Sunday, August 18th, 1996 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/tira-saunters
head east this time to read a book about federal solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I drive out to Tira, about ten minutes away. At least, it’s ten minutes away the way I drive here: exhilarated, aggressive, enjoying the driving itself.
Tira, the closest Arab town, is looking if not rich then prosperous. Oversized signs declare “Visa” or “Mastercard”; people come here to buy. Today is a weekend and the shops are closed but the main street is still quite busy due to a flea market in the sand on the edge of town between the Jerusalem-stone-fronted filling station and the orchards. It sells cheap (presumably knock-off) Reebok shorts and draws Jewish Israelis from their shekels.
My eyes are peeled for a pleasant place to sit down and read, no doubt with a Turkish coffee or three, but nothing strikes me and I drive through town and out. The straight long road east is dotted with garages and car washes but unlike in America no showrooms; behind the strip lie stark flat low hot agricultural lands. The road ends at a T-junction, and I turn left onto the busy one-lane road that serves as Israel’s third north-south highway. A few minutes later the car in front of me turns right to ascend and on a whim I follow it. We soon enter a Jewish agricultural settlement with green-foilaged houses and big empty open-air agricultural warehouses off to one side. The other car stops but I continue my ascent, and then am out of this place too and the one-lane road is empty and I speed. To either side are views. To the left, the north, down below is the Sharon Plain, looking vast — this may be a small country but we are still speaking here of land. Down on the right a path meanders in the valley between the two hills. Meanwhile the road keeps going up. Ahead is a white sliding gate.
I stop at the checkpoint, relieved I’m wearing Calvin Klein spectacles, that I am very white, that the car is a Skoda, the ride of a middle-class Israeli housewife — my mother — quietly proud to be driving the cheapest production car available in the country. To the teenager acting as a security guard I look like what I am: a middle-class Jewish Israeli. The only thing amiss is that I am not here to visit friends and relatives but to check out the times and in truth be a suspicious character. But he’s not to know and doesn’t ask; I drive slowly past him without stopping because in my whites stopping itself would be suspicious.
This place on a hill, a big hill, is quiet and the houses are frankly very nice, almost Spanish in their white color and even in their design. There’s nobody on the streets, but when I park the car and get out to walk I can hear kids inside a house. These little castles and their green gardens have, from the back — I can see through the ample space between each plot — a spectacular view of the brown rolling hills below, a view unmistakeably Judean.
I walk down to where the road degenerates into a sandy track. Two men dressed in shabby blue overalls are working on the last house in the row. A third man, tanned and well-built, is talking politely to them, wearing nothing on his hairy body except neon-green swimming trunks. He’s slumping and facing away from them, as if a piece of rock across the road is actually worthy of a bit more of his attention than they are, and it’s instantly obvious that they are Arabs and he is a Jew. But to do it all credit, these two men are clearly professionals and the Israeli is speaking to them in pretty much the same tone in which they are speaking to him. Their Hebrew is very good. I wonder how they feel about making a living building houses for the enemy. Perhaps among builders there’s a certain cameradie about construction itself, no matter who it’s for.
I turn back towards the car. A white Peugeot drives slowly down towards me. The woman in the passenger seat — mid-twenties, averagely pretty Israeli — asks me if I live here. She’s holding a walkie-talkie, and I assume I’m being questioned. “No,” I instantly answer, without the gumption to fabricate. I again rely on my unthreatening looks even after they’ve presumably failed me. But instead the woman asks if I’m the one building the house here and I realize they’re just a couple of wanderers too, her boyfriend probably isn’t a lieutenant colonel, this Peugeot 205 is probably just a loaner from the army for the weekend. I say No, and point to the figure in the green shorts. As I walk up the hill I turn around and see the boyfriend walk over to him. What do they have in common, these two, except being brothers-in-arms? On the streets of Tel Aviv they would walk right past each other, maybe jostle for preeminence on the sidewalk.
On a courageous whim I walk back to the girl in the car. “Are you thinking of living here?” I ask. “I wish,” she replies. “Yes, it’s lovely,” we agree. It really is; to the victor the spoils. As I return to my car I see another building site sporting a building contractor’s sign with a very Arabic name printed in Hebrew, underneath which it claims “Officially Sanctioned Business” and a cellphone number.
On the way I notice a dirt track next to the gatehouse. I slowly drive down it. It circles the settlement and is clearly for patrolling. On the outside is a high double barbed-wide fence; this lovely land and these lovely houses are still separated. Look out the window, hearty Israeli woman, from your Italian-imported kitchen, but you still cannot touch this land. You cannot finish the laundry and take a jug of water down for a solitary walk in these hills, your hills, surely, and chat with the shepherd.
