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The Round Trip part 20: Western Sahara

From Eilat to Kmehin via Eritrea, the days of yore, and the middle of nowhere

Tonight at sundown, the Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism will begin. I picked a fitting city in which to pass this evening. Eilat is the one Israeli town that never knew war. In 1948, Palmach units arrived at this stretch of coastline and found it vacant. The forces of the Arab legion withdrew of their own accord, and the minute hamlet of Umm Rashrash was abandoned. The combatants produced a flag using a bed sheet and a small ink jar and got young Israel an opening to the Red Sea. Terrorism did find its way here in later decades, and the occasional missile shot from within the Sinai falls here, but such incidents are rare. I am about to receive Memorial Day in a city of peace.

Before the radio begins to play nothing but sad Hebrew songs for 24 hours, I must go and seek out the community that is currently Eilat’s most talked-about. Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, who made their way here overland from their troubled countries, are to be seen everywhere, but it takes a stroll uphill to Los Angeles Street to arrive in the midst of their small quarter, or “pletzl,” as the Yiddish term goes.

In the small internet cafe and DVD library pictured above, nobody is thrilled to share his or her story. “What good would it do?” is the question they keep asking, “How could it possibly help?” I try to explain that I’m not necessarily here in order to help, but that passing on voices from the community certainly would not hurt. For the most part, the asylum seekers are badly received in Israel, especially by our right-wing politicians. The Knesset recently passed a law that literally outlaws being a refugee. Asylum seekers are to be automatically imprisoned for a minimum of three years without trial. The biggest penitentiary on earth is soon to be built in the desert for this purpose.

The common propaganda line on the asylum seekers is that they are actually work migrants in disguise. Since I will be paying generously with my tax sheqels for their incarceration, I feel that I have the right to check for myself and find out whether this is true. Eventually someone offers his help. His name is Kyubran, and he’s a 21-year-old Eritrean who has already been in Israel for three years.

“I first left Eritrea and went to Ethiopia,” he tells. “They were shooting at me at the border, but I survived. I spent six months in Ethiopia, where they gave us housing and food, everything. We didn’t need to work or anything, but I didn’t want to get stuck there, so I moved on to Sudan.”

Kyubran spent four more months in Sudan, where, he says, the authorities were equally hospitable. Then he paid the equivalent of $5,000 to an Egyptian Bedouin who smuggles refugees into Israel. “There were 25 of us in one Toyota van. We traveled for six days through the desert with no food and no water. Crossing the border was easy, but that was very hard. Since then, I have been moving around, from Be’er Sheva to Tel Aviv, then down here. Here is not Africa, there is no support. We are being treated like donkeys here. I’m lucky because when I slept in a park in Tel Aviv, somebody came over and offered me a job in Eilat, but when I go up to visit Tel Aviv, I see the park still blanketed with people who have no other place to go, and it breaks my heart.”

Why did Kyubran leave Eritrea in the first place? “There is no order there,” he says, “no future.” To most, that would indeed put him in the work migrant niche, but I think anyone willing to endure six days without food or drink to reach a place has won the right to stay there and grow there. My grandfather arrived here on an overcrowded ship and came on shore starved and dehydrated. The lack of order in Europe at the time later intensified into the history we all know.

Suffering doesn’t end at the shores of the Holy Land. After sunset, the people of Eilat convene by city hall, where an announcer reads the names of 84 Eilatis who died in Israel’s various wars or in terrorist attacks.

The following morning, I travel north along the Egyptian border, where a fence is currently being erected mainly to keep the likes of Kyubran away.

My grandparents arrived in this country to escape ghettos and death. Since then, it has turned into a huge fenced ghetto, where death is omnipresent. At precisely 11:00, the bus pulls over by the side of the road. All passengers, mainly soldiers serving in desert bases, disembark along with the driver and stand in silence for two minutes. The siren that sounds throughout the land is inaudible in such a remote location, but we listen to it on the bus’s radio.

I do my best to explain this oddity, and others, to a fellow passenger: Ewan from Texas, who also shared my dorm at the hostel last night. Ewan is rather impressed. “Back home on Memorial Day we all go down and party at the lake. You guys have a sense of communal memory that we may have had back in the 50s, but that we’ve lost.”

I argue that this communal memory has its faults. The emotions that emerge in Israelis’ hearts on Memorial Day are a valuable tool in the hands of nationalist and militarist demagogues. The similarity between the ceremonialism of this day and Holocaust Memorial Day, held a week previously, instill in the Israeli psyche a sense of perpetual victimhood, and the narrative hat presents Zionism as the answer to the Holocaust is reinforced. Memorial day is to end tonight with the opening of the Independence Day festivities. We go from Birkenau to statehood in a week, via our military graveyards, and from tears to joy in a matter of seconds.

