+972 Magazine » Yuval Ben-Ami http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Tue, 09 Feb 2016 11:26:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 Lebanons, part 4: The Wind http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-5-the-wind/116466/ http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-5-the-wind/116466/#comments Fri, 05 Feb 2016 10:59:32 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=116466 Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

Map of Tripoli, Lebanon. (By Élisée Reclus)

Map of Tripoli, Lebanon. (By Élisée Reclus)

The three cages: my large one and the two small ones, remained clumsily interconnected. Then Israel withdrew its settlements from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas took over. The siege began, trapping 1.7 million souls in a territory one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, the most perfect, hermetic cage my land has produced to date.

I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to be in nature, somewhere healthy and just, and I was just in such a place, in all but my mind.

I was in a forest of firs. Forests aren’t my thing. They force you to look at what is near, a patch of moss, a twig. I always desire to look far. I knew the tree line was near again, and rushed uphill to greet it.

To my surprise, once the trees vanished, so did the ascent end. I was at a high plateau ringed by dark cliffs, that extended to the unyielding cloud. The cliffs were washed by countless waterfalls. they gathered into a grand river that rushed through the flat terrain, toward the the thirsty gorge.

Blue and white stripes painted on sporadic rocks marked the trail. I advanced among them, breathing in solitude, the chill, the novelty of a Swiss desert.

Did I need a Swiss desert? I come from deserts, but maybe there are deserts you travel to and deserts you travel from. In any case, I was in bliss. This bliss drove me up a hug fan of gravel studded with patches of leftover snow.  Ahead now was only a sheer rock face and a waterfall.

Blue and white stripes appeared faintly in the fog above me, one atop the other, higher and higher up the rock face. the ladder of trail markers paralleled the chute of water and was very near it. I was about to get drenched.

It could have been worse. I could have not found that discarded hiking stick. As it were, it supplemented a third foot that could rest even on the slenderest hints of stepping room. A gentle drizzle mixed with the fall’s spray. I sang an Irish folk song to keep my morale high, while taking great care not to slip.

There were two sisters in County Clare
Oh the wind and rain!
One was dark and the other was fair
Oh the dreadful wind and rain!

I also thought of Lebanon. My plan was to contemplate Lebanon, and here was a perfect occasion. It was either that or gaze down obsessively and pray there is an afterlife.

What was Lebanon? it was an occasional cultural relic, mysteriously delivered across the lines, a bottle of Arak Touma, for example, that my friend Daniella somehow obtained. It was an entire liter’s worth and she cooked nice fish to go with it. That was one truly proper feast on her Jerusalem rooftop that day.

What was Lebanon? Styrofoam snowballs falling into an umbrella at Haifa’s Wadi Nisnass neighborhood, to the sound of Fairouz’s Christmas album. Jingle bells in Arabic always make me smile. Of course I am far more up to date and know and love Mashrou’ Leila and Yasmine Hamdan as well. I caused a small stone to tumble into the ravine. I should find a decent bench of rock to sit on and rest.

This waterfall was danger, real danger. Out of the rock stuck a peg of steel for me to grab. I held on. It was wet, but rough and well-planted. Dependable. I pulled myself safely one meter further. What was Lebanon? Images online: the pigeons’ rocks, a dock at Byblos, mountains, snowy mountains with a ski lift. Am I headed for ice?

I must be.

What was Lebanon? It was a land that recurred in my dreams, all of them sequels to the one I had before the visit to Ghajar, in which we crossed the street and found a circus tent.

By now I have been across that street. I have traversed the seemingly impenetrable border fence and continued north a half a mile. My dreams took me further. They stopped cabs for me to take into the small country’s heart and do things I did not get to do in Ghajar, like use Lebanese currency (what is it called, anyway?), or to step into a grocery store and check out the shelves (so much yogurt!). Sometimes, though not frequently, I would reach the outskirts of Beirut, never its heart. I would get a room at a seaside hotel and lay there, plotting a way to get back home.

"Palestine" (1889) by Conder, C. R. (Claude Reignier)

“Palestine” (1889) by Conder, C. R. (Claude Reignier)

I knew from my walking life the trouble of getting home from forbidden realms. When my friends and I first dared break the law and enter “Area A,” we found ourselves in a Ramallah bedroom, plotting our escape. We knew that no one would check us on entry, and no one did, but that we should pick well the checkpoint to pass through on our way out, or Israeli authorities would apprehend and question us. The bedroom wall was pierced and cracked. A bullet once hit it. Our host, a Palestinian friend of a Canadian friend, calmed us, explaining that this was no Israeli bullet. His mischievous neighbor once shot it from the street.

The following morning we were in a city of balloons. The feast of sacrifice was at hand and vendors, some dressed as teddy bears, crowded the sidewalks, holding bouquets of SpongeBobs and pink hearts. This was not the Ramallah we learned to fear, and it is fear that kept us away from there so far, so much more so than the forbidding law. Ramallah, the city where we would surely be slaughtered, greeted us with a fuzzy hug.

Still, a wall separated us from Jerusalem, 10 miles due south. We snuck out by taxi, using a roundabout road that led to a checkpoint reserved for settlers. I repeated that experience many times since, learning little by little to ignore not only the red signs that designated visiting Area A as “life threatening” to Israeli nationals, but also the legal restriction. I was caught there once, by Palestinian police outside Hebron. They followed the rules and handed me over to the IDF. Even that did not amount to much: fingerprinting, a short questioning, a criminal record filed by authorities I no longer respected anyway.

The next peg distanced me from the waterfall, but the portion of cliff above it was so purely vertical that a metal wire was fixed in it for me to pull myself up. Everyone thought I was mad for frequenting Ramallah, now it was Switzerland that would kill me. That should teach them the value of vacant fear-mongering.

But truly, this was scary.

Lebanon as envisaged by French General Beaufort d’Hautpoul in 1862.

There was this cool Gazan girl who lived in Ramallah. I met her there on one of my excursions, then, a few weeks later, got a phone call.

“I’m in Tel Aviv.”

“What? You got a permit?”

“No permit. Ssshhh. What are you up to?”

“Putting everything on hold and coming to see you.”

By the time I made it to her whereabouts, she had been caught. They held her in custody briefly, then sent her back over the line. About a month later, another call came. My friend had outsmarted the barrier once more.

I suggested we go to the museum. Ramallah sports no major one, and this could prove a nice adventure. The guest seemed estranged from all the exhibits but one: a painting by young Russian-Israeli genius Zoya Cherkassky. It showed a group of soldiers on a visit to a similar museum, awkwardly contemplating the sculpture of a man defecating into his own mouth. My Gazan friend could not take her eyes off of this crooked mirror reflection of her own experience. “This is really something,” she kept saying.

We went out for some coffee. With her short hair and tank top, she looked perfectly Tel Avivian, Clearly a Mizrahi Jew.

I kept looking around. What if they were after her? She was blacklisted to begin with. What would they do to her if they found her here again?

And he made a fiddle of her breast bone,
Oh the wind and rain!
He made a fiddle of her beast bone
Crying oh the dreadful wind and rain!

The Gazan didn’t seem worried, but I figured a maelstrom of adrenaline was gushing within her chest. We strolled up Ibn Gabirol street. It was sunny.

Was she free right then? Was she even there at all? Could one ever leave the West Bank? Were we both trapped, and we will always be.

Then there was the other friend. The one my girlfriend and I had smuggled through the checkpoint ourselves, into her own Lebanon of the mind: Israel proper, or ’48 Palestine, depending on your politics, for which she had no permit at all.

She was sitting in the back seat, trying to be invisible. The soldier profiled us by accent, hair and body language, deducted we were Israelis and sent us through. We reached Tel Aviv and went directly to the beach.

“The Mediterranean,” she said, and knelt down to touch it.

This friend was no Gazan. She was Palestinian American and grew up in Boston, but two months with the sea within view and not within reach filled her with cabin fever. I knew Precisely what she meant when she said “The Mediterranean.”

(Click here for more.)

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Lebanons, part 3: The Gorge http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-3-the-gorge/115778/ http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-3-the-gorge/115778/#comments Fri, 22 Jan 2016 12:43:05 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115778 Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

Australia1817

Australia is vast. Map by Aaron Arrowsmith, dated 1817.

The next place on the map that had a name was “Schwarzwaldalp”. I headed for it in the cool morning, winding downhill into a small valley. The pastures were dark green, the cows cute. The clouds were low, obscuring how tall the mountains were above it all.

My foot kicked something on the trail, some stick that didn’t feel like a branch. I looked down and found a titanium walking stick. The handle was broken off but otherwise it seemed fine. Nice luck.

Shwarzwaldalp was not much more than a small restaurant and a children’s playground. I grabbed breakfast: heavily buttered dark bread with slices of hard cheese.

Outside the restaurant was a sign detailing hiking trails in the area. The previous day at the Grindelwald tourist information office, I learned a sad truth: crossing the Bernese Alps on foot was impossible. The top of the range was a vast desert of rock and ice. No hiking trail led through it, just as no foot bridges spanned the Atlantic.

