Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
September 6, 2009, Sunday, Tiberias, in the Aviv hostel, my dorm room
I made a partial circuit around Lake Kinneret yesterday [September 6, 2009], from the northwest shore to the western shore. The altitude here in Tiberias feels lower, the climate hotter. The shore was steep on the eastern side of the road and gently sloped down to the water on the western. I spotted many groves of date palms (dates now being harvested, one boy roadside selling large stalks of dates) and some of bananas, plus other fruit trees. No olives that I noticed. The terrain seems a mix of sand near the water and I believe basalt in the hills, but this I observed only from a distance. Water seems plentiful, much of it devoted to irrigation. I pulled off the main road to photograph pipes and valves—too many pipes and valves to hold an audience, what to do?
I found many sites to photograph from, looking down at the huge expanse of lake. Many swimming beaches, and, being Saturday, Shabbat, filled with swimmers and campers. For lunch I stopped at a partially excavated tel (adjacent to the Gal water park, said to be the largest in Israel) and ate under a spreading eucalyptus tree. This tree, originally from Australia, proliferates thru out the region. I noticed its strong odor, its peeling bark, and remember that it is uses an excessive amount of water.
Hordes of tourists swarmed the main Christian sites on the northern shore, I felt lucky to have visited these sites earlier, either not during summer or during midweek.
Capernaum (Latin or Catholic version) parking lot
A few stops along the way:
The Orthodox version of Capernaum attracted only 2 busloads, Japanese, and seemed to have no historical sites attached to it, nor a church. I’m not sure how it justified itself, other than being a vague Orthodox presence.
Kursi national park, with its partially reconstructed Byzantine church, this site said to be where Jesus exorcized evil spirits from a man. The spirits then entered pigs driving them to commit suicide into the sea. Out of reach of my legs and lungs because of the heat was a spot higher in the hills which may have been the actual exorcism place.
Byzantine church, Kursi National Park
This site reminded me of the power of water, mountain and desert in the Jesus story. Most every part of the story is fixed to a specific site, or type of site, so terrain plays a major role in the narrative, and thus, by visiting the sites, helps reify what otherwise might be imagination—and what may be an act of imagination yet. Good fiction, an untruth pointing to a truth.
Kibbutz Ein Gev, featuring food, raising its own St Peter’s fish in ponds and beef in a factory setting. I said hello to lady cows, trying to not spook them so I could make a decent photo as they gobbled their lunch, hay. They stood in what looked like pools of excrement. Many tourists here at the restaurant, I photographed the buses lined up, most of their engines idling, spilling their evil spirits into the atmosphere, but keeping the tourists who would soon finish lunch and enter the buses cool and happy. Hundreds of tourists left the main building which housed a series of restaurants, I had to wait a few minutes for them to clear out. Lucky I did, because as I strolled thru the restaurant I was able to photograph fish in various states of dismemberment and consumption. I believe I surprised the lunchers by my request to photograph their fish.
Ein Gev was established by German and Czech pioneers in 1937, the first permanent settlement on the eastern shore, and thus under siege until “liberated” in 1967. The surrounding area was either Syrian (says the guidebook) or Jordanian (says my reading of history). I found indicators of this period: a guard tower and a bunker, which I photographed.
Receding shore line at Ein Gen
Yardenit, the exit point of the Jordan river and the current baptism center, south side of lake, hidden by hydrological apparatus. I’m not sure what occurs here, whether water enters pipes here or mechanisms control the flow. I suspect the former. I parked, wandered around, made a few photos, but none show any dramatic departure of water from the sea to the river. The river looked about the same as when it entered, maybe 4 m across, 1 or 2 deep. In the distance downriver I noticed white clothed figures, presumably pilgrims receiving blessings from the water as they are baptized. I plan to return to this site this morning to photograph more.
And the river entry point on the north shore, which I’d seen before, but this time I went to the west side of the river, far upstream from the actual entry point and noticed fishers, swimmers, rafters, no pilgrims, or at least no one of the usual pilgrim type. Perhaps these people are also pilgrims, with a different object of worship—pleasure.
Jordan River entering Sea of Galilee
I feel that finally I’ve extended my photographic coverage of water with a more thorough treatment of the Sea, I feel less satisfied about the River. Maybe today, as I trace its route downstream, I will find better access. Further north the main site for me has been the Banias with its temple surprise.
