Travels with the Anointed
“But as for you, turn around and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.”
It had been 548 days since he had driven me across the US border into Tijuana, and I was anxious to see him again. Steve had taken two months off, to come with me on the next leg of my travels. At the airport we hugged and talked at the same time, until we were tired.
He looked a little older and had lost more hair, but he was still the same animated Steve of the Jacuzzi. California had arrived in Canaan. It was my first responsibility to show him some survival skills. Maimonides had predicted that, in the Messianic age, ‘the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust.’ I showed Steve how to strategically fill a falafel with eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, pickles and fiery chilies, and how to use the tahini sauce as mortar. It stuck to his moustache and his glasses. He liked it. I took him to the Hotel Josef, where I demonstrated how to make his bunk and valuables secure, from more imaginative, but less scrupulous, pilgrims. We found English Ken working upstairs as a bartender, and I showed Steve how to pull me off, before my choking almost killed him. We were a team again.
It was February in Los Angeles, and Steve was hanging ten for some sun, and a little quality beach time.
The next morning, we headed south to the Red Sea. In the back of Egged bus #390, spectacular views of the Dead Sea and Negev desert, and my Sudanese chess set, entertained us for hours, all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba. When it came to seas, the consensus was that we were ‘better Red than Dead.’ The Negev brigade had captured Eilat from the British in 1949, so unprepared for the victory, that they had no Israeli flag with them. They hoisted one anyway, hurriedly drawn in ink. Eilat was a much smaller resort town back then.
We checked into Hostel Max (‘The only Welsh and Australian hostel in Israel’), and went to the Sabra Hotel for a burger and beer, on our way to the beach. Steve was at home again. He met a young Canadian girl named René, who followed us down the Egyptian Sinai coast next afternoon.
Across from the tiny palm frond hut we slept in on the beach, the stars danced over Arabia. Here Orion was the soul of Osiris, the Egyptian god of fertility and afterlife, the ‘Star of Gold‘ in the Pyramid Texts. Dahab is Arabic for ‘gold,’ the colour of the sun and the sand, and the flame of the campfires we played our guitars around. We spent two days beachcombing, riding camels, resting under the date palms, and getting lost in the barbed wire encampments of the Bedouin villages. Steve cut his foot on a piece of glass. The desert is a place without mercy or expectation. Fourteen years later, no one expected that three of these Bedouin would self-detonate in separate bomb attacks, and send two-dozen Dahab tourists to their afterlife. Osiris was kinder to us. Steve and I left our frond hut, into the golden sunrise over Arabia, with only a bandage.
The following day we had to climb over the fence at Max’s Hostel, to make the six o’clock bus to Masada. The sudden realization, that Max’s guard dogs were not terribly appreciative of people climbing over the fence, propelled our ambition to new heights.
Masada was the noble sacrifice epicentre of Israel. There had been innumerable instances of genocidal carnage in Jewish history, but few of them were associated with this degree of heroic resistance. It was the Hebrew equivalent of Thermopylae, the Alamo, Bastogne, and Wake Island. But those who died on the mountaintop of Masada were not entirely innocent victims. They were a radical splinter group of zealots called the Sicarii, or ‘dagger-men.’ At popular assemblies in Jerusalem, they would pull concealed blades out from under their cloaks, assassinate Roman occupiers and their sympathizers, and then quietly disappear back into the crowd. They destroyed the food supply of the city, so that people would be forced to fight against the Roman siege. Herod had constructed Masada a hundred years earlier, as a refuge from Cleopatra. In 66 AD, the Sicarii fleeing Jerusalem overwhelmed the Roman garrison that had guarded the desert fortress for the previous 70 years.
