Adorayim Army Base, Israel
Monday, May 20th, 2002 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/tour-of-kitchen-duty
eneath an afternoon sky and cradled by rocky hills, somewhere south of the flashpoint city of Hebron, I lay comfortably on earth, about, I noted out loud, to expire. One of the medics — a bespectacled, truly pious young man who would actually wear his issued khaki woollen sweater — came and kneeled over my chest. There in a plastic envelope a scrap of legal paper stated hurriedly in Hebrew that I was breathing rapidly, wailing, and other illegible wound symptoms. “Don’t worry,” he said, his gentleness towards the secular both irritating and a comfort. “I’m not really going do this.”
When the battalion’s craggy, squint Kanterovitch had popped into the room seeking volunteers for the exercise, my two Russian roommates had quickly copped him a sufficiently withering attitude. Someone else’s officer did his duty and claimed he needed him. I, however, was free. Of course, during the subsequent exercise briefing, delivered by a woman soldier in that rapid and humorless style designed to deflate and deflect any desire for anything, Kanterovitch himself had begged off, “to drink a coffee.” Which in the army is about as good an excuse as any.
The makeshift briefing room had until only months ago been the military courthouse for Hebron. I had discovered it a few nights before. There was no need for a flashlight — the abandoned room’s overhead flourescents were on constantly — indeed the only hindrance to my investigation was the lack of a heater. Across the judge’s raised table lay strewn crumpled empty soft drink cans and laserprinted transcripts; although the trials had taken place as recently as September 2000, the documents seemed to come from a bygone era. They told of men incarcerated for 5 to 8 months for attacking soldiers and their lawyers going through the motions of pleading that they were first-time offenders and hadn’t meant much harm.
I peered around into the big and empty adjoining room’s uneven formaica floor. On the wall was a notice in Hebrew and Arabic. “Shmor al-ha-Sheket”, read the Hebrew — literally, “Preserve the Silence”; quite respectful. A corridor led to two cell-like waiting rooms where the peach walls were covered in Arabic graffiti, punctuated here and there with drawings of AK-47 rifles and illustrated with a crude map of what the artist would call Palestine. A built-in bench ran around each room’s walls. One had a toilet behind a wall; there was no need though it seems for an accompanying handbasin.
Earlier, back in Tel Aviv one evening, I was sitting in the local park watching the dogs cavort and talking with my mercurial and charismatic artist friend Barak about my upcoming 3-week reserve duty call-up — miluim, as it’s called, literally “fulfillments” — which I definitely did not want to fulfill. Like me, Barak had served in the army for three long years but had since gotten himself declared unfit for ongoing reserve duty. “It may have been the right thing in previous generations to be a part of the army,” he told me in his clipped, excited English. “But now the army is a corrupt occupying force. It does not care about you. It is your enemy, a blind evil enemy.” I wasn’t sure if evil was quite the term. “You can defeat it, but you must be cunning, even artful.”
That I knew. I also knew that my need to hear it from someone else pointed to a lack of resolve. There are many ways to get out of the army. I know people who have threatened suicide, others who have paid a private psychologist to diagnose them as emotionally unfit to serve. Marianne, my beautiful half-German, half-Indian Israeli friend who had very much enjoyed her own 2-year army service, reminded me that I was a Scotsman, that I should stand up to them and simply not do it. What about freedom? Didn’t I remember the movie Braveheart?
After an abortive middle-of-the-night visit to Ichilov Hospital in a lame attempt to have a limb declared injured, I made my way resignedly down to the base. On the last leg of the trip, riding an army-chartered bus through the lovely landscape of the national park near Kiryat Gat, I met Itai. A handsome upstanding Israeli, he was back from a couple of years travelling in India and smiling radiantly. “I’ve seen a lot of things now and I’m not going to point a gun at anybody,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I’ll help out in some other way but I’m not going to use a weapon.” Itai was beyond steadfast; he was enviably serene, a ripe candidate for the mental health officer.
When we arrived at the base, I saw familiar faces and it all came back to me, what my tasks have been in this unit, and I grew furious at the State of Israel’s never-ending interference with me. Under Itai’s spell, I believed I had found my own red line: I would refuse to sign anything under duress from the state, thereby being unable to sign in as a soldier. Why do I have to declare that I’m doing this under my own free will — which surely is what a signature symbolizes — when I’m clearly being coerced? It’s adding insult to injury. It’s akin to convicting someone based purely on his own confession, I rehearsed to myself. Yet Barak had stressed: “Don’t attack the system. You can’t change it.” That’s what he meant by being cunning: you may know that it’s the system that’s unacceptable and that you yourself are fine, but your presentation must be the reverse. “The problem has to be with you personally.” My stand was completely contrary to his intelligent advice; I was saying that compulsory service itself is wrong. Indeed, when I arrived at the base the young woman adjutant officer predictably told me: “If you don’t sign in you never showed up as far as we’re concerned. You deserted. And I’m obliged to tell you at this point that the Army’s not responsible for your safety.”
So I returned to Tel Aviv, not released, just a deserter. Within a couple of days I started getting calls from the unit, and back down to the base I went, on the condition that they let me see a doctor first thing. Which they did. I sat on a bench outside his office rehearsing my story, trying to make my situation a little worse than it was. But he wouldn’t pass me along to the mental health officer as I requested, and instead brought in the battalion commander, who was having none of it. Indeed, seeing all the fellows there getting on with their business, and being unable to spin a wild fabrication, I lost my resolve, just as I had suspected I would once I got there, and with just a little bit of anger remaining I embraced my own imprisonment and accepted my usual lot: washing bathrooms and pots. As I changed from my own suddenly dear clothes into the prisoner pyjamas of an army uniform, I ruminated that at other times in other countries I would have been one of the majority: insufficiently wilful, decisive, resourceful, clear-thinking, in love with life to escape one way or another; then too I would have agonized after receiving my papers then meekly shown up to do my duty. But with the familiar smells and pockets — whoever has you as an 18-year-old, has you — I forgot these dark thoughts and grew embarrassed about the minor fuss I’d made. “Yes, they paralyze your nerves, pretend they need you,” Barak admonished by phone. But I had already slipped back under the system that I hated and kept resolving never to reenter.