Another surprise, delightful as always: 2 messages from ME, but cryptic. In one she linked me to an article about poverty in the USA, in French, apologizing for the French. In the other a set a photos from Paris Monde, with her top choice indicated. I wrote back my choices, and remembered to her that another article she’d sent me, from Antonio Tabucchi about beauty, either coincided or spurred my photo assignment to the class in Gaza to photograph what is beautiful to them. I am very happy to be back in relatively good touch with her.
Also KA who continues to fascinate me. Closer to my age, Jewish late coming, happily married, with her thriving business, we have communicated regularly… I like her very much, her energy and chutzpah, and wonder how we might develop if not for her happy marriage. She demonstrates to me that I am not hopelessly fixated on younger women like ME and X (who’s not written for months, very curious).
Another personal note: my stomach ailment is easing; tho thru much of yesterday my stomach was sore, feeling bloated. Skipping dinner at the Kerei Deshe hostel during Shabbat eve was a major omission from my life, but I had a small lunch yesterday and a big shuwarma last night. This morning my stomach feels fine.
Checking the guidebook for housing in or near Tiberias I learned there is much that is cheap and accessible. My first choice turned to be wise, the Aviv hotel and hostel, along the main road so I had no trouble finding it, costing 70 shekels and another 30 for breakfast. The dorm room has 3 beds, one already occupied by a young German man who’d been studying medicine for one month in Tel Aviv and will soon return to Germany to complete his training. His name is Darius.
A sturdy, handsome man with a girl friend who he’d called just before we went out to eat; he is a quick and short-term friend in the holy land. He walked from Nazareth to Tiberias, hitching for the last few km because of the heat. For the adventure, he explained, but never again, too hot. I drank 9 liters of water yesterday and carried a heavy backpack.
Very German thought I, testing one’s powers.
He chose Tel Aviv for his studies not for political reasons but first because he wanted to study outside Germany, and second in a different sort of country. He’d read little about the situation until planning his visit. Germans, he told me, suffer great guilt about the holocaust and know little other than the Israel Jewish side thru the media. The government stands with Israel. There is little pro Palestine rights activity, altho I suspect because of his relatively slight political interests he might be overlooking a sector of Germans.
Luckily we had two adjoining rooms so when he returned as I was drifting off to sleep, having turned off the air conditioner because I couldn’t find a way to control its temperature, and opened the window on the slowly cooling night air, he asked about the AC. He decided to sleep in the 2nd room, with the TV and AC on.
He borrowed my computer when I set it up at the companion hotel, also Aviv, which had free wireless. He wanted to check his email for Couch Surfer invites. This reminded me that I’d not much used this service or Hospitality Club, mainly because it would require too much travel organization, tying me down to an itinerary. Otherwise I’d use it as I did initially. And might later. I could try it for the last few days of my visit.
My turn came to use the internet. A large religious group was clearing out of the hotel, there for Shabbat, and so I settled into what I thought would be a late into the evening revision of my blog…
Elizabeth at Friends of the Earth Middle East gave me a list of suggested sites to visit in this general region: Emek Hefer, Bakal-Gharbiya, Old Gesher, Peace Island, Alumot Dam, Yardenit, Naharyim, and Beit Shean—all water-related—but as far as I know I’ve found none of them. Maybe the last one today. The names confuse me. Much better for my photography and insights if I could travel with a knowledgeable hydrological guide, like someone from Friends of the Earth. Maybe another time. I am an innocent wandering it the vast hydro desert.
September 5, 2009, Saturday, near Capernaum, in Tagbha, at the Kary Deshe Guest House, in the hallway where I have electricity (and won’t disturb my two roommates)
A few dreams: in one “Y” and I were visiting M and her new boy friend, mainly to meet him. Y and I concurred he was an odd one, sullen and depressed, not sure what M saw in him. To his credit he was young, strong, handsome, I think a recent soldier. He was virtually voiceless, ignored us. Our dog, tho, played happily with his dog.
In another I was driving alone a small van in an area where picking up passengers was accepted, even encouraged. Seeing an elderly couple waiting at an intersection with others, having room only for 3 passengers, I picked them up and one other.
