Given the further descent of the Middle East into tragedy, horror, and absurdity, I thought I would post this short story based on my own time of living in that contradiction.
The Faces of Rock
First published in The Danforth Review in Canada. Available online at the website of the Library and Archives of Canada.
A large rock wedged between two of the shiny round blades and kept the disc harrows equipment behind me from cutting into the hard soil, so I dropped our yellow Caterpillar's throttle, stopped, pulled my eye mask from my face and jumped from the left wheel track to the clodded ground. With my gloves, I pulled a hot iron bar out from by the worn seat and shoved it under the football-sized piece of granite rock, prying the rock up and out of the discs.
As I turned to put back the bar, I saw myself in the Caterpillar's left mirror, looking like a 1930's white comedian wearing black-face only in this case brown-face, a bit of Jewish-face grime darkening my already deeply tanned appearance. I grinned, wiped some of the sweaty dirt from near my eyes, pulled on the goggles, roared up the engine, and its tracks clattered to life, and I drove down the right side of the rolling hill in the 120-degree blowing heat.
The growing furrows aimed toward the white buildings of Bet Shean in the near distance, the town's structures glistening in the glaring sun like white teeth. Beyond them I could see a glint of the Jordan River and then the pastel brown mountains of Moab—now called Jordan—dim in the dusted haze.
I had arrived from Huntington Beach three months before, in April 2006, just after the rainy season, to volunteer at The Fields of Azariah, this Jewish Kibbutz farm in the Galilee southeast of Nazareth. I wanted to experience a little of the Middle East—what I had read about in my Catholic Bible for years--participate in the communal life style, hang out with 16 other young adults from 6 different countries, and generally continue my world journeying. Soon enough, I would be teaching art and painting again at Orange Coast College in California.
Once the sun reached noon high and the heat became unbearable, I aimed my rig toward the guard towers of our kibbutz and drove home. Work generally ran from 4:30 A.M. until about 10 or 11. 'Heat and rocks' was my daily mantra; though Judaism didn't have mantras, so I was mixing pickles and 'apples,' not being kosher.
But Jews on my kibbutz—who called themselves Israelis--weren't religious anyway, having come into these hills from Germany in the 1930's, escaping Hitler only to confront Bedouin and Arabs who also claimed this rocky land, going back 4,000 years. These German Jews, illegal immigrants, 'despiting' the British Mandate's rules and Arab raids, had built a stockade, then their homes—believing in only themselves and nobody else, certainly not Yahweh.
No, it was the muhjahideem, radical Muslims who lived in the low Judean mountains to the south in the West Bank (Palestine) beyond Isarel's security fence, who were the God-talkers, "Allah wills" parsing their every breath.
Even stranger was the fact that it was in those very mountains that King Saul in the Jewish Bible had been wounded by the Philistines so many thousands of generations ago. Later, Philistine warriors had hung his body on Bet Shean's wall. I glanced toward the border town, three miles away, its buildings rearing up like stone idols, walls so pale white in the haze. There was a place's mantra for sure—rather a modern Jewish psalm-'Nothing ever changes in the Unholy Land.'
Six weeks earlier, a suicide bomber had detonated her vest in Afula, a town 15 miles in the opposite direction. Three Jewish teenagers had died while buying Pepsi and Fritos. "So it goes," I mumbled quoting that infamous of all modern war references as I drove our Caterpillar into the equipment barn, signed out, washed up, and hurried to the communal dining hall for some grub.
Because of the tragic attack—in that case by a 17-year-old Muslim girl from Nablus—security had been even higher of late. Every night three kibbutzim took turns walking our farm's wired perimeter, carrying their short Uzi submachine guns, their iPods turned low, no doubt to an Israeli singer or some Californian band; it made me feel right at home, yeah right!"
I piled my plastic plate high with fish, potatoes, three slices of Jewish 'ham' (turkey made to taste like the forbidden meat), vegetables, and then grabbed a tall glass of milk. Near the eastern windows sat a bunch of international volunteers--Ruth, Jake, Joel, Naomi, etc. and several kibbutzim. I angled through crowded tables of a couple hundred eaters and plopped down next to Ruth. She warmed me with one of her rising smiles, not that I needed any more heat. As much as I like hot weather, I was glad for the loud air conditioners burring in the general din of the cafeteria.