It was a seemingly impregnable redoubt. Twelve-foot thick casemate walls enclosed a palace, with vast stores of food and arms left by Herod, and cisterns full of rainwater, a quarter of a mile off the desert floor. The Governor of Judaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, brought his Tenth Legion here seven years later, and waited. Over the next four months, with Jewish slaves, he constructed eight camps, connected by a circular wall around the fortress. He built a ramp in twelve weeks, moving thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth, up the western face of the plateau. He finally attacked with ten thousand troops, siege engines, flaming torches, rock bombardments, and battering rams. On the night he set the fortress gates on fire, the 900 defenders drew pottery shard lots, and killed each other in turn, so that the last man would be the only one to have to take his own life. This communal act of self-sacrifice astounded the Romans with its audacity.
Steve and I made our way slowly up the scorching steep narrow ‘snake path’ to the summit. The sunlight was too bright to look up. It was eerily quiet and lonely, except for the wolf-whistles of the black and orange Tristram’s starling that followed us through the ruins. In the Western palace we met Barb and Marion, two girls from Alberta, and teamed up to tour the rest of the cliff-top sights.
As impressive and iconic as it was, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the unequivocal heroism of the Sicarii. They had actually been forced out of Jerusalem, before the Roman siege of the city, by its other citizens, who had had enough of their robberies and assassinations. The Sicarii raided nearby Jewish villages, and were responsible for a massacre of 700 inhabitants of Ein Gedi, most of whom were women and children. Today, this might be called terrorism. There is no evidence of any real battles fought around Masada, and the entire siege lasted four months, at most. More evidence exists, therefore, that they were more besieged than that they were heroes. It took Eleazar Ben-Yair two speeches to convince them to commit suicide. Hesitation is not usually considered a valiant attribute. Moreover, suicide itself is not exactly heroic, and is strictly proscribed in Judaism, as a sin. It is also not clear that the only two choices available to the Sicarii were surrender or suicide. They could have fought to the death, created a diversion to allow some to escape, or even tried to negotiate, as other besieged communities had done. The image of the two women and five children survivors, cowering in a cistern, is a less than intrepid legacy. No one would consider the bloated of Jonestown, or the barbequed of Waco, as examples of courageous defiance. That being said, it was a different time, as much as our identities then and there were as different as they are now. Ben-Yair’s last words, according to Josephus, were spoken in another world:
“Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery. After that, let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding sheet. But first, let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames. It will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare - our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because, as we resolved at the beginning, we chose death rather than slavery.”
It was actually that store of food that gave rise to a most worthy source of admiration. A 2,000-year-old seed, discovered during the archeological excavations in the early 1960’s, sprouted successfully to become a date palm, the oldest know such germination in history. In all the inspiration that life can provide, that one is truly heroic.
There was one other detail, about Masada, that drew a crooked heroic line. The spatial relationship of Jerusalem, Masada, and Petra correspond to Mitaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak, the belt stars of Orion. L’Chaim.
* * *
“But Life will suit Itself to Sorrow’s most detested fruit, Like to the apples on the Dead Sea’s shore, All ashes to the taste.”
The apples tasted just fine, as did the spiced beans, chicken casserole, bread, cottage cheese, and beer. Steve and I, and the Alberta girls, had caught the last bus to Ein Gedi. We found a nice free campsite on the Dead Sea, built a blazing fire, and talked into the darkness. The same stars we had over Arabia had moved to Jordan, but they were still as spectacular, a quarter of a mile below sea level. It rained during the night, but that didn’t affect us much. The Gold Kazoo was still waterproof, even without the zipper, and we actually slept better because of the higher oxygen content that came with the increased barometric pressure. Dawn found us running headlong into the bromine brackishness, and rolling onto our backs. We laughed at each other, floating above the waterline in the oily brine, kicking our legs in the air and waving our hands at the same time. Steve described our mood as ‘buoyant.’
