Swimming with the fishes, yoga with Egyptians

“Tishmori al-atzmekh”.  Take care of yourself, pleaded the grizzled border agent at the Taba crossing, who I had never met before, calling my by the diminutive version of the name he read off my passport, the same nickname my father called me when I was little.  I was speaking on behalf of our group of four American students, which as a sort-of Hebrew speaker, sometimes smooths the process, particularly when the friends I’m travelling with are not white.  And being a sort-of Hebrew speaker who looks passably-Jewish puts me, for the moment at least, on the “inside” of Israeli society, despite the American passport I just presented, and the guard is worried about me in a way that he is not worried about my friends, maybe I remind him more of his own children, or maybe he thinks I am more or a target.

We turn off the Hebrew as soon as we cross, saying “marhaba” and “awfan” instead of “shalom” and “slikha”.  The owners of the camp on the beach where we are staying pick us up from the crossing, so they know that we came from Israel, but we play down the connection, present ourselves as tourists rather than students who have been there for multiple years.

At the camp, we relax, we snorkel, we curl up on the cushions reading our medical school books, and then, drawn back to the otherworldly universe that is the edge of the coral reef, we snorkel again.

Our second morning, a young man in green pants and perfect English with an undefinable accent, is walking around inviting people to a yoga class that he will be giving at 9:30.  One of my friends and I decide to go, and a few other women show up as well.  His name, he tells us is Ali, and he just got back from a month-long yoga retreat in Rishikesh, India.

It’s a good class, he has a good perspective on yoga, he seems to have internalized that it’s not a competitive sport, and his corrections are subtle and helpful.  It was a beautiful place to be doing yoga, on the sand, with the sea in front of us and the mountains rising up behind us, but the heat began to overwhelm people and we cut slightly short at the end.

Afterwards, my friend and I are speaking with him.  He says he is from here- from Egypt.  I mention that I haven’t been to Cairo but I want to go.  Ali is surprised- how did we get here if not from  Cairo?  We tell him that we crossed from Israel at Taba.  He asks us what Israel is like.  “There’s a lot of  . . . security,” says my friend.  I don’t want to blow our cover, even though I feel safe, but I also feel protective of Israel, defensive maybe.  “It has a lot of sub-cultures,” I say.  “You can go from a more traditional Bedouin community, to a very religious Jewish community, to a secular, modern one, and sometimes it’s all a bit mixed together.”

“And people are a bit aggressive,” says my friend.  “It’s true,” I said.  “They get in your business, though sometimes they mean well.  Like, an old man yelled at me a few days ago for not wearing a sweater, even though it wasn’t cold.”

Ali laughs.  “My grandfather would do something like that.”

I asked him what Egypt was like these days.  He told us that they had gotten a new monarchy in place of the old one, but now that the people had woken up, they would not stop fighting until there was a democracy.  He told us that he had gone to India to find himself, or to first lose himself, and then find himself.  He reminded me then of just about every Israeli I had ever met.

My friends and I went snorkeling one last time, and then headed in to shower and pack and travel back to Israel.  At the crossing, my friend expresses the hope that she doesn’t get the extra-special-for-non-white-people-interrogation that she got on her way back from Jordan.  We are behind a very large group of tourists, but eventually we get to the passport check, where I speak on behalf of our group again and there are no problems.

Then we are putting our bags through the scanner, and my checkpoint karma catches up with me, because my backpack is pulled off the belt, and I am asked to wait.  My friends go on ahead, anticipating that I will catch up at the border control station where I will pass through more easily than them.  I ask the guard why my backpack was pulled aside, and he tells me it’s not suspicious.  “Then what are you looking for,” I ask?  He says he is just looking.  And he looks through the wet towel and bathing suit balled up on top, and then through the overabundance of medical textbooks that I brought, leafing through them and shaking them out.  He then runs my bag through the scanner again, and clears me to repack in and go on.

In the meantime I had been talking with a Filipina tourist who’s own overabundance of souvenirs was being examined by the guard.  I told her that one of the friends I was traveling with had just come back from a medical student rotation in the Philippines.  She asked me if he had liked it, and I told her that he had said that his host family was very welcoming and had fattened him up.  She laughed, and I wished her a good trip in Israel.   I don’t say that I hope strangers don’t try to hire her to clean their floors or change their grandparents’ diapers, as happened to a few of my Asian friends here.

At the very last passport check, I was behind a Palestinian-Israeli family.  The border guard took the passports from the father, removed the tickets, and sent them on their way.  When it was my turn, he looked at me and asked me if anything had happened to me.  I was a bit sweaty and disheveled, but only from travelling.  I didn’t think I looked as if anything had happened, and he obviously wasn’t asking everyone that, he was just picking up the thread of Israeli border guards worrying about me.  “I’m fine,” I told him, and headed out to where my friends were waiting for me in the sun.


An incomplete list of people who should not be surprised . . . .

-Supporters of Palestine, when all the French Jews make aliya and, convinced that all Arabs want to kill them, and join the ranks of the angry and paranoid.

-Israelis, when the Bedouin in Israel stop going into the army, and demand en masse that their villages become part of the future state of Palestine.

-Israelis, when Hamas has a surge in popularity now or very shortly.

-Palestinians, when people in Sderot cheer and drink beer while watching bombs fall on Gaza.

-Israelis, when Palestinians give out candy to celebrate a successful attack on Israelis.

