A highway runs straight down the spine of Syria: Aleppo, Damascus, Dera’a. From Aleppo it wriggles crookedly northwest to the Turkish frontier; from Dera’a it drops quickly southward into Jordan. On its descent from Damascus the highway divides some of the most fertile land in the Middle East, a carpet of rich red earth that is the legacy of ancient lava spill from volcanoes to the east. East of the highway, the lava lands, here called the Hawran, fields that provide most of Syria’s wheat, expire in the great Syrian steppe. Westward, in what is called the Jawlan, the terrain rises slowly until the western edge looks down upon the Jordan Rift and the Sea of Galilee below.
The Syrians and the Israelis have gone to war twice, if not about the heights of the Jawlan—there were plenty of other issues—then certainly on them. In each of those fierce but brief conflicts, the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israelis were prevailing until the two sides were parted by a political armistice. A thin demilitarized zone—Qunaytra stands in the midst of it—was drawn down the middle of the contested area, with the Syrians in the Jawlan to the east and the Israelis now established to the west in what they preferred to call the Golan. Between them is a slim force of UN monitors.
Before they withdrew behind the 1973 armistice line, the Israelis did an impressively thorough demolition job on Qunaytra, the main city of the Jawlan. The Syrians have left it pretty much in that condition as a showpiece of Israeli brutality. The Israelis for their part armed, settled and cultivated their Golan. The intent of the settlements was to restore a Jewish presence and a kind of normalcy to a land that had, as both history and archeology testify, a considerable Jewish past. Today farmers plow lazily across the land on either side of the thin demilitarized zone that separates the two sides, and behind them sit, waiting and watching from towers, camps and bunkers, the eyes and arms of the two unreconciled belligerents,
I travelled down the Damascus highway in two different eras in the history of Syria. When I made my first trip in the late 50s, all the lands east of the road were declared a zone militaire, with stern warnings to the traveler southward not to turn left. A left turn anywhere north of Dera’a would have carried the careless voyager into the Hawran and, more particularly, straight to the Jebel Druze, the “Mountain of the Druze.”
The French were the chief dreamers of dreams in that dream-like period between the two Great Wars. Their dream for Syria was to turn it into a Middle Eastern Switzerland composed of cantons. The jewel of the system was to be the Jebel Druze whose Druze inhabitants, if not quite so open and pacific as the Swiss, were industrious and fiercely independent. So independent, in fact, that they had no intention of being a canton and the French gave up on the idea in 1936. But when the French finally threw up their hands and left Syria for good in 1946, the Druze were no happier with the new Syrian Republic. The freshly independent Syria was an extremely shaky operation. Coups and political turmoil were an ongoing fact of life in Syria, and the placid and prosperous Lebanese smiled in self-congratulation at the anarchy next door. And there was constant, low-grade trouble on the Mountain.
It was during one of the lulls in the Syrian turmoil that I drove down from Damascus to Dera’a in the late 50s. There were minatory signs and checkpoints at every major road east off the highway to the Jebel Druze where the old volcano might at any time erupt in political insurrection. If on the other hand, I wanted to turn right into the peaceful Jawlan and drive up onto the heights and gaze upon Galilee below, the way was open.
I was not inclined to turn either right or left at that point. I was headed for the Allenby Bridge and Jerusalem, where the Old City was still in Jordanian hands. But when I drove down that same highway in the early 70s, the situation was completely reversed. Hafez al-Assad and the Baath Party had replaced a broken Syria with an authoritarian regime that, like all such, had imposed its own ironclad order on the country. Even the Druze had submitted, and so one could now turn unhindered eastwards off the highway, travel freely about the Hawran and picnic careless on the Jebel Druze. By then, however, I had different interests and they lay in the other direction, in the Jawlan to the west.
In the early 70s I was deeply involved in Byzantine and Roman Syria, and particularly the rich southern lava lands that sat on the edge of the steppe and were the portal by which the Bedouin warriors of the new faith called Islam first entered Syria in the 630s A.D. The portal had been chiefly defended by the Byzantines’ own Bedouin clients, a Christian tribe called the Banu Ghassan who were camped at its fringes and had a permanent camp of sorts at a place called al-Jabiya in the upper reaches of the Jawlan. Al-Jabiya turned out to be a chimera—it had disappeared without a trace—but it had piqued my interest in the Jawlan, an area I could no longer enter: in the wake of the 1973 war, the Syrians had turned it into a high-security military zone.
But there were two doors into that room, and if the Syrian entrance into the Jawlan was barred, that into its western side, the Israeli Golan, seemed invitingly open. I had never been to Israel, however; all I knew were some local names that appeared in books and periodicals, historians and archeologists who had an interest in the newly opened area above the Sea of Galilee. One such was a Father Bellarmino Bagatti, an Italian Franciscan based in Israel who had published a good deal on the earliest groups of what were called Jewish Christians, followers of Jesus who kept their Jewish ways in the face of an increasingly Gentile Church. They were marginalized communities of believers that eventually disappeared, but Bagatti attempted to follow their traces in Galilee and environs. And there, buried in one of Bagatti’s footnotes in his “The Church from the Circumcision: History and Archaeology of the Jewish Christians” I found what I thought was my key to the Israeli Golan: “All my information on the Golan sites,” Father Bagatti confessed, “has come to me from Mr. Ari Eliash of the Israel Exploration Society.”