There was, however, one blue line that sloped dramatically up a slender shoulder of the range, then curved down into a valley and eventually met up with a road navigable by car. That trail was mentioned on the sign and to the best of my German understanding, was designated: “extremely demanding Alpine trail”. This was perhaps not an Amundsenian adventure, but wouldn’t be cheating either.

I looked up, knowing that nothing was there to be seen, nothing but fog. I was headed into that fog. How long would this climb take? Could I do it in a day? Unlikely, extremely unlikely. Two days? Perhaps. I pictured myself sitting out the night on a rocky shelf in my wind jacket and light wool sweater, drinking handfuls of snow. I could probably do it, but why would I?

Maybe it was the liberty — the land spread so freely before me, vertically, for the most part — but this was still that thing I lacked so much at home: an expanse.

Karte_des_Vollmondes_-_1829 (1)

The moon is vast. Map dated 1829. (By Tobias Mayer, Johann Hieronymus Schroeter, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen.)

The trail head awaited a few steps to the east, at a place called Rosenlaui. Like Schwarzwalalp, this was not a village, but an old hotel, perfect for my pre-trail toilet needs. Uphill from the hotel was a small hut that offered coffee, hot dogs and bottled water. I asked the kiosk keeper whether water in mountain streams was potable.

“Yes”, he said, and his face added: why would it not be? I felt very Israeli. Available water is always our first concern when hitting a trail. Here, of course, it was abundant.

The kiosk keeper knew the trail and said there is a hut at its highest point where I could stay. H doubted I could make it there in my sneakers, but was still kind enough to call up the hut keeper and make sure she waits me. ”Here is her number,” he jotted it on a little note. “Keep it. If you back out and climb down, be sure and call her or she will send a rescue mission.”

“Of course.”

Behind the kiosk was a gate, and beyond the gate was shock. I have entered the Rosenlaui gorge. Icy water, millions of gallons of it, gushed among cliffs that nearly kissed, tossing wildly among smooth cavities.  The stream roared several meters below, yet its spray filled my hair and blinded my eyes. I had railing to hold on to and solid footfall beneath me, but was overtaken by a primeval fear. Climbing upstream, I ducked frequently to keep my guitar’s neck from colliding with hanging stone. I moved briskly. I needed out.

Ten minutes later, I pushed my way through another revolving gate, momentarily got trapped because of the guitar, but made it through. I emerged panting into the forest and sat on a rock, shedding my claustrophobia, regaining my breath. Behind me was the tunnel, ahead of me the rocks. The time was twelve noon.

I was born into a cage, albeit a comparatively large one. In 1976, the year of my birth, Israel reigned over an area four times its current size. Along with the Sinai peninsula, it made up a territory smaller than the state of South Carolina.

All borders were closed to Israeli citizens. The Arab world viewed Israel as a colonialist endeavor not to be tolerated. It was to remain locked out of the region, boycotted and threatened until history rendered it obsolete. Israel, in turn, banned the people of the Middle East from visiting its soil and the holy sites that studded it. Palestinian refugees stranded  remained hermetically exiled.

In 1979, Iran went through something of an upheaval, and the newborn Islamic Republic banned Israeli visitors too. turkey remained the only land of the Middle East within reach. That, however, was the same year President Sadat of Egypt met with Prime Minister Begin, and by 1982 Israelis could witness the great pyramids of Giza.

Such was the map of my world, then, on my first day of primary school: my land was tiny Israel. The great big world lay across the sea, filled with skyscrapers, Eiffel Towers and waterfalls. The lands about us were all enemy land, except Egypt, which granted us peace in return for 75 percent of our territory.

1748_Anson_Map_of_Baja_California_and_the_Pacific_w^^x2F,_Trade_Routes_from_Acapulco_to_Manila_-_Geographicus_-_Pacific-anson-1748

My family lived on French Hill, a Jewish enclave (today I know it to be a settlement) on the ridge that hugs old Jerusalem on the east and culminates in the Mount of Olives. Outside the window of my childhood bedroom, cut in a wall on which my beloved Beatles poster hung, spread the entire Old City, the golden Dome of the Rock, the gray domes of the Holy Sepulcher, spires and minarets, a dreamed up cityscape.

In 1987, when I was 11, the people who lived in that city rebelled. In years to come I would learn of their political realities and share their wrath. For now, all that I knew was that the city outside my window turned dangerous. At night, rising from my bed and looking out, I would find it beautifully illuminated by orange flares.

Everything out there was now forbidden territory. We commuted to West Jerusalem, detouring through the ultra-Orthodox boroughs. In my dreams, however, I traveled directly into the old city and along the ridge. Through the stone walls of the monasteries to vast, mysterious, hilly grasslands that hid beyond them.

In the year 1991, my father quit his gig as radio journalist for an exciting job: he was made media adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Soon afterwards, he disappeared from home one evening to an undisclosed location. he phoned my mother just before dawn.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I still can’t tell you,” he replied, “but I am looking at Eilat from the east.”

My mother did the math in a split second. Overlooking the city of Eilat from across the bay is Aqaba, in Jordan. Peace with Jordan was on the way. Tears of joy rolled down her cheek.

I was 16, and the cage of my birth was endowed with a new door. We could now go both to Egypt and Jordan. also, Jerusalem’s Old City didn’t seem quite as scary anymore, and so one day I ventured through majestic Damascus gate, accompanied by a good high school friend. Contrary to everyone’s threats, we were not stabbed.

Meanwhile, new gates were being welded, fixed and locked.  Palestinians were now required to carry permits in order to leave the West Bank or the Gaza Strips, and could not drive into Israel in their cars. The checkpoints became stricter. A new permit regime was imposed. Within my cage – two new, smaller cages were formed.

Within each of the small cages, and throughout the large one, tiny cages appeared: prisons for Palestinians who raged against this order. Tinier still are the cages of the mind, perfect shells of iron buried in our skulls, barring us from interacting with the ever threatening other.

Then came an eruption of blood, a Second Intifada, and in its wake: a physical barrier began to rise, fences and walls, patrol roads and watchtowers. It confined one group with zeal, while remaining largely invisible and perfectly passable to the other. A strange looking glass indeed. Us, Jewish Israelis, were only barred from visiting the hearts of West Bank cities, designated Area A.  I soon discovered we could still go there, so long as we minded which gates we used.

Some checkpoints were intended for Palestinians, some reserved for settlers, others for Israeli citizens and internationals. Like intelligent rats, we all learned the paths intended for us in the labyrinth.

In the middle of French Hill is a round playground. My mother would take me there as a young boy and free me to run laps about it, I would run the entire afternoon. I was a hyperactive child who ended up living in a town he couldn’t explore. Any wonder I would pick up a broken hiking stick and head up the mightiest mountain around? This world was too full of nos. I was saying yes to Dossenhütte.

(Click here for more.)

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Lebanons, part 2: The Town http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-2-the-town/115721/ http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-2-the-town/115721/#comments Fri, 15 Jan 2016 11:26:47 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115721 Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

Straube_Monumental-Plan_der_Reichshauptstadt_Berlin_1896

Berlin used to be split down the middle, though not as neatly as this white fold runs. (Julius Straube, 1896)

I walked in beauty. I walked in fire. Early morning matured into fully boiling day just as the trail led me from shady forest into pastures. Above me soared rocks in outlandish angles that seemed carefully measured so as not to shield me from the sun. Each village spring was a life saver. One farmhouse advertised cheese. I knocked, craving the cool of their cellar far more than the cheese itself.

Somehow I persisted, climbing to the town of Grindelwald, then beyond it. The mountains grew greater, nearer. Over the cliffs appeared the glaciers that worried Theo. They truly were melting, and water gushed down to the valley. The child of a land of few waterfalls, I couldn’t stop taking cellphone photos and posting them. Likes poured in by the hundreds.

Even at 1,500 meters I remained bare chested, cursing the straps of my backpack and guitar case. Oxygen was becoming scarcer and I rested more and more frequently, taking in the gradually expanding vistas of the valley below me. I had to push through. A lady at Grindelwald’s tourist information office booked me a bed at a hikers’s hut, directly above the tree line. I had to reach it before dark – and did. It was lost in a cloud, the first I had seen all week, and as I stepped in, rain began to pour outside.

The pleasant proprietors showed me to a room with fourteen vacant beds. I sat there with little to do but stare at the torrent. This would have been a great time to write about Lebanon, but I had no computer, nor even a writing pad, and in any case, I had nothing to write about Lebanon. I knew nothing of Lebanon. I have never been there.

Except once, in a sense.

Anna, a German journalist and a friend, smuggled me past the border fence in 2005. The IDF gave her permission to visit Ghajar, a village split between Israel and Lebanon, and to bring a translator along. My German and Arabic are both south of limited, but friendship gets you places.

