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Bet She’an

November 3, 2009

017

Israeli soldier and Palestinians in Jerusalem

Note: I wrote this while in Jordan in Spring, 2009. It is one of a series of essays I wrote while in Jordan, which it seems I will be posting to this site. Look for the rest trickling in over the next weeks.

Bet She’an made me believe, ever so briefly, in the outmoded Catholic dogma of limbo. It made me feel like Woody Guthrie. It made me feel like a gentile. It made me feel like an idiot.

The Northern border-crossing between Israel and Jordan is not called Bet She’an, because it isn’t in Bet She’an. It is called The Jordan River Border and exists in two different places. One of these places is on the Northern border between the occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, the other is between Israel and Jordan. They are a few kilometers from each other but have the same name. They are both manned by Israeli soldiers wearing aviator sunglasses, but the Israeli soldiers at the Palestine-Israel border seem more serious about their jobs. This is perhaps to make up for the lack of any Palestinian soldiers at the border. This may be for nebulous, stupid, paranoid reasons. This may be my imagination.

On the bus to Bet She’an I talked to an Israeli soldier. She looked a bit younger than me. I asked her about catching a bus or taxi from Bet She’an to the border. She said it should be easy, but no she had never heard of anyone doing it. I asked her where she worked. “At the border with Jordan,” she said, “just North of Bet She’an. But not at the crossing.”

“Do you work close enough to see the Jordanian soldiers on the other side?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Do you joke around with them sometimes?”

“Yeah, we do,” she said, then paused seriously, “but there are cameras now, so we cannot really do this.”

If there were Palestinian soldiers guarding the Jordan River crossing would the Israeli soldiers joke around with them?

The bus was full of Israeli soldiers. The only non-military were two elderly Jewish-Americans and me. The ride north was boring – the Jordan Valley, brown with a green line through the center, to my right. Dry hills to my left, sometimes the white stucco and tile roofs of a settlement. Occasionally a Bedouin camp. I was happy to reach Bet She’an, where it was suddenly green, clean, and new and the sidewalks had brightly colored benches and a happy white fence. The bus dropped the soldiers and me in front of a shawerma and coffee place on a roundabout at what I suppose was the end of town. There had been no signs for the border with Jordan coming into Bet She’an and if I had not known that this was a border town, I would have had no way of finding out.

I walked into the shawerma place (now full of soldiers, M-16s hanging relaxed from their backs or sitting on laps) and said shalom to the woman at the counter. I asked her if she spoke any English. She got her son.

“Yea? What do you want?”

“Excuse me, but is there a bus that goes from here to the border with Jordan?” I asked.

“No. Maybe. I don’t know. You will have to catch a taxi. You see those soldiers over there? Go stand by them and maybe someone will give you a ride. Come back here if that doesn’t work.” And he turned and walked back into the kitchen. I turned as well, looked at the soldiers sitting out on the covered patio, looked at the spot on the road where he had told me to stand, and looked back toward where I thought the border probably was. And I started walking in that direction, looking for a taxi.

I walked for a few blocks, along green, sunny streets and by new apartment complexes and houses with shining, grassy lawns. No taxis drove by. Very few cars passed at all, and no one was out on the street. I saw one taxi in a parking lot and walked over to it. It was empty. I decided to go get a sandwich in a nearby café and wait until the driver came back. The man at the counter did not speak any English. I ordered a sandwich and a Diet Coke and sat outside, at a picnic table in the shade. Two Israeli men were having sandwiches at the table next to me. One man was African-Israeli, the other I do not know. They were speaking in Hebrew, were probably a few years older than me, were dressed professionally. The age and clothing gave me hope that they might speak English and I was right, the African-Israeli did.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“I’m trying to figure out a way to get to the border with Jordan,” I said. “There doesn’t seem to be a bus and I can’t find a taxi.”

“Oh there are no taxis in Bet She’an,” he said. “I don’t actually know how you would get to the border. I don’t know exactly where it is, either. Maybe we can call someone.” His friend, whose mouth was full of food, nodded that he would call a friend.

“What are you doing in Israel?”

“Just traveling. I’ve been in Jerusalem for the last couple days. I’m working in Amman.”

“Ah,” he said, perhaps a bit warily, “In Amman.” He thought for a moment. “Are you Jewish?”

“Kind of,” I said.

He laughed, as if I had said something witty or devious. “How can you be kind of Jewish?”

I explained that my grandmother had a Jewish last name and her family may have been Jewish, but that they had converted to Christianity a long time ago and that I was not brought up having anything to do with Jewish heritage.

“Oh, you’re Jewish,” he said, grinning. “If your mother’s mother is Jewish you are completely Jewish. You’re either Jewish or not Jewish. And you’re Jewish. Do you want to move to Israel?”

I said I had a pretty good thing going in the United States, but that Israel was a very nice country.

“Really, you could move here. You should think about it.”

His friend had made the phone call and said that his friend could not give me a ride. I said that I would be fine and would keep walking toward the border. I started to walk away, but one of the men called me. They were leaving and would give me a ride toward the border. I was very grateful and excited to at least get closer to where I wanted to go. I hopped in the back seat. We drove the four blocks back to where I had been dropped off by the bus.  My new friend stopped the car and said “Ok.” So I got out and walked back to the first shawerma place. The man in the shawerma place who had said he could help if I didn’t get a ride was not there. The place was still filled with soldiers, but different soldiers than the ones who had been there when I came by before. Everything was becoming ridiculous. I heard an American accent and saw a group of tourists eating at a table. They were very white and kind of fat and middle-aged. One of the women was wearing a t-shirt with a menorah on it that said “Jerusalem.” I walked over to them.

