Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rough Justice

David, Kibbutznik at Red Sea 1974
This piece of my travel memoir writing was originally published in Harvest, the 2017 Anthology of  the  Past Tense Group at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre, Greenmount, Western Australia

Rough Justice

I look up from my breakfast in the kibbutz dining room to hear Ruth, one of the community leaders, addressing me.
'I read your account of the Sinai excursion in the newsletter. Goodness me, how gruesome! I'm glad you're all safe.'
'Thanks, Ruth. We're still recovering from the shock. Very glad to be back.'

In the winter of 1974, a year after the October War in the Middle East, the atmosphere in Israel is uneasy. I've volunteered at Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar, nestled in the fertile Hula Valley, 35 kilometres south of the Lebanese border. The idyllic landscape of orange groves and snow-capped mountains, belies the danger of the place. Walking past the kibbutz kindergarten, I can hear the deafening screech of fighter jets overhead, flying north towards Lebanon. The children continue to play hide and seek, not even looking up. These sorties have become a regular occurrence, but no one explains why.

We volunteers, who have decided to stay for the winter season, are offered a four-day excursion to the Sinai Peninsula. The plan is to cross Israel from north to south and back again. Our final destination is the ancient monastery of Santa Katerina at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we'll explore the Red Sea coastline and the inland oases of this sparsely-populated region. Our group consists of fourteen kibbutz volunteers and David, the kibbutznik, who will be bus driver and guide. David is a tall, friendly Yemeni man with dark bushy eyebrows and a long black beard. He's never been to the Sinai either and is keen to explore the area.

On the first day, we leave Upper Galilee and head south through the Jordan Valley to Jericho, Jerusalem, Hebron and Be'er Sheva – names steeped in Biblical history. By nightfall we reach the desert town of Eilat, located at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba. The lights of Eilat's twin town, Aqaba, twinkle a semaphore greeting from across the border in Jordan – a world away. We pitch our tents on the beach to the sound of lapping waves, and inhale the pungent aroma of barbecued fish. The crescent moon rising behind the Jordanian mountains evokes romantic images of Lawrence of Arabia with his band of Arabs, crossing desert and mountain range to seize Aqaba from the Ottoman Turks in 1917.

At dawn on the following day, we are up early and continue south, following the Red Sea coastline. To our left in the distance, across the Gulf of Aqaba, stand the stark red mountains of Saudi Arabia. The beaches of the gulf are pristine, white and deserted. From the bus we glimpse our first nomadic Bedouin – a man in a long-flowing garment, kneeling on his prayer mat, laid out on the beach.

The next day our path takes us inland into unknown territory. Israel has a tenuous hold on the Sinai, which it occupied after the Six Day War of 1967. David's tone is serious as he imparts our instructions for the day:
'We'll be stopping at several spots before we reach the Santa Katerina Monastery. Please stay with the group and don't go wandering off. We don't know much about these parts.'

The road takes us along the main pilgrim route from North Africa to Mecca and past a deserted quarantine station. Further along we reach the green Wadi Fir'an – a pleasant oasis of date palms, fragrant vines and crops, which springs unexpectedly from the rocky landscape.

Our bus stops again for afternoon tea. In the narrow valley behind us, several hundred metres away, there's a small village shadowed by rugged, stony mountains. Two men in long robes are crossing the valley floor, making their way towards the village. We keep our distance. David pulls out a stack of camp chairs and we find a spot near a thorny acacia tree and unpack thermoses of tea and slices of sweet-smelling lemon cake. A light dusting of snow covers the mountain tops. The air is dry and sharp. I sit in a reverie with the sun warming my back, while a lone eagle circles overhead, lifting high on the thermals.

David stands up, stretches and looks around to do a head count.
'Hey! Two people are missing. Did anyone see them leave?'
The Bedouins we saw earlier have vanished into the landscape.
'I'll go and search in the village over there,' David says. 'Wait here.'

Just at this moment the two volunteers appear in the distance, like tumble grass blowing across the rocky terrain. By the time they reach us, they're sweating profusely, wide-eyed and gasping for breath. They stop in front of David, bent with the exertion, their blue jeans dusted in red.
'Oh God! Something horrible! A dead man!'
'A body hanging in the tree – a rope around his neck.'
'Over there, behind the rocks, at the edge of the village.'
'Quick!' David says. 'Pack up! We need to leave.'

Grabbing our bags and half-eaten cake we pile back into the bus and take off in a cloud of dust. Our friends relate a garbled description of the grisly scene – a bare-footed young man, fully clothed, swinging from a tree with a thick hemp rope around his neck.
'Who would have done this?' We ask David.
His brow furrows as he looks out the bus window. 'I don't know. It could be some sort of tribal feud.'

Later that day, when we reach the Santa Katerina Monastery, David makes enquiries about our shocking discovery. The Orthodox monks maintain good relations with the local Bedouins and sometimes step in to assist in resolving conflicts. The Bedouins have their own system of justice, they explain. Decisions of law are made by the village elders, according to honour codes. In this case, the dead man had probably committed a capital crime and therefore paid with his life. To us it seems like rough justice.

In 1979, after the Camp David peace agreement, Israel handed back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. In the intervening years the region we traversed has opened up to tourism and the tribal justice systems and traditional ways are disappearing. The brutal death we stumbled upon in 1975, cast a pall over our remaining travels in the Sinai Peninsula and the memory lingers still.

Bedouin children Sinai 1974

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