Agricultural water, Beit Shean border crossing
Yesterday a short walking tour of Tsfat, mostly from where I’d parked near the main shopping district, up to what I think is the Citadel, and down to the artists’ colony and then the synagogue section. Tho high, the air felt hot and muggy. I sweated mightily. I also picked up a 100 shekel parking ticket when I’d not noticed this was a for-fee parking area, and not sure how to use the machines.
The Citadel was at what I suppose is the highest point in town, on a flat ledge, with an attempt at making it into a park. But it looked desolate, little used, inhospitable, and potentially dangerous because of its isolation. There were Arabic looking ruins (arches), and it may also have been the site of the Crusader fortress I’d read about somewhere. It offered views, but because of trees and haze, I doubt much shows. Furthermore, I lost the photos from this little jaunt because of that recurring corrupt file problem.
The problem surfaced when I spotted a young man walking in front of me wearing a large kippah and sporting dreadlocks—the proverbial Orthodox Jew—and with a t-shirt advertising Caterpillar. Would have been perfect. But the camera wouldn’t record, and then I saw the heart stopping-error message: FOR, meaning this card is not formatted. I switched cards, the camera then recorded, the man was long gone. Was this an act of god, protecting that man?
I could put together an exhibit of the photos that I didn’t make because of various technical and mental reasons.
Then down to the artists’ colony—Tsfat prides itself on being artist-friendly, and it seems to be, and counter cultural with its blend of Orthodox Jewry, art, and new age spirituality, most all of this perhaps stemming from its kabalistic origins. Some of the leading rabbis of kabala worked and died here. Originating here, the movement spread to Spain during its progressive centuries before Isabella and Ferdinand stupidly expelled Jews and Arabs. A highlight of the colony was the old mosque converted into the “General Art Gallery.”
Nearly all the art was abstract and I wondered, if we placed a random selection of some of this with a random selection of art from Windows from Gaza could people distinguish a different? And if not, what does this suggest about the power and meaning of this art?
To me, generally bored by all abstract art (unless it’s my photography), this is a sure sign of impotence. Virtually nothing here about the history of founding this country, the presence of Arabs, the occupation, and little about being Jewish—that I could see. Were I Jewish I might have reveled in depictions of my people.
One corridor in the synagogue section resembled the corridor in Hebron thru parts of the Old City, those parts with wire mesh overhead to protect Hebron’s stalwart Palestinians from the garbage and shit thrown down by Jewish settlers. So I made a photo of this and hope I can pair it with similar photos from Hebron.
I stopped at several tourist stations reciting in English a very lucid and compelling version of the Jewish narrative. At the time of partition Jews made up some 15% Tsfat, altho they’d been here for millennia, coexisting with Arabs. Then the war, the heroic Jews prevailed, driving the Arabs out, or forcing Arab leadership to order the Arabs to flee. The fighting was fierce, especially in the Citadel area, with its steep slopes and muddy terrain. But a night attack destroyed the Arab’s stronghold. So goes the narrative, paraphrasing. I’m sure had the Arabs won they’d produce a similar story about their magnificent victories. Why not? Winners create history.
So much for Tsfat. I recharged my phone with about 55 shekels, phoned the Deshe guesthouse to check availability, just slipped in since yesterday was Shabbat, today the weekend, and this is a busy time and a popular place. And I felt secure knowing for a change where I’d sleep this night. A short drive thru the mountains brought me “home.”
What to do about the parking ticket? Ask Avis if they can argue that I’m a tourist and didn’t know the rules? Ask what would happen if I didn’t pay? (The government might come to Avis who has my credit card number and I may not escape paying, with a hefty fine added.) Pay where and how?
A man I asked about the procedure explained how to buy a parking permit, easy, and how to pay, equally easy, the bank or post office. But do jurisdictions overlap so I can pay in Jerusalem? Someday also in Ramallah?
My stomach seems to have settled. No accidents yesterday, or humdila (thank god) during the night. One small thunderously loud fart this morning as I sat on the john and emitted a slight bit of goo. I skipped dinner last night, thinking, if my stomach still ails and I eat as if it is OK, I could suffer all night long. Last night was Shabbat and I’m told they offered special food, including wine. Plus I missed dining with the many Jews here, more than I’ve seen eating together in a long while.