-Moderate Israelis, when they realize how much irreparable harm is being done to their own country by the daily mobs of fascist Jews beating up Arabs and leftist Jews.

-The current Israeli government, when no one takes seriously their claim that they care about Palestinian civilian lives at all.

-Anyone, when the results of this carnage prove startlingly ephemeral, except for a bit more grief and hatred in the air.

What’d I miss?

it doesn’t matter where the bomb came from

It doesn’t matter where the bomb came from. It was dropped from a precision-guided drone. It boarded a bus strapped to a guy’s chest under his clothes. Either way, you approach afterward, it is surreally silent, despite the wailing sirens and the moans and calls for help. You get closer, the world becomes more topsy-turvy, the buildings and street don’t look like normal. They’re shredded and pockmarked by shrapnel. Closer still, and you see trickles of blood running down the sidewalk. Over there, is a severed forearm. Elsewhere, indeterminate flesh. It doesn’t matter who bombed you when that was your arm, your flesh. It doesn’t matter whether they wanted to kill you, or just considered you acceptable “collateral damage”, when they killed you.

Stop it. Stop blowing people up. Stop saying it’s justified. Stop saying your way is more moral than theirs, or at least tell that to the people we blew up.

Why Beer Sheva isn’t Zichron Yaakov

The roiling waters are clear as glass as we swim in the sea below Zichron Yaakov. Later, we hike and jog back up to that white city on a hill, we shower the salt from our skin, and as the sun vanishes over the ocean horizon, we head out in search of dinner.

The streets are quiet and tree-lined, and each yard is planted with flowers. There are no dumpsters overflowing with garbage and rangy cats, as there are in Beer Sheva. Parents speak gently to their children in Hebrew as they push them down the streets in their strollers. Signs over businesses and historical sites reference the Baron Rothchild, the original founder and patron of this town, a hundred or so years ago.

My friend keeps asking, why couldn’t Beer Sheva be more like Zichron?

Because, I think, of the quiet current of money and privilege that run through this town. Can’t you feel it, smell it, taste it, behind the well-paved streets, the collected garbage, the pretty single-family homes, all surrounded by vineyards on a bluff above the mediterranean?

Beer Sheva, like the river named after it, is made from what washes up when it has nowhere left to go, and it peters out here. The Beer Sheva river was running two weeks ago, a muddy slurry of whatever garbage and pollution has collected between the Hebron hills and here. It never reaches the sea.

A Bedouin man once told me the Bedouin like to say that the strongest tribes chose the wildness of the desert, and the weaker ones settled in the fertile valleys, but he believed the opposite was true: the most vulnerably tribes were pushed into the wastelands, the harshest places.

That’s still what’s happening. Waves after waves of Jewish immigrants were settled here when they had no resources to go elsewhere. First the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, then later the immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.

Beer Sheva, and the Negev, is the story of Nanu, who cleans floors at the hospital, and proudly moved her family from the absorption center by the railroad tracks, to schuna tet, a newer neighborhood. She insists on washing the mugs I used for tea and coffee working late on my Autism research project, even though that’s not her job. She lost half of her family on the long march from Ethiopia to Sudan to come here.

It’s the story of Sara and Jazi, and their daughters, how their grandfather was exiled to Jordan in 1948 by the Israelis and never allowed to return. It’s the story of how their family has worked to improve the education in their village, culminating in many students coming in on Saturdays, their only free day, for extra english lessons.

It’s the story of a medical resident stumbling through her morning report after a sleepless night, her headscarf pinned tightly over her scrubs, struggling with the Hebrew words that usually flow so easily, and it’s the story of her Russian and American attending physicians, carefully listening to the story of an old woman admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.

This place grows on you.

Holot again

I was at Holot again yesterday, with a group of volunteers, helping asylum seekers fill out refugee status documents (RSDs). The process was demoralizing. We sat at the picnic tables with the lattice pretend-roofs, and when it started to drizzle we had no shelter for our papers. The first man I interviewed fled Eritrea because he did not want to serve indefinitely in the army. “If it were for three years, four years, I would do it,” he said. “In Eritrea, it’s until you are forty or fifty, we don’t know when it ends.” I asked him what would happen if he went back to Eritrea. He said they would put him in jail. Would there be a trial? No. Would they beat him? Of course. Would they feed him? Yes, just enough to keep him alive, maybe a piece of pita twice a day. At the end, I shook his hand and wished him good luck. Many countries consider this indefinite service grounds for asylum, Israel does not.  His application will be rejected. The second man I interviewed was from Darfur. I asked him if he would go home. He said his village was completely destroyed by the Janjaweed. Some of his family is in displaced person camps in Sudan. He has a brother in Australia, and another brother in Belgium, both of whom have recognized status as refugees. I write this all down. Jamal, a middle-aged inmate/asylum seeker who dutifully translates for us, was sitting there bored, but now he interrupted me for the first time. “And what do you think of that,” he asked me, “that his brothers have asylum and he doesn’t?” “What is different between him and his brothers, that he is in prison here in Israel?” “Nothing,” I said.


Outside the prison camp
Issa’s name becomes my password
my secret handshake.
I don’t know these men. I reach out
shake hands, my name is Sarah.
Yael adds “she took care of Issa,
the Issa who was shot
crossing the border.”
They shake my hand again, as friends.
(If anyone took care of him
it was Yael.) They all know Issa,
or at least who Issa is
except one man, confused
who knows a few too many men
shot crossing the border,
not that far from here.