“this is an acceptable risk”

It’s a bizarre headache. Not so much a migraine, but the kind where it feels like your brain is trying to climb out of your head. The kind that says, “hey, body, what the *fuck* are you doing?” And my body doesn’t answer. It doesn’t even shrug. That’s because my chest has taken over. With an iron grip on my legs, it drags me forward at a pace I would not refer to as leisurely.

The desert valley is already getting dark and I keep glancing at the clock. “Okay, by 4:15 pm, if I don’t reach the halfway mark, I’ll turn around.” The thought is not a comforting one.

So I planned this day off. This is something I don’t do. I really don’t. I plan trips to the beach and wonder whether I should bring some of those readings I’ve been ignoring. Of course then I feel guilty because I don’t end up doing the work I brought along. All in all, it’s pretty unhealthy. This is me trying to change. To take a break from the city, the public buses, the election campaign, from the asylum seekers, from Israelis, from family, from my girlfriend, from life. A present to myself.

I set aside an entire day with no purpose other than to drive two hours south in a little rental car and find a wadi to hike in the Negev. That’s Israel’s largely empty southern desert, which makes up about half the country’s land area. 

In a country where every scrap of land is contested, and drips with blood and history, the wide expanses in the Negev give you some room to breathe. Even the weather is different. Sheets of heavy rain are gradually replaced with drizzle and eventually sunshine as I drive south. Farmland gives way to rocky desert; green orderly Israeli villages to Bedouin shanty towns of corrugated metal, dirt paths and trash. Toyotas from the ’90s suddenly veer off the main road and follow some previously unseen dirt track at the kind of speed that says, “this is my land.” The army uses a lot of the rest of the empty space. There are long stretches where every turn-off is blocked off with the ominous sign, “danger, firing zone.”

I had gotten a late start that morning. It took longer to rent the car than I’d anticipated. My plan was to hike Ein Avdat, a narrow desert canyon half an hour south of Be’er Sheva. After a two hour drive south, in a typically impatient and impulsive move, I saw the line to get into the Ein Avdat national park and turned around. Then I continued driving south.

I picked out another trail from the Lonely Planet guide. It was in Machtesh Ramon, a crater so vast I couldn’t make out the other end. To get to the hike, all I had to do was descend into the canyon on route 40 and then look for the signs to the Be’orot camping ground.

This takes longer than expected and it was close to 3 pm by the time I make the left off route 40.

It turns out the “road” to Be’orot is a dirt path no more than a few meters wide, marked by little rocks on either side. I can hear the constant ‘ting, ting, ting’ of little rocks bouncing off the undercarriage. Route 40 quickly disappears behind me, leaving a darkening green-less desert lanscape on every side. The road is frequently crossed by stretches of sand stained dark, as if water had gushed through the area not that long ago.

This is when my head first started its revolt.

It’s already past 3 pm. I am alone in the desert, driving through rocky terrain in a little Hyundai designed for squeezing into tight urban parking spaces. And the sun is going down in a little over two hours. Twenty kilometers an hour turns out to generate the maximum pinging on the undercarriage I can handle. I pray not to get a flat.

This continues for 20 minutes. I find the Be’orot camping ground, a group of stone structures, with canvas roofing and rugs for carpeting. Here a group of 40 or so middle-aged tourists barbecue and laugh. The Bedouin owner informs me that my trail is another 15 minute drive away and that the road to get there is “okay for small cars.”

Half an hour later, alone on the trail, watching my phone service toggle between one bar and “no service,” I follow white-and-green markers into a darkening canyon. The markers are hard to make-out in the shadows.

I keep up a pace just short of a jog, trying to avoid twisting my ankle on the uneven terrain.

My head is a foggy mess of anxiety, and, by now, hunger. All of which is faced by a steely rationale that says, “this is an acceptable risk.” Unable to really resolve the dilemma in my head, my legs just take over.

It’s a strange place to be. Calm and anxious.