Mr. Ari Eliash I had never heard of, but the Israel Exploration Society was the principal institution and organ of archeology in Israel, and so I wrote to Mr. Eliash c/o the IES and told him about my interest in the Golan and asked about the feasibility of making a brief trip around the area. Nothing could be easier, he replied almost immediately, and, if I wished, he would himself be my escort and my guide. “Come,” said he. “We will go up on the Heights together.” This seemed like an extraordinarily generous offer from a stranger to a stranger and I quickly agreed.
Israelis don’t much bother you on arrival at Lod International Airport, not because they are careless but because you are thoroughly vetted before you take off. Under the guise of a baggage check—my suitcase was handed off to someone else who presumably fine-toothed my underwear—a pleasant but persistent young man came out from behind the El Al counter at JFK and pried out of me every bit of information I possessed, from the obvious, like why I was going to Israel, where I would be staying, who I knew there and why I had Arab state visas plastered all over my passport like bumper stickers on an Alabama pick-up; to the disarmingly trivial like where I bought my new hiking boots and why I chose to smoke filtered Marlboros rather than, say, Kent 100s. I suppose it all may have meant something, but I’m more inclined to think it was seine fishing: throw out the net and see what it brings up.
It must have brought up nothing sinister since I was permitted to board, take off, fly to and actually land in Eretz Israel. I had heard that, if you asked nicely, the immigration people forego stamping an Israel entry in your passport, which would have been a sure guarantee that I would never be able to enter another Arab country. So I asked for the exclusion and watched closely for a reaction. There was none. I was issued, without comment or glance, an Israel entry slip with the advice I should have it ready for surrender when I left.
Outside the airport was a familiar institution, the sherut or shared taxi, wherein the new arrival is bundled, with three other passengers—the Israelis, unlike the Syrians, do not plant a fifth passenger atop the front center gearshift—and hauled in the direction of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. We are seated on a first come, first served basis, the door slams shut on number four and we are off—and smoking. The driver was already smoking before the first passenger stepped in and each new entry followed suit. Like a biblical prophet, I ascended to Jerusalem in a cloud of smoke. This was in an era before the great American idol called Second Hand Smoke reached Israel, as it eventually did, and so we passed an hour in a nicotine cloud chamber. At the Jaffa Gate I had to be hauled out of the sherut like a cured ham, or perhaps, in that fastidious land where God’s rules prevail, like so much kosher beef jerky.
My lodging on this, my maiden voyage to the Holy Land, is at Casa Nova, a hostel for pilgrims just inside the New Gate in the Christian quarter that I found, I’m now thinking, in another Bagatti book but, no surprise, is nowhere to be found in the 1974 Michelin. It was the property of a band—a flight? A clutch? —of Italian Franciscan nuns who ran a ship as tight as the coarse sheets on their iron bedsteads and as sparsely ascetic as their bread and coffee breakfasts. Conversations with the good sisters were neither spiritual nor uplifting: rather, they were pointed, direct and very brief. Ritorna, per favore, prima delle dieci, Signore. La porta è chiusa. Closed and locked, as I later discovered, at the stroke of ten.
The Israel Exploration Society had its own digs in a modest building in West Jerusalem, and there, I was told, one might find Mr. Ari Eliash in an office on the second floor. And so I did. I had called earlier and told someone—Mr. Eliash appeared not to have his own phone—that I would be there at 11. That news was apparently not relayed to the addressee since the said addressee was half-sitting half reclining in a cloud of smoke behind a desk on the corner of which could be discerned a casually perched blond young lady whom I could immediately identify, even with my scant experience of excavations or Israel, as a non-archeologist: those white knees had never knelt in the dirt in a search for pottery sherds.
“Uff,” exclaimed Mr. Eliash, upsetting the ashtray in his lap as well as the blond guest on his desk.
“Hi,” I tried. “I’m here.”
“You’re the American professor?”
The poor lad, and he seemed just a lad, was accustomed to Israeli professors who looked and acted the part and had, as it turned out, beat poor Eliash into near submission at the Hebrew University for four or five years. And I was as surprised as he. I had expected an archeologist, a dirt-stained, grizzled veteran of the tranches, shovel in one hand, finds register in the other. What I got instead was a young bull of a guy, half fat and half muscle, with a thick-lipped grin, tobacco-stained hands, dazzlingly Israeli-blue eyes and, I later discovered, an unfailing stream of palaver that stretched from Dan to Elath and back.
The blonde was now hurrying, without farewells, through the door behind me.