We left Barb and Marion Alberta-bound at the Jericho junction, and Steve and I hitchhiked on, and into the oldest permanently inhabited city on Earth. The dark green lobby of the Arab hotel we checked into still had the original cobwebs. Nothing gets old in the Middle East without turmoil. The bedding in our room was that ancient. No one else seemed to live in Jericho, if that’s what you wanted to call it, except for the desk clerk and the original bearded guy in the corner, with his white ghutrah and black iqaal cord headdress, cane, and amber worry beads. He flicked them slowly, clack-clack-clack, in time to the pendulum of the grandfather clock beside the staircase. The scene was all Hitchcock.
I signed the register. No one had been here for months. If there had been bedbugs, they had all long died of starvation. The hot water we had in our shower had obviously been meticulously saved over time.
Steve and I stowed our gear, and boarded a Mercedes sherut taxi to Tell es-Sultan, the site of the ‘old city.’
“What are we waiting for?” Steve asked, when he figured out we weren’t moving.
“For full.” Said the driver. Clack-clack-clack.
“Will it be full soon?” He asked.
“Insh’Allah.” Clack-clack-clack. He turned the nya-nya music up a notch.
“How much for not full?” I asked. He turned the nya-nya music down.
“Fifty shekels.” He said.
“Five.” I replied.
“Thirty.” He countered.
“Ten.” I said.
“OK.” He turned the nya-nya music up. We moved.
Judging by the pile of rubble we arrived at, Joshua’s trumpets had done a hell of a job. There had been no fewer than twenty successive settlements on the site, the first dating back over ten thousand years. Alexander the Great had used it as his private estate, and Mark Anthony gave it to Cleopatra, who leased it to Herod, who named it after his mother. In the 1950s, the archeologist Kathleen Kenyon transformed Jericho into trenches. Her questionable methods and conclusions are now the subject of no small criticism. She ignored the physical work of her predecessors, and failed to properly analyze what she had uncovered, because of a bizarre obsession with the pottery types she hadn’t found in Jericho IV. Kenyon seemed determined to prove that the Israelite biblical account of the fate of the city was wrong. However the subsequent findings of Bryant Wood supported the Book of Joshua’s version of events. Jericho had been strongly fortified, and underwent a short siege just after the spring harvest. The inhabitants had no chance to flee with their foodstuffs, the walls were leveled (possibly by an earthquake), and the city was burned but not plundered. By the Israelites. The impressive 2000 year-old siege tower that I looked down into, must have been used for something. What was once the biblical ‘City of Palm Trees,’ with constant sunshine, rich alluvial soil, abundant springs and streams, wild game, sugarcane, bananas, and fragrances, had become a scene of rock and dirt devastation. I stared at the message. The story of the oldest permanently inhabited city on Earth was a parable for environmental annihilation. It was, after all is said and done, what we did, and still do best.
The next morning another sherut took us the 36 kilometres, to Jerusalem. I navigated Steve through the covered maze of the Old City, to the Lemon Tree. The two Arab owners warmed up the reception.
“You are most welcome, Mr. Wink, as is your friend from America.”
“Do you have hot water?” Steve asked.
Their eyes looked up in unison.
“Is that a yes?” Steve asked me.
“I’ll explain later.” I said. And took him around to all my old haunts. We ran into Barb and Marion from the Dead Sea at Open Sesame. Sitting with them was Cecilia, a young lovely from Stockholm. They were all also staying at the Lemon Tree. Cecilia said there had been hot water.
“That’s great news”. Offered Steve.
“She’s Swedish.” I said.
“So?” He asked.
“I’ll explain later.” I said.
We spent the rest of the day socializing with some UN troops from Fiji, alternating snacks and libations at the JOC Inn and Danish Tea House, and trading travelogues, long into the evening. Before we went upstairs to our bunkbeds, Cecilia took me aside to show me the little kittens she was looking after, for the owners. That night I dreamt the lyrics to her song.