The environment is both enchanting and cold. Warm and uncaring.

The shadows grow as I trot through the rocks. My brain runs one way as I run the other. I am having fun and I might die.

***

Exiting the half-crescent canyon, I finish a brutal climb up a 4×4 path that carries me back to my little Hyundai rental. It’s 4:30 pm, still 45 minutes to complete dark.

On my bumpy trip back down the rocky path, I pick up a group of tourist stragglers on their way back to their car. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, my European guests learn that I’m a journalist covering the African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv. And that I’m on vacation for a day to get away from it all.

And then one woman asks what I think the most important problem is when it comes to the Africans. I explain that it’s complicated but that the lack of a resolved status for the asylum-seekers is probably top of the list. That causes a litany of other social and political problems downstream. But she wants to know have I heard of the rape of an elderly woman in South Tel Aviv by an Eritrean? She forcefully proceeds to tell me that the most important problem is violence against women. And that it is ignored by media.

I drop them off at their car and continue on my way. The last flicker of sun passes below the horizon as I follow the path of rocks back home.

***

IMG_0395

IMG_0393

IMG_0381


IMG_0374

IMG_0372

IMG_0392

IMG_0398

Advertisements

The place where there are angry people

What do you bring to a protest?

Definitely, a camera. A notebook. Pens. An audio recorder. Videocamera? No, too much.

The police are expecting violence. But it’s their job to anticipate the worst. The idea I think is if it goes to shit, at least no one can say, “I wasn’t warned.”

The fear goes back to a protest earlier this summer that turned violent as a mob ransacked African stores and threatened Africans on the street.

Definitely should not have this much cash in my wallet. If I’m going to get mugged, at least the thief should not make $300. I’m just not going to think about the expensive dSLR digital camera I’m carrying.

IMG_8941

It’s almost too bizarre and horrible a story to be believable. An 83-year-old woman was raped on December 21. The police arrested an Eritrean man in his 20s, a resident of south Tel Aviv with a criminal record, with DNA evidence linking him to the crime. A gag order was lifted, which sparked the protest I’m on my way to report on. Whether the suspect’s ethnic identity should have been released to the public is a subject for discussion.

I get out of the cab a few blocks from the protest. The driver warns me to “be careful.” I answer in Hebrew that this is my job and I’m a journalist. Having just learned the word for journalist in Hebrew a few days before, I’m still enjoying any excuse to use it. Not to mention, saying “I’m a journalist” somehow makes the whole thing feel more real.

As I walk west toward the Central Bus Station, I see two black, presumably Eritrean, men walking in the same direction behind me. I figure this is probably the time to get over my own fear and I turn around.

“I’m a journalist,” I say. “Can I ask you a few questions?”

Suspicious faces slowly change into accommodating ones.

“Do you know anything about the protest?” I ask in a slow clear voice in English.

I point in the direction just down the road, but they don’t seem to understand what I’m talking about. They seem hung up on the word “protest.” I don’t know how to explain what I mean and I’m not sure what the word is in Hebrew either.

At a loss, I say, “the place where there are angry people” in Hebrew, but that doesn’t quite register either. Besides, I can barely make out the response, which is stated in a heavy Eritrean accent.

Bemused and exasperated, I give up and thank them. Continuing down the road, I can now make out the blue flashing lights and the throng of people.

Sometimes I think I’m a little bit racist. I think of that song from Avenue Q, “everyone’s just a little bit racist, sometimes.” I grew up in a somewhat uniform environment. Yes, I’m tolerant and I believe in pluralism. But I think I also unconsciously picked up some stereotypes. I mean, I see it all the time in otherwise tolerant people. “You’re Jewish, you must be smart.” It’s really only a hop away from “you’re Jewish, you’re cheap” and then, “you know a lot of Jews didn’t show up for work on the day of the World Trade Centre attack. Just saying.” Mine is this: when I pass a group of young black males on the street in a less-than-perfect neighbourhood, I get nervous. But I believe the only way to change a stereotype – which has an emotional anchor – is to confront it by interacting with people. You know, be a journalist.

