(Liya Rechtman)– Over winter break, a friend and I traveled around Israel. We visited my family, helped a friend film his thesis on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, but mostly we just wandered between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Towards the end of the trip, we took a bus down to the south, near the Negev Desert to play in the Dead Sea and climb Mt. Masada. Masada is a famous site in Jewish History and boasts artifacts extending as far back as King Herod, who built a palace on the flat mountaintop around 30 BCE.
This trip was a far cry from my first time around the Israel circuit, as either a tourist or an Israeli-American. I visit Israel roughly every 10 months, and this trip numbers the 24th in 20 years. I’ve climbed Masada twice with my family and twice with Jewish tour groups. However, bathing in the Dead Sea, sleeping at the Masada youth hostel and hiking the mountain itself was an entirely distinct experience this time. I was alone, stripped of the authority and security of family and the meaning imbued on the space by a tour guide. This was my trip with my friend.
Below is the beginning of a fictional piece I am currently working on, in part based off of this experience.
Friends of Har Masada
Erick tried to ignore how labored Abigail’s breath was from the morning’s hike. Abigail wheezed intermittently and smiled apologetically at him whenever he turned to look. He had been worried – if only for a moment – that she wouldn’t make it up the mountain in time for sunrise. But she had, despite both the sweltering heat trapped expertly in her heat-fiber polyester running suit and the jarring nationalist songs of the youth group boys on a government-subsidized tour running up ahead of them. Since he wasn’t Jewish, they weren’t eligible for the trip and instead traveled alone, with Abigail acting as their semi-knowledgeable tour guide.
It was because of the wheezing that Erick took on the responsibility of speaking to the man in the guard booth at the bottom of the mountain. He knew it was making her anxious and shy and he knew that she would be grateful if he did the talking for the time being, even though the language barrier was so much more apparent when he spoke.
“Um – ” Erick began.
“You should probably speak louder… like, be aggressive, you know? They really respect that in this country,” Abigail sputtered behind him.
“Excuse me?” He tried again.
One of the men in the booth turned to him. Erick could see now that there were three of them occupying the small space of the wooden hut. Two sat smoking cigarettes on a dilapidated couch, which took up the whole width of the hut’s back wall, and the third, the most elderly of the three, addressed them directly. The guard looked only at Abigail, as if sensing that she would better understand what he was saying.
“Lo shamati,” his voice seemed to scrape out of his lungs and wander towards them through a long billow of cigarette smoke. In his experience, Israelis uniformly refused to acknowledge that Erick was clearly a non-Hebrew speaker unless he overtly identified himself that way, as if they were waiting for him to fess up to his status as an alien and a gentile in a Jewish country.
“Anglit?” Abigail asked, cutting in front of him so she blocked entirely his view of the guard booth. She had regained her breath and was ready to take charge again.
“So are… is there anything else to climb around here? A different mountain or something?” Abigail pressed her hand lightly into the small of Erick’s back, pushing him forward again into the view of the guard booth. “I guess you should give him the directions,” she told the guard.
One of the younger men cocked his head to one side on the couch and looked at Erick. “You want you should to climb Har Masada?”
“Lo lo! Asinu et ze baboker hayom,” Abigail interrupted again, trying to fit her head back into the frame of the booth.
“Anazzer mountain? You should to know of Chevrei Masada?” The older man turned to the two on the couch. “How you say b’anglit? Chevrei masada?”
“Oh, I definitely know this, okay…” Abigail looked down and shuffled her feet, biting the corner of her nail into a small chunk of skin, which she chewed vigorously with her front teeth. “Chevrei, chevrei is…”
“Friends of Masada, leetle friends,” the third man said, coming to the front of the guard booth.
“Friends of Masada?” Erick repeated. Not only was his lack of Hebrew fluency often an obstacle to understanding directions, but unlike Abigail, he was often unable to decipher the thick and muddied English of the Israeli accent.
“Yes, eez leetle friends of the Masada Mountain. You see?” The guard stuck his hand out of the side of the booth and seemed to point to the bus parking lot, fingering the dry air unenthusiastically. “Here is Chevrei Masada.”