Tomorrow was Shabbat and since none of us volunteers were getting any kind of tourist education on Judaism from the locals—all of them die-hard secularists--we decided we would walk three miles to Bet Shean and check out a real synagogue. So after I got situated and had swallowed a couple large bites of potatoes, I asked Ruth, "What time shall we meet at the water tower? Maybe 7 or 8, or will that be too hot for you girls and your fabled skin?"
She smirked and said, "Right now I would like to be about 6 feet under in cool pool water, and will be, soon as I finish this falafel. As for 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' let's not talk of that yet."
Laughing at the Shakespearean allusion, I bowed in acknowledgment, knowing a British girl like her—hailing from Edinburgh--had two redeeming traits: a great knowledge of literature and one heck of a bikini. Well, there was actually so much more than those outward signs; she was like her namesake in the Old Testament, filled with caring and exuberant drive.
We joshed and chatted through our meal, then along many others, filled the pool, and Ruth her bikini and me my desire. After the sun finally set, and the temp dropped to a moderate 85, we sat on the communal lawn and watched Bruce Almighty which was reverse-projected up on a kibbutz movie screen, drinking Israeli black beer, and carrying on until around 10 when we walked back and crashed in our separate volunteer rooms, so tired from the hard work week.
I arrived at the water tower early, 6 A.M. Ruth had said, "Why chance being late to Jewish worship? That certainly would not be kosher." And I knew I didn't want to be hiking in any more morning heat than we had to; if early, we figured we could always walk down to the Jordan River or check out the ancient Roman amphitheater that had been archaeologically restored.
Out in the field, several Muslim Palestinians, hired to do grunt work for the kibbutz, were already moving irrigation pipe with one of the kibbutzim directing. Close by, our farm's large gasoline truck rested like a large red rock near the gate to the Haifa Highway.
Ruth came walking toward me in a sedate blue dress, down the path past the dining hall, like a mythic damsel, more likely a debutante on Rodeo Drive in West L.A., her long brown hair flowing like a ballet in the warm wind; this was the first time I had seen her not in gray baggy kibbutz shorts and a work shirt.
Soon five others showed up, Jake, Wendy, Joshua, Molly and Stacie. That made 7, the Jewish number of perfection--days of the week, trumpets, sons, and so on, stacking allusions endlessly in my literary brain. And away we strolled down the Haifa-Bet Shean highway like we owned it. European and American Jews or their descendants did own much Palestinian/Israeli land and kept confiscating more and more Palestinian land. Because it was Shabbat, we hardly saw a car, none of the heavy traffic of the weekdays.
Across the blacktop, our kibbutz fish crew's members were almost done drawing their net through one of our large farm ponds; soon loads of fish would be spliced and diced in sheds left of the kibbutz water tower. A kibutznik would move the red gasoline truck out of the way to be replaced by large refrigerator trucks that would haul our catch to markets here and yon. But Ruth and I and the others would be observing a very different ancient ritual, and hopefully not committing any unkosher errors.
In the morning heat, we hiked down the arrow of blacktop toward Bet Shean on the Jordanian border. Ahead of us, above the white buildings of Bet Shean, were the distant mountains of Moab, menacing high in the hazy sky.
We approached the medium-sized town, ancient in its base, low-income in its work, divisive in its religion or the lack there of—for the many secular Jews. The Palestinian Arabs were, at least outwardly, much more concerned with invisible matters, ritualing their speech with "Allah wills" and "Muhammad, blessed be his name."
Muslim men and women and kids passed us as we strolled through an Arab market where everything from goat heads to luxuriant Arab cheese and sweets could be procured. We walked up to several large groups, and I asked 'anyone in particular,' "How do we find Judges Street, where the Jewish Synagogue is?" and glanced around for an individual to respond. Several men looked my way, but a boy of about 12 beat them to Arab hospitality.