Still, Ewan has a point, and had it not been for the bloody occupation, and how much I know about it, I could probably let go and be far more engaged.

He himself resides now in Cairo, where he studies archaeology, and has recently taken an interest in the history of the Nabateans, this region’s ancient nomads. I tell him that my course today should take me close to the ruins of the Nabatean trading posts and invite him to join. Ewan accepts gladly.

Before getting to those ruins, the closure of the road running along the border forces us inland, where we pass the lunar expanses of the Ramon crater, a geologist’s fantasy.

An hour north of here, we leave the bus and hitch west again, towards the border. Before reaching it, we turn to a tiny road that leads to Shivta’s ruins. A local bus picks us up here and takes as as far as a base of the Armored Corps. From the base we should be able to see Shivta, but we don’t. The desert past the rows of tanks barrels is empty, vast, and silent. This one Nabatean city may be too far to reach.

Then a car stops for us and takes us there. Ami and his wife Dina run a small B&B by the ruins. Theirs is likely the only car to head down this road today. We’re in luck.

It’s great luck, because Shivta is well worth our time. Many old ruins in this country are marketed as the remains of ancient cities, partially because they are identified with sights mentioned in the bible, and biblical literature does not use the world “village.” But Shivta is a right city, miraculously preserved by the desert. Its many streets are clearly defined, and the remains of three imposing Byzantine churches tower above them. It takes Ewan all of 30 seconds to make a first find: a piece of earthenware.

He later makes a discovery of a different sort: It is an inscription left here by Palmach combatants in 1948, mentioning that they were trained next to the Sea of Galilee.

Satisfied with our research expedition, we are now ready to head back out, and so we offer Dina and Ami to pay them for a ride to the road, or at least as far as the tank base. They are unwilling. “Maybe you’ll catch a lift with someone,” Dina says.

“With whom?” I wonder out loud, “Your house is the only one found down this way. It’s a cul de sac surrounded by a firing range, and your car is the only one parked here.”

She shrugs. She doesn’t feel like helping us, and we are forced to walk the long walk back to the base in the heat of day. Would a Bedouin have acted that way? Not from my experience near Raba. Many Israelis would have helped, and yet I am brought down by the symbolism of this event. My people used to be nomadic, like the Bedouin, like Nabateans, but we longed for a home, and now here we are, too cozy to help those who sleep in our parks or wander through our deserts.

Finally we reach the base

and then return to the main road and continue west, where more attractions await. Here is the boulevard of columns, each bearing the word peace in one of hundreds of different languages and alphabets. It is the work of Israeli artist Dani Karavan, which I glimpsed on the September Journey.

Here, seen from the same spot, is the “small” imprisonment facility, known as Ketziot, where many asylum seekers are held as the bigger one comes into being.

Eleven more kilometers down a slender lonesome road, which follows the border, we reach Ezuz, Israel’s most remote community. It’s sustained by visits from Israelis who appreciate remoteness.

But this place was not always so remote. It was a popular oasis station on the perfume road from ancient times until the closing of the border to Bedouin caravans in the previous century. West of Ezuz, virtually in the shadow of towers overlooking the not-yet-fenced border, petroglyphs cover the rocks, to Ewan’s great delight.

The ancients drew animals common to the barren land in their day, from lizards to ibex. One modern artist added a representation of today’s desert fauna.

We can touch on the past, but it makes no sense to live in it. Ewan and I thus follow the border back to the tiny moshav of Kmehin, where the residents of this small cluster of desert communities gather to celebrate Independence Day. There’s is a really cute bash, complete with animal costumes, which we find strewn around in the local community center,

and with Israeli flag baseball bats. These replace the annoying plastic hammers, with which Israelis mischievously bang each other on the head on this holiday for the sake of cheerful amusement. The hammers’ handles were made of hard plastic, which actually hurt upon contact with one’s scalp. I much prefer the bats.

Then come the fireworks. And I love them, regardless of my critical spirit. When a day in the wasteland ends like this, April doesn’t seem quite as cruel, fences, inhospitable desert dwellers, and imprisonment camps notwithstanding. I can’t help but love it here and look forward to the few more days of rambling still ahead.


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. the other joe

      So where does Western Sahara come into it?

      Reply to Comment
    2. caden

      Here is a question. Should every African who manages to physically get to Israel be allowed to stay? Give me a number.

