Travel is more than the seeing of sights,
it is a change that goes on deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.-Miriam Beard, 1876 – 1958
The names and places in this story have been changed.
I’ve experienced several Aha moments, as Oprah likes to refer to them over the course of my now fifty-nine years. Some small, some large, most occurring when least expected and all to some degree having a life defining affect. One memory in particular surfaced recently during a conversation with a friend about the transforming power of travel and how a particular place or person can forever alter long held perceptions.
I was almost twenty the first year I spent in Israel, I arrived a few months before the Yom Kippur War broke out. I lived on a Kibbutz (a large, communal farm) by the name of Kfar Blum located approximately four miles from the Lebanese border in the northern region of Israel called the Galilee. From here, I could look out and see Mt. Hermon, as well as the Golan Heights, the mountain range dividing Israel from Syria.
My days were split; one half learning Hebrew and the other working within the community alongside Israeli’s and student volunteers from all over the world. One aha moment occurred a mere three weeks after I’d arrived with the realization I’m not in any way, shape or form meant to be a farmer. Another incident a few months later that took place on a Saturday evening in late September had a far longer lasting effect, though at the time I didn’t know how deeply it would change me.
My Friday started out like every other day. I overslept, then rushed up to the dining room for breakfast and as usual complained about my boring work assignment to my friends. I’d been stuck on kitchen duty for more than a month. I guess the work manager thought I couldn’t do too much damage peeling potatoes and washing dishes. I’d already been fired from working with the sheep, (losing a flock of sheep along with the sheep dog I guess wasn’t particularly impressive) feeding chickens, (okay, stepping on a chicken’s head and killing it clearly not a point scorer) picking oranges, (did you know if you ate more than a dozen oranges within three hours’ time your stomach will revolt?) I don’t even want to get into what happened when I was assigned to work with the cows!
On that particular morning, my luck took an upward turn when I managed to trade my kitchen shift and get the weekend free so I could hitch down to Tel Aviv where friends were throwing a party to celebrate the end of an unbearably long heat wave. I left right after lunch (weekend’s began Friday at noon in Israel) and traveled down to the city with two friends and fellow volunteer’s; Anne, who was from Sweden and Nancy from Toronto. I remember the party turned out to be not quite as exciting as I anticipated. Maybe a boy I liked hadn’t paid attention to me. Maybe I got bored, ran out of money or had a quarrel with a girlfriend. I don’t recall why I decided to leave after being there just one day, or why I chose to hitchhike back up to Kfar Blum on my own.
I caught a ride within a few minutes of getting myself onto the side of the highway with an Israeli family heading north. I remember because I had to fold myself into the back seat of their small car and squish myself in beside three bickering tween age girls. They took me a good distance, about half way of the two plus hour drive dropping me off at a junction along highway ninety where two roads surrounded by fields of rock and patches of high grasses diverged in opposite directions. I was familiar with the spot, comfortable another ride would come by soon as had always happened in the past. I gave no thought to how daylight was fast turning to dusk. I didn’t consider how I’d be standing on this crossroad alone. At twenty I was confident I was able to take care of myself in any situation. I assured my ride I’d be fine. The harried parents took me at my word and drove off.
I’d been standing there for about twenty minutes, I’m sure hoping for one of the many army trucks always traversing this route to come by, (they always picked up hitchhikers) wishing I had brought something to eat, probably wondering what my friends in Tel Aviv were doing and contemplating whether I should have stayed when a van pulled over maybe twenty yards from where I stood. Five men in traditional Arab dress stepped out. I watched them slowly approach. It didn’t take more than one terrifying instant to understand their intent was not a good one.
I had nowhere to run except out into the empty landscape where I knew for certain they would easily outrun me. There wasn’t another car in sight, the nearest houses a shadowy mirage at least half a mile away across the field. I’ve no recollection of their faces. I couldn’t tell you the color of their robes, their headdress or if they were wearing shoes or sandals, yet with absolute clarity, I can still see them stalking toward me.
As the five of them came closer and closer, my breath felt like it was being choked off and my vision blurred when in a cyclonic whirl of dust an old, beat up station wagon screeched up within inches of me and the back door was thrown open. With one glance I took in the two men in the front seat wearing similar dress to those coming at me and the veiled woman with two small children in the back. With no more than an instant’s hesitation I jumped in just managing to pull the door shut as the driver peeled out in another spray of gravel and rock to speed down the road.
It was a long moment before I gained control of my breathing, gulping down wave after wave of deep, body racking sobs. My face was wet with tears and my clothes soaked with sweat. I felt a gentle squeeze around my fingers and I looked down beside me into the eyes of a dark haired little girl who had slipped her hand into mine. She had long black braids and eyes the color of chocolate. When I smiled back she climbed onto my lap. A little boy with equally dark hair and eyes sat beside his mother quietly studying me. All I could make out of woman was her eyes, a matching dark chocolate brown as her two children. I realized she was gently patting my back.