Back on the road, returning west this time, I stop to take a look at the two Arab towns on the plain below. Through my binoculars the first thing I see is an absence: there are no people on the streets. This makes sense I suppose: it’s hot. Many new houses are being built here too, of a similar size and quality to those of the Jewish towns. None of the roads are paved; they’re all sand. And the mosques: I count six of them, and I probably missed more. Each one is a lovely tower and next to it a blue dome.
Back through the first little town and onto the north-south highway I shoot past a family trotting dustily with two donkey carts. Continuing south past Tira, the next town is Kochav Yair, where Ehud Barak lived while he was Chief of Staff of the army and maybe still does. It’s a middle-class town, much of it built all at once, and many Tel Aviv suburbanites who wanted out of apartments bought houses here. I remember being outraged at the bright white houses with bright red roofs when I came here a few years ago, thinking that this style was an affront to the lovely subtle browns of the surrounding land, that it spoke of a supreme disinterest in the land itself. Supercilious me, I remember condemning the whole Zionist project because of it, praising the Arabs as being more respectful to the land they love, as they seem to build in order to blend in with it. But oh me of little faith. If I have such feelings about the earth, why don’t I trust them? If earth is so much, it doesn’t need self-righteous do-gooders to look after it. For the residents of Kochav Yair may think they can shut themselves off from the fact that they live in the Judean Hills and not along the Mediterranean, but the land has already gotten to them; the early houses already look different. Baked by the relentless sun of only a few summers, the roofs are no longer bright red but a kind of pale peach. The walls, darkened by rain, dust and dirt, are no longer white but a muddy grey. The houses are being assimilated into the landscape. Perhaps the Arabs also built in gaudy colors. Perhaps everyone does — just like those ancient purported masters of taste, the Greeks.
The residential streets of Kochav Yair are clean and full of trees and plants — and if it wasn’t so hot probably full of kids playing too. I’m reminded of Las Vegas because it all still seems so transplanted. Glimpses through gaps between the houses reveal the surrounding desert, and I suspect that to most of the residents this is less a source of serenity than of despair.
I’ve given up hope of finding a nice little cafe or bar to sit down and read my book — this isn’t Tel Aviv — but here I can’t even find a corner shop. Where do these people buy their milk? What looks like it might be the center of town doesn’t have any shops but it does have a country club. A sign says the club is for residents of the town only and their guests. There’s a huge parking lot despite nobody here living further than a ten-minute walk away; the car is to be the compensation for the paucity of development-town life. I, non-resident and non-guest, feign moodiness and enter. There are two swimming pools, the first with a semi-circular glass covering now open for the summer but that probably closes over for the winter. The second is making a regular thudding noise, and is for children only — it’s a wave-making pool! Consolation perhaps for not being along the coast? There’s an open-air restaurant too (not a McDonald’s). The grown-ups seem a bit miserable, but I don’t see why they should be; their kids are safe, their houses are lovely, and isn’t it nice to loll around communal swimming pools on deck-chairs with your neighbors?
I almost stop here to read my book, but instead head back to Tira, to the restaurant at the western entrance to the town, the one I’d originally bypassed because it looked too awful. It ends up being not very good. The patrons are all Israelis, and not particularly lovely ones either. Everybody is slumped over their food. This is fun food — hummous, pitas, etc. — but there’s not much conversation at the tables around me and no laughter. Still, the place is busy and humming.
A man drives up onto the sidewalk in his giant new 4×4 and enters the restaurant clutching his keys and his phones. One of the Arab waiters hanging about in the corner attends to him. I’ve got to confess: they all seem to have a blank stupid look. I am most fascinated by the muscular bald waiter with the jeans and the t-shirt. His head is shiny but he’s not sweating and his moustache is immaculate and really so is he. The sleeves of his Gold’s Gym t-shirt are rolled up, and as he walks towards the vertical shwarma spit with his jeans I realize he’s got it, the saunter. Not the Israeli conquerer one, that of the almost naked fellow talking to his construction crew; but that of the weightlifter, the gym saunter that’s still a bit stiff, so that even if you’re not yet taking easy pleasure in your body and perhaps never will, you’re nonetheless taking pride in it—almost as good. He stands next to the spit and, seemingly out of sheer boredom, sharpens the long knives. Finally I open the book.