The lad, smiling, continued, "My brother knows; he'll tell you." He motioned for me to come over to half dozen people standing behind him. First, a Muslim young woman in a long dress and a muted scarf, loaded down with three mesh bags of produce, talked rapidly to the boy in Arabic and then smiled over at us. Obviously not of HAMAS, whose Muslim women wear dour black on black—blacker than my Catholic Bible. Then she turned and spoke to the silent older brother--he incongruously attired in Nikes, Levis, and an old Metallica T-shirt.
Walking over to us, somewhat friendly, but guarded, he welcomed us, "Salaam! May Allah be praised. I am Abdal-Rahiim and that's my little brother Ibrahiim, and our sister Saara. We are glad to help you. Just walk three streets up north there," he pointed emphatically, "turn right past the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, then go by the Israeli high school, and you will see a low building with a big colored window."
It sounded like the synagogue was very close to the Jordan River, and the security fence, but I noticed he mentioned neither.
"Thanks a lot. Good to meet you. Much appreciated." Then I looked back at Ruth, Jake, and the others.
But he spoke again, "You Americans?"
"Hardly" Jake spoke up, "You think we would want to be associated with that Bush-Crazy?" And he rolled his eyes and twirled his hand, and Abdal laughed, as did some of the other Palestinians, and gave us a warm smile. Jake continued, "We're from Down Under and from Britain; you know where the sun never rises anymore." Then, Jake let out the rest of his paused joke, "Except for this guy," pointing at me, "he's U.S., CIA!"
Abdal looked startled but then caught Jake's vocal tone and laughed. We chatted with Abdal and his younger brother for a few minutes, enjoying the banter. I marveled at how much friendlier, superficially supposedly, Muslims were than the Jews I had worked with for three months on our kibbutz. Islamic hospitality and religious merit versus Jewish reserve and secular caution. The rule of thumb was that Jews didn't start being friendly until they had observed you for months, knew you, and respected you; in my case, being a Christian, made me even more suspect. Since they had sometimes seen me read my Bible, I was the odd American, while they were proud atheists, secular descendants of European Jews who had escaped the Holocaust.
We continued on through town, not amazed at all how many Jews weren't worshiping on Shabbat, but busy about stores celebrating in true secular fashion. At one busy spot, we walked through a crowd of Israeli teens—all seemed to have sunglasses and ear plugs--in front of a café blaring loud American pop. I noticed a buxom blond girl in a skimpy halter and tight shorts schmoozing and more, in the arms of a guy in an IDF uniform, his Uzi under the dainty table piled with cups and bagels.
We seemed to have gotten lost. This time, Jake checked for directions. "Excuse me," he said to the guy and girl, "Could you direct us to the local synagogue?"
The soldier looked up as if we had crashed his bar mitzvah and said in brief English with a heavy Hebraic accent, "Turn right past the butcher's over there," and pointed.Then turned back to his girlfriend.
We thanked him, but she in his lap looked quizzically at the bunch of us, as if to ask, 'why would anyone want to go to synagogue, but hey, tourists are weird,' then went back to nuzzling.
Sure enough, we got past several sets of stuccoed apartments, the Roman amphitheater, and a modern California-looking high school, and there it was the low, squat synagogue with an outlandish modern-art stained-glass window striking out colors in all of its modern Jewishness. I recognized the scene as by Marc Chagall.
We sat, I should say, Jake and I sat in the crowded central room with its large Torah replica and Menorah on the front wall; the girls had to go sit separately with Jewish women behind a latticed wall where they could vaguely see through to the sanctuary, while various white shawled-covered men on our side rose and chanted out of Jewish Bibles what sounded like Psalms. Jake who knew a little Hebrew translated, "Praise Yahweh in the Heavens, praise Yahweh…."
At one point I started to doze off to the long melodious chanting, but woke and silently prayed, especially for three peace workers from my church that were in Bagdhad, Iraq helping at a homeless shelter with the Orthodox Church of Iraq. What an irony, that Christian peacemakers here in Israel were often harassed, even jailed since it was against Israeli law to proselytize—a connotatively negative term for sharing one's religious faith.