Pieter_van_der_Aa_Cyprus

Nicosia/Lefkosia, the capital of Cyprus, is still a divided city, though far more mildly than before. (Pieter van der Aa, early 18th century)

Here’s how Ghajar got to be this way: It expanded into Lebanon while Israel occupied the country’s southern region, following the war of 1982. No Israeli citizens were allowed into the occupied land, Where the IDF and its allies were at constant war with Hezbollah, but Ghajar’s townsfolk are Alawite Arabs and their town is in Golan territory, so no one paid much mind when they did go there, and built.

Then, in the year 2000, after nearly two decades of futile war, Israel backed out of Lebanon, and the border became a border once more. Rather being split down the middle, Ghajar became its own planet. The ultra-secured border fence was planted south of it, separating it from Israel. The townsfolk normally commuted south, to the Jewish town of Qiryat shemona. None of them worked in Lebanon and they were not on good terms with Hezbollah.

Undeserved to begin with, and dismissed as a magic portal for drug smugglers, the town got kicked out of its respective country. Hardly any outsider could obtain a permit to visit it, and even the one I did obtain was limited to the south side. I was told the border is a street, and that I am not to cross that street.  The night before riding north with Anna, I dreamed that we did cross it, together. On the far side was a circus tent. That is all I recall.

She picked me up early with her rental car. We drove north past Tel Aviv’s high-rise suburbs, past orange groves and dunes and patches of eucalyptus, all studded with too much trash, too much commerce. Within two hours, the density of the coast gave way to the serenity of the far north. It was winter, the green season, and the valley that separates the Golan Heights and the Mountains of Naftali is the land’s greenest stretch. Its orchards and fields seem to extends hundreds of miles further north, and do, in fact, but not for us.

Soon we turned to a tiny road that wound through pastoral mine fields, then reached the fence. We had to curve around sixteen cubes of gray concrete to reach the checkpoint. A soldier took our IDs, called in with the authorities and then warned us: “Don’t cross into Lebanon.” He then let us drive on, across the fence.

We were on a pleasant street lined with miniature palm trees. Where was the border? Clearly to the north, but how far? A block? Two blocks? There was no parking to the south, the alleys were too slender and the fence of a school touched right down to the street. I looked north and saw a Hebrew sign: “Israeli Ministry of Health, clinic for mother and child.” “That’s Israel,” I told Anna. “Let’s park there.”

We did, then walked back to the palm lined street, to visit town hall. In the lobby hung two large satellite images of the town. The border was marked on both: a dotted blue line. It ran directly along “Palm Street.” Having properly driven on the right side of the road, we appear to have been in Lebanon ever since leaving the checkpoint. Our car was parked inside Lebanon. Town hall was in Lebanon.

The mayor was absent and we met with the town treasurer, who described life in his hometown as “impossible.” “You have a heart attack here, the ambulance can’t come in. It has to wait for you at the checkpoint. You could die three times on the way.” He apologized for what he regarded as flawed hospitality. “I would like so much to host you in my home, but cannot. My home is in Lebanon.”

We deducted that town hall was just near enough to Israel to count as neutral territory, but the streets north of the clinic were properly abroad. “No worries,” Anna calmed the treasurer, “We really appreciate you seeing us. We’ll just take a stroll around the old part of town and move on.”

We stepped out just as the school’s bell rang and children poured to Palm Street. Anna crouched and photographed them walking hand in hand across the dotted line that was also the blue dotted line. A few weeks earlier, Hezbollah and the IDF held a shoot-out over this precise stretch of asphalt. Four Hezbollah combatants were killed and the IDF’s position inside the village was abandoned. The children were kept in the school. None were hurt, not physically.

Austria-Hungary_-_with_excursions_to_Cetinje,_Belgrade,_and_Bucharest_-_handbook_for_travellers_(1911)_(14756391626)

The river that runs through Mostar, in Bosnia Herzegovina, splits the town by religious affiliation. (Baedeker, Karl, 1911)

We had a falafel, then walked over to gray, vacant Israeli watchtower, and took in its melancholy. The Hasbani river gushed directly below us. Along it — a disused gravel path meandered north, to meet with a paved road on which cars buzzed.

“We have to go a bit further,” I told Anna.

“Of course.”

“Damn. You’re the best.”

“But we can’t have anyone see us from outside the town.” she pointed north, “See the little hill? I think it’s a position.”

I could make out not only the mound she referred to, but a gun’s barrel sticking out from it. “They would love to get hold of us,” she said, “particularly you.”

“Yes I know.”

We ventured north, past the car, past the gym, strolling along the peripheral row of Ghajar’s houses, in hope that it screened us. This neighborhood was indeed newer and more spacious. It was peaceful, pleasant, full of women in colorful headscarves who eyed us with suspicious kindness or kind suspicion.

At one point, along the town’s northernmost rim, I stepped off the street to pick up a souvenir: a stone from the neighboring land. The one I picked was entirely black: basalt. Having chosen it, I raised my eyes and looked through the alley that separated two houses. The loving road was now so near I could almost read the license plates of the passing cars. On a hill beyond the road, the first boxy dwellings of Marjayoun, a proper sized town, scaled a cheerful wintery hill. Blocking part of the view was another mound, another bunker with another barrel. It was time to turn south.

As we did, we passed two men engaged in conversation. It paused as we passed by. One man waved for us to stop then asked, in Hebrew: “Who are you?”

“We’re journalists,” I answered.

“What?” he said, “and they just let you walk around here?”

“No no!” I quickly calmed him, “We got lost. We are making our way back to Israel. Worry not.”

We waved him farewell and rushed to the clinic and the car, started the engine and zoomed out of town. It was only days later that I realized my ears had betrayed me. He was not reprimanding us. He did not ask us if “they just let you walk around here” sourly, but with hope. He was asking: Is my neighborhood a normal place again, where strangers may simply stroll by?

(Click here for more.)

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Lebanons, part 1: The Theft http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-1-the-theft/115680/ http://972mag.com/lebanons-part-1-the-theft/115680/#comments Fri, 08 Jan 2016 14:12:38 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=115680 Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited.
(Click here for more).

paris 17th century

Paris, a.k.a. hell, in the 17th century.

I was in Paris and it was hell. A heatwave beat down on the gray town, chasing people out through windows of old maid chambers. They perched in the evenings on roofs, Gothic spires in view, to sip wine by the light of an exhausted moon. Indoors was too hot, but then, out on the roof was also too hot. My hosts lent me a “wife beater” tank top to let my armpits breath. It did little good.

During the day I went for lunch with my friend Theo. We sat at the bistro’s terrace, gasping for air, digging with little excitement at our tartars. A bulldozer arrived and began tearing up the street, ripping out car-sized shards of asphalt with a harrowing noise, dusting up our food and serviettes.

I decided to leave. Norway sounded appealing, but I had to remain in France. My girlfriend at that time was attending two academic conferences and I was to join her when they ended, down in Geneva. That sounded right. Geneva was naturally higher in elevation, but would be too expensive. I Googled an Alpine city in France, Grenoble. Its weather report predicted an entire week of 38 degrees Celsius.

“How is that possible?” I slapped my sweaty forehead, “Grenoble is in the mountains!”

“It’s relatively low,” Theo explained.

Everywhere was low. I soon learned that the cities of the Alpine region are all situated in deep valleys, only a few hundred meters above sea level. Continental Europe claims not a city lofty enough for a neat midsummer blizzard. Theo checked the weather on his own phone. “Their glaciers must be melting like crazy,” he lamented.

“I’ll have to reach actual peaks,” I calculated, “I’ll go to a village, a mountain village.” What would I do alone in a village for an entire week?

I knew what I would do. I would write a book about Lebanon.

I have never been to Lebanon. I can never go to Lebanon. I can get to Paris, 5,000 kilometers away from my home, and rant about it, I can climb up the Alps for air, and rent a room with a mountain view, but the roads that extend north from Tel Aviv all terminate at in impassible fence. The Lebanese can’t visit me either. The border is often invisible: simply a notion. Slopes graced with shrub oak and wild pistachio appear in the distance, we know they are across the fence. I have climbed to viewpoints that offer more of a view. In the distance were towns. I could see cars go on the roads.

Unable to visit Lebanon, I had always dreamed of at least writing about it. To do so I would have to situate myself somewhere peaceful, somewhere so quiet that it would allow me to dream up Lebanon. The heat was now chasing me to such a place.

The southernmost region of Burgundy. Map dated 1852. I crossed it on that train. (V. Levasseur, 1852 edition of his Atlas National de la France Illustree)

The southernmost region of Burgundy. Map dated 1852. I crossed it on that train. (V. Levasseur, 1852 edition of his Atlas National de la France Illustree)

The day I took the train was the second hottest in the history of Switzerland, and I was headed for Switzerland. The city of Lausanne was as far into the highlands as French trains went. There was little question. I got on that train.

France raced by at TGV speed, looking shockingly inhospitable. Vineyards offer little shade. Church steeples: only a slender bit. The compartment was too hot for me to focus on the opening lines of my chef d’oeuvre. I wrote some words about Lebanon, then rushed over to the restaurant car for a cold drink. My neighbor was a young man of mixed Swiss and Mexican heritage. He wanted nothing from the bar.

