Sinai Lite

Pamela Olson
24 June 2004

Shalom all,

Dan and I picked up a girl named Yael on our way to the Red Sea city of Eilat last Wednesday. When we stopped for dinner, I asked her where she was from in Israel. She said her dad was in the Israeli Air Force, and they moved around a lot, so she wasn't really from anywhere. She said she was moving to Australia soon if her paperwork came through.

"Why Australia?"

She said her boyfriend was a free-diving world record holder, and as such he might be able to get a special visa to live in Australia. I asked why she wanted to move, and she said, "I want to live anywhere but Israel."

"Why? What don't you like about Israel?"

She rolled her eyes. "The people. And the government. They tax us and tax us, and we get nothing in return. We are supposed to have free health care, we pay taxes, and my boyfriend has special insurance, but one day he was bit by a scorpion fish and had to go to the hospital. They wouldn't pay for it! They said he could have gone to a clinic and filled out paperwork, but he didn't. He didn't have time. He would have died. So they didn't pay for it. It's typical." She shook her head. "And they tax us for everything."

Later I asked her if she had ever visited any of the countries around Israel, and she said, "No! One time we got a flight with a Jordanian airline because it was cheaper, and they flew over Jordan, and we were so scared! What if they had to land? What would happen to us?"

I thought, you'd probably get invited to dinner at someone's house and be offered tea until you couldn't take it anymore. That's generally what happened to me.

"What do you think would happen?" I asked.

She said, "I don't know, but one time an Israeli guy went to Egypt, and he was attacked."

"One guy?"


"You're afraid of Jordan because one guy got attacked in Egypt?"

"You don't understand! They really hate us, I think."

I thought of the Israelis who visited my village in the West Bank last fall. Those who came with an open mind and without a gun were welcomed warmly. I thought about how kindly I'd been treated, as an individual with my own opinions, in all of the Arab countries I visited even with the occupations of Iraq and Palestine in full swing, both generously funded by my tax dollars.

We reached Eilat late at night, and in the morning I found a nice spot under an umbrella near the beach. Dan got his Rescue Diver certification while I slept off my jet lag, read novels, and snorkeled. I read Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake and got a good start on Catch-22.

Eilat was kind of Sinai Lite. There were the dessicated mountains that changed colors from misty purple at sunrise, hazy blue at mid-morning, grey-brown at midday, and bright coral in the evening. There was the sapphire sea, the warm dry air, and the clear blue sky.

But there were no Bedouin offering spliffs and stories (at a nominal fee), no Bedouin-style reefside cafes, no Turkish coffee or desert sage (maramiya) tea. They had an Imax, a large aquarium complex, and NesCafe. The water, because of all the cities, was duller and dirtier and much less full of life and color than the shores of Ras Abu Gallum. But it was still a nice place to sit and read and think.

I looked across the sea at Aqaba, Jordan, and thought how only sixty-odd years ago, the only thing here was this small white city nestled in the ancient mountains between the baby blue sky and the dark blue sea. I watched Lawrence of Arabia before I left the States. It's set during World War I, about the time Europe took over colonial duties in the Middle East from the Turks. Sykes-Picot and all that. I looked north toward Amman, where I learned some of the hardest lessons I hope to learn with some of the kindest people I hope to meet. I can't wait to go back.

I woke up early the next morning and found a Haaretz Magazine (Israel's mainstream leftish news source) lying around, opened to the following article:

During 14 months of service [with the Israeli Defence Force] in Hebron, Yehuda Shaul could not bear the moral erosion he saw in himself and his comrades. Now the ultra-Orthodox 21 year-old has organized an exhibit of soldiers' photographs to bring the reality of the Territories home. Many soldiers willingly offered their testimonies.

He said, and I agree, "I think that what we're doing here transcends politics. It's beyond politics. It's a true and honest look at reality."

I talked to an Israeli girl who moved here a few years ago about the situation in the Territories. She said, "Look, if it were a matter of righteousness, I would renounce my Israeli citizenship, and that's it." But if she did, she would be shipped back to the country she came from, and everything she's done for the past few years would come to nothing.

When we got back to Dan's apartment in Hod HaSharon, an Israeli industrial town near Kfar Sava, I looked down out of a window and saw some children in a playground. Every one of the little boys had a little skull cap on. I don't know a huge amount about Jewish history, but I don't know another time when all these kids could run around in skull caps in a school and be the clear majority and power, not just in their neighborhood but in the whole nation of which they were a part. That was nothing if not an achievement, and I felt a stirring of sympathy for the pre-1948 Jewish people who honestly didn't want to hurt anyone but just wanted a place to call their own and be unafraid in. Of course people were hurt, quite a lot, and continue to be hurt, so that complicates matters...

Some of you wondered if the French guy got through immigration, and I have no reason to think he did not. The border guards didn't seem to have any interest in keeping us out unless we said something really stupid. Actually the French guy was being belligerent the whole time and they still just wanted to get him processed and get him through. It was his bad luck to be surprised and affronted by it. Shaul said in the above article, "A lot of things are done just to demonstrate a presence, to show that the IDF is everywhere at all times." Sounds about right.

The next day I called my friend Ammar, the Palestinian from Jayyous who goes to university in Jenin. All his textbooks are in English, and he knows it well, but he's more comfortable speaking Russian. He studied in Rostov a year and a half.

The reception was bad, so it took a minute before I could spit out some half-Arabic half-Russian greetings and he could understand. I said, "Eto Bamila! Ili Bamella... ili Pamella... ti pomnish menya?"

My name is pronounced differently in English and Russian, and two different ways in Arabic, and I'd forgotten which one he knew me as. I asked if he remembered me.

He said in Russian, "Of course. I recognized your voice."

He's still in Jenin at school and doesn't know when he'll be back in Jayyous. I told him I'd be in Ramallah for six months or so, and maybe in that time I could visit Jenin because I wanted to see it anyway. He said regretfully he was actually in a town near Jenin, not Jenin itself. I thought, but didn't say, that I couldn't care less about Jenin. I want to see whatever town he's in.

I only caught a bit of Israeli TV news twice while I've been here, and both times they were gravely discussing, in round-table fashion, the causes and consequences of dog attacks on children in Israel. They showed a picture of a sad little Israeli boy with dog teeth marks on his legs. I think we really should make a more serious and sustained and honest effort to create a just and lasting peace with the domestic canines of the Middle East.

I'm still in Israel working on a tribute to a friend and getting things squared away for going to Ramallah. I sent my resume to The Palestinian National Initiative and will set up an interview in Ramallah this weekend.

Here's a biography of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, one of the founders of the PNI.

Shalom shalom,


Next: Ramallah

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