October 17, 2004 Update

Letters from Israel

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Dear family and friends,

Driving home from the Judean desert recently, we stumbled across an English-language oldies station calling itself Mood 92 FM. It didn't sound like any Israeli station we knew of, so we guessed that it was Jordanian. Jordan used to have an English language music station a few years ago. We stayed tuned out of curiosity.

Suddenly and without warning, another station cut in on the frequency. Strident, Arabic martial music blared out, with heavy male voices bellowing a defiant song. My Arabic is extremely rusty, but I could pick out enough words to figure out the gist: "our people", "revolution", and, finally, "Hamas".

We were tuned to a pro-Hamas radio station.

And then, just as suddenly, the mellow tones of Mood 92 returned: "All we are saying is give peace a chance."

We couldn't stop laughing. Half-seriously I looked around for the hidden camera. Surely this was someone's idea of a practical joke?!

We drove through the French Hill junction, with Arab Jerusalem neighbourhoods to one side, Jewish Jerusalem ahead of us, and heavily-guarded bus stops full of Jewish travellers by the side of the road.

Too soon, the Hamas station regained control of the frequency. More martial music, which faded to an enraged orator. I picked up the word "Palestine" over and over again, interspersed with assorted vocabulary words from my old Arabic newspaper reading homework: "homeland", "nation", "army". The speaker worked himself into a frenzy. Then a woman's voice came on, apparently identifying the station by the name Al-Manar - also the name of a TV and radio network run by Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of the organisation's propaganda vehicles against Israel. I wonder if they're connected.

And then it was back to Mood 92. Gloria Gaynor was belting out "I Will Survive". If only it were always this easy to get rid of Hamas.

We were returning home from a day trip to Ein Prat, just east of Jerusalem, a little Garden of Eden hidden away in the Judean desert, a refuge of water and greenery amidst the rocky barrenness of the desert cliffs.

The nature reserve is a narrow valley with a refreshing stream trickling through its floor, fed by springs which gush year round. Lush figs and shady eucalyptus trees grow here and there, seemingly from the middle of the stream. A hiking trail leads up to the rockier end of the wadi, towards the springs themselves. Emerald patches of natural grass - a rarity here - are dotted between sections of the streams.

Pools form between natural rock pavements, and agile fish glide and leap in the water, glinting and gleaming in the mellow gold glow of the afternoon autumn sun. They share their home with tiny black water snails and an occasional river crab, both creatures making their homes by the rocky ledges of the pools.

A gentle breeze stirs the luxurious foliage in the damp canyon bed, rustling the dried grasses on higher ledges, remnants of the fertility brought by last winter's rains. In a small meadow, white stalks of squill flowers wave meditatively, heralds of this year's approaching wet season.

It was Friday, part of the weekend for both Jews and Muslims. Several families, Jewish and Arab, were picnicking separately under the trees by the stream. Teenage Palestinian boys basked in the sun just beyond the glade, while a religious Israeli family found a shady spot right by the water under a huge fig tree.

Suddenly one of their young boys let out an excited cry, pointing to the water's edge: "Scorpion, scorpion! A big one! Here, here!"

It was, of course, a crab, desert scorpions not being especially fond of ponds. And with that settled, peaceful relaxation returned to the reserve.

I found my own personal paradise up by the flat stone slabs at the narrow end of the valley. Above I could watch hyrax, small furry brown mammals, nimbly scrambling over the rocks and grazing in the trees. Ravens soared overhead and small flocks of Tristram's grackles, a common local bird, congregated along the cliff, their characteristic whistles echoing down the canyon as they swooped across it in a flash of orange wings.

Below me a religious Israeli family was enjoying one of the larger, deeper, rock pools, an odd elliptical shape caught between flat sheets of bare stone. The teenage girls climbed in to the water fully clad, trousers under billowing skirts to protect their modesty. The father joined them, leaving his gun on the bank within easy reach.

Above us on yet another ledge an Arab family had laid out a large picnic, and they nestled together on the small promontory, slightly too many of them to fit comfortably onto their scenic, breezy perch.

Some Israeli teenagers clambered over the steeper rocks at the head of the canyon, moving on from there to inspect one of the many caves in the cliff walls.

A young secular Israeli family ambled along the edge of the stream, the mother with her baby strapped to her chest as she negotiated the stepping stones.

In the distance, a black-robed, pony-tailed, Russian Orthodox priest made his way up the path with a bag of groceries, heading towards the steep stone steps where a small, ancient monastery balanced on a high vantage point, a relic of the many hermits who inhabited this region in the early years of Christianity.

On the hiking trail skirting the valley side, a pair of IDF soldiers in dusty combat fatigues and floppy army-issue sun hats patrolled the reserve, regularly pacing up and down the path, protecting the peace of this idyll, keeping watch for any sign of trouble.

For this is also a "seam" between Israeli and Palestinian areas. The Israeli village of Anatot is clustered haphazardly high above the reserve, while further along the road lies the Palestinian village of Hizmeh.

Walking back to the car I paused for a photograph, trying out my new digital camera. I suddenly found a small hand thrust into my face. It belonged to a smiling twelve-year-old girl clad in a red tracksuit, a short dark braid at her neck. "Hello," she greeted me with a thick Arabic accent, keen to shake my hand. Behind her another girl stood shyly looking over her shoulder.

Their eyes were focused on my head, just above my face. Ahhh, the hat. My trusty broad brimmed brown felt tiyul hat. It is a fraction on the cowboyish side. I'm not a John Wayne impersonator, but it does keep the sun off my easily scorched skin.

"Do you speak Arab?" she asked me. I don't know which was worse, my basic college Arabic or their rudimentary schoolroom English. They didn't know Hebrew. Somehow we managed a brief conversation.

They had hoped I was a "real" American. I was sorry to disappoint them.

They giggled and pointed to the stream: "Fishhhhh?" And then something I couldn't make out. "Yes, fish," I replied. "Fishhhh," they responded.

I asked where they were from. One of them pointed in the general direction of Hizmeh, though she might have meant to indicate Jerusalem, hard to tell. Then we shook hands again and bade one another farewell, as they frolicked off to play by the stream with their picnicking family.

Note to self: I must brush up on my Arabic. You never know when it will come in handy.


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Copyright 2004 by Leiah Elbaum.