“Shalom,” he said. “I was just…” He was unable to finish whatever fable he was beginning to assemble for my benefit.”
“Are you really a professor?”
“Are you really an archeologist?”
“Good,” he said. I took it as a declaration of a draw. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“Yes, I’m staying at the Casa Nova inside the New Gate.”
“Uff. Cosa Nostra.”
It was, I supposed, some kind of an Israeli joke. Or maybe just a simple-minded assonance. Experience later suggested it was probably a little unsuccessful bit of both.
I sat down, he righted his ashtray and we started to talk. He was 28, somewhat older than he appeared, mired motionless in a degree program at the Hebrew University, unable to restart his academic motor after his service in the ’73 war. He had been a captain in the Israeli army, assigned as an “archeological officer”—leave it to the Israelis! —on the Golan Heights during and after the fighting there.
“We call it the Yom Kippur War,” he said. “My English not so good. What do you call it?”
“In English we call it the Ramadan War.”
It took a little while, maybe ten seconds, but he identified the tugging at his leg.
“Ya, you would,” he said and a large relaxed grin of the familiar shit-eating variety spread across the face of Ari Eliash.
“Let’s get something to eat, real professor.”
We did and over the kebab and rice we made our plans. Or rather, he made my plan. I would rent a car and he would drive, straight up to Galilee. Would I like to stop at Nazareth? No. At Capernaum? Yes. OK.
We were out of Jerusalem early the next morning even as the nuns were stripping my bed at Casa Nova, Hertz-borne in a wide arc that swung seaward around the West Bank. We sped past Tell Aviv on our left, then Netanya. We swung back east at Hadara and headed for Afula, then Nazareth where we had lunch at the “Israel Restaurant,” a local café run by a Palestinian family. It was my choice, not Eliash’s. The most illustrious member of that family was now a professor at Utah but once he had been a fellow graduate student in Princeton’s Department of Oriental Studies, as it was quaintly called. He was a Palestinian patriot with many tales of the ‘hood—“Jesus and I have the same hometown”— but somehow he never got around to telling me his family’s place in Nazareth was called the “Israel Restaurant.”
The road grew thinner after Hadara, and thinner still eastward from Nazareth. This was Jesus country, Lower Galilee, and soon we reached the southern end of another familiar place, the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee looked to my American eyes like a good-sized lake. Like other pieces of Middle Eastern geography, like the Old City of Jerusalem, it can be taken in at a glance. And, better still for the romantic and the historian, it is unmarred by cruise ships and oil refineries. It looks like a lake where fishermen might fish. Most, I suppose look upon it, as I was now, from the western shore, from Migdal, the home of the Gospels’ notorious “Mary from Migdal,” or Tiberias or Kfar Nahum, the erstwhile Capernaum. Looking east, the far shore looked like a parapet. Behind a thin coastal strip the Heights rose like a wall. I had never had this view of the Sea or the Heights behind it from Syria. There the Sea of Galilee was mostly out of sight and the Heights an ascending plain that I saw from a Volkswagen window as I drove south from Damascus.
We spent the night at Ginosar, a kind of kibbutz hotel on the Sea of Galilee south of Tiberias. It has since been substantially upgraded, but in the 70s it had the appearance and charm of an American 50s motel. But we were not here for charm but for…well now, many years after, I’m not sure exactly what. Our swing through Israel now has the aura of a road movie.
“Nothing in Tiberias,” Eliash announced as we started the next morning. I had had my way in Nazareth but he was now firmly back in charge.
“What about the tomb of Maimonides?”
He wasn’t asking who or what was Maimonides. That he knew. What he was really wanted to know was why I was interested in that sort of rabbinical nonsense. Ari had a number of vivid interests, American basketball, women, Late Antiquity synagogue remains, the Haganah and good food, but dead rabbis and their work were not among them, not even as big a deal dead rabbi as Musa ben Maimun. As the miles and days went by, I was instructed at length on his views on rabbis, orthodoxy and “that Talmud garbage.” He was, he pronounced at every major intersection, “an Israeli, not a Jew.” The latter, he explained, were mostly found in the U.S.
“They go to synagogue and visit Israel and send money, but they never come to live here. This, being here, is what it is to be a real Jew.”
Well, maybe. I had no intention of engaging on that point.
I got to visit the tomb of Maimonides; Ari stayed outside, smoking furiously and sulking, at me for getting my way and at Moses Maimonides for being “a stinking rabbi.”
Even if I hadn’t wanted to visit Capernaum, I’m sure we would have stopped there. Ari had his own itinerary as well as an agenda, and there was no avoiding either. Capernaum, where Jesus preached in the synagogue, has in fact the attractive shell of an ancient synagogue, a building very much in the Greco-Roman style.
“Father Bagatti’s best work,” Ari pronounced as we stood contemplating the remains. His drawn out pronunciation of “Bagatti” strongly suggested that a rave review was not about to follow. “Jesus would have loved it if he had lived in the sixth century.”
