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Fifty Years On

 

 

Fifty Years On

 

Half a lifetime ago, back in my university days, I was debating how to take maximum advantage of the long summer vacations.  Three months was a long time.  The world was at my feet.  Where should I go?

The problem, of course, was money.  Like every other student, I was skint.  A decent stretch of bar work would give me enough to get by for maybe a month but after that I’d be sleeping on the beach.  Then I happened on an ad for holiday contracts in Israel.  Sign up for six weeks apple-picking in a kibbutz and they’d give you a return air ticket plus all found.  The Middle East is two thousand miles away from Cambridge. Perfect.

Israel in 1966 was a very different country: the gutsy little David surrounded by trillions of hostile Arabs.  It was the product of a brave experiment in communal living: left-wing, hopelessly outnumbered, but determined – after the nightmare of the Holocaust – to survive.  To my generation it ticked all the boxes.

I flew out in mid-July.  We landed at Tel Aviv in late afternoon.  The heat was brutal.  The kibbutz had sent a truck to collect us and for the rest of that day we rumbled north along the coastal strip, the hot wind in our faces, standing in the back of the truck.  If you were looking for a taste of the pioneer life, this was definitely the real thing.  Another box ticked.

Kibbutz Shamir lay at the top of the Hula Valley, where the stillness of the Northern Galillee breaks against the circle of mountains that climb into Syria and the Lebanon. The swamps in the valley had only recently been drained but already a small army of kibbutzniks had created a mosaic of gleaming fish ponds and hundreds of acres of neatly laid-out orchards.

The truck began to climb the foothills of the Golan Heights.  Shamir was a scatter of terraced housing units behind a wire fence.  At the heart of  the kibbutz was the communal dining room,  sheds for thousands of chickens, and a newly-built swimming pool.  In the cool of the evening,  it felt deeply promising.

I spent a month there that first summer.  Every morning, we students got up at three in the morning,  showered under cold water pipes, then queued for the truck that took us down to the orchards in the valley floor.  Two hours apple-picking earned us hot sweet coffee from the superviser’s urn, and the beginnings of a spectacular dawn.  At eight we returned to the kibbutz for breakfast then clambered back into the truck for another four-hour shift.  Even at this time in the morning it was getting seriously hot.  We climbed ladders, picked apples, ate the odd windfall, and drank our body weight in luke-warm water. 

By mid day our work was done.  Back at the kibbutz, the truck parked in the dirt space behind the dining hall.  On the raised platform beside the huge chillroom, the women in the kitchens would leave stainless steel canisters full of pulped fruit.  Fresh from the chillroom, condensation beaded on the gleaming canisters and even now - nearly fifty years later - I can still savour the icy kiss of that magical juice. 

After lunch, and maybe a nap, we lounged by the pool and compared notes.  On Thursday nights,  the kibbutznik who ran the Shamir film society announced the movie of the week.  The screen was a white sheet tied between two posts.  I remember lying on the still-warm grass watching Battleship Potemkin as the wind sluicing up from the valley floor rippled sequence after sequence.  This was life in the raw and we loved it.

The following year, 1967, brought a crisis to the Middle East.  By early May, the Egyptians were threatening to close the straits of Tiran at the bottom of the Red Sea, thus isolating Israel. The Jordanian and Syrian armies were massing to gobble up this precious sliver of territory beside the Mediterranean.  At its thinnest, the waist of Israel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem measured just 36 miles.  One bite, and the plucky little Jewish homeland would be no more.

For my generation, angered by the messiness and brutality of the American intervention in Vietnam, the fate of Israel seemed a very black and white issue.  The Jews were the good guys, the Arabs the new Nazis. I’d spent serious time in the apple orchards of the Upper Galilee.  I knew that Shamir, tucked up against the Syrian border, would be hopelessly vulnerable to the first wave of Russian-built tanks.  For the first time in my life, after years of studying Rupert Brooke and George Orwell, I began to understand how it must have felt in 1914 and 1936.  Time to express solidarity. 

My best mate was a guy called Steve whom I’d known forever.  I told him about Shamir, and about the coming conflagration, and we agreed to offer our services.  Quite what we could bring to the Israeli table was never clear but we hitched to Istanbul, bought a ticket on the last boat to Haifa, and toasted the coming war with a couple of bottles of Efes as the golden minarets disappeared in our boiling wake.

