Lebanons, part 4: The Wind

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

Map of Tripoli, Lebanon. (By Élisée Reclus)
Map of Tripoli, Lebanon. (By Élisée Reclus)

The three cages: my large one and the two small ones, remained clumsily interconnected. Then Israel withdrew its settlements from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas took over. The siege began, trapping 1.7 million souls in a territory one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, the most perfect, hermetic cage my land has produced to date.

I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to be in nature, somewhere healthy and just, and I was just in such a place, in all but my mind.

I was in a forest of firs. Forests aren’t my thing. They force you to look at what is near, a patch of moss, a twig. I always desire to look far. I knew the tree line was near again, and rushed uphill to greet it.

To my surprise, once the trees vanished, so did the ascent end. I was at a high plateau ringed by dark cliffs, that extended to the unyielding cloud. The cliffs were washed by countless waterfalls. they gathered into a grand river that rushed through the flat terrain, toward the the thirsty gorge.

Blue and white stripes painted on sporadic rocks marked the trail. I advanced among them, breathing in solitude, the chill, the novelty of a Swiss desert.

Did I need a Swiss desert? I come from deserts, but maybe there are deserts you travel to and deserts you travel from. In any case, I was in bliss. This bliss drove me up a hug fan of gravel studded with patches of leftover snow.  Ahead now was only a sheer rock face and a waterfall.

Blue and white stripes appeared faintly in the fog above me, one atop the other, higher and higher up the rock face. the ladder of trail markers paralleled the chute of water and was very near it. I was about to get drenched.

It could have been worse. I could have not found that discarded hiking stick. As it were, it supplemented a third foot that could rest even on the slenderest hints of stepping room. A gentle drizzle mixed with the fall’s spray. I sang an Irish folk song to keep my morale high, while taking great care not to slip.

There were two sisters in County Clare
Oh the wind and rain!
One was dark and the other was fair
Oh the dreadful wind and rain!

I also thought of Lebanon. My plan was to contemplate Lebanon, and here was a perfect occasion. It was either that or gaze down obsessively and pray there is an afterlife.

What was Lebanon? it was an occasional cultural relic, mysteriously delivered across the lines, a bottle of Arak Touma, for example, that my friend Daniella somehow obtained. It was an entire liter’s worth and she cooked nice fish to go with it. That was one truly proper feast on her Jerusalem rooftop that day.

What was Lebanon? Styrofoam snowballs falling into an umbrella at Haifa’s Wadi Nisnass neighborhood, to the sound of Fairouz’s Christmas album. Jingle bells in Arabic always make me smile. Of course I am far more up to date and know and love Mashrou’ Leila and Yasmine Hamdan as well. I caused a small stone to tumble into the ravine. I should find a decent bench of rock to sit on and rest.

This waterfall was danger, real danger. Out of the rock stuck a peg of steel for me to grab. I held on. It was wet, but rough and well-planted. Dependable. I pulled myself safely one meter further. What was Lebanon? Images online: the pigeons’ rocks, a dock at Byblos, mountains, snowy mountains with a ski lift. Am I headed for ice?

I must be.

What was Lebanon? It was a land that recurred in my dreams, all of them sequels to the one I had before the visit to Ghajar, in which we crossed the street and found a circus tent.

By now I have been across that street. I have traversed the seemingly impenetrable border fence and continued north a half a mile. My dreams took me further. They stopped cabs for me to take into the small country’s heart and do things I did not get to do in Ghajar, like use Lebanese currency (what is it called, anyway?), or to step into a grocery store and check out the shelves (so much yogurt!). Sometimes, though not frequently, I would reach the outskirts of Beirut, never its heart. I would get a room at a seaside hotel and lay there, plotting a way to get back home.