Eliash’s scorn for Franciscan archaeology was profound and pervasive. They put a stone upon a stone, he explained to me, any stone on any convenient stone, and claimed that it was first century. This building was a Franciscan reconstruction and it was, to use his favorite term of art, crap.
“I show you something.”
We crossed the Jordan where it emptied into the northern end of the Sea of Galilee and followed the shoreline on the nearly deserted eastern side. We were now “under” the Golan Heights on the narrow rim of the shoreline controlled by the Israelis since 1967.
The “something” turned out to be a place called Kursi where there was a lovely (reconstructed) monastic compound with a church and some well-preserved mosaics—pause reverentially—in situ, still in their original place, the entire site excavated by Israelis in 1971.
“Meanwhile, the Arab animals on the Heights dropped mortar shells down here like rain,” he said.
It was one thing to attack a town and quite another, apparently, to interfere with an archeological excavation.
This was not, at any rate, crap, like the unfortunate Franciscan business at Capernaum. The carefully and elegantly Israeli-excavated Kursi was an important Christian site occupied from perhaps the second to the eighth century. But why important?
“This is Gadara. You know, the swine,” pronounced Mr. Eliash.
Ah, the swine, the luckless porkers that, thanks to Jesus, were abruptly inhabited by the demons who had formerly possessed an unfortunate local gentleman and then, in their frenzy, threw themselves into the sea. It’s all described in Matthew 8:28 and following, where the place of the miracle is variously described, in different Gospel manuscripts, as Gadara, Gergesa or Gerasa. Apparently no one was quite sure of the name or the place, but many Christians may have thought it was the present Kursi and made pilgrimage there, as the archaeological evidence suggested. The place seems to fit the circumstances, so why not?
“This is the way you excavate, no Franciscan…”
OK, OK. I got it.
After this instructional detour we drove back north though Rosh Pinna and up the Huleh Valley, once the Huleh swamp but now very much a central Californian veggieland. Our destination, Ari’s destination, was the agricultural kibbutz Ayelet haShahar. This was a going concern, lots of bustle, a collection of battered Japanese pick-ups, crates of fruits and vegetables. The kibbutzniks lived in cabins and there were a couple reserved for the occasional random visitor.
Ari was not a random visitor here. He was well known to the local ladies and even the occasional male seemed to recognize him. The kibbutz, I guessed, had served as a kind of R&R facility for the gentlemen officers of the Israel Defense Forces during the Golan fighting, Captain Eliash, all bloodied from archeology, loudly prominent among them. No R&R this trip, however, just broiled fish for dinner, quite in the Galilee tradition, all the eggplant we could eat (or stuff into our pockets or the luggage) and, of course, a vat of the pickles that decorate every table in the Land of Israel.
The next morning I received my first exposure to the authentic Israeli breakfast. The Irish have their bacon and soda bread, the British their kippers, the Mexicans their huevos rancheros—and the nuns of Casa Nova their coffee and bread husks—but the Israelis throw the entire diary pantry at you at breakfast. It’s a buffet of course—waiters are apparently in short supply in Israel and those who do serve do so with exceedingly ill grace—and the board is heaped with every known cheese, cheese dip and cheese spread, yogurts of all stripes, smoked fish—the lords of lox—a yummy variety of slaws and salads, all partnered with warm pita bread and, oh, yes, a prodigious supply of pickles. And I soon learned the conclusion of this Israeli culinary syllogism: stock up, because lunch and dinner ain’t gonna be much.
And at the end of breakfast I found pressed into my hand the cherry on the pickle: the maiden Eliash publication, an article dated 1971 from Christian News from Israel. The subject: why Kursi is the Gospels’ Gergesa. This was going to be a long and instruction-packed trip.
The Heights may be approached on their western side from either the northern end or from the south, through Hamat Gader near where the Yarmuk flows into the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. We were going through the northern portal, across the Jordan at Jisr Banat Ya’qub, the “Bridge of Jacob’s Daughters,” or sometimes more simply, “Jacob’s Ford,” the major transit point between the Golan and Upper Galilee. It was fought over many times, most recently by the Israelis and Syrians in 1948. It was also the place where the Israelis first attempted—the project is ongoing– to divert the waters of the Jordan into the farms and fields of Galilee. The Syrians were steamed. Water is right up there with holy places as a casus belli in the Middle East.
The Heights were open and quiet, a beige landscape with neat patches of green under a vivid blue sky. The terrain rolled gently downward and eastward from where we now stood. On our left, observation towers stood watchful guard in the rising foothills of the Anti-Lebanon range and beyond them, atop Mt. Hermon, a forest of Israeli radar disks restlessly scanned the Syrian horizon. Straight ahead were only farms and tiny villages; if there were troops about, they were well out of sight. In the distance we could see the ruins of Qunaytra.