Outside the restaurant car’s windows, the land was turning hillier and prettier. Lakes reflected the stubborn blues skies and thick woods. Along their shores — thousands crowded, kids in arm floats, grownups with beers. Winter was hard and spring late in coming. For country folk with access to such beauty, the dramatic first week of July 2015 was bliss.

I went back and forth a few times, and finally I returned to a surprise. My computer had vanished from the tray table. I searched manically on other seats, in my bag, in the overhead shelf. Nothing, and no one had seen a thing. The Mexican-Swiss passenger was gone, too.

While I enjoyed the wine and more functional air conditioning, the train made its first major stop, calling at Geneva on the second hottest day in its recorded history. My neighbor disembarked there, yet somehow I did not suspect him. He was too nice, and I – too nice to him. Nor did he fit my idea of a petty thief’s profile. Where I come from, only a heroin addict would steal an old laptop without its charger. Why would anyone on a train that charged 100 euros per ticket nick my dusty Lenovo?

Someone, I deducted, must have come on board in Geneva, scavenged what he could and stepped off.

At Lausanne I reported the theft to the disinterested station policeman, then headed out to explore. My bag was somewhat lighter now, and still I could not find the strength to climb the steep, winding streets. The city was a kiln.

I grew up in a land too hot for my blood type. At least in my native Jerusalem the air tends to be dry. One day, when I was a child, we met up with my grandfather at the central bus station in Tel Aviv. I still recall the horror. I could not believe that people lived their lives in a sweat bath. Over the years, my family moved to the coast and that stained shirt became an unrelenting reality. Three years into that reality I graduated high school, then received a discharge from the army, then quickly sought an escape.

Europe had a role: It provided a respite from both complexities and climate. At 39 years old, I still need its support, and I felt betrayed by Laussane. I was exhausted from the theft and would have simply crashed there, but sunset was still too many hours away. The rails led further. I vowed not to halt until I saw snow.

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The city of Lausanne in 1779. It was too hot to explore on the day I was there.

By dusk, I saw it: a distant white crest glistened against rapidly darkening skies, perhaps the famous “Jungfrau.” I was in Interlaken, at the foot of the Bernese Alps. Evening in the valley was warm, but the promise of high altitudes calmed my spirit.

I have been here before, 20 years or so earlier, while vagabonding through sweet, chilly Europe. At the time, there was a hostel in town that mostly catered to American college kids. Walking up from the station, I found that house of many wooden balconies and checked in.

Crowding the bar in the yard were 20-year-younger versions of the guys and girls I had met here at the time. The varsity set of the 90s was cloned, and the clones returned to Interlaken. Perched on a vacant stool, I bought a bottle of shockingly priced Swiss beer and tried to mix into the conversation, but was not on the same wavelength. When the kids all went in for a game of beer pong, I folded to my attic dorm. All other beds there room were taken up by young Korean girls; they were all already asleep. I soon followed suit.

Soon a ray of sunlight woke me, pouring in unobstructed through the open window. I peered at my phone, 5 a.m., then bent my neck and gazed outside. Wooden-beamed gables sloped towards a quiet street. The street extended south, turning into a country lane, it wound among the hills and disappeared. Over those hills shone the Alps in all their splendid grandeur. I wasn’t going to write about them, I was here to write about Lebanon.

Oh, but I had nothing to write on. My Microsoft Word… gone.

On the upside. My bag was lighter now, and they days ahead entirely free. Those mountains. I should climb them. Not only climb – I should cross them. The Bernese Alps are a chain. A chain has a valley on the either side. How long would it take to reach the far valley?

There couldn’t be better use for my time. I rose carefully in my bunk, not to hit my head, then climbed down gingerly, not to wake a Korean, my gear was largely still packed. Should I dump my travel guitar to cut weight? It is cheap and easily replaceable. Nah, I should take it along. It is small and could be dumped at any time. I dropped my key at the vacant reception desk, and stepped into the hottest day in Switzerland’s history.

(Click here for more).

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Station to Station 4: The two towers http://972mag.com/station-to-station-4-two-towers/113339/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-4-two-towers/113339/#comments Thu, 29 Oct 2015 14:52:25 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=113339 This series will soon arrive at Nitzana. Doors open on the left. The next stop is Nablus. This will be the last stop. Thank you for riding with Elisha Baskin and me.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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The country is magnetic. Several energy fields hide in the terrain, emitting the land’s intensity and mystery like orbs in a Tesla experiment. One such field is famously Jerusalem, another, far vaster one, is the desert.

A journey that began in a dusty ditch on a city’s outskirts, now furthers into the wilderness. Elisha and I take a bus from Be’er Sheva into the Negev. The Turkish wartime rails extended south of here, and the remains of a station await us at Nitzana, directly on the Egyptian border.

Nitzana, a Nabatean town, has not been a place of proper human habitat since the ninth century. A train station was built there in 1915, and was literally nowhere-central. It served a remote police station that guarded the empire’s border with the British controlled Sinai, and a hastily constructed hospital where war wounds were tended. The hospital’s ruins can still be seen atop the mound of the ancient town. It seems like a very bad spot to bring potential amputees. Go figure.

History moved quickly. A flood of Union Jack-waving Aussies and Kiwis appeared from the southern wilds and ousted the Turks from the holy land after centuries of dominance. Nitzana station began crumbling almost as soon as it was built. When we arrive there today only the limestone water tower is left to remind us of long lost wars. It sticks out of the wasteland in majestic mystery, much like Arthur C. Clark’s monolith.  We wander over the expanse, finding a few more walls, recognizing traces left by the rails, taking in the silence.

Following the buzz of music and children’s voices at Be’er Sheva, silence seems to be telling a truth about history. We need to listen well, and not limit ourselves to a tower and a wall. We haven’t yet answered this project’s principle question: why are we even doing it? What’s in a station?

We climb the mound, or “tel.” A dry wind blows through the dead hospital’s windows. We are the only ones here. The Nabataeans are gone, the Turks are gone, the trains are definitely gone. Looking east, we try to spot the Holot internment facility, where Israel keeps thousands of African Asylum seekers imprisoned without trial, hoping to deter others from seeking refuge on these shores. It is hidden by the desert’s ripples.

Not a city to pass by

One more station is left on our list, and it’s role in the country’s history is largely un-train related.

It is Mas’udiyya station, mistakenly known as Sabastiya station. In 1915, the Ottomans decided to lay an arm of rails between Afula and Jerusalem, one that would link Damascus to Al Aqsa via the hill country. This arm reached down to the Nablus area. Mas’udiyyah got a station, and Sabastiya, a nearby historical hill town, became accessible to all. Then war reached the region and construction on the line was abandoned in favor of the ill-fated desert line.

Sixty years later, the area became part of the Israeli-held West Bank. Soon afterwards, Jewish activists attempted to form settlements. At first Israel’s government removed all settlers from the occupied territories and forbade them from establishing permanent footholds. Many of the confrontations took place at Mas’udiyyah’s station. No fewer than seven times did activists return to the station and held sit-ins. They were drawn to the structure due to its proximity to the ruins of Biblical Shomron and the fact it was state property.

On the eighth attempt, one cold day in December of 1975, the settlers received fond news: Shimon Peres, then minister of defense, granted them the right to settle nearby, at what became the settlement of Kedumim. One day after our desert escape, Elisha and I head across the lines, to see the source of so much complexity.

The road to Mas’udiyyah, however, goes through an energy field and we get trapped. It is Nablus, a city you can’t just cruise through. It bewitches the senses and particularly the tongue.

Nablus, we love you.

Nablus, we love you.We love you, Nablus

Like crazy, we do.

Like crazy, we do.

We stop to enjoy heavenly knafe, to buy sesame halva, black-seed halva, pumpkin jam and dates. We chat with the owner of a natural remedy shop about his university days in Rome. We sip good coffee in a shisha shop equipped with a dusty boombox and adorned by images of Jordanian royalty. Elisha, who missed her calling as interior designer, gawks and gapes and clicks her shutter repeatedly.

Lower your expectations

It is here, among the sweet billows, Lebanese music and chatter of card players, that we begin wondering whether Nablus itself once sported a railway station. The Mas’udiyyah arm must have reached down to here. Did it indeed? And has anything remained? We contact Husam Jubran, who guides with me on the National Geographic Holy Land tours. He is not sure, and reaches out to a Nablusi friend, who says yes. A station once was here. She gives us its location and urges us to lower expectations.

We find it, on an eastern edge of downtown. This area is still a transport hub. Yellow “service” minibuses park in a nearby lot and their drivers direct us to the right spot: a one story building, its tiled roof crumbling. Some sort of a factory is operating inside. We ask permission to enter and find ourselves on a platform, beneath wooden beams that held an Ottoman awning in Ottoman days. This once was, without any doubt, the station. Today it is, without any question, a pickle factory.

