From Ein Gedi to Sodom via three Hebrew songs, two versions of paradise and one magnesium plant.
Tine likes the Dead Sea, conceptually, that is. She likes that it’s called the Dead Sea and that no form of life survives in its waters except for tourists.
We camp out at a place that turns out to be very much alive: a beach near Kibbutz Ein Gedi. The families that come to spend Friday night here provide a good idea of which groups in Israeli society can’t afford hotels: small town Mizrachim (Jews of Arab descent), Russian immigrants, Palestinian-Israelis and Bedouins, the latter being so used to roughing it that an entire family just sleeps out on the murky pavement near the public bathrooms.
Ein Gedi Beach vacation-makers arrive, equipped with sound systems, portable grills and cases of cheap energy drink. We come with nothing but one tent for the two of us, but find a wonderful spot for it next to some flat slab of concrete that makes a lovely patio.
I will not be surprised if some of my readers doubt me by now. Women appear to be more spontaneous than men and end up joining me on the road more often, from Damascus Rose who took in Tel Aviv with me early in September, to Adi who joined me along the Lebanese border earlier on this tour. I love their company but I am forced to disappoint: It’s all platonic. I’m loyal to Ruthie, and my fondness for female company stems less from my macho instincts and more from its opposite. I have a strong feminine side, which I recently discussed in a book. Women are my most natural friends.
Even natural friends like to widen their social horizons, so we walk over to a fun-looking bunch that sits by a campfire and offer up some of the vodka we bought at the Russian deli in Arad. It turns out that someone’s already made that same move on that same group. Alexandra, a Polish backpacker traveling on her own, provided them a bottle of wine in return for the warmth of their burning forklift pallet.
We walked ourselves into a proper party. Soon one of the revelers pulls out the melodica and everyone sings along. These are the moments for which travel was invented. It’s perfect.
I was in fact planning to dedicate this post to pefection, to the beauty of the desert that surrounds us now. The Green Line being gone, this would be a good time to chill, for once forget the politics and respect the beauty of this unique lake of brine and the grand mountains surrounding it.
But when the light comes over that lake, I notice a drama around me to which I must pay mind. It is environmental drama and it appears in the rivers of water used to wash the restrooms, in the trash with which the night wind covered the fence defining the beach’s limits and in the pink lampposts that line the lake shore.
This country is trying for those who seek to relax in primeval landscapes. Tine and I head to the Ein Gedi nature reserve, where desert springs feed streams that dance down the dry rocks in countless waterfalls to the lake below. This would have been the perfect place to cool one’s feet following a long desert walk.
But only if you are a true lover of humanity and don’t mind cooling them to a soundtrack of screaming kids and the grownups who loudly discipline them. The reserve is so overpopulated that we must literally queue on our way up the trails.
I’m trying to keep all the noise out by singing a happy song, an appropriate song, by late Israeli troubadour Meir Ariel. Its beauty gives me the power to push my way through the crowd to the uppermost fall, which is the most spectacular and least crowded of all. It goes something like this:
My love is like a desert land
She does not give herself easily, if at all.
She is no audience for my little shows.
Even though she wants me by now,
She rejects all manners of courtship.
This is when I happen to love her most.
My love is like a desert land
There’s a bright cleanliness about her
And me, I am a little bit dirty.
Even though she wants me by now,
She would not let approach, not yield
This is when I happen to love her most.
She doesn’t like it when I talk, she says that I lie
Even when I’m silent.
That I’m not worthy
Even of her scorns.
She must have not forgotten nor forgiven
Those long, long days.
But she’d surely have quit the scene
Had she not thought
that somewhere inside me
She would find fresh water.
My love is like a desert land,
She stings like the flint, burns like the scorpion,
And pierces the skin like a cold eastern wind.
Even though she wants me by now
She will keep me baking in the sun
Just to see if I would stay,
And this is when I happen to love her the most.
South of the reserve is Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Here man interfered with nature more intensely, not only by crowding and photographing it, but by dwelling in it and using its spring water to grow a small, inhabited forest.
Like many kibbutzim, Ein Gedi was founded by the IDF’s Nachal brigade, whose mission is the creation of agricultural settlements that may also serve military interests when neccesary. In case you wondered earlier how come so many places that I visit along the borders are kibbutzim, here is your answer.
The Nachal’s soldiers came to the oasis in 1953. At that time the city of Arad was not yet dreamed up, nor were the hotels along the lake’s shore to the south. The Green Line stretches here to the north and west, forming a triangular peninsula of Israel, that stretched only several kilometers across. At the time anything across that line was under Jordanian rule and inaccessible to Israelis, which rendered Ein Gedi extremely isolated from the rest of the Jewish state. It would take nearly a day to drive here from Beer Sheva on gravel roads.