We drove south to Qisrin, also known, in quixotic transcription systems of the Middle East, as Qasrin and Qatsrin; it’s what Jews and Arabs made of “Caesarea.” By whatever name, Qisrin was the Israelis’ archeological and settlement showcase on the Golan and Ari’s unstated target from the beginning.
“You been here before?” I tried.
To put it mildly. Ari Eliash, still a graduate student, had done an archaeological survey of the area for the Exploration Society in 1970, not long after Israel had occupied the western Golan in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967. It was chiefly at Qisrin where he learned, and taught himself, archeology. And learned about archeologists. In 1978 a gentlemen named Dov Kadish took up the excavations at Qisrin, and in the New Encyclopaedia of Archaeolgical Excavations in the Holy Land, it was the same Dov Kadish who wrote the entry on “Qasrin,” with plentiful citations of his own work and nary a whisper about what Mr. Ari Eliash had earlier accomplished there.
“That shit Dov Kadish. He couldn’t excavate his own bowels.”
“To the scriptor belong the finds,” I suggested to the very angry Ari Eliash at the end of his long discourse on the archeology of Qisrin.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That means, cowboy, when you’re the author, you get to hand out the credits and, if that seems good, mostly to yourself. So start writing. And you evacuate your bowels, not excavate them.”
He ignored the anatomical correction, but he must have learned the principal lesson. Professor Eliash’s last book contained a lengthy, highly detailed and punishing critique of Kadish’s work, and the bibliography at its end is stuffed to near explosion with Eliashiana.
“Writing is the best revenge,” I said, in the hope of closing the matter.
“That shit Kadish.”
There was no end to the matter. Every time we approached an excavation site, the name “Kadish” rose from Ari’s inflamed gorge like some dark and terrible ancient curse, implacably, Homerically, inevitably accompanied by the epithet, “that shit.” The sun dimmed, vines grew limp, the very earth paled.
We stood before a small stone building on the outskirts of Qisrin. Qisrin was in fact all outskirts: a few stone houses, a café, a general store where the mayor presumably sat behind the counter and sold ammo and pickles to the settlers. At any moment, I thought, Clint Eastward would come riding in under his poncho, hat tipped down over his eyes, cigarillo is his mouth.
A sign over the open doorway said in Hebrew and English, “Qisrin Archaeological Museum.”
“Do you want to go in?” he said.
“Not really.” A small mano a mano was developing. And what’s more, I knew that my chances of not being taken into that place were less than absolute zero.
“Come on. It will be good for you.”
We went into the cool dimness of the single room. Stones lay scattered on the floor, tagged and numbered.
“Not many visitors, I see. What are these?”
“These, my friend, are the Jewish antiquities of the Golan. I collected them, all of them. When I was Archaeology Officer in ‘73 I put them in a museum I started in Qunaytra and, then before we gave it up to the Arabs, and blew it up, I moved them here.”
“They’re just rocks.” I said. Ari wore his chain on his outside so there was nothing easier or more satisfying than giving it a good yank from time to time.
He shot me a quick look of disdain and then, perhaps because I was paying all the expenses, it softened into pity.
“Each one has been worked. Some have inscriptions. Look, here.”
He turned over a basalt lintel with his boot. The Hebrew writing on it was quite clear.
“You can’t read it (chuckle), but it says in Hebrew, ‘This is the Bet Midrash’—It’s a synagogue, see?— ‘of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Qappura’. He’s a second century rabbi. It’s a second century synagogue on the Golan!”
“I didn’t know you were interested in rabbis?”
“Don’t be funny. Remember, I’m still a captain in the army.”
“Reserve, like every other Israeli. What’s an Archaeology Officer?”
“Staff Officer in Charge of Archaeological Affairs,” he corrected. “Did you see all those minefields we passed with the yellow warning tape around them? I put them there. They’re not minefields; they’re archaeological sites, and the mine warnings are to stop the soldiers from carrying off souvenirs. Like this.”
He turned over another broken lintel. Four of the seven branches of a finely carved menorah were still clearly visible on it.
“Nice, huh? It would look very nice in your living room in New York, yes?”
I don’t know if he was offering it to me as a gesture of Eliash bravado—I could imagine trying to carry it through customs at Lod or JFK!—or was criticizing the décor of my living room, where he would, not too long after, end up sleeping on my couch.
“So, staff officer. Pretty safe, I guess. Did you see any action in the ’73 war?”
“I saw plenty of action.”
He didn’t much like rabbis, but he could answer like one as occasion required.
“I mean, were you shot at?”
“Look at this.”
He pulled his shirt up and his pants partially down. There was a long scar on his upper hip.
“Was that a gunshot wound or did you sit on some barbed wire, probably Israeli barbed wire, for a smoke?”
We continued on our rounds. The countryside seemed deserted, the emptiness underscored by the sparkling clarity of the air. Empty and silent. Here and there a damaged tank stood oddly tilted in a field where it had been abandoned, a silent, deliberate memorial of the brief violence that had once engulfed this oddly peaceful place.
