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The Absurd Regions


To mark the tenth anniversary to the launch of my Political Blog, Good4Jews, and the seventieth anniversary to the launch of the Jewish State, Israel, I’ve decided to take a diversion and make an exception. To that end, I’m publishing here—for the first time in English!—four short vignettes (out of twelve) that were published way back in ‘Iton77;’ the esteemed literary, cultural Israeli magazine. In the future, I may revisit this reportage, which was titled then, ‘The Absurd Regions’ (you may argue, with some justification, that the title still applies today), and publish more of its lyrical impressions, which I wrote during the First Lebanon War of 1982-85. So stay tune, and here goes:

First Gathering

No smiles on the rough faces. The regular questions: How things? How’s life? The answers are heavy, occasionally harsh: shit, life’s in the dumpster. Ninety percent of our battalion’s command personnel identify with the ‘Peace Now’ movement. Objecting to the war. Objecting to the stay in Lebanon. Detesting what’s require of them to do next. One of the officers demonstrated yesterday in front of the Prime Minister’s house in Jerusalem. Before that, he marched from Rosh HaNikra up north to Tel Aviv. His wife advised him not to come this time. Refuse to go. But he is here—of course he is. Maybe because his friends are here. Who is he that he will allow them to be fucked with this shitty job without him. Maybe for the sake of democracy he came. The democracy Sharon and Raful crushed when they started this war. It’s been proven already before that there are more important things than this war: you, me, son, daughter. Life.

Traveling

The visions passing by us reflect a mixture of the bizarre and the absurd. Beautiful countryside, on the one hand: the small villages are cuddled by the rolling hills, while the mountains merge so nicely with the scenery and don’t bite at it, like some of our mountains do back home. On the other hand, dirt and filth everywhere. Ecology is a nonexistent word in the local jargon. Here, one does as one pleases.
It’s harvest time now. The small fields in the bottom of the hills are harvested using sickles, and the sheaves are gathered by hands. An old combine then sorts the wheat grains apart and fill the air with golden dust, fog like. Peaceful cows are grazing in the meadows. The shoulders in the narrow roads are littered with potholes. And with old cars, scattered about here and there. One of them, you know that, is a death trap waiting for you.

Lawless Country

In Lebanon there are no taxes; no licenses; no one pays for electricity. Teenagers drive the cars on the roads. Kids drive the tractors, with dark covered women walking beside them, majestically balancing sacks of wheat grains and tobacco leaves on their heads. New, shiny vehicles zoom by, passing by old ones whose guts are exposed.
Muslims, Christians, Druzes, Shiites and Khomeini supporters coexist in this country side by side. Mixed multitude. And there are, of course, the Christian Militia and the Chadad Falangists. The latter are the road-robbers of this country. They reside under the shade of the Israeli Army’s camps and wear its uniform. “Tell me who your friend is, and I will tell you who you are.” So say the soldiers here, who play bad cops in this grotesque drama.
The circle is rounded and closed with the UN soldiers from Holland, France, Senegal, Ireland… you name it. Some are friendly to us; some hate our guts and look down on us. A black soldier wearing blue uniform and brown overcoat stands in attention in a remote, forgotten ravine. His rifle is erect in his arms. No enemy in sight, though. He belongs, like all of us, to a different world.

The Village Women

Before sunrise the women of the village go out into the small tobacco fields that close in on their houses. They pluck the green leaves and put them in their brown sacks. After that, in full morning light, they carry the sacks on their heads to the houses. There, with their children, they sort the leaves and hang them on thin ropes to dry them up in the hot sun. Later still, they will milk the cows, lead them out into the field to graze, feed the children and clean the houses. They shoulder their responsibilities with primeval dedication.
The husbands, meanwhile, will enter their Mercedeses late in the morning, and will drive to town to attend to their businesses. Maybe visit the coffee house in a nearby village. Play backgammon there with friends and smoke the narghile. In the evening they will return home and receive from their dutiful wives what they’re owed: food, love, and respect. The Bible, in certain terms, is alive and well here.

* Art by Yitzhak Shmueli: Border Crossing

** The “Leave a Comment” link is the last tag below, in blue.

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The Colonel and the Shepherd

This story is dedicated to the memory of a dear friend and colleague, Dan Gorfain, who passed away recently after a valiant battle with cancer. It’s a story about territory; it’s a story about occupation; it’s a story about oppression; and ultimately, it’s a story about the battle for peace. You’ll be the judge, I’m just reporting the incident. Here goes:

The Colonel gets out of his armored vehicle, leaves it behind on the winding dirt road, and climbs the low hill ahead. Behind, a convoy of armored army vehicles, a whole battalion in fact, comes to an abrupt stop. Some of the Colonel lieutenants, and lower rank soldiers—their weapons at the ready, just in case—follow the Colonel up the hill. There, the Colonel—dressed neatly in his military fatigue—halts and looks around. Ahead of him, far in the distance, he sees the beautiful silvery lake glistening in the valley below. He puts his binoculars up to his eyes, which enable him to see the green river, and how it flows majestically into the lake. Behind it, he can see the high, red mountain range, from where the blazing sun is now appearing. The Colonel breathes deeply, his heart full of joy; he can never get enough of this glorious site.

