Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Lowest Point on Earth

Biankini Beach, the Dead Sea –

Salty, burning, knotted, mineral mud-laden big hair.

That is what I had after two days, three mud sessions, five floats in the Dead Sea, and no shampoo. This week’s post was going to be “Barbers without English.” Instead of confronting my barbershop fears, though, I took my mop-head to the Dead Sea for the weekend and offer observations from the lowest point on earth.

The Dead Sea is like no place on earth, and not just because it is lower than everywhere else. Lonely Planet says that the Dead Sea contains 20 percent more bromine (that’s the stuff of pickle jars, I think), 15 percent more magnesium, and 10 percent more iodine than your typical seawater.

Practically, this adds up to three things. First, all of these chemicals are supposed to soothe you. Second, the Dead Sea is in effect 33 percent solid substance, so it is almost impossible not to bob or float on top of the silty salty water. Third, Dead Sea water burns something awful if it gets into your eyes. Think about iodine in an open wound and multiply by 24. There is no better feeling in the world than the warm splash of the beach side shower’s fresh water flowing into your stinging eyes and washing out the Dead Sea after you’ve lurched from the water like a blinded sea creature, clenching your eyelids in pain. The purpose of the eye-washing station in Mr. Blough’s chemistry lab makes perfect sense to me now. We used to use it as a drinking fountain in 10th grade.

Besides people covering themselves in green mud and doing their best to look like the Hulk or Kermit depending upon their body type, the thing that makes the Dead Sea special is the collection of people that it attracts. On Friday evening, I sat on the dock and watched dusk settle with a group of older Sephardic, Hebrew-speaking women; an Arab family that included a muhajiba wife; several Nordic tourists; a Black Palestinian life guard; and several Russian speaking Israeli families – one with a very whiny adolescent named Alex who wouldn’t get out of the water and was determined to take Dead Sea mud home with him in the abused pockets of his red bathing suit. The next afternoon, the dock was crowded as well; mostly with Russian speaking Israelis but with other representatives of the Dead Sea mosaic too. Most of them were getting wasted in the sun. The number of empty Vodka, Bacardi, and Carlsberg bottles strewn about early Sunday morning rivaled the scene at a frat house.

On Friday evening, though, I looked across the Dead Sea and saw the lights of Jordan’s resorts. When I lived in Jordan and visited the Dead Sea, I looked across the way and wondered what people were doing on the other side. There seemed to be so many lights compared to where I was standing. It was close geographically, but far away in almost every other way, at least for me, at that time. So it was strange to sit on the Israeli side and to feel the reverse, trying to picture what was going on in Jordan. To think of my Jordanian friends, but also to wonder whether anyone there could imagine the details of here. I was again struck by how close very different things are here, but how separate they remain at the same time.

Which brings me to the best part of the weekend, the four Palestinian-Israelis, all in their mid-20s, who I befriended. Palestinian-Israelis, also known in Arabic as Palestinians from 1948, are about a 20 percent minority in Israel. They are Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) who are Israeli citizens and whose families lived in parts of mandatory Palestine, like the Galilee or Haifa, that had Arab populations but that became parts of Israel in 1948.

Alaa, Jarious, Wisam, and Hadi grew up in neighboring villages in the Galilee and are friends from college. A pharmacist, two law students, and a medical student home from Italy for the summer, they came to the Dead Sea for the weekend. Their cabin was next door to mine and they insisted that I join them for food and drinks each night, as they grilled out on a little hibachi, drank beer and vodka, and sang classical Arab music. It turned out that Alaa studied at a university in Jordan at the same time as I was there.

On Friday night, as we sat on their front porch and they sang Um Kalthoum songs, Shadi, a 22-year old from nearby Jericho who works at Biankini stopped by to drop off towels. The group urged him to sit, drink, and join the fun. They made introductions over the lamb and pork that they were grilling, and offered Shadi dinner, warning him off the pork that three of them were eating. Shadi asked them their religion and Jarious explained that three of them were Christian and one was Muslim. Shadi nodded, took a drag on his cigarette, and said, “Kol al nes, h’yar baraka,” or for all the people a good blessing.

Jericho sounds great in the bible, but it is a poor place. I was briefly there for the first time a few weeks ago and was struck by how much it felt like an Egyptian desert village. On the outskirts of town sits the towering Intercontinental Hotel, with its shiny wooden lobby fixtures, lingering staff, and its adjacent Oasis Casino. But Jericho itself seemed full of mostly dirt streets and squat buildings, few taller than three or four stories. The summer heat and dustiness recalled a pre-air conditioned time and the few people who I met mentioned a lack of opportunities beyond the dormant service industry.

Sitting there with Shadi from Jericho and the four upwardly mobile guys a couple of years older than him from the Galilee, I was again struck by closeness and farness of it all. All five are young Palestinian men living within a few hours of each other, but in such a different state and considered in such a different way. Jarious, Alaa, and the others sang the words of their favorite Um Kalthoum, Fairuz, and Abdel Halim songs – the icons of classical Arabic music – with such passion, joy, and ownership, but in Arab countries they would be considered sellouts by many on the basis of their Israeli citizenship. In Israel, on the other hand, the allegiances of Israeli-Palestinians are generally questioned, and some undetermined number of Israeli Jews regard them to be Palestinians, no different than Shadi.

Shadi, meanwhile, is considered a Palestinian by everyone. From the conversation both nights, though, it seemed as if his main concern was trying to figure out from Wisam (a future lawyer) how he could get an Israeli ID for his mother, who was married to a Palestinian with an Israeli ID. Wisam told him it would cost $4,000, an incredible sum for Shadi, but something that any of the other four sitting there would be able to afford with some saving.

There is a lot of stove piping here. Very different lives – whether it is Palestinians and Israeli Palestinians, the Russian Israelis and Sephardic Israelis at the beach, or Israelis and Jordanians even – occur in close proximity to each other, but do not necessarily intersect. In my case, this past weekend, there was a nice intersection. All five of these guys welcomed me for who I am, without bias against my religion and nationality. And there were more jokes about how good pork tastes (directed at me, Shadi, and Wisam) than I’ve heard in my life.

PS, I want to plug Biankini Beach, a nice, relaxing, and clean place with great breakfast and a nice staff. If you go, tell them I sent you.

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