Sweet tomatoes and melons grown by computers was fascinating stuff. But I had finished my interviews and, being a city boy, was ready to forsake the rural for the bright lights of the big city. If one can use those descriptives for Jerusalem. I had three full days to kill.
Or be killed.
Moreover, I don’t think I would have survived another of the Israeli breakfasts served at the Beersheva hotel. Whoever conceived of the idea of ingesting raw vegetables like onions, peppers, radishes and soupy concoctions of pureed vegetables as the first meal of the day must have been following some biblical penitence of heartburn and flatulence.
Joe Angel informed me that there were two bus routes from Beersheva to Jerusalem: one sort of up the center of the country, the other up through the West Bank. He recommended the former; it was the “safer of the two”.
But it is not nearly as historical. The West Bank route passed through Hebron and Bethlehem, through the area of Judea. One couldn’t blame Joe for suggesting the safer route. It was the time of the “intifada,” and there were almost daily incidents of Israeli-Arab strife.
But it would be unthinkable to miss a city with an urban pedigree like Hebron? Believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world it straddles the old caravan route to Egypt. It is one of the four holy cities of the Talmud; it is the home of Abraham, but also contains the Haram, enclosing the mosque built over the Cave of Machpelah, where tradition says Abraham and Sarah were buried. David called it home for a time. The Macabees, the Romans, Moslems, the Crusaders, you name it, and Hebron figures in it in some way.  Indeed, a few years later there would be a horrific incident played out over these religious shrines when an Israeli extremist opened fire on worshippers leaving the mosque, killing several of them.
The road through the West Bank cuts through the Judean Hills on the way up from Beersheva up to Hebron at around a thousand metres above the level of the Dead Sea to the east, a factor which, along with the rather sloppy suspension of the early model the bus we were riding in, the grand prix aspirations of its driver, and the guy across the aisle from me, placed me in my pre-vomit mode. Actually, were it not for the guy across the aisle I might have managed to retain reasonable control of my tendency to motion sickness.
The bus was only about a third full and I had taken the seat just behind the middle door on the right side. I sat on the aisle and my camera bag rested on the window seat. Across from me was a short, sandy-haired, garrulous Israeli, perhaps in his mid-forties. I could not be sure whether it was his garrulity or his arrogance that accounted most for my necessity to constantly repress my gorge. Turning my head to answer his clearly antagonistic interrogation, each time the bus lurched or switched direction, set my head spinning and my eyes out of focus.
His theme seemed to be that my country was nothing but a bunch of either appeasers groveling for cheap Arab oil, or a nation of softies lapsed into lassitude because we, unlike the Israelis, did not have to fight for our freedom every day.
“How long have you been in Israel?” he inquired.
“Just a bit over a week.”
“You’re a Jew, right? Where from, New York, Miami?”
“Italian-American, California.” I was curt about it. I know it’s the nose, and I didn’t want to get into the whole nose thing with him. In fact, it doesn’t matter where I am in the Mediterranean – Spain, Greece, Turkey, Israel – they all think I’m one of theirs. If there was a genus called “ Homo Mediterreanus” I could be its poster boy. I would have made a good spy in these parts; I seem to blend in.
“You just on a tour, or here for your Easter holidays?” he asked, inferring my Catholicism from my ethnicity.
I wanted to say I was a spy and couldn’t give my reasons for being in the country. “Television documentary. I’m the writer.”
“What are you writing about?”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” I replied coldly, hoping this would put an end to the nauseating conversation. I had ceased turning my head when he questioned or I answered.
“So, how does it feel being in a war?” he said with the tone of some guy in a bar aching for a fight. I didn’t answer, although in other circumstances I would have liked to ask him if his twisted sense of history and bellicose attitude were caused by eating too many breakfasts of raw vegetables.
Not that there was not some veracity to his remark about being in a nation at war. There were three Israeli soldiers on the bus with us, and several others got on or off at different stops, all carrying their loaded weapons with the casualness that business commuters might their attaché cases. There was indeed no separation between the home front and the battlefield in this “war,” but I didn’t need to be reminded of it by this nitwit, nor accused of cowardice because it wasn’t my war. I didn’t want to mention that the US had been pumping a lot of my tax dollars into this place over the years.
While weaving and careening through the hills, he continued to erode my pledge to be a good guest in his country with leading questions and jibes. By the time we could see the hills surrounding the old city of Hebron in the distance, I had already decided to which direction I would turn my head at the seeming inevitability of my regurgitation of the morning’s raw vegetables.
The first sight of Hebron was of the hills above the old city. They were clearly recently developed with new homes and condominiums which I learned were Israeli projects. They looked down on the Palestinians in the old city, to whom their presence was a sign that the Israelis did not intend to soon, if ever, return the territory they had acquired in the 1967 war.
As we entered the old city, a tension seemed to grip those on the bus. Immediately ahead a flock of sheep was blocking the road and the bus stopped. But otherwise, for a Middle Eastern city, the streets seemed unusually unpopulated for a Middle Eastern city. That must have been the reason for the tense atmosphere, because no sooner did I notice that my arrogant inquisitor had ceased his babble when the first window, across the aisle a few seats ahead was cracked into a spider’s web by a large rock.
As if on cue, and perhaps there was one, rocks began flying from several directions, smashing windows and banging off the metal sides of the bus as though we were in some sort of hailstorm. Although I heard no gunfire, it appeared on later inspection that the bus had also sustained some bullet holes.
For some inexplicable reason I sat relatively calmly through the assault, as though it were some newsreel footage I was watching, rather than being a part of it. There was a delayed reaction to the danger of it. I even snapped off some photographs of the broken windows and some exterior shots through my window, which remained intact. The bus pushed its way through the sheep and sped onward, a couple of last rocks banging off the back end.
It was only when I turned around and saw two of the soldiers crouched down in their seats and noticed that my tormentor across the aisle was now flat as a flounder in the middle of the aisle that it rushed in on me that we must have been in greater peril than I had realized. In delayed reaction my heart began to pound and sweat began to ooze from my whole upper body. Miraculously, my motion sickness was gone.
Shaken as I was, I had no intention of letting the Israeli know it. He was getting himself up off the aisle floor, a slightly sheepish expression on his face. “I see what you mean about being in a country at war,” I said in as relaxed a tone as I could muster under the circumstances. He didn’t reply and silently busied himself with dusting off his pants and shirtfront for the remaining thirty miles up to Jerusalem.
©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.13.2005)