We receive a gift jar of pickles, and are taken to see an old street sign that still hangs on an outside wall. Faisal Street was once Station Street. Aside for this business, the building houses a store for household utensils and a hotdog stand. We are enchanted. This station isn’t abandoned, it isn’t reused, it isn’t destroyed. It’s a hotdog stand with a limitless supplies of relish. Brilliant.

A passerby notices our joy and stops to chat. He points to a traffic island full of wild growing bushes and trees, and says: “There’s more of the station there.” We circle the patch of greenery and find a limestone water tower. It is crowned with a huge billboard advertising a bank. All about this ad, Nablus honks its many horns, beneath it is a tower identical to that one that stood in silence in the desert yesterday. That still stands there this moment.

Really that far?

Could that desert and this city truly exist simultaneously, in the same land? Two towers remind us that they do. The environments that make up our country differ so much, the mental barriers are taller than the physical ones. Nitzana’s tower is situated across the separation barrier from here and in an entirely different climate, its nearest neighbors speak a different language, write in a different script, would never dream of coming here, but is it all really that far?

How easy was it to get to Nitzana in 1915? You would travel north to Afula, than to Haifa, then to Jaffa, then further south, or just go through Jerusalem and Hebron by a horse-drawn dolmush. Today, approximately 95 percent of Nablus residents do not possess permits to enter Israel. Access denied.

We have split this place up so that only a search for something random can help us piece it together. What we were looking for is home. Our land, which once could be reached by train from Europe and Africa, has been cut off the network, then smashed like a plate. We have been piecing together it station by station. Now we have it in our hands. We have made a new connection. We can move on to other journeys. How about a spin on the Trans-Siberian?

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Station to station 3: We the living http://972mag.com/station-to-station-3-we-the-living/113084/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-3-we-the-living/113084/#comments Thu, 22 Oct 2015 21:11:15 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=113084 In a land of rampant commercialism, abandonment isn’t the worst thing that could happen to an historical railway station. Elisha Baskin photographs — and insists on riding the kiddy train.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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Once upon a time, the good people of this land were able to travel by train from the coastal cities up to Jerusalem. They still can, come to think of it, but nobody does. The trip is twice as long it as it is by bus and the terminal on the Jerusalem end is at Malha, a remote southwestern offshoot of the city. When Elisha and I headed to check out Jerusalem’s historical depot, neither of us even proposed the train, we automatically met at the “sherut” minibus station.

It’s a fairly interesting ride. A man in the front is speaking excitedly in Arabic to the driver for the entire hour-long journey. He’s out of his seat, balancing himself in an awkward crouch, his knees threatening to shift gears. At one point, near Abu Ghosh, he pulls out a stick of hash and singes it with his lighter. We are quite amused.

The station itself promises less excitement. It has recently been converted into a shopping and entertainment complex. No fences or thorns or squeaking stairs await us. Here is home of the ice cream cone and porcelain mezuzahs.

That in itself, however, attests to history. As a child of the 1970s I got to live in two Israels: a largely socialist one, born in 1948; and the radically capitalist one into which it metamorphosed in the 1990s. Elisha was born a decade later and came of age in the second Israel. Being a history buff, she can imagine with clarity what the earlier times were like, but it does demand imagination. The first Israel boasted a single TV channel. Its only shopping mall could be reached by train from the stone structure we are now entering. Now everything is a shopping mall, including this building.

Hopa hopa, here is no Europa

The Ottoman station’s waiting room is occupied by a quirkily designed gift shop. Mainstream Israeli singer Evyatar Banai is playing in the background. “There’s something about places that play Evyatar Banai,” I comment, with a look that adds: “down with the bourgeoisie.” She nods.

It isn’t really all that bad, though. There are a couple of nice cafés here, one of which is housed in the old signaler’s house, a concrete structure barely big enough to fit a shakshuka pan. There is a gallery, as well as a permanent exhibition of photos detailing the railway’s history. There is a nice wooden deck to stroll and an area for children to have fun in, which is where we discover a moving train.

It’s tiny. Very tiny. It’s a toy, and it loops around the interior of an actual vintage railway car. There are a few of them actually, and they travel through tiny tunnels in tiny fake Alps into a tiny European town that comes complete with an “Aral” gas station. The attendent at the model train display, Tom, speaks excitedly about the authenticity of the miniature landscape. Elisha challenges him a question:

“Why Europe? Why did you not recreate the landscape of this county?”

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Tom explains that the two firms that provide pieces for such models are European. She accepts the explanation but the question haunts the rest of the visit. “Hopa hopa, here is no Europa” goes an Israeli satirical tune popular in recent years. We came here in search of here. Is there any here here?

There is. Shimon Futterman, the daddy of the model train display arrives and presents us with a treasure. It is a replica of a German-made locomotive that would pull trains on the Hijazi railroads. Only two such models have ever been produced. The one before us is simply stunning and rolls very nicely on rails fit for its somewhat larger scale.

“I’m a grown-up who’s been playing with trains for 52 years now,” Futerman tells us. “I have everything related to trains at home. Even my collection of books about trains is more than 600 strong.” We ask if he is a locomotive driver by trade. Turns out he’s a teacher, working with at risk youth. The “bourgeois” station complex we sneered at allowed him to drive his hobby into the open, full steam ahead.

Money talks

A few days later we visit the western terminus of the same line: Jaffa station, inaugurated in 1892, discontinued as railway terminal in 1948, converted into a mall in 2010. While Jerusalem’s complex opens into the city by way of three free flowing gates, Jaffa’s station boasts a single, guarded entry. Contrary to cliché, this city appears to be far less peaceful than the hilly one.

The only photos to be found of the station’s past hang in the corridor of the management offices. This place is all about shopping, much of it high end. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is frequently accused of catering to car dependent suburbanites at the expense of the city’s urban vibrancy as well as its sense of history. I have absolutely no debate with the critics. This place prostitutes history.

We escape without hopping on what may be the only gesture to the station’s yesteryear: an old train car that eerily shifts back and forth over a stretch of rails. Its sway apparently recreates the sensation of train travel, that vanished relic of history long replaced by parking lots and shop interiors filled with Evtayar Banai’s soft, melancholic crooning (yes, he’s here too).

In Jerusalem, by contrast, we even took the time to ride the completely un-mysterious kiddy train, driven by a Palestinian, and enjoyed the goofy noises of faux dinging bells and engine roars it emitted. That place was fine, this one isn’t our kind of joint at all. Off we go to Jerusalem Boulevard for some Libyan couscous.

Home of locomotive #70414

On our fourth day of travel we head south to Be’er Sheva. The Ottomans extended the rails south during World War One, largely in order to facilitate transporting men, arms and ammunition to the desert front. I have heard that a limestone water tower from that period still stands in the midst of a modern residential neighborhood. These towers would provide water for the steam engines — we scaled one in Afula and saw another in Samakh. They are pretty enough in and of themselves to warrant a journey south.

We locate the tower. It really is nice, and what’s nicer is getting spontaneously hosted at the sukkah of a lovely Haredi family that lives on the block. They know all about the tower’s history and knowing the present, they send us to their city’s newest attraction: the restored railway station, now known as “Home of locomotive #70414″.

Turns out this land boasts another “station complex.” It awaits us right down the street, Again that limestone, the slanted roof, those Arabic letters in stone. The terminal was adopted in 1979 by Joyce Schmidt, a paper artist, and she established a paper workshop within it.

The top floor now houses an exhibition of creations in paper. The bottom floor is a café, and the platforms outside are filled with the cheer of school children during recess. I walk on the rails among them, and realize that I am actually balancing myself. In Jerusalem and Jaffa, the rails have been framed by wooden decks. Here they are still rails, lain on gravel. Elisha emerges from an historic wagon, camera in hand and an impressed look in her eyes. “You can’t buy anything here,” she says.

This is the best compliment any public attraction in Israel of 2015 could receive: it is not a shopping mall. It isn’t a train station either, to be sure, but need not be. Be’er Sheva’s centrally located functional station is one of the city’s major active gates, and rail travel is a way of life here. I always trash talk Be’er Sheva, calling it the only city on earth uglier than Ankara. It retains that title, but it is also a winner. Even in our days of loud TV commercials, it listens well to whistles of the past.

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Station to Station 2: The phantom line http://972mag.com/station-to-station-2-the-phantom-line/112353/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-2-the-phantom-line/112353/#comments Thu, 15 Oct 2015 16:10:28 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112353 In a strange feat of partial resurrection, half of the railway between Haifa and Damascus is being fixed for reuse. Elisha Baskin’s lens and Yuval Ben-Ami’s pen follow it, focusing on the decaying and embalmed, rather than the freshly welded.  

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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For the next leg of the journey, Elisha and I meet at a train station, a living one. We are hung up on ruins, but Israel also boasts railway infrastructure that is largely modern, functional, and topped with a bonus bit of irony: our red trains are the same used for local service by Deutsche Bahn. Our forefathers fled German trains to establish a sovereign state where we would ride German trains.

The engine of our train dies before we emerge from Tel Aviv, and we remain stuck for 15 minutes or so, but the driver is so apologetic that we forgive. An hour later we are in Haifa, switching to a bus that would take us east, to explore the “Valley Railway.” The rails used to run east of here, linking the coast with Dar’aa in Syria, and with the main artery of the Hijazi railway: Damascus to Mecca.