      Reply to Comment
    3. AYLA

      I’m supposed to be taking an internet sabbath, and I convinced myself, addict-style, that reading your blog, Yuval, would just be like picking up a book, so why not? 🙂
      I love hearing your story about Eilat, because I grew up pretty much absorbing the Story about everything that happened in 1948 (what–we were given the land, they left on their own accord, no one was there, they attacked us out of no where…). Since then of course I’ve come around, but/and as I learn more and more, my good liberal friend who know a ton more than I do remind me that nothing is black and white, and there are cases in which this is more or less what happened. Since I trust you, I like hearing this particular story about Eilat from you. I’m also putting together that this, Yom Zichron, must have been the night after your close call in Egypt, and appreciating that you found a good place to be.
      That the flag was on a bed sheet with ink makes me think of Ethiopia, actually, and the tradition that’s still in place there, at least in rural areas, where married couples have to produce a stained sheet the night they’re married to prove that the woman is a virgin, or they’ll kill her. When no such natural stain appears (which, of course, is actually proof of nothing), any good husband cuts his wife somewhere (I didn’t ask) and puts the blood on the sheet. So I guess we’ve been bent on proving our purity from the beginning? 😉
      Thank you, Yuval, for evoking your grandfather while seeking the African refugee story. This is territory I actually know a lot about, here, and I don’t say that about much around here. Not only are people in survival mode and not in a place to evoke they journey they’re still on, but they’re also afraid to talk, especially to press, with their photos. The Eritrean government mocks up fake press based on our real press back home with headlines like: These people were tortured and killed in Israel. Worse, they punish the family members left behind with imprisonment and torture. True, they have no future back home; they are owned by the government as soldiers. But also if they resist in any way, including by speaking out, the are taken in the night, imprisoned, tortured, and many die this way.
      Caden: I wrote this and it speaks to your question: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/the-failed-policy-of-no-policy-1.331067
      Thank you for taking us to Eruz! The depiction of modern desert fauna… sigh. Those drawings remind me of Har Karkom, which may be the real Mt. Sinai, but I guess that’s further south of where you were? As for not living in the past, I can only say, as a desert dweller, that I find the past — remembered by every rock no matter what we carve into her — provides deep wisdom as we do our best to navigate this time, this place, this round journey.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AYLA

      p.s. I was just in the Machtesh Ramon with an eritrean refugee/friend, and I was telling him that some of the sand is 90 million years old, a geologist on the trip with us corrected me: some is 260 million years old. I have a Bedouin friend who’s a guide, and when he speaks of years in the distant past, he puts them into two categories: Whoooosh, and Whooooo.
      my favorite line of yours, Yuval: “My people used to be nomadic, like the Bedouin, like Nabateans, but we longed for a home, and now here we are, too cozy to help those who sleep in our parks or wander through our deserts.”

      Reply to Comment
    5. caden

      Ayla, Definitely an Israeli trait. Great at short term improvising. Not so good at long range planing. Since you wrote the article things have gotten worse. Other then putting all of them in the houses of the 972 staff what now?

      Reply to Comment
    6. AYLA

      Caden: I like that you’re funny. I gather that Yuval is probably more up for slumber parties than I am, so even the 972 clan (staff and commenters combined) may not suffice. And, well I guess Israeli traits were inevitable; let’s hope I pick up some of the good ones, too (if Yuval wants to feel how far our people–or, people–have really come from desert hospitality, he should live in the States, where life is well beyond cozy and people make coffee in Keurigs).
      Things are indeed worse, now. Same answer, though: act like true leaders which includes asking for international help. And if they’re building the detention center anyway, allow people to do desert agricultural work–an expertise of Israel’s–that will give people good skills for when they leave for their own, desertification-suffering lands. Oh, and p.s.: develop a refugee policy for the future for non-jews, since last I checked, we aren’t the only people on earth and our values are meant to extend beyond ourselves, as they do in the diaspora.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Dhalgren

      I must say I like your style, Yuval, specifically the subtle T.S. Eliot reference of “when a day in the wasteland ends like this, April doesn’t seem quite as cruel.” Of course, there is more than just literary acumen in this piece. Overall I appreciate how you manage to merge so many tonal changes (from the serious issue of refugees like Kyubran at the start to your light-hearted opinion on inflatable hammers vs. bats at the end) so fluidly.
      Thanks once again to Ayla, too, whose comments here are, as usual, quite enlightening, a sort of midrash on the Book of Yuval. The Haaretz opinion piece, in particular, offered some helpful context and direction. Hopefully this issue can be resolved without Kyubran ending up in a facility.

      Reply to Comment
    8. AYLA

      @Dhalgren: I am very happy for my comments to be considered midrash on the Book of Yuval. Love that :). Don’t write the last installment, Yuval! This reminds me of my theater days, before the final performance and the inevitable yet cathartic strike of the set. As long as I’m pre-reminiscing about the Round Trip and Family: what happened to Deir Yassin? I’m suspecting she got axed by 972 because she already had been. Chaval. If I’m Midrash, she’s Ramban.

      Reply to Comment
    9. AYLA

      @Dhalgren: you’re the art / literary critic on board; you’re good! (i have another short (for me ;)) comment awaiting confirmation, because I name, wistfully, another fellow commenter who was banned from our caravan).

