The Sea of the Dead

We were somewhere in the desert where the Devil tempted Christ and we were trying to find the Dead Sea. The war wasn’t yet in full swing—it was only an “operation”:  surgical, clinical, its body count still in the hundreds—but we’d seen the bullet holes in neighborhood windows, the souvenirs of night raids, enough to know it had no real beginning, either. The city of Jericho had the aspect of a ghost town. It was Ramadan, after all; but even then, standing on the hill where Satan offered Christ the world, the offer didn’t seem appealing. We descended from the hill and headed west.

Our taxi driver didn’t want to bring us to the sea. Perhaps there was a checkpoint that he couldn’t pass through, or maybe it was simply too far—anyway, he dropped us by the side of a desert highway pit stop, a small sad strip of liquor stores or gift shops baking in the brutal sun. There we waited for some bus or another, but the only bus that came was one of those hulking tourist outfits, escorting American children on their birthright through the war zone. We were getting thirsty. We bought some booze and stuffed it in our bags for the road ahead. We decided to hitchhike.

The settlers of the West Bank have evolved an entire culture of hitchhiking. It’s rather common to spot a trempist in the usual settler attire—men with knit yarmulkes, women in long skirts and covered hair—hitching hike along the roads that link the colonies of “Judea and Samaria.” Not exactly the kind of custom you’d expect from a population living on stolen land, but there you have it. One month earlier, three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed while hitchhiking out near Hebron, setting off a massive crackdown by security in the West Bank, and eventually the massacre in Gaza. A few weeks after that, a Palestinian teen was abducted in Jerusalem and burned alive by unhinged settlers, thirsting for revenge. Times were tense, in other words. But we were dumb and young and American and thought we’d take our chances.

We were picked up by a couple in a dusty old sedan. They were young, friendly, pleasant enough; hippyish, even. We figured they were kibbutzniks, residents of those communal farms the early Zionists intended Israel to be. They told us to be careful: there were plenty of Arabs in the area, didn’t we know? So we kept up the charade of being clueless Yankee tourists in the Holy Land, never letting slip just why we were in Palestine. It isn’t everyday you get to ride in a car with the constituent members of a war crime.

They drove us as far as what appeared to be a private beach by the sea. There were signs in both Hebrew and Arabic, but we knew enough to know this wasn’t the sort of place the latter was needed. It was nearly empty, and all those present seemed to be staring warily as we made our way around. The whole thing felt surreal: we’d been in the desert, in the villages, in the thick of an occupation, in cluttered run-down towns and refugee camps, in dirt and in dust; and there, smack-dab in the middle, or just off to the side—a tourist spa. We were in settler territory. They knew we didn’t belong.

Later, once they ditched us on the side of an empty highway, we thought back to what the man had told us when we asked him if he’d ever been to Jericho. He had, several years ago, but hadn’t really got to see the city. Why not? “I was in an armored vehicle.” Not so hippie, after all.

So we got stranded in the desert. The oppressive midday sun had sunk to the warning signs of dusk. There didn’t seem to be any cars approaching, let alone a bus; frankly, we were lost. The sun was setting soon and hope seemed lost as well, so we popped a bottle of cheap champagne and toasted to the revolution or our deaths.

Every now and then a single car would drive hastily by; one of us would scramble forward to hail them down, but no one stopped. I hadn’t really bothered, content as I was to polish off the booze before the desert djinni did us in. Eventually I dragged myself up to wave one down, and sure enough one stopped. Without a single question we got in.

The driver was Palestinian. He wasn’t exactly a talkative type. In fact, there was something rather creepy in his silence, how willingly and wordlessly he picked up three perfect strangers, stranded in the evening desert, now wondering if the energy drinks he gave to us were safe to drink or if we’d somehow wandered into a David Lynch movie. The desert stretched for miles past the highway; there was barely another vehicle in sight. So we stewed there in our nervous, sweaty, paranoid anticipation.

At the checkpoint, leering soldiers with machine guns peeked in through the window, eyeing our U.S. passports and the driver’s blue I.D.

He brought us to a seaside hotel in Ein Bokek, just south of the West Bank in Israel proper. He told us to meet him at the beach.

We were trying to get rid of him, thankful as we were to have made it one piece, so we checked into a room and stayed a bit too long. But we figured that the least that we could do to return his generosity was to go where we had planned to go already; and there he was, waiting, smoking an argileh by the sea.

His name was Khaled and he was from Jerusalem. In accordance with the legal horror show of the Israeli occupation, his blue I.D. allowed him to pass freely, more or less, between Israel and the territory; his ex-wife and kids were not so lucky, their I.D.s being green. He had come to the Dead Sea to blow off steam. We spoke in our shabby, broken, mediated tongues, heard him laughing softly at the jokes of some nearby Israelis, people to whom he was a stranger, perhaps even an enemy. We knew the feeling, too—felt it in the stares of settlers, the grimaces of soldiers, the agents who detained us at the border—but never quite like he knew. We were strangers in a strange land, but he a stranger in his own. Before too long we’d be back home in the luxuries of Babylon. He’d still be there in Jerusalem, where the song of the muezzin would be matched by chants of maavet la’aravim.

The sea was black and empty; it was midnight and the beach was closed. We stayed there smoking and drinking and floating in the moonlit sea a while longer, a moment of guilty peace the airstrikes briefly couldn’t breach.

 

Los Angeles, 2017.

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