The Ottomans laid down these rails in anticipation of constructing a major port in Haifa. They run along the Jezreel Valley and past the ancient site of Armageddon. Armageddons around here are a dime a dozen. The empire crumbled soon enough and the port materialized only under British rule. Once the Brits left in 1948, it was the rails’ turn to crumble. The border between Israel and Syria was sealed, the largely rural Eastern Galilee was not deemed worthy of train service, and the locomotives vanished like billows of steam.

Afula’s eggs

Abandoning rails is always a mistake. The fate of towns such as Tiberias and Beit Shean would have been dramatically different had they not been taken off the grid. The Valley Railway is currently being recreated all the way to Tiberias, but for the moment the new rails aren’t functional. We have an entire phantom line to explore and a strangely morbid task: to pick out the dead from the living, to ignore the shining new stations and devote ourselves to those that rot.

We jump off the bus in the town of Afula. Above us, an electronic banner flashes over a food stand: “May this be a year of blessing,” it wishes, “a year of hope, a year of shawarma.” Afula is the butt of many a Hebrew joke. It is seen as a vacant backwater, a puddle of falafel stands and sunflower seeds. In the town’s midst, an abandoned station stands hugged by a tiny public park. This was once the north’s major railway junction.

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Old Bisan station overlooks the newly renovated rails

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Samakh station at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, now a museum

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The sign at Al-Hamma / Hamat Gader station

It’s stunning. There is a one-story cargo terminal, a two-story passenger terminal, a water tower that was used to supply the steam engines and even a small bathroom stall. All are made of limestone and date back to 1912. The main structure is alive, but in an acoustic ceilings, bland tiles and Formica desks sort of way — like an embalmed corpse badly made up to look too pale. It serves as the municipal facility to support and absorb Jewish immigrants; the Russian-accented employees are happy to show us around.

The sole, ancient relic — besides the window frames — is a turn of the 20th century staircase, sealed off from the other offices and used as a broom closet. We climb it carefully and find a small pigeon’s nest, complete with two tiny eggs. The mother flutters about, distraught.

It’s best to leave her in peace. We head out, scale the water tower, then the bathroom stalls, before noticing two donkeys grazing in a small urban corral and head over to meet their owner. His name is Meir, and he lives in a pretty stone relic of Afula’s Arab past. Meir got married last night and his bride awaits him on a swing in the garden. It is a garden he himself landscaped and fenced with rungs and rails he found strewn about — the ribs and sternums of this land’s past. We wish them both a happy life and wander on.

To the secret spring

The next station, Beit Shean, is being modernized for the renewed line. Elisha snaps a photo from the bus and catches both the living and the dead in a single frame, like a family photo that captures grandma’s apparition. At Tzemach, just south of the Sea of Galilee, we bump unprepared into a gem. The Palestinian town of Samakh was destroyed in 1948, but its station is still here has just been beautifully restored for preservation as part of a college campus. It offers an exhibition on the history of Ottoman railways in the region. We learn that this was formerly a gateway to Tiberias, and that passengers were shuttled to the town by ferry over the lake.

But even this special place is only a whistle stop on the way to the day’s destination. We are headed for Hamat Gader, the last station on the line accessible from within Israel, but which is not technically in Israel. It is located in the Golan demilitarized zone, directly on the Jordanian border. It once served the hot springs of Al-Hamma, which have been an attraction since antiquity. Whatever the state of the terminal is, the location will cast magic on it.

A sweet Golan settler gives us a lift into the valley of the Yarmouk. She tell us her daughter knows a secret spring by the border fence, and calls her up to get the exact location. Following the instructions, she drives us directly to the border fence. It is staggeringly tall, intensely well-maintained and equipped with rows of razor wire and signs that warn of mortal danger. The effect is intimidating. We skip the spring, thank the lady and head for the station.

Terminus

The tiny enclave of Hamat Gaderis is restricted by a fence from two sides by a steep slope on a third. A recreational facility takes up a quarter of the land, while the rest is taken up by spring-fed fish pools. The station pops out of a lot filled with fish pool equipment and supplies, including hundreds of gallons of hydrogen peroxide. There is also a one-story stone house here, and it seems inhabited, but no one is around and the fence is feeble. We hop over it and approach the building.

It is crumbling but intact, and by the light of dusk it beats any Taj Mahal. Stepping inside, we climb the creaking stairs to the second floor. Elisha sprays water on the dusty tiles to unveil their beauty. We step onto the balcony and behold the stone sign proclaiming “Al-Hamma” in perfectly preserved Arabic calligraphy. The sounds of explosions come from across the border. Is that Syria burning? No, Syria is still a few good miles away, perhaps Jordanian target practice. Somewhere in the lot below, a lone male peacock treads, the third unexpected animal sighting of the day.

It is not the last. They appear as we step back out to the road, crossing it right before our eyes, quiet and deliberate, on the way to the barren hills for nocturnal wanderings, howls and feeds. There are five or six of them, jackals, entirely unfazed by our presence. No one else is about, only us and wilderness.

What have we done today? We took the moment that began it, a static spell in an air conditioned wagon, where we were trapped among skyscrapers, and traveled far enough to turn it on its head. This moment is the perfect contrary, and gives us a bit more clarity about our skeleton chase. Like these jackals, we are drawn to dead things because, like them, we know that nothing around here really dies. There is life in the rabbit’s cadaver. It nourishes. There is life in the abandoned train station, and the nearer we come to it — the more likely we are to come face to face with stunning, alert, real and hungry jackals.

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Station to Station 1: The fenced failure http://972mag.com/station-to-station-1-the-fenced-failure/112288/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-1-the-fenced-failure/112288/#comments Thu, 08 Oct 2015 16:31:06 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112288 A journey to the Holy Land’s disused railway stations begins with a sonnet of concrete. Digital and disposable camera photography by Elisha Baskin.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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There is an old railway station in south Tel Aviv. It isn’t really so old by local standards, being 80 years younger than the city’s first train depot. A concrete edifice of the 1970s, it would hardly delight all eyes. “Tel Aviv south” is no Milano Centrale, oh, and it hasn’t served any lines since 1993. It’s useless.

Nevertheless, not only do I take off a hot September day to head there, but I have company. Elisha is a history adventurer: an archive detective who finagles rare film footage, photos and sound bites related to this country’s past. I told her I plan to explore the country’s disused train stations, and she sent me a strange array of ancient photos related to transport in the Holy Land. They were stunningly random. Here was spectacular company for a random historical journey.

“And the first station is just down the street from your hood,” I mentioned.

“Where?”

“Just past the Kibbutz Galuyot highway bridge.”

“There’s a station there?”

Behold how the past evades even its greatest lovers. Then again, South Tel Aviv Station was invisible from its beginnings. That is what sealed its fate.

I would build on the moon

Here is the brief chronicle of a civil engineering folly: the city’s first train station was opened in Jaffa in 1892, when only Jaffa existed. At one time you could board a train there and travel north to Damascus and as far south as the Sudan.

Following the war of 1948, that station became disused. The young State of Israel sought to decentralize Jaffa, allowing the adjacent Hebrew city to inherit it. The final mile of rails was undone, and trains now only ran as far as a station in central Tel Aviv.

The 50s and 60s saw society and leadership both turn automobile-crazed. City politicians expressed concern over traffic jams and blamed the trains that rolled into downtown. Eventually a new station was planned at a peripheral location, and an architect was chosen: Nahum Zolotov.

Zolotov himself felt uncomfortable with the initiative and proposed a more central location. He was defeated but took the job anyway. “I’m an architect,” he later explained in an interview, “I would build on the moon if that was the demand.”

South Tel Aviv station could have just as well been located on the moon. It lacked a link to any other transport terminal, and could not be reached by foot from the city center. Following its inauguration, travel by train fell dramatically out of fashion. It took 23 years for a fourth central station to be built, repairing some of the damage. This one was placed in the city’s affluent north, favoring its burgeoning bourgeois class, reflecting yet another shift of priorities.

Agricultural stuff

“Oh that!” says Elisha, as we hit the bridge and glimpse the long concrete parasol, shading the platforms. “So that’s what this is.”

We are both fairly taken with the structure’s aesthetics. Most Israeli concrete architecture of the period is Brutalist. This happens to be elegant. The terminal is roofed with variations of the same leitmotif that makes up the parasol: a stubby, overturned pyramid balancing on a single column.

On the façade is a sign. This, so it seems, is Israel’s “School for Train Professions.” It appears to be operative yet out of session. We are not alone, however, and soon two security guards engage us. One of them demands we delete what photos we already took and briefly confiscates Elisha’s ID.

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South Tel Aviv station. Sign reads: “School for Train Professions”

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A glimpse of the interior. This land is heaven for enthusiasts of 20th century concrete architecture

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Yesterday’s papers at yesterday’s station

 

“Photography is prohibited in any of the premises,” he warns, “nor may you approach the station from any direction. Over there,” he points, “is the freeway, and the other way is agricultural stuff. They run patrols there all the time, and trespassing is a criminal offense.”