Kids play happily, often taking rides on the luggage carts in the hallways. I hear happy sounds continually here. Also babies bawling. The beach was crowded with swimmers and sitters as I went for my cooling swim in the late afternoon. Unlike my last visit here, I shared my small room with two others, Thierry from Luxemburg who immediately explained to me how small and where his country is, as if I didn’t know, and a German man with a handsome reddish beard, a born again Christian, wearing his cross conspicuously around his neck (maybe similar to how Crusaders paraded their swords?). When I mentioned it, and asked, traveling thru the land of Jesus?, he answered yes, are you a believer?
Well friend, do you have a moment? I quickly summarized the Christian portion of my belief: Jesus was a great teacher, one among many, but not divine. I’m part of the Quaker community and we have all kinds, including Jewish Buddhist atheistic Quakers (thinking of DA) He’d asked me, to check my belief quotient, do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?
He explained that he’d been lost and now was found, hit bottom, not knowing who he was, where he was headed. And then, miraculously, god came to him and with him his son. So, like me with Martin, this good natured and well-meaning fellow has a personal relationship with Jesus. Unfortunately, he wanted to tell me all about it, like many born against, and I had to deflect his passion.
Too bad we couldn’t have a more meaningful conversation. He’s a bit like M with her strong Buddhism, possibly hard to live with. Unlike her however he seemed unwilling to hear me out. M is very good at listening, it is her profession.
Eastern shore, Sea of Galilee
Today: head south, after first north, and explore the eastern shore of the big lake. Not sure where to place my head for the night. Also, first avail myself of the Internet connection here (tho costly, $5 for one hr, $10 for 24, which shall it be?) and upload my latest subsite and blog entries. I worked feverishly last evening, for about 3 hours straight, preparing a potpourri from the first 3 days of this section of my journey. From Tel Aviv to Capernaum, more or less. Hopefully I will put up its sequel soon.
While doing this—and it confirms the important of constantly reviewing and using my photos and words—I discovered I’d not downloaded from the camera to the computer about 40 photos from end of Beny to the beginning of Caesarea. Vital photos. Searching thru my memory cards, I found the next one up for reuse contained the missing images. I only hope this is the only occurrence of this oversight. Had I not checked I’d have written over the images.
~~It is 7:15 am, people are slowly leaving their rooms and entering the halls, I hear their sounds, pleasing family sounds—a good place for a bomber to attack, I wonder if this threat once dominated experience at such guest houses and vacation spots—, so it’s probably about time to complete this entry and eat breakfast. Will I eat heartily or daintily? What will my stomach tell me?~~
Not sure yesterday morning what to do, where to stay, another night in the Tsfat guest house or move on, I ran into the old woman’s son who’d directed me thru the labyrinthine network of small Tsfat roads to the guest house the night before. He told me another section of the Beit Shalom guesthouse was across the road and operating. In fact, he expected a large group that evening. When I told him I was out of shekels for my phone he pointed me to the house phone, for shekels. Regrettably it didn’t work. He went somewhere to get something to fix it, I waited, he did not return, I decided to chance it and leave Tsfat. Good decision. We never said goodbye.
I also realized probably the reason I couldn’t contact anyone the day before was because my phone was out of shekels. I heard announcements but most were in Hebrew, and the few I understood said I’d made an error in dialing, try again. Chock one up to my ignorance and lack of awareness.
September 7, 2009, Monday, Beit She’an, in the Guest House, my room
A few dreams, one about fish. With others, maybe my family, we decided to stop to buy fresh fish. They delegated me as the buyer. I spoke with a man—we were in a country without English as the first language—with very good English, a “fish butcher,” as he cut the fish I’d ordered. He explained what he was doing. I mistakenly sliced my own big piece, not realizing he was cutting exactly what I’d ordered. A mix-up that didn’t seem to upset him. When he finished and turned to serve another customer I was confused about where my order was, not sure who or when to ask.
In a possibly related dream I was with George C, looking at photos of his wedding that Chris J had made. Very good, one in particular, that seemed to show about 5 people, including George himself at a lectern, apparently all asleep.