Despite the Biblical truth that toil is our punishment for disobedience, for me it’s more likely the result of obeying. Day after day I worked in the kitchen, washing dishes, pots, floors, garbage cans and more dishes. I was often teamed up with Pavel, a huge Russian nurse with smooth skin, particularly yellow teeth, and posture so bad as to suggest brewing insanity. Punch drunk in the middle of an extended dishwashing session, he repeatedly exclaimed in English: “Simply fuckingly!” — grammar he found very amusing. Practically all the Russians in the battalion were studying English. Apart from Pavel, though, who seemed to like the language itself, English seemed mainly a means to another language — C++ — and a job at Intel.
During our breaks we stood smoking on the steps outside the kitchen. Pavel considered my enrapture with the landscape around us to be almost criminally misguided. “Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” he would say, firing an imaginary rifle in the general direction of the adjacent farm. The Arabs are the enemy, he tried to explain to me. I knew that, but it didn’t make the scene any less picturesque. Over a span of days, the farmer and his donkey were gradually ploughing some dozen fields, his regular “Heh!” punctuating the valley. I called my sister, who lives in a Tel Aviv suburb, to tell her about the farmer and the donkey, trying to paint her a pretty picture. She was horrified. “No, I don’t want to hear it,” she exclaimed; I forgot she abominates the use of animals for their labor. As the days passed I spied more of the farmer’s family, with children rambling about and a couple of women bent over in the fields harvesting. One morning I saw the man with the donkey shouting at another small figure — his grown son or nephew I guessed — then shoving him about. While their daily routine was infinitely more pleasant than ours in the kitchen, being outdoors and on their own land, it was nonetheless also a curtailment. They too had their drudgery, albeit due not to a giant, perhaps evil, semi-blind system that had picked them up and plunked them down, but to the lack of one.
Every few days the supply truck arrived and we had to cease the mission of the moment and go unload stacks of desserts, fruit, frozen chicken breasts, vegetables, Shoprite spaghetti and other fine supplies. It was invigorating, being part of a human chain that extended not just into these pantries and walk-in refrigerators but back out from the truck driver every step of the way into civilian life — perhaps even to farms like the one next to us. In her autobiography, Margaret Thatcher mythologizes that it was by seeing goods entering her father’s grocery shop from around the world and finding their way to whoever wanted them that she became awed by the system of free enterprise. Though in the army there’s no metaphysically beautiful invisible hand of demand and supply — there’s merely demand; static, bureaucratic and controlled — the sheer scale of co-operation is itself impressive. Out in the world we manage each in our own way to get lunch, but soldiers are helpless in that sense and the organization must take care to feed them. Which it amazingly does, in pretty much the same way every day for tens of thousands of people stretching back into past decades, into the foreseeable future, and across the country. And always on the same damn plastic plates that it was my turn to wash.
One day after lunch I couldn’t get started with my stacks of dirty dishes and cutlery because, as I was told, the water truck was late. With the local land obviously none too short of water, policy was nonetheless to truck it in. For the strange little village that is the Adorayim army base, the natural surroundings were less mother than lethally unruly adolescent. This army base, this village, is motherless — though it does have a family: a nation-state for a father and another larger one as a grandfather, as the row of parked Humvees and Korean War ambulances attested.
One of the cooks, Yehuda, was Black, and when everybody’s usual questions of ethnic and national origins came up, he told me he was from Ethiopia. Which was a sensible enough answer since Ethiopians constitute one of Israel’s great immigrations. But I was nonetheless surprised. “Did you think I was American?” he asked, wide-eyed. “No, not American, just, well, Israeli,” I replied, my theory of spontaneous negrification marking me an idiot. It was because his gold necklace was heavy, his posture in moments of fatigue at the stove too weary. Indeed, as I’ve noticed since then on Egged buses, Ethiopian Israelis’ clothes, style and manner of speech are becoming, unlike African-Americans, more like African Britons’: indistinguishable from the majority’s. But this social good comes with a cost: gone is a deft, birdlike carriage that speaks of happiness and an incorrigible generosity.
Well, perhaps not entirely gone. I was at the pots and Yehuda came to speed things up one evening. Taking the hose, he established a second washing station on the floor. He didn’t crouch, the ground simply became a working surface. “Now I can definitely see you’re not American,” I said to him. “Americans don’t know how to use the floor.” Would he take this as an insult? No, he smiled and seemed pleased.
He called in the other two cooks — he was, it turned out, the most senior — and we started a chain of dishes and pots. There was yelling and spray and I raced to keep up. One can enjoy, briefly, the company of men. Then, after the kitchen was done, Yehuda asked me if I had anything to smoke or drink. As I stepped out into the night he wrestled with his skepticism, but I returned from Islay to the cooks’ room with a bottle of whisky. A big nargilah pipe appeared from behind their cracked black faux-leather sofa, as did a couple of large cardboard boxes filled with treat rations that had not quite reached their bureaucratically-intended destinations (we belonged to a tank unit, by the way). Pavel, who claimed he didn’t drink, had some sips that were simply fuckingly good. In the nargila burnt sweet apple tobacco. There were pears from the kitchen. Yehuda put a film in the VCR. It was Braveheart.