As we drove slowly on—there was not a great deal to see except for the scenery—I became the audience for the Eliash, the epic account of the Yom Kippur War on the Golan, or at least of the exploits of its Achilles who now sat next to me. The climax of the tale, somewhere around Book XIII as I recall, were the Eliash nuptials, he the brave Archeological Captain, she the plucky Sergeant Clerk Miryam Tal of the 9th Reserve Armored Brigade. They met in Qisrin when Sergeant Tal went into the Archeological Museum under the mistaken impression that it was the canteen, a notion not immediately dispelled by the sight of Captain Eliash sitting inside drinking and smoking. Six months later a rabbi major in Qunaytra married them.
“Is the marriage valid when it’s performed in a demilitarized zone?”
My entire repertory of moral theology jokes was useless, I realized, perhaps even invalid, in Eretz Israel.
Married in Qunaytra and now living in Jerusalem with an infant daughter and a wife working in a hair salon, the former Captain Eliash was presently an employee without prospects of the Israel Exploration Society. He was not going to move another inch on that trajectory without a Ph.D.
“So,” I said, “what’s the plan?”
I saw him slump over the steering wheel. It was a slight gesture but unmistakable, and the first time I had seen Ari Eliash slide down from the crest of the wave, where he liked to stand and preen, down into the trough, where no man should be.
There was no plan, not then anyway. But by the time we got back to Jerusalem I had convinced him that there was no point in butting his (stubborn: omitted from the actual dialogue) head against the Israeli Academic Leviathan. If he was willing to came to the U.S., I told him, where the Jews were, I was sure I could get him a fellowship. He could take a few courses—I had an altogether pleasant vision of him sitting at my feet and me boring the bloody hell out of him for a change— write up his field notes from the Golan as a dissertation and, Hinneyhu!, an American Ph.D.
“That shit Kadish would die.”
“I’m taking that as a yes.”
And, in a remarkable reversal of Soloveitchik’s Law, the more punishing Jewish adaptation of Murphy’s Law, it happened exactly as planned. Ari Eliash got his American Ph.D., his wife got her hair done right for a change and his daughter turned into an unmanageable American adolescent. And Kadish, that shit, if he didn’t die, never dared show his face in Qisrin again.
As for me, I was filled to the scuppers not only with cream cheese and pickles but with the history of the Yom Kippur War, the valor of the Israel Defense Forces and the glorious achievements of Israeli archaeology. I had learned nothing, however, about the Banu Ghassan in the Israeli-occupied Golan, probably because those Bedouin troopers had never come that far west and into what was still, in the sixth century, a very Jewish area. The Ghassanid past obviously lay on the other, Syrian side of the demilitarized zone, in the Jawlan.
Getting into the military zone of the Jawlan was not entirely out of the question. Though the military ruled the Jawlan, to keep up the fiction of normalcy the Syrians paid some nominal lip service to a civil government of the area, what they called the Qunaytra Governorate. Neither the governor nor his staff, which in Syria often amounted to the guy who brought coffee, sat in ruined Qunaytra of course. Rather, they were to be found in Damascus in the modestly furnished but grandly described office of the “Governorate General of Qunaytra and the Jawlan.” The governor’s duties were as modest as his quarters: he issued grudging civilian permits to enter and exit the Jawlan on the dates specified.
The Foreign Ministry regularly took busloads of people down to Qunaytra. These were mostly foreign officials and dignitaries who were driven in and driven straight out after they had ben shown the destruction wrought by the departing Israeli barbarians and invited to shudder at the Hebrew blasphemies scrawled on the walls, one of which must have said, I’m sure, “Kadish that shit!” Or perhaps the visitors might enjoy the East Berlin or North Korea experience of standing on a parapet and peering through binoculars at the Israeli farmers plowing their fields on the other side of the Kosher Curtain.
That’s not what I had in mind, however. I didn’t want to do political sightseeing in Qunaytra; on my next trip to Syria I wanted to roam the Jawlan, look into the villages, check out the archeological sites, maybe even find al-Jabiya. As an American I would never get that clearance on my own, but maybe, with a little help… The help, as it always was in Syria, was provided by Kassem Tayyibi, a deputy director in the Department of Antiquities and my mentor and guide on all things Syrian; and, as a kind of beard for my titillating affair in the Jawlan, Heinz Kessler, a German archeologist and an old pal with lots of real dig creds in the Syrian Arab Republic.
They agreed. It had been years since Kassem had been to the Jawlan, and the Hawran-smitten Kessler had never set foot in the area and was eager to have a look. But first, the permit. Kassem made an appointment, and on the appointed day we found the Qunaytra Governorate office tucked away in the Ministry of Agriculture. The scene was more than familiar. Regardless of country or rank, every Middle East functionary plays his part in a stage setting designed in the Late Neolithic and where the scene unfolds in the unchanging fashion of a Kabuki performance. The protagonist sits at the far end of a rectangular room, either behind a desk with an empty chair beside it (low functionary) or (high functionary) in a damask upholstered armchair with another opposite. Along each of the long sides of the room are straight-backed chairs on which the petitioners are uneasily perched. There are always petitioners, even if they have to be hired, as was possibly the case in the audience hall of the otiose Governorate of Qunaytra.