And the most remarkable dream of all: it was sunrise, because of the way the light worked, pools of water were brilliantly lit with a soft blue glowing light. I realized this as I slept and, tho still tired, decided to get up to make the photo from my window. I actually did wake up and rise from bed, thinking the dream was presaging what I should be photographing. It was still night. Only a dream. Later, in real life, when I was up and the sun was rising—my window faces east, over the valley, about 3 floors up—there were the pools! Not as gorgeously lit as in my dream, but good enough to try a photo or two. I should have used my telephoto lens but it was in the car and I felt too lazy (also enjoying being naked for a change) to retrieve it.
And now a twist on the story that I’d not dreamt—the sun in the sky, reflecting in the pool. So another photo to try to show this magnificent moment.
Yesterday I moved slightly further south, into the valley of the Jordan. Frequently I recalled that in 2003, my first trip here, I’d flown home over this same area, and because the sky was clear and the plane window unclouded [winter time], I could photograph the earth from above. Same region, same misleading terrain, the river looking wide—in fact, narrow, in fact, in places, not visible because covered with grasses.
No dunking pilgrims at Yardenit, the river site for immersion, said not to be the site of Jesus’ baptism, which I believe is further north, now too close to Jordan to be safe. This might disappoint Jan H who’s written regularly as we set our assignation for shortly after I return home. She’d hoped I could show white robed pilgrims in the water. I only saw what looked like carp swimming madly in the dipping area. I visited the tourist center, found some spectacular black and white photos on display by Gali Tibbon, a woman living in Jerusalem. I’ll probably use them, giving her full credit. I suspect they are much better than the ones I’d make, since I’d probably not have time to ask permission for best access. The area has been developed specifically for immersions, with a large restaurant, a walk way for observing immersions, several fenced off areas in the water for these events, and a few displays about what this means. Which is? The power of water to cleanse, purify, make whole, allow one to begin again. I suspect the German man I met at the Deshe guest house, the born again Christian, who’d hit bottom, would begin to surface if dipping into these waters, believed by some to be holy.
Nearby I found a grove of eucalyptus trees with a marker honoring a woman who’d walked thru the grove as a youth. They were planted in 1912 at one of the first kibbutzim to help dry the swamp. Little did those planters realize the trees would become a liability during the era of drought and general water shortage.
There are many early kibbutzim in the area, south of the lake, near the river. And as I explored them from afar, thru fences (tho I suspect most are now open), noticing the guard houses and towers, some damaged from shelling, I realized the kibbutz movement was not only agricultural in intent but political. They were an early form of the settlement, establishing facts on the ground, claiming the land, not only agriculturally, but for the building of the nation. I’d love to read a history of the kibbutz, to learn its role in the founding of the state.
In this same vein, I also visited Old Gesher, another early kibbutz, now along the frontier with Jordan. As I pulled in, not sure what I was observing, I first saw a large fairly modern building pockmarked by shelling and rifle fire. Signs in Hebrew probably explained what this was. Close by, under some trees for shade, a group of about 5 lounging soldiers with rifles. Signs indicated this is a firing zone, do not enter! About 100 meters from here was the visitor center and more soldiers. At first I thought I was at the Beit Shean border crossing, but no, as I tenderly brought out my camera and began walking (using the Lou Jones technique for asking permission to photography, step by step, with full awareness of anyone’s body language), no one seemed to notice. I learned the soldiers, probably new to their position, were on an educational excursion. The government seems to do much of this, educational preparatory trips for new soldiers. Strengthens their motivation to “keep their nation safe.”
Motion detecting fence at Old Gesher
The attendant explained that the center was closed, and to enter I’d have to make prior arrangements and join with a group. Too bad, I missed the audio video event, The Naharayim Experience. Which might be about the founding of this early kibbutz. It had been on the list Elizabeth of FoEME provided me of water resources to explore on this trip.
I could title one of my presentations: What the hell is this? I find myself uttering that phrase regularly as I see something that might be this, or might be that, but I’m not sure. At times I find out, at others, I don’t. So the words remain: What the hell is this?
Where the Jordan exits the Sea of Galilee
I stopped several times along highway 90 to photograph the river and valley, often at some peril to me. Trucks whizzing by, two of them carrying tanks, speeding cars, buses, narrow road, narrow shoulders, hot and generally difficult to stop to make photos. I might be in more danger during this leg of my 3 month journey than at some other points.
