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The Round Trip part 18: Details, details

From Aqaba to Eilat via an intolerant electric appliances store, a metaphoric volleyball court, and a strange play of reflections.

The first thing I notice in Jordan is a picture. It is hanging over my hotel bed: a representation of Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem in its “before” state (for its “after” state, see the end of part 13).

The second thing I notice are tall curbs. Jordan has insane curbs and consequently so do many West Bank cities, which were once subject to Jordanian civil engineers. I figure that such curbs impede parking on sidewalks, but they must also force people in wheelchairs to phone-order every meal they eat.

At a small roasted-chicken eatery, I notice the pull tab on my soda can. You tell me that this place has a strong relationship with recent history (say, the 80s) and a less strong connection with environmentalism.

Having also noticed that the sockets here are of the square-toothed British breed, I step into a electric appliances store, asking for a converter. While looking for one, the owner asks me where I am from. This place may resemble Jenin and Ramallah in language and religious affiliation, it may even be inhabited mostly by Palestinians, but I am present here legally and need not pretend. “Israel,” I say.

“Then I don’t have a converter. I have nothing for you.” He leaves the drawers be, straightens up and looks my way impatiently, waiting for me to leave.

This is never a good feeling, but it’s worse now, since I really do need a converter or I’ll lag another day behind on my posting. By now it is past 10:00 p.m., this shop is open by sheer miracle, but will not serve me. What to do?

I recall how, after being arrested in Dura on the September journey, the officer interrogated me on my attitude towards his people’s national aspirations, then praised me for being “min jama’at as-salaam” – belonging to the brotherhood of peace.

I give it a shot: “I belong to the brotherhood of peace.”

“Ah,” he raises his brows. “So you’re not an Israeli?”

“Whatever, not Israeli.”

His demeanor changes sharply. He goes out of his way to find me a converter, apologizes that it is not a heavy duty one, and charges me only a single dinar. He knows full well that I am Israeli, but needed some excuse to give me service regardless. Perhaps my denouncement of my nationality also touched him. I’m a bit embarrassed by it, to be honest, but so be it, Independence Day isn’t for two more days.

In the morning, I head out and explore the promenade. It is flanked by peculiar rotating gates that are of no apparent value, since they spin both ways and are anyway not a part of any fence.

The promenade is peaceful and charming, and lined with glass-bottom boats. These are said to provide tourists with views of the spectacular reefs, though by their looks I expect the view to be a tad murky. At the restaurant where I take breakfast, I meet Aboud, who owns such boats. He has no issue with my being Israeli. “I take Israelis on my boats,” he says. “Once this woman even invited me to move to Israel and work at her t-shirt factory. I don’t see why I would need that. I own three boats and am now getting a lifeguard license.”

Aboud is a sailor free to sail one third of a small puddle. He knows the exact dimentions of Aqaba’s territorial waters and points them out to me through the the restaurant’s window.

“The little boat peeking behind the big ship, that’s a Jordanian police boat, and that’s as far as we can go. It’s a little over seven kilometers from here to the Israeli coast. Jordan gets four, Israel has three, then 500 meters or so are a buffer zone.”

He also points out two hotels on the far shore. The border between Israel and Egypt runs directly between them, then stretches out into the sea to meet the Jordanian border. A bit further south, the Jordanian-Saudi border splashes into the water too.

The tip of the gulf of Aqaba is crisscrossed by borders. These no longer resemble the fence that ended all roads at Lebanon’s rim, nor the walls of the West Bank, nor even the one running along the Arava desert, marked by boundary markers. They are less tangible even than the non-existent border in the Golan. There the boundary markers were removed but the line can still be traced by the course of a road.

The maritime borders are entirely unmarked. Enormous schools of narrow-barred Spanish mackerel zigzag accross them ceaselessly. A lone traveler could probably swim past them, and go unnoticed by the police boat. We are made of the same stuff as octopi and manta rays, which enables us to go literally “under the radar,” but who would attempt such a thing? These borders may be drawn only in our minds, but they are drawn with a sharp pencil.

Later, in the posher part of Aqaba’s shoreline, which is split between grand hotels, I run into a beach volleyball court, and can’t help but snicker at the sight of its net. Here’s another artificial barrier, dividing people into arbitrary camps which then throw things at each other. It is even more obliging than international borders: No player would dream of quitting his side of the court mid-game to enjoy some cross-net tourism.