“Hello, are you guys American? I asked.

“Yeah, we are,” a big man with a grey beard said. Everyone was smiling enormously. “Where ya from?”

“I’m from Michigan,” I said.

“Ah, Michigan,” said the big beard. “That Muslim state.”

Dearborn, Michigan has the biggest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. It is the cultural center of Muslim America.

“Well, part of it I guess,” I said quickly. “Anyway, I am trying to get to the border with Jordan and no one seems to know how to get there and since you were Americans I thought maybe you might be going that way. Are you?”

“Nope. Got no plans to go to Jordan.”

“We’re going inland, I’m afraid,” a skinny woman said. Then she laughed. “I guess it isn’t actually inland, though, is it. I guess it is just away from Jordan.”

I looked back down the road and thought about walking again. “Maybe you can ask one of these soldiers,” the bearded man said. “They all speak really good English and are really friendly and helpful.” I said I might do that. These people were too familiar. And I needed to get back on the road, so I said I would go talk to some soldiers.

“Wait,” the skinny woman said, “Can we do something for you?” I was about to bring up my unfortunate lack of money when she continued. “Can we pray with you?”

“Of course.”

Bearded man told me to sit down, so I did.

“Well, son, we really do need to pray with you.” And the bearded man took my hand in his across the table. I felt fingers on my back. In front of about forty Israeli soldiers, a shawerma shop, and the Jordan Valley, the big man with the beard began to pray.

“Dear father, our young friend is lost. Please come to him. Come to him in his night watches. Give him dreams and visions. Show him the plans you have for him. Keep him safe that he might come back to you. Please help him find what he is searching after. We love you, Lord. Amen.”

The skinny woman’s eyes had tears in them. Hunter Thompson’s weasels were nipping at my shins; I needed to escape. I said thank you and sat down with two soldiers who were smoking cigarettes. “Do you know how to get to the border?” I asked. They said no. I asked if they knew which road led to the border. “Either that one,” the soldier point left, “or that one.” He pointed right.

“And they both go to the border crossing?” I asked.

“I mean, that’s Jordan there,” he said, and pointed at the hills on the far side of the Jordan Valley. “So just go toward the river I guess. It’s all border over there.” I started walking right, back the direction I had started walking before, past the four blocks, past the taxi (still sitting empty in a parking lot), and past the shawerma place where I had been asked if I wanted to move to Israel. And I kept walking.

I walked out of town. I walked for perhaps an hour and a half. I walked past date palm groves and fields of glowing yellow flowers. The sun was hot and hard and perfect, but I wanted a ride. Whenever I heard a car behind me I would stick out my left hand and try to make eye contact with the driver. And each time the car or truck flew by and I was standing alone on the side of the road with my hand out.

A half hour later it was still hot and the sun was still intense and I was still walking down the side of the road, toward a border I wasn’t completely sure existed, and certainly did not exist anywhere I thought it did. I realized I was walking, at this point, largely to avoid sitting down and doing nothing.  I had asked four groups of people and had seen a confusion which basically pointed toward this: the people of Bet She’an do not actually know where the border is.

I came to a gas station and snack shop and decided to stop. I do not know if it sold shawerma, but I would not be surprised. I popped my head in and asked where the border crossing was. The group of middle aged men around the counter stared at me for a moment, and then the man beyond the counter said. “Oh. The border.” He pointed in the direction that I had come from. “Go to Bet She’an and then it’s maybe five kilo down some side road.”

On the side of road, around half way through my walk, I had seen a sign pointing back toward Bet She’an that said “2 KM”. Now I was perhaps four kilometers away from Bet She’an, in the wrong direction. I woozily staggered out of the gas station without saying thank you and got back on the road, started walking back to Bet She’an on the other side of the road. I did a quick calculation of how long it would take me to walk back to Bet She’an and then how long to walk another five kilometers and came to the conclusion that there was a damn good chance the border would be closed when I got to it. I asked myself: is it warm enough at night in the Jordan Valley to go sleep in a grove of Date Palms?

I was giggling insanely and swaying from side to side when a decrepit hatchback pulled out of the gas station parking lot and started in my direction. I realized that the driver of the hatchback may have been in the store when I asked my question. I stepped into the road in front of the car, and pulled from the depths of my Jack Kerouac reading the most hopeful, beat look I could manage. The driver was perfect: a hefty, very friendly-looking, and a tad wacky woman in her late twenties. She pulled over and picked me up.

“Do you know where the border with Jordan is?” I asked, full of dread and hope. “I’m trying to get a ride at least in that direction.”

“Oh yea. Definitely. Don’t know if I’d try to walk there, though. Probably be better if I just took you there. Yep, know exactly where it is.”

You will never know, dear reader, if I kissed her on the mouth or not. And come to think of it, as exhausted and dehydrated as I was at that moment, I really can’t know for sure myself. Either way, it is a mental image worth pondering for a moment.

She was from England, worked on a kibbutz, and did not think there was anything at all strange about me going to Jordan or wanting to go to Jordan or being in Bet She’an for this reason.  I told her about the group of tourists that prayed with me.

“Well it worked, then, didn’t it? Ha ha. That’s a good story, evangelical Americans praying with you when you’re lost on the road of your life. And then you got picked up. I guess I’m doing the work of God, then aren’t I? Well maybe you’ll get saved, then.”

I said this was always a possibility.

“Yes, yes. Or maybe I will. That would be quite lovely.”

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