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Excerpt: Promised Lands

Chapter 36  DO THE DEAD SEE?

Our last stop before Israel was the Dead Sea. We arrived on its bleak, treeless shores late on the warm afternoon of the 21st of February. The water was dead calm and gave the impression that there was never a ripple – if there were lakes on the moon, they would look like this. In the distance was a single, modern hotel, just built and deserted-looking. We drove down to the water’s edge, stripped off and plunged in. The extremely high salt content made the act of swimming akin to being a beach ball floating on the surface – you couldn’t submerge. The water seemed to eject you, forcing you back up to the surface. It reminded me of playing with a beaker of mercury in high school: you could stick your finger into the shimmering liquid and it would almost squeeze you out. This buoyancy rated as one of the coolest experiences we’d ever had.

Promised-Lands-by-Douglas-WilliamsMountains rose to the west of us, and blue shadows crept across the water as the sun began to sink. It gets cold fast in the desert after sundown. We toweled off and noticed that the darkening hillsides were dotted with campfires. Then some Arabs, who had built a fire further down the beach, hailed us.

There were three of them, one dressed in western style pants and wind breaker, the other two in traditional garb. We shook hands and they invited us to join them for something to eat. Over lamb kebabs, expertly cooked, we told them where we were from and where we were going. We had learned to refer to Israel with the popular Arab term “Disneyland”.

Despite Walt Disney’s purported anti-Semitism, the name encapsulated Arab contempt for American support of their formidable neighbor, with their flashy war toys supplied by the U.S. military-industrial complex. There was some slightly bitter joking about “Disneyland” and what a nice place it was. They had met many others like us – young North Americans and Europeans who embarked on “exciting and dangerous” tours through Arab lands before seeking refuge in the safety of the kibbutzim. At that time they were losing the anti-Israel propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the West – public opinion has become more favorable since. The June war would create new definitions: no longer was Israel’s population “Jews” – with all the victim-connotations that accompanied the term – but Israelis, who defeated Arab armies with ease, with rumors of an atom bomb.

The sun had just dipped behind the mountains when they took out the hashish. It was strong and dark – like the faces and the eyes of the men who offered it. Many joints were passed and the scene was tranquil and relaxed. When I asked about the .45 automatic in his belt, the western-dressed confessed that he was a policeman from Egypt. Alarms went off in my hash-dimmed brain: was he just a cop on vacation – or something more sinister? Who took guns on vacation? We were too stoned to run, but he didn’t seem about to arrest us anyway. I stretched out with my feet warming near the fire, and looked over my shoulder. Herds of black and brown goats were descending the hillside through the twilight, stopping intermittently to graze. Presently, they joined us by the fire. Their goatees and little revolving mouths made them look pensive, almost wise, as they stared into the flames with their alien eyes.

Then the goatherds joined the party. They talked quietly, taking long tokes from the joint and deep pulls of orange soda. One squatted by the fire across from me and told a long story to appreciative laughter from our hosts. The Egyptian shrugged with a twinkling smile in my direction: “Untranslatable,” he said, politely. The evening was arid, windless and cool, and the smoke rose straight up into a cloudless sky and a new moon. Including the goats, there were now about seven hundred of us around the fire. I looked down at the traces of sea salt on my fingers. I hadn’t washed for a week, but my body was dry and odorless. I thought of T. E. Lawrence’s reply when asked what he liked about the desert: “It’s clean,” he said.

The stamps in our passport called it “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”, and they weren’t kidding. We had heard all about how the primo stuff was made and told everyone we met: In high summer the beautiful, blond(!), female virgins of the village were required to run naked through lush, flowering valleys of hemp. Their young bodies had been smeared beforehand with wild honey which caught up the pollen grains and viscous resins that coated the leaves and blossoms. At the edge of the field, the thick, sweet liquor was scraped gently from their panting breasts and silken thighs by gelded craftsmen with dull gold hashemars, then reduced over fragrant cedar fires and packed into cakes bound for Christmas stockings around the world… Harvest time among The Hashemites! This was the kind of agricultural work I could really get into (gelding optional, of course). But “Disneyland” beckoned: naked cinnamon Danish girls had been seen running through the kibbutz orange groves, and I was needed for the harvest, no gelding required. Apparently, the Israelis didn’t share the Arab penchant for cutting things off – heads, penises, testicles, hands – it would be a safe place to pursue my agrarian interests. And, if I’d learned anything in Sunday school, it was that, in this area of the world, it was not cool to cast your seed upon stones.

Everyone had fallen silent as darkness crept in among the goats. The policeman threw a log on the fire, and a plume of sparks roiled up towards the firmament. We rose, shook their hands and thanked our hosts, and drove away through the moonlight towards Jerusalem.

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