But then, as if out of nowhere, a Shepherd comes into view from within the rolling hills below. He’s dressed as if he were an old Biblical figure, holding his rough wooden stick, leading his white sheep and black goats ahead. It’s not a large herd: fifty animals at the most. At the tail end of it walks a boy, twelve or maybe thirteen, playing a simple tune on his crude flute. He has a yellow, happy dog running by his side. Now, while the Colonel is mildly disturbed by this sight, and by this sudden interruption of his morning moment-of-peace, the Shepherd continues to walk slowly, letting his sheep and goats graze the meager grass and shrubs around, as if he has no worry in the world; as if he owns this place. So thinks the Colonel.

Thinking and seeing that, something possesses the Colonel suddenly. It’s as if a foreign element, a complete stranger—though in truth, the Shepherd and his ancestors have been living here for many, many years—has captured this land, this magnificent holy land, and has grabbed it away from him. The Colonel takes it personally, and with a swift urge for action—of teaching the Shepherd a lesson, maybe—he goes downhill towards the Shepherd and his herd. Behind him, his lieutenants and soldiers, with their guns of various kinds pointing forward, follow him closely. Farther behind them, the golden city perched on the highest hilltop, watches after them.

The Shepherd—how so?!—is not entirely surprised to find the Colonel in front of him, blocking his path. Even more alarming, with a smile on his face, he greets the Colonel humbly. The Colonel is surprised somewhat, since the Shepherd says “Shalom” in the language the Colonel speaks. Nonetheless, the Colonel demands to know what the Shepherd is doing here, disturbing the peace. The Shepherd answers quietly that he is doing no such thing, just leading his sheep and goats on their daily outing, as his family has been doing for a thousand years. And where do you live, demands the Colonel. Some distance away down the hill, says the Shepherd, but you cannot see it from here.

As they are talking, the sheep and goats disperse around, no longer in a close group, yet still grazing peacefully. The boy, meanwhile, has stopped playing the flute, as he becomes very worried about his father. His dog, irritated, begins to bark. He orders him to be quiet, as he sees with alarm how the Colonel commands his father to sit down on the ground, pointing his gun at him. When his father refuses, protesting he has work to do, and accidently raising his stick, one of the lieutenants punches him in the face. He falls to the ground; his stick taken away from him.

The boy cannot understand what has brought that about. Instinctively so—after all, he’s just a kid—he picks up a small stone from the ground and throws it at the colonel. The stone misses its target, but that doesn’t prevent some of the soldiers up the hill from shooting at the running boy and the barking dog. Indeed, his flute flies out of his hand when he is hit by one of these speeding bullets, and falls to the ground. The dog stops too, yelling first, then licking the boy’s face.

Seeing that, the Shepherd gives a cry of anguish, and tries to jump to his feet. That doesn’t work so well, as one of the lieutenants by the Colonel’s side knocks him down to the ground, using the butt of his rifle. Then, as the Shepherd is lying on the ground on his back, helpless and injured, the Colonel puts his heavy army boot on the Shepherd’s chest, pressing down on it. The Shepherd stops crying, as he could hardly breath now. He can no longer see his beloved sheep and goats, as his eyes are full of tears. They took off running anyways, the animals, upon hearing the shots ringing in the previously tranquil air. And of course, his son’s fate is piercing at his heart like a sharp dagger.

This has no effect on the Colonel, as his boot continues to press hard on the Shepherd’s chest, his gun pointing at his face. The Colonel instructs the Shepherd to never return with his herd to graze on these hills. Surprisingly, the Shepherd still has the audacity to demand an explanation. My soldiers are going to build an ‘outpost’ here soon, the Colonel tells him. What’s an ‘outpost,’ the Shepherd asks. A temporary habitat, the Colonel patiently explains, before a large settlement is to be built right here on this beautiful, strategic hill.

Why is it strategic, the Shepard has the ‘chutzpah’ to ask. Because you can see forever from here, comes the reply, and because this land is our ‘promised land.’ It’s belongs to ‘my’ people!

And who says this land belong to ‘your’ people, and not to my people, insists the Shepherd. I say so, says the Colonel. I’m the ‘decider’ here from now on, and my word is the law. If you want to live in peace, continues the Colonel, go gather your herd and never come near this hill again.

But what kind of peace is that, asks the frightened, terrorized Shepherd. My kind of peace, replies the Colonel. Take it or leave it.

I rather die, says the Shepherd.

Boom!

* The “Leave a Comment” link is the last tag below, in blue

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