It was at that time that a song was written about this place, by a 16-year old boy who came here one summer to volunteer. I can’t help but hum it as Tine and I wander through the botanical garden that flourishes among the kibbutz homes, complete with a real baobab.
Ein Gedi, Ein Gedi, how did you bloom so in the sun.
Ein Gedi, Ein Gedi, how your streams break through the wasteland.
Ein Gedi, Ein Gedi. Here beauty appears at it brightest
And the heart wonders
And is seduced.
There’s been more than a bit of controversy around how Ein Gedi uses the gift of the springs. The botanical garden features primarily desert vegetation, but the kibbutz also bottles the water and sells it in supermarkets. When criticized, kibbutzniks argued that there is little difference between selling the water in plastic bottles as opposed to selling it as grapefruit. It did not seem to have occurred to them that growing water-consuming crops may be equally objectionable, no matter how many Israeli farmers do it.
Israel diverts the water of the Jordan River to farmlands on the coast. Water which would have reached the Dead Sea winds up in watermelons and tropical fruit such as passion fruit. We export our scarce water to Swiss supermarkets in the form of Jaffa oranges. Meanwhile the periphery of the lake shrinks by one meter each year. We are killing the Dead Sea, but it’s smarter than us. Where the water receded, sink holes open up and kill us in return.
These holes are deep pits that cave without warning to bury anything or anyone unlucky enough to have passed by. Directly at the foot of the hill on which Ein Gedi is perched, is a sign warning of them.
Further south are the huge, water guzzling Dead Sea hotels, presenting a Vegas-like skyline against the stark mountains. Here Tine bids me farewell and returns to Jerusalem, while I check into a hotel room to catch up on my writing.
By being here, I too am taking part in the rape of this delicate and magical corner of the earth, but there isn’t much of a choice. I have only gone as far as the surprise tango lesson in my last published post, and must sit now for over eight hours to tell the Story of Umm Jihad’s homecoming and our afternoon at Abraham and Sarah’s.
The following morning I recieve splendid company. Someone who is already a partner on this journey took the opportunity to also be a travel buddy. It is +972’s own Mairav Zonszein, who edited several of my previous posts. She is showing the country to Zoe, an American friend who currently resides in Budapest. My current whereabouts are the opposite of Budapest in every respect, and bringing Zoe here certainly should justify her airfare.
Here are two more traveling ladies, proving that the roads really do belong to the wiser sex. I am forced to check out before they arrive, but grab two extra towels in advance from the hotel counter and help them sneak on to the hotel beach, so Zoe could experience the Dead Sea’s famous buoyancy.
I owe them this hour of easy chairs and parasols, because there’s one more site down the road I wish to visit, and they will provide me with a lift there. First signs of it appear not ten minutes south of the easy chairs, in the form of tiny, decaying houses on the desolate shore.
These are old laborers’ quarters of the Dead Sea Industries complex. The minerals and phosphates found on the lake’s bottom would have been among Israel’s most precious resources, but they do not belong to Israel anymore.
You see, the government sold every precious flake of bromide this soil has to the Ofer Brothers company, who pay a tiny commission. Up until 1995, they were allowed to enlarge their juggernaut complex without any interference by governmental development committees. This complex, as luck would have it, is located at the site traditionally identified as that of Biblical Sodom.
The entire southern portion of the lake is split up by gravel causeways and even the hotels themselves sit today on the shore of evaporation pool #5. Look back to the picture taken from my hotel room window, and you’ll clearly see the levee enclosing it.
“Have politician friends, will mine. Have an envelope full of cash, will have politician friends.” While traveling along the complex’s fences, I have yet another song playing through my head. It was written by Shalom Chanoch and performed in Arabesque style by mischievous radio personality Dori Ben-Zeev. It is called: “Thieves.”
All day I sit
Thinking only of you
What will be,
Can’t find a place to put my head down
Don’t know what to wear
What will be, be, be of me?
I don’t eat and I don’t drink
Scared of what may lie ahead.
What will be,
stole my night
stole my day.
To my great amazement, Mairav and Zoe themselves don’t find this place half as disturbing as I do. “It’s interesting,” says Zoe, and Mairav even uses “beautiful.” Who knows, in the end I may just be a miserable old conservative. My camera seems to agree with them. And the last drawing Tine left with me, that of an old tree growing through a railing designed to hold a trash can on Ein Gedi’s promenade, is beautiful indeed. I yield.
“Ein Gedi” by Eitan Peretz and Dov Aharony. performed by Tove Ben-Zvi and Shmuel Bar-Zakai
“Thieves”, by Shalom Hanoch, performed by Dori Ben-Zeev and “Swing des Gitans”
The Round Trip thus far!
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