There may be a lot of rocks here in Israel—remembering the 30-some I had dug out of my Caterpillar's discs yesterday—but the Rock of Jewish Peter (a Hebrew name meaning 'stone') was only for foreign tourists and Arabs. Some of the latter in the Middle East were open to Christ, if you could avoid jihadists, suicide bombings, and kidnappings. Every month, thousands of innocent civilians got butchered like sheep. Last month I had observed a Muslim ritual slaying of a goat in Afula. Just 6 months before three American Christians had been kidnapped, one executed and dumped in a Baghdad, Iraq street with the garbage.
After a very long Jewish service, we finally stood outside talking with several Israelis orthodox men of Bet Shean; they were polite, but so different from our kibbutzim. They didn't speak to the girls, and were dressed very conservative in black. But one of them did have questions about Australia and the U.S.
Then we heard loud shouting at some distance. A stone hit a nearby Honda Civic denting in the hood.
Up the street, many Palestinian youths in a large crowd were coming our way at a run— shouting so loudly stone walls echoed the Jihad cry of "Allah Akbar!"
I stared transfixed at the angry mob stampeding toward us, yelling God's name like an insult. Why didn't they add more from the Qur'an, such as the verse, "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate Praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of all Being…"
These angry young men weren't like a Muslim librarian at my college back in Costa Mesa, California. She had escaped from Saddam's Iraq 10 years earlier by paying that dictator over 20,000 dollars; And she hated violence; she worshiped Allah every day, yet wanted to kill no one for God, but wanted the world to know of how merciful God is…
Then heavy thuds sounded up and behind me on the synagogue roof. A dozen of the Arab youths in front of the crowd had stopped and were arching their arms and heaving.
I twisted in front of Ruth throwing out my arms, hiding her behind me;
More rocks fell from the hot heaven like loaded manna, loud thumping the synagogue roof and nearby cars. A fist-sized rock smashed into the roof of a Toyota Celica and bounded off landing only paces away. The Israelis men next to us shouted in Hebrew as they rushed back into the synagogue, obviously to get their guns. Nearly every adult in this violent land served in the Israeli reserves or in militias, and his gun was usually only a prayer away—whether to Yahweh, Allah, the Trinity, or even Darwin/Marx.
Then the Marc Chagall stained-glass window shattered, a purple bird blasted to kingdom come.
The next volley hit around us including a small rock bashing into my right shoulder, hurting like hell, like the line-drive baseball that had hit me as a kid. Now an Israeli pulled us into the synagogue and others rushed out with guns, firing warnings into the air above the milling stone throwers who kept up yelling in Arabic as they lobbed more and more stones.
Dozens of rocks hit the ground outside, the side of the synagogue, and more thudded on the roof above our heads. With the usual gallows humor of kibbutz life, a headline appeared in my mind—"Stoned in Bet Shean," and I chuckled until I heard Ruth next to me, crying.
"It's happening again," she whispered.
"Yeah, welcome to the Middle East, everyone kills for God here"…and glanced down at her; her face a gash of sorrow…"unlike your Scotland"--
She interrupted, "But I'm Palestinian!"
"What?" I looked into her jade eyes, bewildered…"I thought you were British?"
"Not on my mum's side. My mum escaped from the first Intifada after an Israeli rubber bullet hit and killed her best friend, Sughra; they had been walking home from school in Ramallah. Then friends of hers were beaten, arrested…She escaped the chaos...you see, my mum had heard this British journalist speak at her school in an assembly…for, of course, she couldn't talk to men, being a good Muslim girl from a liberal Palestinian family…but, then she ran away…somehow the journalist got her out of Israel and into Britain and then they fell in love, and wed, and had me and lived happily ever after; until she died of a heart attack last year..." Ruth covered her eyes with her arm and cried; finally said, "I came back here to discover what she left…and who I am."
Unlike usual, I was wordless. Outside, harsh shouting...More loud thumps… more warning shots...angry screaming.
Then a volley of curses behind me. Jake shoved his MP3 Player into our faces. "I've got the BBC! Our kibbutz's been bombed!"
Sure enough scrolling down the little screen were the words: "Suicide bombing at the Kibbutz Fields of Asariah on the Haifa Highway near Bet Shean. It's been reported that an Arab worker on the farm drove a gasoline truck into the dining hall and exploded the vehicle—many dead and wounded, more details soon.."
Ruth leaned into me and our eyes met and welled open beyond explanation.