By the time we got to Haifa, of course, the war was over.  Waves of Israeli fighter-bombers had destroyed three Arab air forces in the first six hours of the conflict, while ground forces expelled the Egyptians from Sinai, pushed the Jordanian Army out of the West Bank, and routed the Syrians on the Golan Heights.  By the time we got to Shamir, the old border was no more.  No longer could you throw an apple into Syria.  To do that meant a lengthy trek east through the minefields.  After six days of intense fighting, we found ourselves in Greater Israel.

It was a strange summer.  Shamir was full of Jewish volunteers, many of them South African, who’d headed north to offer a sacrificial arm or leg for the cause.  Like us, they had a great deal to get off their chests and apple-picking didn’t quite do it.  Our only salvation was the fact that the kibbutz truck that took us down to the valley floor every morning had been under fire in Sinai.  There were shrapnel rents in the metal cladding and when we massed in the darkness to clamber aboard there were fights to see who could sit closest to this priceless  evidence of battle.

That summer Steve and I spent three months in Shamir, and I returned again the following year.  One of the many friends we made was a kibbutznik called Avram Eilat.  Steve fell in love with his wife at first sight and we spent many afternoons on the patch of grass outside their tiny quarter. 

Avram was a good-looking guy, black curly hair, fluent in his deliciously broken English, and had contrarian views on more or less everything.  Like every Israeli his age, he’d fought in the war but didn’t seem to share the eurphoria that had swept the country. I liked him a great deal.  We talked about our separate ambitions.  He wanted to make it as a photographer and an artist while I already had four unpublished novels to my name. One day, we promised each other that we’d somehow break through.  One day, we’d earn a living from doing something we loved.

I left university in 1968 and over the decades that followed Israel began to change  A huge influx of Russian and Sephardic (non-European) Jews altered the political balance.  The country drifted steadily rightwards.  A rash of settlements appeared on hilltops on the West Bank and queues of Palestinians lengthened at the interminable Israeli checkpoints.  The kibbutz movement also  suffered, like a sandwich curling in the heat, and a tide of consumerism swamped the collective spirit that had underpinned the Israel I’d known and loved.  This was suddenly a country awash with shopping malls and luxury yachts.  Then came Gaza.

By now it was 2008. Lin and I had decided to spend Christmas in the Middle East.  We took a series of trains across Europe, lingered in Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest and spent an unforgettable Christmas Day at a café beside the Bosphorus.  Over the days that followed we rode more trains east until the line ran out and we were obliged to take a taxi across the Turkish border to Aleppo. New Year’s Eve found us looking for somewhere cheap to stay in Damascus.

The next morning we awoke to huge street demonstrations, an ocean of green flags.  There were riot police everywhere and the freezing wind was spiced with tear gas.  Neither of us carry smart phones, and we do our best to avoid any form of media, but Lin was curious to know what was up.  I mumbled something about Arab street theatre but she wasn’t convinced.  Then, after an awkward conversation with a forceful jihadist, we learned that Israel had begun to bomb and shell the Gaza Strip.

On reflection, it was a very bad time to be white and Anglo-Saxon in either Syria or Jordan but we kept our heads down and pretended to be French.  Riding south on yet another bus, I caught sight of a familiar mountain nearby to the west.  The last time I’d seen Mount Hermon – one of the biggest peaks in the Middle East – was half a lifetime ago.  For three long summers, its looming shadow dominated our lives at Kibbutz Shamir.  So what had happened to plucky little Israel in the intervening years?  How come the heroes of my late adolescence had somehow morphed into a right-wing bully-state suppressing the Palestinians, bombarding women and children in Gaza, and breaking every international treaty in the book?

We flew back to the UK from Amman in the second week of January, 2009.  From my cabin window, I could see grey columns of smoke still billowing from the ruins of the Gaza Strip.  That image stayed with me in the years that followed and this spring we’ve decided to fly to Israel to try and take the pulse of the place.  Our flights are booked for June.  We plan to stay a couple of weeks.

Last Monday, curiosity led me to try and contact my old friend Avram Eilat.  Would he remember me?  Was he even alive?  A Google search threw up his name in seconds.  At 73, Avram Eilat is now one of Israel’s leading artists, much feted.  With some hesitance, I pinged him an e-mail.  We’d be in Haifa, where he evidently lives, in early June.  I doubted my name would mean anything but might there be any chance of a meet?

Hours later came a reply.  Hallo from Israel, read his e-mail.  What a surprise!  So many years have passed and I still remember you as the young English writer…

The young English writer?  I raced downstairs.  The guy’s still alive, I told Lin.  Nearly half a century has passed and the guy still remembers me.  This has to be more than serendipity.  This has to be an encounter just waiting to happen.

God willing, we all meet in June.  Stay tuned…