I did just that, and am now returning over to Israel. I will continue to Eilat, but first take a photo of a more heavy duty volleyball net, running three kilometers north of the water. The watchtowers are Jordanian.

Being Israeli, I rapidly flow through the notorious security checks. At last there is a benefit to my nationality. The first thing I notice in Israel is a picture. It hangs past the passport control booths, and shows King Hussein lighting Prime Minister Rabin’s cigarette.

There is a lot more to notice, however, and by the end of the afternoon I am able to put together a comparison between two resort town promenades, located four kilometers apart, across a line cutting through the water. Both towns being rather tacky, we’ll start with the souvenir stands. Here is Aqaba.

Here is Eilat.

Both promenades are beautified by gardening. In Aqaba, local farmers grow edible herbs along the shoreline.

In Eilat, the grass and bushes are made of plastic, the ultimate evergreen.


Aqaba has a great view of Eilat.

Eilat has a great view of Aqaba.

Aqaba has fancy pools.

So does Eilat.

Aqaba’s promenade is dominated by an enormous national symbol: the second tallest flagpole in the world, flying the flag of the Arab Revolt (same as Jordan’s but without the star). The thing is so huge that I could not grasp it in a single shot. Here is the pole, then,

and here’s what’s atop it.

Eilat’s coast sports nothing of this magnitude, but nationalism is never in shortage here, especially not three days before Independence Day. Even the Hilton is decorated with a flag this week: a long, if slender, one.

In Aqaba people have fun in boats.

As they do in Eilat,

But as you will have noticed by now, or knew to begin with, the dress code is rather different in each of the towns. No one actually swims off of Aqaba’s beach except children, and certainly no one sunbathes, except on the grounds of the resort hotels.

Eilat is friendlier with the suntan lotion industry.

Aqaba has ancient ruins rising right over its beach.

Eilat doesn’t, but boasts crazy orientalist hotel architecture, which its twin city does not…

…but which it soon will, when its enormous lagoon project is completed. Aqaba’s lagoon will even feature a little make-believe Arab city full of alleyways and minarets. This isn’t really neccesary, since Aqaba itself is right next door and has plenty of minarets, although not many alleyways.

Finally, at the end of a long photographic exploration, each promenade offers a cool drink, be it Jordanian tamarind juice,

or Israeli lemonade. Lechaim.

How many of these are differences? How many are similarities? To me, each pair of photos reflects both. At the end of the day I find myself sitting on Eilat’s waterfront and having what could have been a typical Jordainian feast of hummous (except that it comes on a big plate and contains meat), Arak (except it is mixed with grapefruit juice rather than just water) and a hooka (except that it is heated by industrial, match-lit charcoals rather than natural ones). Things here are certainly different than they are there, but each volleyball team is also different from the other. These are differences that call for a simple converter that costs a single dinar. No need for the heavy duty sort.


The Round Trip thus far! 

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Thanks for reading and taking part in the adventure. All writing on this site is done voluntarily, so if any of you would like to pitch in directly for my travel expenses, please click here or on the “donate” button at the top of this page to do so. Donors who contribute more than $25 will receive free the first part of the three-part ebook (compatible with iPad) that will be released this summer. I’m deeply grateful to those who already donated. Thank you so much! This project would be impossible if not for you.

For more of The Round Trip

Relive the first two journeys:
The September Journey
The Christmas Journey

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    1. AYLA

      beautiful ending, Yuval.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Dhalgren

      I don’t normally have much interest in heavily touristed locales, but you managed to find the poetry even in that. Here’s to us all joining the brotherhood and sisterhood of peace.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Charlie

      When the Arabs referenced “Brotherhood of Peace,” did they mean the bi-national principles espoused by “Brit Shalom” and “Ihud”? Saul S. Friedman’s “A History of the Middle East” (2006) discusses these early bi-nationalists who called for a state federated with Jordan that would offer equal rights for Jews and Arabs. Members included Henrietta Szold, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and Martin Buber. It would be interesting if what seems to be a historical footnote is well-known and somewhat appreciated in the Arab world.

      Reply to Comment