Heavy bass thropping--thropping! Israeli copters!
Then above the clamorous den of Arabic war cries, "ALLAH A...,"came a loud speaker from above, as if out of Heaven, sounding a thunderous speech in Arabic. No doubt warning the Muslim Davids to put down their stones, sling shots, and leave immediately. More shots!
Ruth was distant now in her eyes, staring up at the ceiling, but obviously not thinking about the loud chopping of rotor blades or the bedlam outside. Then she spoke my name with too much tenderness, so much so that I actually pulled a way from her close body.
"You know that's why I'm called Ruth; my dad named me for the woman in the Bible, a Moabitess who left her religion, her country, her family to join an alien for love…"
Then before I knew, I kissed her without rime or place...maybe because I knew that Old Testament story of Ruth so well, as I knew many great stories. I hugged her close. Our eyes welled together again, living in the now below the thropping and the shouting and the religious cursing—and kissed again, a visual kiss of sorrow, of grace, of, yes, passion…
I said nothing. Everywhere in the crowded synagogue, women even in the worship area, people were yelling in Hebrew. No one had even noticed us.
Finally, outside the copters had silenced, and the rioters were no longer screaming, and there were no more shots.
In my academic brain I spoke to myself 'in love and war'—so Hemingway-esque… So Ruth was a Palestinian from Scotland, working on a Jewish kibbutz standing in the arms of a California Catholic. Despite the chaos and Ruth's tears, I smiled. Talk about irony. And then thought of the weirdness, tragic times, almost never, are the totally somber affairs that supposedly happen; instead, always, the absurd and the ironically humorous and, even, the romantic play counterpoint to history's endless dirge…
I whispered, "Ruth, I'll be your Boaz, though I'm not old or rich," and grinned. Then I also remembered a liberal Christian quote, "Our God is a consuming fire of love. Mercy triumphs over judgment." That sobered me.
But she stared back bewildered…obviously didn't remember most of the Ruth story, probably had never read it herself. "I hope my friend Naomi is okay, and our other friends, and the kibbutzniks?!"
"Yeah." I thought of who might be wounded--bloody faces clashed in my mind--who gone for ever like so many others, and of the fiery death of the suicide bomber--one of 'our' own Arab workers! Then of the secular Israelis back at the café on main street, of the Old Testament-like Muslim revenge from suicide bombs to stones...and of my recent trip to Bethlehem, past Israel's separation wall, to see the cave-stable where Jesus is alleged to have been born; but even in that supposed place of peace, 4 different Christian denominations have walled off their own small sections—no doubt with some sort of rock--to keep other Christians out of their little piece of Heaven!...none of this made any sense. Crazy!
Then Ruth nudged me. I realized a synagogue guard was talking to us. The guard's dark eyes were like stones, but he spoke hurriedly in perfect English without an Israeli accent and was saying, "You'd better leave; it's not safe; walk carefully to the Egged bus station and get out of town as quick as possible.
I had to ask, "What started this new attack? Besides them"—and my eyes diverted to Ruth's—"who started heaving the rocks!"
The Israeli guard paused, "It's complicated; the new Planning Director of Bet Shean is from Brooklyn, New York; he's supporting fanatical settlers who have started up a new Jewish settlement on some confiscated Palestinian land...about three miles south of here and the case is to go before Israel's Supreme Court next week. I think the new director is meshuga!—but these Muslim crazies make him look like the good guy." Then the guard glanced out the huge hole of glass which had been Chagall's art, and cursed his God in Hebrew. Another crowd of men and boys had started gathering. He spoke in rapid Hebrew into his walkie-talkie.
I rubbed my bruised shoulder and reviewed the faces of rock from Jewish field to Islamic land, and me a Christian 'crusader.' We three children of Abraham so caught in false faces, like black-face--the racist, religious mockery of it all.
But I faced Ruth, took her hand, and said, "Come on Moabitess, you aren't part of these petty stones; your Rock is much higher than that."
The Israeli guard stared confused, mentally reviewing his brain's English dictionary...
While Ruth smiled deeply to me, leaned closer, and melted all earthly rock to lava.
In the Light,
Online also at the Library and Archives Canada:
First published in The Danforth Review