      Reply to Comment
    10. caden

      Believe it or not I’m fully aware that being born in NJ instead of Eritrea was a total stroke of luck for me, or anybody. And I’m really not unsympathetic. But the fact is that Israel is a small country with limited resources. It can’t afford to be a magnet for half of Africa.

      Reply to Comment
    11. AYLA

      Caden–ahhh–New Jersey. I like context :). You are right, and I say the same thing in my op ed. But maybe think a bit beyond black and white. It’s not all or nothing. Asylum seekers from africa are here, so we have a moral obligation to find a moral solution, for the present and for the future, albeit with a different asylum-seeking population. Israel can use this as an opportunity to reconsider and define her values while creating new policy (that we should have created from the start).

      Reply to Comment
    12. sh

      Ayla, I’m not sure Israel will be interested in defining her values for non-Jewish refugees. That would open a particularly smelly can of worms re a previous wave of refugees meriting attention since the state’s inception, n’est ce pas?
      I second your plea to reinstate Deir Yassin. Didn’t realize she’d been banned.

      Reply to Comment
    13. AYLA

      sh–yes. please ;). (smelly can of worms et al).

      Reply to Comment
    14. Dhalgren

      I joined Yuval’s “caravan” after Deir Yassin stopped posting after part 2. It seems odd that she would be banned after those comments, or perhaps it was odd that she was allowed to comment in the first place after having been previously banned. Anyway, I’ve started watching that video she posted in part 2. It would be interesting to see if there are similar films that offer personal insights into the Israeli African refugee issue.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Dhalgren

      My previous attempt at commenting appears to have vanished into the ether, as apparently Deïr Yassin is like Voldemort and cannot be named (without resorting to cumbersome workarounds). Anyway, I had commented to say that I found DY’s previous two comments on Yuval’s Round Trip interesting, informative and entertaining. Granted, I can see why she was banned from her earlier comments, but she appeared to have changed her ways in those more recent ones. I have started to watch the video she posted on part 2 and wonder what there might be in a similar vein about the African refugee issue mentioned here in Yuval’s account. I will see if I can find anything myself, but if anyone knows…

      Reply to Comment
    16. Dhalgren

      Hmmm. Now my first message has reappeared awaiting confirmation (probably just needed to refresh my browser). I guess you can delete it (the one beginning “I joined Yuval’s ‘caravan’…”) if you so desire, Yuval, if and/or when it is confirmed.
      Well, it seems the film I’m seeking is Ha’plitim, The Refugees, by Shai Carmeli-Polak and which unfortunately does not seem to be available except for purchase.
      This video is not what I was looking for, but was interesting (in a disturbing way) nonetheless:
      Between the fear-mongering politicians and religious leaders to the “biblical end times prophecy” reason for rejecting asylum seekers, it sounds pretty much like it does here in the Midwestern US, just with a Christian take instead of the Jewish one and either “illegals” or Muslims (although frankly it seems like anyone from the entire continent of Asia is on notice here) as the focus. The history of Israel does give it that surreal spin, though.
      Unfortunately, we are united as human beings in the negative as well as the positive. When there are problems, too often we seem to blame the weak and the defenseless for them, especially when they are “other” culturally, ethnically, or racially. It’s important to stand up and speak out against this tendency and to tell the stories of those who do not have a way to be heard in the public forum, as Yuval has done at the beginning of this account.

      Reply to Comment
    17. AYLA

      Thanks, Dhalgren. Just to clarify: DY was banned a while back on another thread. She was already a well-known voice here, and on that thread she was given many warnings. I miss her (and did immediately) because she worked hard here and provided so much background information; she was a walking supplementary text. I actually got a reading list from her. And I had some moving conversations with her; she cares deeply. I especially miss her on Yuval’s journey. But Yuval didn’t ban her, and in fairness to 972, they were using standard protocol, and she was warned. Since she tried to come back, I wish she’d been given another chance, too, since so many others say things on 972 are that are at *least* as damaging, and not half as thoughtful. Many of them remain here; we don’t get to them all, and unlike most of them who are here with the explicit purpose to do damage, DY was valuable. And she kept me honest. If she had been here, I would have said something about Palestinian refugees while talking about African refugee rights (though the issues are also separate–people fleeing to this country in active need of asylum); I would have heard her voice in advance of my comments. We need those voices. And she wasn’t a talking point; she was infinitely human.

      Reply to Comment
    18. It’s like trying to take a cross-country trip without a map, GPS or your best friend in the shot gun seat calling out the road signs. (Sees the mail room for the first time) Buddy: It’s
      just like Santa’s workshop. I strongly suggest you read Chapter 9 in my e-book,.

      Reply to Comment