"Palestine" (1889) by Conder, C. R. (Claude Reignier)
“Palestine” (1889) by Conder, C. R. (Claude Reignier)

I knew from my walking life the trouble of getting home from forbidden realms. When my friends and I first dared break the law and enter “Area A,” we found ourselves in a Ramallah bedroom, plotting our escape. We knew that no one would check us on entry, and no one did, but that we should pick well the checkpoint to pass through on our way out, or Israeli authorities would apprehend and question us. The bedroom wall was pierced and cracked. A bullet once hit it. Our host, a Palestinian friend of a Canadian friend, calmed us, explaining that this was no Israeli bullet. His mischievous neighbor once shot it from the street.

The following morning we were in a city of balloons. The feast of sacrifice was at hand and vendors, some dressed as teddy bears, crowded the sidewalks, holding bouquets of SpongeBobs and pink hearts. This was not the Ramallah we learned to fear, and it is fear that kept us away from there so far, so much more so than the forbidding law. Ramallah, the city where we would surely be slaughtered, greeted us with a fuzzy hug.

Still, a wall separated us from Jerusalem, 10 miles due south. We snuck out by taxi, using a roundabout road that led to a checkpoint reserved for settlers. I repeated that experience many times since, learning little by little to ignore not only the red signs that designated visiting Area A as “life threatening” to Israeli nationals, but also the legal restriction. I was caught there once, by Palestinian police outside Hebron. They followed the rules and handed me over to the IDF. Even that did not amount to much: fingerprinting, a short questioning, a criminal record filed by authorities I no longer respected anyway.

The next peg distanced me from the waterfall, but the portion of cliff above it was so purely vertical that a metal wire was fixed in it for me to pull myself up. Everyone thought I was mad for frequenting Ramallah, now it was Switzerland that would kill me. That should teach them the value of vacant fear-mongering.

But truly, this was scary.

Lebanons, part 4: The Wind
Lebanon as envisaged by French General Beaufort d’Hautpoul in 1862.

There was this cool Gazan girl who lived in Ramallah. I met her there on one of my excursions, then, a few weeks later, got a phone call.

“I’m in Tel Aviv.”

“What? You got a permit?”

“No permit. Ssshhh. What are you up to?”

“Putting everything on hold and coming to see you.”

By the time I made it to her whereabouts, she had been caught. They held her in custody briefly, then sent her back over the line. About a month later, another call came. My friend had outsmarted the barrier once more.

I suggested we go to the museum. Ramallah sports no major one, and this could prove a nice adventure. The guest seemed estranged from all the exhibits but one: a painting by young Russian-Israeli genius Zoya Cherkassky. It showed a group of soldiers on a visit to a similar museum, awkwardly contemplating the sculpture of a man defecating into his own mouth. My Gazan friend could not take her eyes off of this crooked mirror reflection of her own experience. “This is really something,” she kept saying.

We went out for some coffee. With her short hair and tank top, she looked perfectly Tel Avivian, Clearly a Mizrahi Jew.

I kept looking around. What if they were after her? She was blacklisted to begin with. What would they do to her if they found her here again?

And he made a fiddle of her breast bone,
Oh the wind and rain!
He made a fiddle of her beast bone
Crying oh the dreadful wind and rain!

The Gazan didn’t seem worried, but I figured a maelstrom of adrenaline was gushing within her chest. We strolled up Ibn Gabirol street. It was sunny.

Was she free right then? Was she even there at all? Could one ever leave the West Bank? Were we both trapped, and we will always be.

Then there was the other friend. The one my girlfriend and I had smuggled through the checkpoint ourselves, into her own Lebanon of the mind: Israel proper, or ’48 Palestine, depending on your politics, for which she had no permit at all.

She was sitting in the back seat, trying to be invisible. The soldier profiled us by accent, hair and body language, deducted we were Israelis and sent us through. We reached Tel Aviv and went directly to the beach.

“The Mediterranean,” she said, and knelt down to touch it.

This friend was no Gazan. She was Palestinian American and grew up in Boston, but two months with the sea within view and not within reach filled her with cabin fever. I knew Precisely what she meant when she said “The Mediterranean.”

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