Steve went off with Barb and Marion to the Israeli Museum and Yad Vashem next morning, and I had a slow omelette, pita, and yoghurt with Cecilia, on the sunlit stone roof terrace of our hostel. Branches of all three Abrahamic religions grew out of the real lemon tree, into the surrounding forest of hanging laundry and television aerials above us. We floated together on our Turkish coffee. She told me that it would be her birthday the following day.
Saint Cecilia was the Roman patron saint of music; She was the way for the blind, and provided a heaven to gaze upon. She had my vote. Music arrived at the crossroads of guitars, the friends who could play them, and the reappearance of Steve and the Albertans, on the Lemon Tree rooftop in the late afternoon. We played until hunger and thirst drove us back out into the cobble streets, searching for less ethereal forms of sustenance.
Returning late, Cecilia and I were disturbed by the Arab owners turning on the light in the courtyard. Hard triplets rolled out of their mouths.
“Yaqta’ ‘omrak, sharmoota.“ I wasn’t really sure, but it didn’t sound like terms of endearment. We evaporated into our bunks.
The next morning Steve and I visited David’s Tower, climbed the walls of the old city, and ended up dressing up as Bedouins in an Arab Bazaar down Al-Mujahadin Street. I’m sure they’ve since changed the name. The fragment of an old terracotta oil lamp, with an embossed menorah, caught my eye. For more than I should have paid, I bought the fragment, and the owner’s guarantee of authenticity:
“This is to certify… for old oil lamp manoura qurter of the herodian oil lamp two 200 hundred B.C.E. – 40 A.D… and this certificate garanteed for it.”
Steve thought the certificate was likely worth more than the garantee.
In the evening, we held a well-attended birthday party for Cecilia. There was a mixture of Arab and Western music, and wine and mint tea. This was our last night in Jerusalem. As the streets outside grew silent, so did the courtyard. Cecilia turned, and asked me if I had got her anything for her birthday. I closed her eyes and placed something in her hand.
“What’s this?” She asked.
“Open your eyes.” I said.
“It’s a key.” She observed. “What does it open?”
“A door in the Al-Ahram.” I answered.
“What is the Al-Ahram?” She asked.
“Come with me.” I said. And she smiled as I took her other hand, and we left the Lemon Tree in the darkness.
“If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its strength. Let my tongue cling to my palate if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my highest joy.”
* * *
“And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them…but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.”
Steve and I left the Lemon Tree forever the next morning. Even the Arab owners kissed us goodbye. We boarded Egged bus #405, for the hour trip downhill to Tel Aviv, and then another to the Caesarea turnoff. It was three kilometers of almost quiet hiking to the ruins.
“It’s the hat.’ Said Steve, out of nowhere.
“What’s the hat?” I said, puzzled.
“The hat is the reason you’re so lucky.” He replied.
I had to think about this. I hadn’t been exactly celibate over the previous year and a half but, since I picked up my old salt and pepper wool Ascot cap, in the mail at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv, I had become more distracted.
“Nonsense.” I said, and continued walking.
Caesarea was originally a pagan city that Herod had rebuilt, in honour of Augustus. In 66 A.D., Jewish worshippers found Greek civilians, sacrificing birds in front of the local synagogue. The Romans ignored the ensuing protest that, broadening into demonstrations against taxation, would become a widespread violent revolt in Jerusalem. After an entire legion was ambushed and destroyed in the Beth Horon pass, the Romans retaliated, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. Twenty five hundred Jewish captives were slaughtered in gladiatorial games in Caesarea’s amphitheatre, as a celebration of its becoming the new administrative capital of the Roman province of Judea, back where it all began. That’s where Steve and I spent the day. After it all ended, we walked past the viaduct into a little Arab town, to buy provisions. Steve was going into California withdrawal, and wanted to camp on the beach.
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea.” I offered.
“It’ll be great.” He said.
We bought hummous, pita, cucumbers, tomatoes, and yoghurt, and walked back across the sand and Marram beach grass, to a depression in the dunes that offered protection from the wind. We ate, and watched the red sunset melt into the Mediterranean.