We entered and all eyes turned on us. It was immediately apparent that no other business was being transacted. We made as to take seats near the door at the far end of the petitioners’ row, but the governor would have none of it. We would obviously be far more entertaining—Was that man wearing real American jeans?– than the whiners and groaners beside us. He impatiently signaled us to jump to the head of the line. Kassem of course took the lead. He had long since perfected the Petitioner’s Walk. As he trod slowly and diffidently toward the desk, his walk morphed effortlessly into a shuffle, his head bowed by small degrees and his shoulders sunk; he in fact became smaller at each step. By the time the new petitioner took his seat beside the desk, he was a mere inconsequential shadow of himself, a perfect petitioner.
Kessler and I could never hope to emulate this stunning tour de force so we stood off to the side as unobtrusively as possible. Kassem, now almost invisible inside his cloak of humility, unfolded our harmless petition. Just a glimpse of the Jawlan, don’t you see, Your Excellency, for the two very professional and eminent academics, who are quite harmless, like all of their kind, if I may, Your Honor. His Honor wanted more. The days were long at the Governorate and the entertainment sparse. Every functionary’s desk in Syria had two essential pieces of equipment, a telephone or two that did not work—higher functionaries had their non-working phones on tables next to their chair, and one of them was red—and, under the lip of the desk, a coffee buzzer that did work. Four imperative touches. Coffee all round.
From somewhere down the hall the governor’s “staff” entered with four cups of Turkey’s best—Kenya’s, actually—and four glasses of water on a copper tray. Two more chairs were drawn up to the desk and we settled in for a carefully tailored story of how these two extremely eminent professors had come from overseas, Your Worship, for the sole purpose of admiring the famous antiquities within the Governorate. They had. Moreover, not a political bone in their bodies and were chiefly known in their homelands for their love of Syria and the Syrian people. I dared not look at Kessler; I just sat there and tried to look both innocent and loving.
Eventually even His Worship had enough. Now all smiles, he took a form from his desk drawer, filled in the requested dates and signed and stamped it. We were cleared for takeoff! But Kassem, that sly fellow, had one further trick up his Syrian sleeve.
“Is that your phone, Your Lordship?”
It took the Governor an instant to process this, but then he smiled and picked up the dead phone. He listened intently for a moment and then hung up.
“Just the Foreign Minister,” he said in a voice that carried to the far end of the room. “Allow me the honor of showing you out before I return his call.
A week later Heinz Kessler turned his Volkswagen right off the Damascus highway at Shaykh Maskin and we entered the Jawlan. There was a sign warning that this was a prohibited military zone, but there was no checkpoint and so we drove straight on to the town called Nawa.
Every Middle Eastern archeologist knew about Nawa and perhaps had seen some old photos, but very few had visited it. It had the most remarkable Jewish remains of an ancient Golan or Jawlan site. Before the 1973 armistice stopped them in their tracks, the Israeli advance troops were probably headed not toward Damascus but to Nawa, led by Captain Eliash in a tow truck with a hoist strong enough to lift lintels, ex situ, so to speak.
Whatever its past prosperity, and it looked like it must once have been a prosperous place, Nawa was now almost deserted. But the streets were wide and its stone houses were well and carefully wrought and were—Good Lord!—decorated. There before is was a beautiful three room structure—a mansion by ancient standards—and on the lintel of its main entry was a menorah whose graceful contours looked as sharp and as fresh as if had been carved yesterday.
“And look at this!” Kessler shouted. “There are still traces of color in the folds.”
“There’s an inscription in here,” Kassem called from inside the main hall.
We went into the darkened room. There was no flashlight but between us we had enough matches to set the entire Jawlan in flames.
“It’s Hebrew,” Kessler announced in the flickering light.
“Can you read it?”
“No, not in this light.”
Not in any light. Kessler knew Arabic, Persian and a bit of Turkish, but neither he nor I nor Kassem Tayyibi had much Hebrew beyond “Shalom.”
“What are you doing here?”
This in Arabic from behind us. There were two young men in uniform silhouetted in the doorway.
“Come out here in the light.”
We did as they said. They were both in their twenties, without rank or insignia on their uniforms but with pistols strapped to their waists. The army jeep in which they had arrived stood nearby.
We handed over our passports and Kassem gave them the Governorate permit. One of the two looked through the passports and the other stared as us in silence. We said nothing. We had no idea what to say.
“You, the American and the German, into the jeep. You, Tayyibi, I keep your papers. You follow us in the car.”
So ended our survey of Nawa. We were handed back our passports and driven to Jasim, the next town, and Kessler and I were led through a kind of compound to a single room building with a wooden table and a couple of chairs. We two sat at the table and the silent soldier, if that’s what he was, sat facing us by the doorway. Kassem was taken to another building nearby. We could hear him talking to someone.