He’s actually quite courteous, but hardly helpful. When we ask for a contact who could give us permission to shoot, he suggests we talk to “the train itself.” We ask him for a phone number. “I’m employed by an outsourced contractor,” he explains, “I don’t have any phone numbers.” As we thank him and head on, I can’t help but muse over the symbolism. Here is a hermetically fenced failure, guarded by underpaid men who can’t contact anyone in authority. Such an allegory for our homeland.

Descent into thorns

Here is where this journey truly begins: in a descent into thorns. We pick the side of the “agricultural stuff” and find a breach in the fence. As soon as we do, I sense how unlike my other journeys this one was going to be. Where are we headed? Not to an actual historical relic nor to a thing of the present, nor to anything that offers a sense of future. We are climbing over trash into a ditch, a dreadfully dusty and thorny ditch. What possesses us?

We are sure to find that out. For now it was all about the station and getting a better view. The ditch is deep. It separates the station’s parking lot from a plowed field encircled by yet another fence. Having reached its bottom we follow it towards the station. It leads to an underground passage that goes directly beneath it.

We step underneath our holy grail into a dark concrete tunnel, like a doomsday shelter from some 1980s political thriller. We have made it and haven’t, like two Ethiopian migrants who crossed deserts to reach the land of milk and honey, and ended up in a Rehovot housing project. We go all the way down the tunnel, then back, then step back out and look around.

Paints and parrots

There is a lot out there besides the train station. Over the tunnel entrance is a massive mural, the work of some anonymous street artist. In it, black-furred mammals of some sort torment the sleep of a multiple-eyed man. In the actual sky above the painting flies a flock of green parrots, a foreign breed that was somehow introduced to this land and has been known to cause much damage to its ornithological balance.

Following the ditch it feels as though we are in the middle of nowhere, but this is not nowhere. It is a corner of the metropolis’s south neither of us has ever visited, and like every point in this country it’s wild. Across the parking lot is a high school affiliated with Israel’s air force. In its front yard sit two defunct helicopters and a real-life jumbo sized military drone. The highway has a tale to tell, as does the closely watched field, and the adjacent neighborhoods, the city’s poorest and most diverse, buzz with millions of tales. Our random destination offers us a new angle from which to recognize all these.

Down the ditch and up at the top of the slope, we find a gate in the field’s fence. It is open, a gaping loophole. It allows us to come closer to the station and shoot its platforms from a two-yard range. But they matter less now. One thing we already know of this journey: it isn’t about platforms.

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Seven Nights 7: The Pub Crawl http://972mag.com/seven-nights-7-the-pub-crawl/110391/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-7-the-pub-crawl/110391/#comments Sun, 16 Aug 2015 15:14:48 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=110391 ‘So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people were murdered due to inter-group hatred.’ The seventh and final installment.

For other nights click here.

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One April night in 2003, my cousin Yaron decided he needed a bass player. He was growing as a local blues musician and figured that some accompaniment would do no harm. He told his girlfriend, Shir, that he’s popping over to Mike’s Place, a blues bar on Tel Aviv’s promenade, and left.

He returned shortly afterwards, covered in blood and in a state of shock. While the band played at Mike’s Place, two men walked in wearing explosive belts. The place went up in flames, claiming three lives along with that of one of the attackers. For a reason that remained unclear, the other terrorist failed to pull the trigger. He escaped into the night; his body was washed up by the waves a few days later.

Shir washed Yaron off with the shower hose. The blood came off and no wound appeared — the blood belonged to other people. Nine months to that night, the couple’s first child was born, a Second Intifada boomer and a treasure of a kid.

A dozen or so years later, on the eve of this story’s final night, I invited my friend Michelle for a drink at Mike’s Place. “I’m planning a epic pub crawl that will be remembered in this city’s history. I have been healing nicely from what happened at Jerusalem Pride, but I need a catharsis. So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people have been murdered due to inter-group hatred.”

“May I remind you I live in Jerusalem,” Michelle replied, “That is what I do whenever I go out.”

So she was out, but others agreed to come. At 9 p.m. I left for Mike’s Place with a happy song in my head — one that has been stuck in my head ever since picking the name for this series: “Seven Drunken Nights,” an Irish pub ditty. In each verse, a man returns home from the pub and finds another object that seems to belong to another man. His wife denies, blaming his blood-alcohol level:

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk, you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not a horse, it is a cow that my mother sent to me
Well, it’s many a days I traveled, a hundred miles or more
But a saddle on a cow’s back, sure I never seen before.

I walked past the security guard at Mike’s Place, successfully smuggling a bottle of whisky in my bag, sat at the bar and ordered some of its own whiskey. At 10, two girls arrived: Hanna is a Londoner who made aliyah, met my mother on a bus and became half-adopted by my parents. I love her to bits. She brought a friend: Lauren, a student and writer, originally from L.A. We had a round or two, said a word about the bombing, dealt with an early-bird drunk who fell in love with all three of us, and moved on for more historical mayhem.

Inter-species crime

Station two was a bit heavy duty. The Dolphinarium is a largely-abandoned concrete structure that stretches along the sea front, interrupting Tel Aviv’s stretch of beaches with unforgivable ugliness. Here, too, a suicide bombing took place. In 2001, a Palestinian blew himself up inside what used to be a nightclub catering to Russian-speaking clientele, killing 22 people.

But there were other blood stains to speak of here. in the early hours of a 2013 dawn, a Palestinian street sweeper was randomly attacked in front of the building by a drunk Jewish mob and had to be hospitalized. This is also also one of many locations of the Palestinian national trauma. The Dolphinarium was built over the ruins of Manshiyya, a Muslim outcrop of Jaffa that was emptied and wrecked by the Irgun in 1948, shortly before the eruption of the formal war.

Then there were the dolphins. “I got to go here as a kid and see them jump through hoops,” I told the girls, “Later I read that they were kept in horrid conditions. That’s an inter-species crime, right?”

They agreed, and also agreed that we should skip the overly-posh bar currently operating at the site. Instead we sat on the rocks and drank whiskey out of the bottle, before moving on to station three.

Susanna is a pleasant cafe in the quaint Neve Tzedek quarter. A year and one day before our crawl, its owner and founder was murdered by her spouse. A dozen women are murdered by their partners in Israel on average each year. The authorities are notorious for letting abusive men go, even when they make explicit threats. We ordered cocktails and three varieties of delicious stuffed vegetables.

Others joined us here. Aziz, my boss at my tour guiding job, whose name likely provoked the intern’s deportation, came with three friends: an American and two Brits of Iraqi heritage. This was a nice international crowd. This was a nice night — I was getting trashed.

We emptied the bottle on a street near the central bus terminal. May 23rd, 2012, was the night our current Minister of Culture Miri Regev called African asylum seekers “a cancer in our body.” That same night, hundreds of Jewish Israelis heeded her call and rampaged these streets, where many asylum seekers live. They smashed stores and car windows, and beat up random Africans. No one was killed that night, but something did die, something in our spirit as a nation.

Regev and her fellow hate-mongers cleverly incited against the underprivileged. They spoke to the the impoverished Jewish communities of south Tel Aviv, and blamed the asylum seekers for the condition of their neighborhoods. In fact, poverty in these parts result from the government’s own neglect, which is, in turn, a product of the Ashkenazi hegemony’s disdain for Mizrahi Jews. I counted that as another form of hate crime and let the last sip of whiskey fall on my tongue.

I’m sorry to interrupt the movie

Considering its gritty, uber-urban appearence, Tel Aviv is a surprisingly safe city. Mugging, for example, has never been an issue here. We reserve our violence and use it to express our political convictions. These convictions are legion. The walk to station five was extremely brief.

In 2009, a hooded man walked into the basement of an LGBT youth club off Rothschild Boulevard. He slaughtered one teenager, incidentally a 16-year-old girl, and one of the instructors. The killer was never caught. Survivors had to deal both with trauma and with an unplanned outing to their families and friends.

We walked into an unfamiliar bar near the scene of the crime. It was cool, so we stayed a while and got properly drunk. Stepping back out, the song was back in my head. One drunk night followed another.

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not a pipe, it is a whistle that my mother sent to me
Well it’s many a days I traveled, a hundred miles or more

But tobacco in a whistle, sure I never seen before.

We took two cabs to Rabin Square. Nearly 20 years have passed since November 4th, 1995, 20 years of decay. I was there on the night that gave the square it’s namesake, attended the peace rally, was floored by how huge and hopeful it was, had an ice cream bar and listened to Rabin speak. I didn’t stay for the cheesy singalong, and instead went to see a movie.

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A friend of mine worked as an usher at an art-house nearby and would sneak me into films for free. The movie shown that night was Nanni Moretti’s “Caro Diario.” I had already watched it and knew that it ends with a piece of bad news: Moretti learns that he has cancer.

