“I think we may be spending the night in a minefield.”
I have slept at some strange places. There was the middle of the Black-and-White Desert in the Sahara, when I woke up to find that a fox had eaten my breakfast. Or the middle of a wheat field, where I woke up to find that I had accidentally pooped on the hiking trail. Let’s not forget about the Amazon jungle during a monsoon. A minefield, however, would be a first.
A sign informed us that we were in the “Tuscany of Israel.” The light was warm, the hills were rolling as they do, and I even got a mosquito bite on the eve of December. The rental car with the sunroof was a far cry from its cousin that broke down on the Damascus-Baghdad highway a few warm-lit falls ago. The souvenirs of that drive, though, soon converged with this journey. Radio Lebanon overpowered the newscast in Hebrew. The hills became rocky and populated with signs ‘strongly discouraging’ us from getting off the road. “Caution: Live fire zone!” “Caution: Military road only!””Warning: This road leads to a border.”It does, indeed. The border is hugged by the “Good Fence” (sic), barbed wire, electric barbed wire and a painted tank facing the other way. The homes in this part of the country are eerily colorful, in that way that places that have experienced conflict often are in order to offset the trauma.
Stories offset trauma for me. It is through human stories that I find hope and through the act of storytelling that I seek to kindle it in myself and others. On this journey, humans were missing from the Tuscan-emulating landscape. It is as though the town evacuated itself and the FedEx truck ahead of us simply had not heard yet.”If FedEx comes here, so can we!” he said, with sunniness.Maps reach the limit of their use near borders. The ones that come with rental cars do not tell you about the fences and minefields and the roads not meant for car wheels. It was the postmen who led the way. We followed the FedEx postman to the Lebanese border. The waterfall on the other side of the fence was accessible only by camera lens.
A different postman this time. “Excuse me, are we on the right road to Majdal Shams?” He seems bemused and instructs us to follow him. The village outside which we are stopped is a border of its own. An invisible line bisects it. The southern part is home to Israelis, the northern part to Lebanese and some combination of UN forces, armies and checkpoints attempts to keep it from imploding. The village has been the site of threatened kidnappings and rocket attacks. Today, for us, it is another place to look at the map and ask for help. The postman hurries us out and on to Majdal Shams.
Majdal Shams is a Druze village in the northern Golan Heights, a few breaths away from Syria. Druze people reside primarily in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, but they constitute an independent ethnicity and do not ethnically identify outside their own group. On Fridays, they gather on the Shouting Hill of Majdal Shams and use megaphones to shout their news to their families living on the Syrian side of the border. On a Tuesday, we are greeted by signs in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. “Eyebrow tweezing: A touch of beauty,” suggested one. “Drive cleanly,” instructed another. We wait as a shepherd and his goats cross the road. He sees us smiling, nods and waves.
We are stuck in the middle of a convoy of Humvees. “Let them pass us, please,” I say and he mocks my nervousness. On the roof of the military vehicle in front of us, there is a gun swinging left and right. On the left, there are bunkers, many of them remnants of the 1967 and 1973 wars. On the right, tanks are performing an exercise. Straight ahead, the sunset. The Humvees pass us and we are soon driving behind a truck carrying a giant coffeemaker. In Greek, we call it a ‘briki’; in Turkey, ‘cezve’; in Egypt, ‘kanaka.’ By the time we have finished our roadside early dinner, the giant coffeemaker has been installed on the town square of another Druze village by the Syrian border. Children clad in Barcelona soccer jerseys are admiring it and, among them, I feel at home.
There is a jacuzzi in the room, and a wooden loft, and a microwave — none of which are features to which I am accustomed. Grey’s Anatomy is on TV. When we step outside a bit later, we are greeted by a vast night sky and the sound of a tank rolling in the distance.
I am not a novice to walls, fences, barbed wire, boom boom or “no entry” signs, but the more of them I bump up against, the more they choke me. I tell him: “If I were a hippie, this is when I would wish we lived in a borderless world.” I still wish that, but the scholar of conflict in me acknowledges the necessity of boundaries. I find myself in a country that can look like Tuscany and a conflict zone within 25 kilometers and am grateful every day for all the people and stories that it has crowded within its pinched borders. Yet, right up against the borders, I am suffocated. Drive too far north, east, or southwest and you will not be able to drive anymore. This country can be an island and it chokes me like Cuba did.
We drove 750 kilometers in two days, all within the airtight borders, like hamsters on a wheel. On the way back, as we circumnavigate the sea of Galilee, I remark on the vivacity of the fruit groves. “They are so much more comforting than minefields!”, I mumble to fulfill my Captain Obvious requirement of the day. “Life over death,” he says.