I looked over at the driver, my gaze met his in the rear view mirror. Unlike his wife and children, his expression held little sympathy. He looked like he had been waiting for me to make eye contact with him. He looked angry. He began to shake his head at me and then he began to shake his finger at me as well. He began to speak and though I had no understanding of the words. I did understand his tone. He sounded just like my father when he went into lecture mode, usually after I did something that scared the hell out of both he and my mother. If I had to guess at the meaning of his words, I imagine they went something like: “Stupid, reckless, crazy American girl. Your parents should not allow you out of the house on our own…ever!” I could be wrong about the translation. I doubt it.
Over the course of maybe a half hour he seemed to repeat the same rant over and over, every few moments. He would shake either his head or his finger at me. The other man said not a word, though I could see him shake his head from time to time as well. I didn’t know where they were taking me, but I was certain they were not going to hurt me.
After another ten minutes or so, I could see we were driving through a village. Small, stone houses were set in no particular pattern on one long, curvy gravel road. Smoke curled out of many of the roofs. I could see sheep wandering about at will. Pulling up to one of the structures the man driving turned off the ignition and everyone got out. The woman gestured for me to follow her and the children inside.
I remember one large room with two smaller rooms off the end. There was electricity for light, but no running water and the bathroom was outhouse style. The woman began to cook on what I can only describe is a combination of hot plates somehow jury-rigged together. For the next hour or so, I tried to help her but was shooed away. She kept trying to get me to sit on the one cushioned chair in the room. Instead, I played with the children all the while trying to figure out where I was and how I was going to get back to the Kibbutz; every moment, supremely grateful I was not back on the road with those men. Through gestures, smiles, and laughter the three of us managed to communicate an exchange of names. The little girl was called Laila, her brother Makhi and the mother’s name, Hana.
Pointing outside to the two men now sitting right outside the door, smoking, I learned from Laila, her father’s name was Yusuf. I don’t remember the other man’s name or what his relation was to this family. I taught the kids the Itsy Bitsy spider. I wasn’t able to get them to say the words but they could follow along as I sang and quickly learned the finger motions. Eventually the men came in and we ate. I remember it was lamb and rice. I had the feeling they normally did not eat this well or have as much food on their table. With little ability to communicate the remainder of the evening passed quietly, ending around nine and with me sharing a small bed with Leila and Makhi.
The next morning, I woke to find Hana again cooking up more food. Yusuf was there, sitting with another man. He motioned for me to sit and once I had settled myself at the wooden table, he nodded to the other guy who began to speak in halting English. I was relieved at being able to communicate, to be understood. I was overjoyed I was going to be able to figure out where I was and how to get back. Equally as important, I was going to be able to thank Yusuf for saving my life.
Rashad was the name of the English speaker who also turned out to be Yusuf’s brother. I explained who I was, how I happened to be on the crossroads and where I was going. Yusuf began to shake his head again. Before he started his lecture, I asked his brother to tell him I knew how reckless and stupid I had been. I asked Rashad to also relay to Yusuf how grateful I was for what he had done. Apparently my words took Yusuf off guard because he didn’t begin his rant again. He gave me an almost smile, a nod and immediately began to eat without uttering another word.
Shortly after breakfast, we all piled back into the station wagon. I assumed Yusuf was going to take me back to the crossroad where in daylight it would be safe for me to hitch a ride. His brother turned and informed me they were going to drive me to Kfar Blum. He said it was an hour’s drive from where we were. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t necessary, that I would be fine now. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. What had almost happened last night and the terror I’d felt was still very much with me. I didn’t want to be dropped on an empty road again.
We reached the gates of Kfar Blum in an hour as promised. Hana and the children gave me hugs and kisses goodbye before I got out of the car. Rashad stayed in his seat as well, turning to look at me with a friendly smile and wish me well. Yusef walked me to the gate. I think he wanted to see me walk in. I knew he wanted to give me his lecture one more time. He did. Before going in I grasped his hand and squeezed. I repeated the word Shukran, over and over. Rashad had taught me how to say thank you in Arabic. Yusef nodded as if he had done nothing remarkable and turned back toward the running car. I watched them drive away.
I’m not sure I could find the village or if its even still there. I don’t know if Yusuf or Hana are alive. I have often wondered did they get to raise their children into adulthood? Did they get to see them married and have children of their own? I hope so. What I do know with absolute certainty is in the middle of one of the most long lasting and violent conflicts between two groups of people, this man did not give into the hate must have been born into from birth. He saw a human being who needed help. He chose to risk his own life and that of his family to do the right thing. Those five men could have been armed. I’m certain they could have easily found out where Yusef lived and taken retribution for his interference. I’m not sure they didn’t. Seeing me on the road, Yusuf had to know from his first look at me, I was not a Muslim woman. He probably thought from my dark, Mediterranean complexion, and dress I was Israeli. He still intervened. For me it was a lesson in the importance of seeing people as individuals, not as one homogenous group whom all feel and think the same way. Fanatics screaming their hate and call to violence are not all the people in any group. There is in the end very little in this world that is black in white,, most times all you have is varying shades of gray.