I live in south Jerusalem, right on the edge of the city where it skitters off into the desert
My friend told me that when he was young — not long after the Six Day War — he used to hike through my neighborhood from the Old City to the Dead Sea. He’d take off through Jaffa gate after morning prayers, turn south and head toward Bethlehem. He’d stop for tea and a bag of dates or almonds or at Mar Elias, the monastery on Hebron Road.
The priests would hand him a package of letters for their brothers in the middle of the desert at Mar Sabah.
Then, he’d turn East, and pass the hill where my apartment building would someday be built from industrious Cold War lines and planes several years later.
Back then, there were only a few stone houses, and further East, a mosque or two. Maybe a handful of olive trees before the hills softened into sand.
It was a days journey. He would leave Jaffa Gate at sunrise, stopping only to drink water and eat a date or an almond to fortify his journey and recite the afternoon prayers.
Sometimes, he’d pick up a seashell or two he’d find in the desert – because once, the old pathways he journeyed were under an ancient ocean, long ago vanished. He liked remembering this.
By afternoon, under the pitiless sun, he’d squint and Mar Sabah would appear before him – gentle and shining – a mirage, only real, within reach.
Wiping his sweaty brow, would deliver the mail to the brothers living in the monastery carved into the desert. They’d serve him tea and a simple meal, and then he’d continue walking to the Dead Sea. He loved making these journeys around the middle of the Hebrew month so he could see an almost full moon – if not the full moon exactly — rise in the East, swollen and ripe against the salty air.
He’d look toward the red mountains of Jordan and wonder if one day there would be peace between Israel and Jordan, when the borders between us would dissolve, when the desert would yield.
He’d say his evening prayers, and turn around and walk back to Mar Sabah and spend the night in a tiny room, as cool as moonlight.
At sunrise, he’d enjoy a simple breakfast, fortify his knapsack and the priests would give him their letters for their brothers at Mar Elias in Jerusalem , on the other side of the desert.
Anyway. This isn’t my story. It’s my friend’s.
I like to think about this story – even just a few decades ago you could walk from Jerusalem through the desert as we could throughout the centuries when we didn’t need travel documents or passports – only a little sustenance, a full waterskin, and some imagination.**
Today, Israelis can’t cross into this part of the desert, nor can Palestinians leave it – we have checkpoints, and borders, both physical and invisible. There isn’t an open expanse of sand and sky – there are roads and watch towers and soldiers and stringent laws that divide us.
But maybe some day it’ll be different. Maybe some day we will build a just and lasting peace between us, and the desert will yield
That’s something I love about this place.
A mirage is within reach.
** Ht Russell Tappan Hawkey