To Megiddo: A journey in post-democratic Israel

Editions of Amos Kenan's novel in English and Hebrew (Source: Author).

At the end of Amos Kenan’s novel, The Road to Ein Harod, the narrator finally descends into the Jezreel Valley and arrives at his destination only to find – apologies for the spoiler – nothing.

There are no iconic signs of Zionist achievement and the attendant taming of nature; no water towers or eucalyptus trees. All the glory of the Jezreel Valley is there but only in the sense of indigenous plant life.

As the narrator discovers, the spring of Ein Harod exists but not the destination of his journey – Free Ein Harod, the kibbutz and rebel outpost. It is simply not there. A place that was not one place but many – Ein Harod, Ein Harod (Ihud), Ein Harod (Meuhad), Ain Jalut, Qumya – has disappeared.

What ‘used to be the Jezreel Valley’ has become a wilderness where there is no remaining sign of humanity. At Ein Harod itself there is no ‘derelict foliage’, vegetation that would testify to the presence of people and no tel, a mound or tumulus which would be the result of human activity over time. The ending of The Road to Ein Harod presents an apocalyptic vision of the final erasure of Zionism and ultimately, all collective dreams.

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Kenan’s 1984 dystopian novel envisions a post-democratic Israel at war with itself in the wake of a coup. This is a place where a fragile democracy has been all too easily replaced. It is a time of emergency regulations, curfews, road blocks, shootings, lockdowns and dictatorship. Let’s just say that it’s an interesting text to take down from the shelves and dust off at this present moment. On reacquaintance, The Road to Ein Harod engages not only with current concerns about the erosion of democracy but with issues linked with people and the possession of land. It plugs straight into current debates about annexation or if you prefer, ‘the application of sovereignty’ and it makes for particularly interesting reading in terms of Kenan’s choice of settings for his novel.

Yes, Ein Harod is the destination of the journey, but the book sustains an ambiguity concerning its existence and Free Ein Harod, the supposed centre of resistance to the new regime, is in the end transformed into a symbol of something ephemeral and elusive. As elsewhere, the journey – the derekh – is the thing. Much of the action of the novel takes place in Wadi Ara and the climax is staged at Megiddo in a bunker with a Kurtz-like madman whose paranoia leads to an Israel purged of its Arab population and all opposition.

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Megiddo is of course a very deliberately chosen setting for the novel’s fourth act. Today, this tel stands some 60 metres above the Jezreel Valley and testifies to thousands of years of human habitation through over 20 layers of occupation that have been discovered. Different peoples, be they Canaanite, Egyptian, Israelite or Arab, occupied this place at different times. Tel Megiddo, as seasoned Israeli staycationers will tell you, is a national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. In the light of current restrictions, a virtual tour is provided on the park’s website which rightly makes much of Megiddo’s strategic importance. Location was all. The tel dominated the narrow pass at the head of Wadi Ara which allowed passage through the Carmel ridge and was part of the Via Maris, or the Way of the Sea, a major trading route from Egypt via the Fertile Crescent to Mesopotamia.

Contemplating his journey through Wadi Ara by way of Megiddo (‘there is no other way’), Kenan’s narrator in The Road to Ein Harod describes the area overlooked by the tel as ‘our killing fields’. Megiddo is well-known for having been the site of numerous battles, 1948 being just the latest. According to Christian apocalyptic literature, it will also host the final one.

Tel Megiddo, like many places here, has other names, for example Tell al-Mutasallim. Armageddon is probably the name familiar to most beyond Israel. The word comes from the Greek of the New Testament via the Hebrew ‘har Megiddo’ and, according to the Book of Revelation (16:16), the plain of Armageddon is where the ultimate struggle of good and evil will take place. It will be ‘the last, terrible battle, the war of annihilation’, as Kenan’s rebel traveller puts it. DH Lawrence hated the New Testament’s final book for its ‘flamboyant hate’, its ‘lust’ for the end of the world and the delivery of enemies to utter destruction. It’s a reading which encourages a view of it as an archetypal tract of religious intolerance, but Revelation has its fans.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists believe that the return of the Holy Land to full Jewish sovereignty will bring about the second coming. Jesus will restore a divine kingdom for the righteous whilst Jews, Muslims and other heretics will convert or perish. 1948 was all part of the plan in accordance with Biblical writings such as Revelation. Megiddo is the envisioned setting for all this and is therefore of great significance for various strands of evangelical Christian Zionism in the United States. White evangelicals make up a significant part of Donald Trump’s support with almost 80% of them voting for him in 2016. Being seen to further their interests through policy towards the Jewish state could be regarded as astute politics in terms of Trump’s relationship with his evangelical constituency.

Like Revelation, Kenan’s twentieth century apocalyptic vision of Megiddo and the surrounding area does not shy away from the subject of ‘the other’, with what is to be done with unbelievers in extreme circumstances. In his rewriting of Revelation, the erasing of the enemy, whether it be the Jewish residents of Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh or the Arab population of Israel, is an alarming feature of Israel’s imagined future. Towards the end of the novel there is a key moment when the narrator is being taken to Megiddo and it dawns upon him that there are no Arabs at all in the villages clustered around Wadi Ara. He is told that they have been sent away ‘to Mecca’. We can read this as a reference to the depressingly enduring notion of ‘transfer’ in Israeli politics or as a chilling euphemism for something even worse.