I can now hear the rally as well as see it.

“Ha’am doresh hasudanim legoresh,” they chant. “The people demand the Sudanese be expelled.” It rhymes in Hebrew. It’s an adaptation of a similar chant used in the social justice rallies that swept Israel last year.

IMG_8932

There are maybe 100 people, some holding placards, some yelling, some just milling about. The protest seems to have jammed up under the sweeping tentacles of the central bus station. We’re in the heart of the neighbourhood inundated with Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum-seekers. There is a heavy police presence and a media one as well. Videocameras roll as reporters interview protestors and the Army Radio reporter looks overwhelmed with the attention.

I take a few minutes to track down my translator. Then we set to work. We’re looking for a variety of protestors to talk to – old, young, religious, secular, men, women. “Why are you here? Who do you blame? What is the solution?” Most are residents, including one who says her mother was killed by an Eritrean. The answers indicate a little anger and a lot of fear.

It’s fascinating to explore that line between legitimate fear and grievance, ignorance and racism.

IMG_8938

Their neighbourhood was neglected for years, only to be used as a dumping ground for the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who crossed the border into Israel, seeking asylum. And work. Without a policy and without enough space in the country’s prisons, the state would drop them off by the busload in the central bus station. They were permitted to stay in Israel, but not to work. On any given day, in the neighbourhoods surrounding the central bus station, there are far more Sudanese and Eritreans on the street than Israeli residents.

IMG_8937

After interviews with six or seven Israeli protestors, my translator and I approach a group of Eritreans standing on the sidelines. I wonder what they make of this all. But we run into the same language difficulties and I wish I had brought along a Tigrinyan translator as well.

Meanwhile, a man is yelling on a megaphone in Hebrew. I can only catch snippets:

“…government neglecting…”

“…nothing will happen if we sit quietly…”

“…Bibi will wake only by force…” [Bibi is short for the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]

“…I’m not an activist…”

“…I’m a resident who worries for his family…”

And the collective chant resumes, “the people demand the Sudanese be expelled. The people demand the Sudanese be expelled. The people demand…”

IMG_8935

I’m meeting with residents this week. More to come.

Where does the bus go?

“Where does the bus go?” she says in Hebrew. The elderly woman, sitting in the row in front of me, interrupts my train of thought and I try to stammer out a reply in Hebrew.

“Tachanah merkazit.” The central bus station, though I hate saying it, because the way I pronounce the ‘r’ quickly identifies me as a North American.

After a moment passes, she says, “sorry if I bothered you.”

I must have looked confused because then she adds, “some people don’t like it.”

I smile politely and say of course not. Besides, I’m not quite sure what she means.

I stare out the window and wait to see the behemoth that is Tel Aviv’s central bus station.

In a metropolis without a subway, the terminal acts as a nerve centre for a fleet of local and intercity buses. In the grand tradition of failed urban renewal megaprojects, the new station was built in 1993 smack in the middle of a run-down working-class neighbourhood. Half of the cavernous structure is empty. The upper floors harbor colourful discount clothing shops, bakeries and fake DVD stands. Israelis on day-trips, Thai and Filipino migrant workers, Mizrahi shop-owners and off-duty soldiers shop and mingle. It gets dustier, spookier and more desolate the lower you go.

You can see the seven-story structure from several blocks away. In a neighbourhood of three or four story apartments, you can see the bus ramps stretch out like tentacles between the crumbling buildings. It’s as if an alien ship took out half the neighbourhood when it crashlanded. That is before decaying for 20 years to match its graffiti strewn surroundings.

Of course not long after the bus station’s crash-landing, a different sort of unwelcome guest came to change the neighbourhoods of Shapira, Neve Sha’anan and Hatikva in South Tel Aviv.

More to come.