I left work early, bought myself a thick new fleece and invested in a sleeping bag before jumping on the bus to Tel Aviv and from there to Jerusalem. I fell asleep on the bus, what would usually be a journey of less than an hour took an hour and a half but I didn’t care. I jumped off the bus at Jerusalem’s central bus station and moved through the metal detectors, through the building and out the main exit from where I caught a cab to Iddo’s place.
Iddo wasn’t there of course, he was never where he said he would be and if he said he was on his way somewhere it meant that he wasn’t yet, so when he told me he was on his way home and would meet me there I figured I had about 45 minutes to chill with his flatmate Yaela before he arrived.
About 45 minutes after my arrival Iddo made his appearance, he always reminds me of the Israelis I see in old TV images of Israel in the 1970s. He looks scruffy, he has curly hair and glasses and a constant smile on his face. Iddo was with me in the army, in boot camp at the end of each day while everyone else was asleep he explained to me in English all the things I had failed to understand during the day, you just don’t forget things like that.
He has a big double bed which he never sleeps on, favouring a small couch in the corner of his room, a book of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo lies open. In one corner of the room sits a piano, in another a guitar and sitting on a desk is half of an old, broken flute. Iddo’s one of ‘those’ people, great with just about any instrument you can think of and Spanish guitar has always been his weapon of choice. That’s why it won’t surprise anyone to learn that he’s studying for a degree in Biology.
Yaela grabs her stuff, Iddo grabs nothing and we’re ready to go, we pick up Ya’ar’s cousin Or from outside Jerusalem’s theatre and we’re on our way. Or got back from Europe two days ago, she’s got dreadlocks, a nose ring and a hat that looks like a cake on her head, she has jumped into the Purim spirit.
I can’t see much once we’re out of Jerusalem, somehow it’s past ten and darkness reigns. We stop on the way to get water and bamba, I get ripped off for 70NIS when I buy it. And then we’re off again, the lights of Jordan are in front of me allowing me to make out their high mountains in the darkness. The Dead Sea is right in front of me but all I can see is a big, dark shade of night. We drive through checkpoints manned by bored looking soldier girls and see cops stopping cars on the road looking for drugs. Or says her favourite dealer is a cop selling the rewards of his lucrative job.
Iddo ploughs on through the darkness in his Mum’s car and eventually the signs say Ein Gedi and we’ve driven too far. He turns the car around and 5 minutes back up the road to where the sign says Qedumim or something like it and we have arrived. A car pulls up next to us and out get Subari another army buddy, we all do greetings and then grab the contents of Iddo’s car to take with us down to the place. Sleeping bags, bottles of water, ground mats, extra clothes and a giant lamp.
We don’t know where we’re going as we climb down from the side of the road in the dark. Rocks and stones and sand shift beneath the weight of our feet as we make our way down the steep hill towards where Yaar and the others are supposed to be. Down we go, at one point I fall, I get up and carry on going down. I see the specks of light from 3 disparate bonfires in the distance. We keep walking as we close in on one we realise it’s not them, second time lucky as we close in and hear the reassuring sounds of Yaar and Netanel talking.
There are chips sizzling in a frying pan on the open fire and the two of them are sitting there chopping vegetables to throw in a pot along with a load of meat they’ve already gotten ready. That pot will soon be sitting on the fire along with some water, oil, spices and rices that’ll be thrown in later, we’ll eat it in a couple of hours. There’s 10 people there already and the fire is looking good, more will arrive soon and our numbers will swell to about 30.
Yaar and his girlfriend Nitzan have just gotten engaged. Yaar was in the army with me too, I called him Forrest because that’s what his name means in English.
Iddo picks up a guitar and so does Netanel, they play, then they play some more, the whole evening is punctuated by their strumming, Netanel’s girlfriend is called Anat, they recently broke up and then got back together again, she arrives about 20 minutes after us along with Nitzan.
The music is going, the beers are flowing and then Yaar pulls out a bottle of Black Label, something I really hadn’t expected. I pull a couple of cubes out of the icebox and fill his glass and mine up to the top, none of that little shot nonsense. Netanel complains, he wants some too so I fill a glass for him, Iddo is only interested in sipping Arak while he strums the guitar. Netanel abandons the guitar for his drink and someone else picks up the instrument. We all talk shit for a while, the fire burns and now someone is walking around with a silver foil tray offering us all chicken wings straight off a small grill that was until recently sitting on the bonfire.
The others sang along to songs in Hebrew and in English while I sat there in the sand dunes by the still invisible Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet and sipped my whiskey.
I think of the checkpoints we passed through, of the land we love, of the shit we share to live here.
I think of the fact that my ancient people have never had it as good as we have it now.
I look at these people around me and remember their stories. I remember Yaela telling me how her Dad came to Israel at the age of 7 with his 5 year old brother. They grew up in Beirut and ran when things got bad, they ran alone, the rest of the family coming when they could, taking solace in the fact that they got their sons out.
I think of Yaar at age 17 hunting in the night for his younger brother’s two best friends only to find their bodies mere meters away from his settlement after being stoned to death. The horrors that we leave behind and the horrors that we still face.
Israel is a nation of refugees, of people running away and of people running to. We created this country out of sheer desperation and we keep flocking here for the same reason.
While everyone sings and I get drunk on whiskey I keep thinking that we’re here because of all the things that happened so far away, that Zionism isn’t a response to the shit we suffered around the world for so many years, it’s the solution to it.
A live people, by a Dead Sea.