Wadi Ara (Nahal Iron) plays an important part in the novel in terms of the narrative of escape and the Jewish protagonist’s relationship with the Arab character Mahmoud. It is where the novel resembles a dystopian take on the road trip ‘buddy’ genre. Today, the scene of this part of the narrator’s journey, the ‘little triangle’ of Arab communities in Wadi Ara adjacent to Route 65, is a place where the population is living in uncertainty, threatened with exchange or transfer under Donald Trump’s two-state plan, Peace to Prosperity.

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The idea of transfer in connection to Wadi Ara is, of course, nothing new and is something that Avigdor Lieberman made mainstream some time ago. The Wadi is home to some 300,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel. Under the Trump plan many of the Arab towns and villages in the area – including Umm al-Fahm with its population of over 55,000 – could become part of a proposed Palestinian ‘state’. To my knowledge, no residents of this area have been consulted as part of the ‘deal of the century’.

The area already presents a precedent in Israeli history for transfer or population exchange through the reallocation of territory. Wadi Ara was captured by the Iraqi Arab League in 1948 but the area was ceded to Israel in the 1949 Israel-Jordan Armistice agreement as a result of highly concentrated night-time negotiations. In exchange, Israel ceded territory elsewhere. The Palestinians of Wadi Ara became Israelis overnight. As the historian Tom Segev has pointed out, they were not consulted.

The Road to Ein Harod does not ignore the challenging demographic issues facing Israeli democracy and this candour makes it an engrossing read. Kenan himself was a Renaissance man of complexity and contradiction. He was involved in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and then became a member of Lehi. He was man who was active in what happened at Deir Yassin and, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has argued, Al-Dawayima. He was associated with the secularist Canaanite movement and was at one point suspected of planning a political assassination. A satirist, artist, writer, peacenik and prominent supporter of a two-state solution, he was a genuine Israeli iconoclast.

It is an engrossing read but not a comfortable one. The novel’s representations of women are at best a product of their time and Kenan confronts head-on the historical realities arising from 1948. The style is terse, the narrative succinct – it’s a novella really – but this directness is part of its power and there’s a deceptive complexity to its episodic structure and use of time. Kenan’s depiction of the ‘other’ in Mahmoud is unsentimental and it transcends stereotype. This portrayal is at its most potent in the description of Mahmoud’s song of his homeland, something which becomes both a lament and an alternative history. Ultimately, the novel’s strength is its honesty about issues of land, of dispossession and expulsion, of erasing and forgetting. From the perspective of ’84 Kenan turns a mirror back to ’48, and forward towards us.

The book’s relevance today is further attested to through its cultural afterlife. The 1990 film is best glossed over but more recently there have been some highly intelligent and well-received engagements with the novel in different forms, most notably the Zvi Sahar 2014 play and artist Efrat Galnoor’s 2019 exhibition.

Mahmoud’s song is not the only one in the novel. The book famously begins with words from ‘that lovely song’, one which the narrative voice assumes is a shared reference with the reader. I was pleased to discover belatedly that the song is no fiction and can be heard via YouTube. I assume that Lila D’mama is not part of the younger generation’s ‘cultural capital’ but it possesses a kind of nostalgic beauty I’d recommend for those not already familiar with it. The use of the song in the novel evokes pioneering youth movement romanticism but more importantly introduces a broader theme of loss. It is now perhaps forgotten, other than through the book and esoteric areas of YouTube. It has disappeared like many of the features that populate Kenan’s broad historical landscape.

I changed my mind after rereading The Road to Ein Harod. Kenan’s 1980s hallucinatory road trip through Wadi Ara, Megiddo and beyond, has aged well and is bolder and more experimental in terms of form than I remembered. It has become a book for our times, required reading for the era of Trump and Netanyahu. At a moment when annexation and transfer are openly discussed, when the condition of Israeli democracy lies at the heart of public discourse, when the idea of the two-state solution is being appropriated by the right and radically reassessed by the left, The Road to Ein Harod represents a provocative and forthright contribution to debate, a reminder in a time of flux about the fragility of all that seems permanent.

It ends with an image of darkness – Kenan’s vision of the End Times – but at the same time there is a strong sense of release. Yes, there is ‘nothing’ at the end, but the novel closes with the words, ‘Now at last I am happy’. The Road to Ein Harod explores the notion of release from constraining ideologies, Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. In this possibility of new ways of thinking there is perhaps hope. At one point on the journey to Ein Harod there is a fleeting vision of something beyond intolerance and separation, something alluded to in the narrator’s dream-like ‘memory’ of an alternative time with another Mahmoud. It was a moment when ‘the country belonged to all of us’, Kenan’s narrator recalls, ‘a summer without bloodshed’.

About the Author
Anthony Fulton is a member of a kibbutz in the Galilee and taught Literature in the UK for over twenty years.
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