“What’s going on?” Kessler asked our warden in Arabic.
“The Ghassanids were here,” he said after a while. “So some of the Arab sources say.”
“Could this be Jabiya?”
Kessler shrugged. He didn’t much trust literary sources. The voices from the other building were now louder. The loudest was Kassem’s.
“He’s on the phone to Damascus, trying to get our permit confirmed. We may be here a while.”
I didn’t want to be there at all. The talking stopped in the other room. Kessler had put his head down on his arms on the tabletop and was slowly drifting off in the warming room; our guard sat and stared at us in silence. My anxiety level began to rise uncomfortably.
Who says there is no God? They just don’t understand how God works.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
That’s a translation. My Arabic to the guard was much more graphic, leaving no doubt in his mind that it was not just a matter of peeing out the window.
He paused and stared at me and then studied the now soundly sleeping Kessler. Whatever arcane manual he had trained on had not prepared him for a prisoner asking for a bathroom pass.
He motioned me outside and pointed to a small building across the court. I walked toward it quite carefully, even prayerfully, the guard close behind me. It was a bathroom all right, a terrible smelling cubicle with a hole in the ground. The facility is called “Turkish” in most of the Arab world, in part, I suspect, to slander their former overlords, the Ottomans, but also to mask the Arabs own guilt at having themselves contrived such a foul thing.
Not to dwell on the matter, but my fear must have made slack every centimeter of the alimentary canals between my throat and the last exit from the intestinal highway. What followed was an intense personal experience, cathartic or, better, what the Muslims mystics called, in a somewhat different context, faná, the emptying of self. It was only with great difficulty that I saved my eyeballs and tongue from being sucked down into that terrible, wonderful maelstrom.
OK. Better now. Head cleared. I looked around me in the dark. What was I thinking? Of course there was no paper; no toilet paper of course—the nearest toilet paper was likely in the luxury suites in the St. George Hotel in Beirut—no old newspapers, no, ugh, rags, no leaves. The cigarettes I had left in the room. The only paper was there in my pocket, my passport. Might I tear an empty page or two out? Would the Syrians notice it and draw some terrible conclusion? Would I not be allowed back in the U.S. with a mutilated passport? Would I have to spend the rest of my life in Canada? No, not my passport. There was only the dirt of the floor…
I’m not going to finish that story. Instead, allow me to recount a somewhat more pleasant history of a similar event. I was at a professional conference in Damascus, seated in an auditorium listening to the most deadly boring paper I have ever heard in my entire academic life. The speaker was a Moroccan who was speaking in French on—God spare us—crop yields and literacy in nineteenth century Mauritania. And I had a copy of his paper on my lap, the better to trace the bizarre wanderings of his dérangement.
Then it hit. For the Oriental traveler the bowels are a matter of grave concern, physiological, social and theological. Women have, alas, an additional bladder issue: men can pee into a potted palm; the ladies require a degree of privacy that is not always easy to come by. But the bowel knows no gender distinction; it spares no one in its need for speedy, even urgent attention, and often in difficult public conditions.
“Pardon, min fadlak, Entschuldigen…” I was out of the auditorium in a shot and into the WC scant seconds before the great enteric demon pressed the “Start” button on his infernal machine.
“Whoa,” I thought. “Close one!”
And–why am I still surprised?— no toilet paper anywhere near this Turkish contrivance, the upscale version, porcelain lined. But hold! There in my jacket pocket was crammed the original cause of my discomfort, my reading copy of the twelve page paper of my Moroccan tormentor. Excellent. I tore off the first page, read a paragraph of two to refresh my memory and then applied it. Merci, cher collègue. Another page, another paragraph of pristine nonsense, another application. And so on well into the heart of his argument regarding la Mauritanie de dix-neuvième. I got back to the auditorium just in time to join enthusiastically in the applause for the speaker. And, yes, I’m sorry to confess that I went up to him later and thanked him personally for his “étude très, très utile.”
It was the memory of that Moroccan’s paper that put a smile on my face, a spring in my step as I emerged from my Turkish pesthole. “Allons-y, ustaz” I said to my captor with a smart little tap on his arm as we set out back across the courtyard.
Kassem was back in the room when I got there. Kessler was awake and stretching. Both guards had disappeared.
“It’s OK,” Kassem said. “I got through to Damascus. But we’ve got to get out of here. They’re just kids. Security police. We make them nervous, and when they get nervous, they make me very nervous. Got your passports? OK, let’s go.”
And we did. Back through Nawa without so much as turning our heads and then headlong to the Damascus highway.
“Interesting,” Kessler said at last.
“Scary,” I offered.
“Umm,” Kassem said. He probably knew far better than we just how interesting and scary our little expedition into the Jawlan really was.
We turned onto the Damascus highway. I thought it might be a good idea to turn the page as well.
“Either of you guys ever been to Mauritania?”