No surprise: the river was hard to find, either shrunken to a pitiful trickle or disappeared entirely beneath grasses. Even driving off road to find the elusive river usually proved futile. At one spot I thought I saw the water disappear into a pipe.
End of the Jordan River?
This attempt to find the river culminated at the Beit Shean border crossing, where at first, finding a dried up channel, thinking it was the river bed, I photographed what I thought was the river. All under the eye of a security guard. I mistakenly thought this was the crossing we’d used on my first trip in 2003, which in fact is further south, by Jericho. How mixed up I can be, hardly an astute observer and witness. And then, in the restaurant perhaps surprising guests when I asked, where’s the river?, I discovered I’d not be able to see the river because people are not allowed to walk on the bridge, and the river cannot be seen under the grasses.
Earlier often I could see what must have been historic river routes, channels, even a few striations, indicating better times for the Jordan River. But not today during a lengthy water crisis.
At about 3 pm I began thinking about where I’d stay the night, my usual pattern: the book listed nothing for Beit Shean, the nearest town. It suggested some fine sounding spots further south, Ein Gedi for one, which I’d long hoped to visit along the Dead Sea shore. But this requires a long drive. So I opted to simply drive thru Beit Shean, hoping I’d spot something I could afford. And just as I arrived there it was: the Beit She’an guest house, a huge building of stone on the main road, but surely, I thought, too expensive, something like $100 plus.
Inquiring, I learned I could book a single room, no dorms here, for 275 NIS, under $100 (more precisely, using 4 shekels to the dollar, $70 include breakfast. Dinner would be 70 shekels, too high.) I realized this morning that I’m spending money as if it is endless, neglecting the fact that I have only savings to live on until Jan next year. I might suffer later for my prodigality. Time to put on the spending breaks, begin worrying. (This trip has been unusually worry-free for me, no sleepless nights. Yet.)
The guesthouse is part of the Israel Youth Hostel Association, (IYHA), http://www.iyha.org.il. It has “62 high quality rooms…air conditioned with en-suite bathrooms and showers, refrigerator, TV, and a coffee corner.” Plus a pool and conference rooms. A fine place for one of my shows. I should ask Dave if he’d like to organize an Israeli tour for me.
Last evening, as the sun settled for the night, the air cooling mercifully (it is not getting hotter as I proceed southward and lower into the earth, nearer the notoriously hot and humid Jericho. In fact, cooler last night that previous nights.), I ate a low quality falafel (they’re much better in Palestine), and discovered Roman ruins. A good time to visit: the sun was not glaring, the air was cool, no one else was touring, and so perhaps this magical hour will help me construct a few good photos.
Roman ruins, Beit Shean
At a small shopping mall, as I explored, I noticed a baby clothes shop with the name, mish mish. Very odd, thought I, since this is the Arabic word for apricot. Inquiring, I learned that it’s also Hebrew for apricot. Yet another testament to the closeness of these two “separate” people—warring cousins.
Date palms near the Jordan River
For the first time I remember on this 3 month journey, except for the Tel Aviv bus station and possibly the Jerusalem bus station, I had to pass security to enter. A young smiling black man did his duty, checking my bag, but not requiring I disgorge all my metal so I could pass the metal detector without setting it off.
Anne has been most reliable as a loving appreciating correspondent. She is tracking me. She seems now to read everything I write, and soon after I post it. I’d sent to my list my most recent blog yesterday morning, the longest yet, some 5000 words, with an apology, long and not carefully edited, and by evening she’d read it and commented in her usual deep and compassionate way. As I wrote her, you are the best. Love, me. She even calls me Skipper, which only my sister Elaine uses, a true signifier of deep relationship.
Jan is also surprisingly responsive. I’m enjoying our regular but brief communiqués, mostly about when to meet. My home, Wednesday after I arrive on Sunday, 6 pm for dinner, she brings the dessert.
“Joel Kovel on Naomi Klein and Durban,” August 28, 2009
Israel Still Strangles the Palestinian Economy, by Sam Bahour, Wall Street Journal Op-ed, August 20, 2009