Just as the film was about to end, a minute before the diagnosis comes, the door to the theater opened, and a different bit of bad news arrived. “I’m very sorry to interrupt the movie,” said the silhouette at the door, “but there was an act of violence committed in the square and Rabin is dead.”

The silhouette was of my usher friend’s shift manager. I was the only one who knew he was not some lunatic off the street, and so was the first to react, asking him what exactly happened. How many people were killed?

“Only Rabin,” he replied.

What kind of etiquette applies in a such a situation? Should we stay and watch the ending? Should we all leave right away? The confusion lasted for a minute or so while the Italians on the screen continued on, unfazed. Finally we left them there, pouring into the street and into the political reality that persists until this day.

“The Brasserie,” Tel Aviv’s most elegant all-night restaurant, is right on the square. It was getting past four and the place was buzzing. We took a table on the terrace, drank some more, ate and had a fine time.

 The pyramid

Across from The Brasserie, a huge, upturned pyramid of black iron soars over the square. It is a public sculpture by artist Yigal Tomarkin. I don’t know whose idea it was that we scale it, but at least three of us did, myself being one.

In retrospect, we nearly added our names to this long list of the city’s victims. Aye, we were drunk, we were drunk, silly old fools.

And when I came home on Sunday night, as drunk as drunk can be
I saw a foreign man standing where my old self should be
So I called my wife and I said to her: would you kindly say to me,
What’s this foreign man doing where my old self should be?

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not a man, it is a baby that my mother sent to me
Well it’s many a days I traveled, a hundred miles or more
But a beard on a baby’s face, sure I never seen before.

Isn’t this what we do here, in this bubble of a town? We try to drink and party enough not to know or at least not to care that we are being lied to. I reached the top, as did Hanna and Lauren, we took each others photos against a dark blue sky. Dawn was breaking and I declared the Death and Destruction pub crawl a partial success; partial because I wanted seven stations to fit my writing project, and could only think of six. Then I looked down into the heart of the pyramid and saw a small, iron bonfire, and it hit me that this as not only a public sculpture. We just drunkenly climbed Tel Aviv’s Holocaust monument.

Here was the most unfathomable hate crime of them all, the one that still scars us, that still drives us crazy, The source of so much anguish and violence in this land. Here was the seventh station of our Tel Avivian Via Dolorosa, marking the source.

Satisfied, we climbed down safely and went to the beach. We swam to one of the wave breakers and watched the sun rise behind the towers. While we did, someone stole all our cellphones from my bag that we left on the sand, but it was nothing. Really nothing.

****

Thank you all for reading. Michael Scheaffer Omer-Man and Edo Konrad took turns editing the chapters. The illustrations are by yours truly. Please consider sharing the project page so that it finds new readers, and may peace and safety prevail wherever you are.

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Seven Nights 6: Malawi http://972mag.com/seven-nights-6-malawi/110203/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-6-malawi/110203/#comments Fri, 14 Aug 2015 11:40:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=110203 On its next to last night, the journey leads away from the cities and, in a way, to another continent.  

For other nights click here.

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The papers promised a meteor shower. Here was a great excuse to take a spin out of town. I haven’t been off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis in a while (Bethlehem is essentially a Jerusalem suburb). Nothing sounded more appealing than heading into the dark hills to chase a shooting star or two.

Ruthie was feeling a tad better and encouraged me to head out, but I was unsure. Then a surprise phone call called the shots. My old buddy, Cindy, who lives in Hawaii, urged me to meet a friend of hers on a short visit to the Holy Land. The friend, Nadi, was staying in Haifa, had a car, and was eager to go watch meteors. I stuck with Ruthie for as late as it made sense, then hopped on a northbound train.

It pulled into Haifa just before 11:00. Abby waited in the parking lot. “The climax of the shower should take place just after midnight,” I informed her while buckling up, “How much time and energy have you got?” I asked.

“I need to return the car by 6:30,” she said, “That’s pretty much it.”

This was more than I had bargained for. The Carmel range offers a patch of woodland, the nearest respite from light pollution. but it appeared we didn’t need to stay near. ”So we can go and explore, right?”

“Let’s do.”

All I knew about Nadi on the way up was that she is Malawian. I also knew she is a top class traveler. Rolling out of the city and into the Galilee, I learned that she spent much of her life in the US and was now studying medicine in Boston. She came to Haifa to support a friend, a member of the Baha’i faith, who came to volunteer at the Baha’i headquarters. We spoke of Bahaullah, of Boston and of Cindy for a long while, while seeking a dark spot. There was no such spot, so we spoke of gender issues in Malawian society. We covered the issue nicely, but there still was no dark spot. This country is just that populated.

Bitter coffee

We turned to smaller roads, but even they ended up winding around and through heavily lit communities. One such town, Kafr Manda, appeared particularly lively and inviting, so we stopped in for dinner. A restaurant on the square offered grilled meat and salads as well as live footage from the Qa’aba. Having had our fill of all three, we stopped at a nearby convenience store for the loo. I pulled a small container of what seemed to be ice coffee from the fridge, and brought it to the register. Here was a symbolic purchase to justify our use of the facilities.

“100 shekels,” said the storekeeper.

I reacted with the appropriate outrage, but he was perfectly unfazed. “It’s bitter coffee,” he explained.

“I’ll just make bitter coffee at home. It’s pretty easy.”

“I doubt you can make it quite this bitter. This cooked for two, three hours. This 50 centiliter container started off as three kilos of coffee grinds. Hold on.”

He removed the cap and poured a bit of the dark liquid into a paper cup, offering us a taste.

It was more tangy than bitter, and it was stronger than cocaine. Nadi and I zoomed back out on the road, and began energetically chatting talking about Malawi. The night was going to be long, and this conversation was to last for much of it. It will prove to be among the most eye opening I have ever had. Thank god for bitter coffee, thank god for shooting stars.

We actually did find a dark spot, somewhere atop the spot that separates The Valley of Sakhnin from the Valley of Beit Netofa. Both valleys were brimming with humanity, but up top, the stars were visible and a few of them did fall, leaving exciting trails. We sat in the middle of a gravel road, surrounded by low brush. We spoke of Malawi and occasionally fell silent, listening to crickets and to jackals. Here were actual jackals, not jackass jackals like the guys who howled at me on night two.

I was impressed with my own resilience. In fewer than two weeks, my girlfriend’s precious trust allowed me to spend not one but two nights out with not one but two beautiful women from not one but two countries of the southern hemisphere. Nadi and I found ourselves in a scene more romantic than any on Venice’s Grand Canal. I struggled against the natural urge to play Casanova. She came to my aid by describing her country’s disturbing cuisine: Grilled mice sold by the roadside, tiny birds eaten complete with their feathers, caterpillars and flying ants and the likes.

I am actually a fan of funky food, and it is exactly this menu that made me begin seriously contemplating visiting Malawi. I also realized how healthy this was for me, this interruption of my obsession with my land, to learn of a different land. Then Nadi touched on politics and my interest deepened still. “It’s deteriorating,” she said.

“Oh. That makes me feel at home. I getting to know all about deteriorating countries.”

“But it’s deteriorated far. I find it hard to believe and to stomach, but it is today the poorest country on earth.”

Ubuntu

Nadi’s father was a dissident, forced into exile in the early ’80s. She still can’t bring up his name when she visits. The current regime, she told me, is only an mutation of the previous one. Its care for the nation was dubious at best and a spirit of rebellion was largely absent.

“People should be willing to give their lives”, she said.

We were back on the road by now. It was a silent 2:30 AM, and we were driving through the dormant town of Arab’e. What did Nadi mean by “give their lives”? Did she hope to see more of her compatriots dedicate their lives to change? Did she feel that they actually sacrifice them?

She herself spoke of dedicating her future, of taking her medical skills away from the comfortable west to the land of her ancestors, but in a Palestinian townscape, the words “give their lives” carry special weight. “Over the years, so many Palestinians were willing to give their lives for their nation’s cause,” I noted, “and it didn’t come to much. No form of violent resistance resulted in actual positive long term change. In recent years it’s all been about non-violence, and that hasn’t changed much either yet.”

That wasn’t the right attitude. This was a night of shooting stars, a night to be optimistic. “But who knows,” I added. “Maybe that will work in the long run. I’m sensing a turning of the tides in international opinion.”

We were still wired on the bitter coffee and far from ready to head back to Haifa. On the way south was Nazareth. I offered Nadi a walk through its sleepy market and a peak at its basilica. Being an Arab city, Nazareth does not appear on the highway signs. Only the much smaller Jewish town of Afula, or Nazareth Illit, the city’s Jewish suburb, get mentioned. Driving in from the north, the hometown of Jesus appears only on a single sign, planted at the heart of one of its Arab suburbs.

I looked out the window, hoping for a star that would grant me one more wish for the night: that we would be visible to one another, that we would enjoy getting to know each other as I just did meeting this new friend. What was that word Nadi taught me just before? Ubuntu. She explained that it means: “I am because you are”. I jotted it in my notepad, not to forget.

(Continues here)

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