to the store, hobbling across the blacktop like some refugee spit up by the desert, foot protesting its abuse, I realized that I’d left behind my backpack, poles, camera, passport, iPod with photos of wife, mother and daughter, dirty underwear and indecipherable notes. I stopped and looked back. The van moved – adrenaline surge of panic! – only to pull into a closer parking space.
It wasn’t easy getting that caspomat to work…all those Hebrew letters and sticky metal buttons, shit! Within two, three, ten minutes, G-d knows, I returned to the van where I showed Sammi two 100-skilim bills and, because our price was 140 skilim, asked for 60 skilim change. No, he replied, he wanted to keep all 200, and out popped the pity card. “I am a poor man,” said Sammi, “a very poor man.” He stared out the windshield into the heat-shimmered distance, and for the first time I saw him as pathetic and scheming. So perhaps that’s why I responded, inelegantly, “Poor? You have a smart phone!” and then I tossed the Hebrew grenade – Ma Pitom! – that roughly translates as “What in the World!” or “Are you Fucking Kidding Me?” and I fulminated in strangled Hebrish about the sacred deal we’d made and the honor that exists between men and I doubt he understood any of it. A brief pause. Sammi proposed a backup plan: I should run into the convenience store and buy Coca-Cola in the bottle – the biggest bottle. What? I checked my watch; he was 20 minutes overdue for his group that may or may not exist and now he wanted Coke?
No way, not with this foot. I handed him the 200 skilim, forty bucks. “You buy Coca-Cola,” I ordered. “You buy it.” Sammi looked annoyed, even pouted a little, and then set off across the lot into the store. The keys hung like a talisman from the steering column…all I had to do was start the engine, roll away…Jesus H. Christ, what was taking so long? A couple million minutes went by – was he calling his Hamas friends? Arranging the drop? When Sammi finally returned he carried the two smallest cans of Coca-Cola in existence, about two inches high – toy Cokes, little red vials. I pounded mine back like a shot and made an exaggerated “Ahhh!” Sammi sipped at his. Then – hurry, hurry, we’re late, the group is waiting, you must understand – he ground the van’s gears and it lurched forward.
“Garbage car,” he yelled.
Minutes later, at top, shuddering speed, Sammi asked me what I drive. “BMW?” he suggested. Alas, no, and once more his disappointment became a kind of flinching anti-orgasm as I told him about our aged Toyota Paseo; besides, I didn’t mention, my wife would never tolerate a German car in the driveway. But surely a strapping American man has a second car, yes? “Do you drive Cabriolet?” he asked. I’d never heard of a Cabriolet – it’s an Audi convertible, also German – so what the hell, yes, I said I drive a Cabriolet. A red Cabriolet, I proclaimed, and I liked the fancy-bottle-of-wine sound of those words, red Cabriolet. Yes, yes, shouted Sammi, and he dialed the radio to Arabic music that scolded the whining engine. “Do you vote for Obama?” he asked, adding: “I love him!” Sammi held his hand over his head, taking measure. “He thinks, very high thinker.” Do you like Netanyahu, I asked, and the answer was affirmative. Why? “Finances,” said Sammi, “he is very good with finances.” Okay, how about Tsipi Livni, a female political rival of Netanyahu’s. My driver spat a chuckling gargle – such a stupid question!
The van pulled onto a dirt road and stopped in front of Kibbutz Kramim. Now Sammi turned about and demanded another 100 skilim. This time, I remained calm. No, I said, we have a deal. He retried his “poor, poor man” bit, whacking me with my fancy, red Cabriolet, but I wasn’t buying it and he wasn’t all in. Our dance music had petered out. So I called him “my friend” in English and Hebrew, as if to make it true by linguistic duplication, and he wished me a simple, humble “Shabbat Shalom.” Then I hopped from the van, twinging my foot as I landed, and the pain rippled upwards with the swift ardor of a long-deserved punishment. Sammi pulled a strut-straining U-turn and roared away in that clichéd cloud of Middle Eastern dust that harbors the ashes of desperate, pissed-off people who barged into each other thousands of years ago.
I almost waved, but didn’t. The sky was cloudless, the sun in peak, melt-down-the-humans form. Somehow, I hoped, my wife would rip herself from the shivah tomorrow and join me at the kibbutz. She is, indeed, a very resourceful woman. Would Sammi, after enough scrounging and scamming the likes of me, have what it takes to attract a Muslim woman as worthy, as wonderful as my wife? Gently, he reached out and stroked her black hair with one hand. And could that fine lady possibly compete with the beautiful, insatiable, eternally unavailable Jewish dream women who’d been fucking him day and night without mercy?
A car approached the gate, which opened. I dragged myself inside.
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