I could see that Steve was still not completely at peace with his inner California.
“Let’s make a campfire.” He said.
“I really don’t think that’s such a good idea.” I replied.
“Why not? It’ll be great.” And he got up, to look for combustibles.
“Steve, this isn’t Seal Beach. These folks are not good with surprises.” But he was too far into his mission to listen.
An hour later we were lying beside a fairly formidable blaze and, even I had to admit, it was a beautiful thing. The orange light flickered off the white sand and tussock shadows, and the stars were a spray display above us. Orion stood guard, looking off towards his native Greece. Steve played with the embers, as the flames began to shorten.
The ground began to shake. Almost imperceptibly at first, it rapidly became a converging earthquake. Up and over the rise of our little dune depression, roared two Israeli halftracks, loaded to their teeth. The tremors stopped when they did, but the shouting had only begun.
They worked they way through the languages of Babel, from Arabic to Hebrew, and finally, to English.
“What are you doing here?” The biggest soldier on the bigger vehicle demanded.
“Camping.” Said Steve. I could barely look.
“Camping?” Asked the Israeli captain, not sure he heard it right the first time.
“Yeah, camping.” Said Steve, again. They were two continents and an Exodus apart.
“Why do need fire?” The captain asked.
“You can’t have camping without a campfire.” Said Steve.
We eventually came to some accommodation about our accommodation, and they left us still scratching their heads, with a word of warning about the Arab village nearby, where we had purchased our comestibles before the combustible.
“Don’t go there.” Said another soldier. “They won’t treat you like we treat you.” I didn’t have the karmic energy to tell them.
It rained all night, after they left.
Steve and I managed to hitch a ride to Haifa next morning with Mahmoud, a Palestinian labourer with ten children, who worked for thirteen dollars a day. We boarded Egged #405 to Kfar HaMacabbi, where Shoshana provided us a warm welcome, an opportunity to wash ourselves and our clothes, and my old bungalow for the night. Mimi was in Egypt, and Irmgard was the only original cast member, still at the kibbutz. The extruder press in the tire factory was finished, and operational. Other than for the yoghurt tasting as good as I remember, everything else had moved on. I could only tell Steve how good it had been.
The rain fell in sheets next morning, but we managed to pack up early, on our way to Acco. It was as drenched in history, as we were with water. Acco had been captured in the First Crusade and, for almost two hundred years, provided the Crusaders with more income than the total revenues of the King of England. It was the final defense of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, falling in a bloody siege to the Egyptians, in 1291 AD. We paid a visit to the Jezzar Pasha Mosque, named after the Mamluk who walked around with a portable gallows, in case anyone displeased him. Known as the ‘butcher’ because of his cruelty, Jezzar had mounted the only successful defense against Napoleon, during the Egyptian campaign.
We made it back to Tel Aviv the same evening. Over the next two days, Steve and I bought our Olympic Airways tickets to Athens, visited museums, played chess, drank red vermouth, and ate our last falafel. I had forgotten about Steve’s snoring, which could kick the nails right out of the roof shingles. Adding chickpeas to the vermouth, served only to convert him to stereo. I was looking forward to Greek salad.
Across the ages, I had come to Israel not expecting, and therefore was rewarded. Unlike other coreligionists I had met on the way here, I never felt like I was ‘coming home.’ I was a product of the Diaspora, and would ever be thus. But Israel had moved me from the realm of prose, back to the realm of poetry. The Romans may have forced my ancestors out of Israel, but the only thing Israel forced out of me was a sigh.
At the airport I was expecting a long and complicated screening. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was simple and effective. Play the player, not the ball.
“Where did you stay in Ethiopia?” Asked the security guy.
“The Nyala Hotel.” I replied.
“That’s a whorehouse.” He said.
I shrugged. He shrugged. Steve shrugged. We were on our way.
“Shalom.” He said. Shalom. Right back at you.
* * *