“Okay cool. How do we get there?” Erick asked.
“This way, eh, follow the black and white markers. Okay? No charge.”
“The black and white markers?” Whenever Abigail asked for directions her voice tilted upwards, as if in hope of further clarification in a higher pitch.
“Okay, I got it.” Erick smiled a little at her, reassuring her that they would find the trail, no problem. “It’s good.”
“Cool…” Abigail muttered, and, turning to the guards, “And thanks so much! Thank you!”
“Yes, thank you.” He looked back at the guards and nodded, smiling. The older guard waved his hand, turning away from them to rejoin his conversation.
As they walked down the path from the guard hut towards the parking lot, Abigail cracked her knuckles, one at a time. The loud resounding snaps held her attention while he tried to find the black trail markers leading to the canyons below. Through the mid-morning desert haze he could see a bus parking lot that stretched out below the guard tower, on the sloping descent both towards the outer road that led to the city of Beersheba, a over a hundred miles away, and to where, he hoped, he could find the trail to which the guard had gestured.
From the top of Masada, the surrounding hills had appeared as shallow rhomoid indents, like salt flats he had seen in Utah. But as they walked towards the parking lot, the hills gained on them in size until he could see that they towered over previously invisible canyons.
“Maybe the trail starts by the buses?” she volunteered.
The parking lot had been carved out of sand and cement, directly between the guard tower and the youth hostel they had slept in the night before. Giant tour buses displaying names like Holy Pilgrimage and Israel Is Awesome sat parked and awaiting their flocks of Jewish youth and older Russian women who had ascended the mountain sometime after breakfast. Their drivers, fat and tanned, milled around the lot, smoking hookah and drinking beers, yelling at each other in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic.
“Do you think the drivers will know where the trail markers are?”
“Naw.” Erick wondered at her inability to differentiate between a potential source of geographic information and a completely useless one. Perhaps this failure stemmed from her belief that she spoke Hebrew and that being Jewish meant everyone would help her here. She seemed blind to the blatant lethargy and disinterest in service that most people displayed outside of American industries.
The trail was nowhere to be seen. The guard had been so ambiguous in his disinterested gesturing and these bus drivers were not going to be inclined to be helpful. The task, yet again, lay to him alone to navigate this random and strange country, replete with twisting and unmarked ancient city streets, trains that never went in the right direction and cabdrivers who overcharged.
He watched as she bent the toe of her shoe forwards, attempting to crack her toes through her boot. When this proved unsuccessful, she silently kicked up dirt and observed as it settled into the already frayed hem of her jeans. He could see, even through her dark sunglasses, her eyes widening in search of trail markers and he could hear her breath deepen again. At moments like this, he could see anxiety inhabit her body. It made her need to pee, requiring them stop wherever they were and find the nearest bathroom. Sometimes she would wring her hands and rub the tips of her fingers together or she would ball them into fists and smash her nails into dry palms.
He knew, by now, that to reach out and touch her shoulder, even very gently, would only make it worse. She would flinch away from him and rub the place where his fingers had been and give him this look. She would talk about it for days afterwards. She would mutter in circles about who, for a moment, she had thought he was, how he looked like so-and-so or how the way he smelled that day was different and it had thrown everything off.
Still, Erick had to make it stop, to center her and bring her back to the desert and the Friends of Masada hills. “You know what?”
“Uh-uh?” Abigail responded, snapping out of her search and focusing back on him.
“Let’s just go down there and see. I’m pretty sure it starts right past where the buses are parked.” He knew he had said the right thing, and in time. It was going to be okay. “And anyway,” he continued, “if we can’t find it, we can go down into the canyon and just wander around. Its not like there’s anything else here. We have Masada on one side and the sea on the other.”
“But, what about finding the trail?” Abigail’s voice was too small, like it was a little stuck in her throat.
“So we’ll find it once we get there.” He told her. If they started moving again, if she thought he was in charge, it would be okay.