January 17, 2007
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to happen on my first visit to an Israeli kibbutz, but I certainly didn’t expect the first ten minutes to include drinking beer with 43 Israeli soldiers in a country-western theme bar, watching hair-metal videos from the Eighties.
Before going I really didn’t have much more than the faintest clues as to what a kibbutz was. I knew some of my Jewish friends in high school had visited them over summer vacations to improve their Hebrew. I knew they were vaguely Socialist in origin. But I also was under the impression that there was a religious element involved – something like a monastery or ashram. But I really had no idea.
I had only been told that this particular kibbutz was in the middle of nowhere. And nowhere was exactly where I wanted to be. I had work to do, and needed only privacy and quiet. I wanted to get up every morning, go sit on a rock in the middle of the desert far from where anyone could hear me, and sing my guts out. I was told it would be primitive, isolated. I was also told it would be cheap. When you have no permanent address and live mostly in hotels, cheap is good. As it turns out, I nearly didn’t get the chance to find out what a kibbutz was. I barely made it onto the bus out of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Terminal.
The Central Bus Terminally is an enormous and extremely poorly designed building. Because of bad signage, you can’t find where you need to go to catch your bus, and there is nobody to tell you. There is nobody who will even tell you where you need to go to ask where you need to go to catch your bus. I spent twenty-five minutes figuring out which floor I was supposed to be on, and there were six floors. None of the escalators were functioning. I was carrying a lot of luggage. After I finally found out which of the several hundred gates my bus was leaving from – and of course it was leaving from the 6th floor - I had to haul my suitcase, recording bag, and guitar up six flights of useless escalator steps. I don’t know who designed this building, but they should have their license to practice architecture revoked. Better yet, they should either put their talent to better use designing mazes for lab animals, or be banished to some small uninhabited island where they can’t cause the general public any more confusion. Tel Aviv Central bus station is like an enormous piss-scented shopping mall for human rats. It is worse than bad architecture, it is an insult to the entire concept of designing buildings.
By the skin of my teeth I made it on the bus, the last passenger on the last bus to Ze’elim that night. Being last onboard was beginning to become my trademark. I hadn’t had time to locate, let alone use, a restroom before boarding, so I really needed to take a leak. I understood now why the station had smelled of piss. People had given up looking for toilets and simply relieved themselves in dark corners. Or perhaps they were venting their opinions of the architect’s work.
There was no toilet on the bus. Somewhere in the middle of the ride I was supposed to change busses at a place called Be’er Sheva. Any town that had the word “beer” in its name couldn’t be that bad, I had figured. For two and a half hours, I had fantasized about the urinal that awaited me in Be’er Sheva. But instead the bus transfer took place in a deserted parking lot just off the highway. There was no place or time to urinate. I was the only person changing busses. Everyone was already on board the other bus, watching and waiting for me.
It was 10:30 at night, so I couldn’t see what was passing outside the window, only lots of black nothingness that was broken only by strange amber lights indicating modern settlements of some kind. They all appeared to be surrounded by security fences breached only by ominous guard posts, next to scary, automatic metal gates. But these were not enough to distract my mind from the fact that my bladder was full to far beyond capacity. Forty more minutes passed. Then we turned off the highway and passed through a security gate like the ones I had seen. The driver shouted, “Ze’elim!” This was it, my stop: the kibbutz.
I hopped off the bus and the sound of its engine and grinding gears faded into the night. I was left standing alone on a small paved road beneath the stars. There was a faint whiff of cow manure, but the few buildings I could see looked quite substantial, and university-like in design. It was as if I had somehow been transported to an agricultural college in rural Nebraska. I badly needed to piss. I found some bushes and urinated for what must have been at least 3 minutes straight. Then I found a phone booth and called Udi, my contact at the kibbutz. It was Udi who had arranged for me to stay here. Udi was a friend of Uri, from the Israeli band Boom Pam, who would be playing guitar on my record in a couple of weeks. (So far, less than five days after landing in Israel, I knew an Uri, an Ori, a Yudi and an Udi.) Udi helped his father run the bar and booked the bands that occasionally played there. Yes, the kibbutz had a bar. So far, so good. Udi picked up the phone and said I should go to the bar, order a beer, and he would meet me there in a few minutes.
It took me a bit of stumbling about in the dark before two kind residents of the kibbutz passed by and pointed me in the direction of the bar - or The Pub, as they called it. Though called a pub, it was decorated in a style I can only describe as Mid-Seventies Montana Country & Western. There were murals of cowboys and bucking broncos on the wall outside the entrance, which consisted of a couple of saloon doors. Where the hell was I?
I experienced a Clint Eastwood Moment as I came through the saloon doors. Conversations seemed to stop as everyone in the place checked out the new boy in town. Even “Here I am, Rock You Like a Hurricane,” which was blaring from the sound system, seemed to momentarily stop, like a saloon piano in a cheesy western film. Every face in the place wore an expression that revealed it had seen every other face in the place a hundred times – except mine. I was clearly a foreigner: dressed strangely and carrying a lot of luggage. I entered as discreetly as I possible, plonked my bags down at a table near the door, and went over to the bar to order a beer. Glum soldiers examined me morosely over their pints of Gold Star. They had noted my guitar case and no doubt assumed I was to be the entertainment for the evening. They were probably worried that I would soon subject them to a mediocre 2 hour set of Dylan covers.
There was only one bartender, a burly man in his mid-fifties in a plaid felt shirt and cowboy hat, who clearly fancied himself some sort of Middle Eastern cowboy. I later found out that this was Udi’s dad, Tzvika, the guy who ran the joint. I assumed by the way he was dressed that he was also the one who had decorated the place. I took a shine to him immediately when he turned off the metal and cranked up the Hank Williams (I’ll take Hank Williams over Stryper any day of the week). We got to talking. Turns out he was born in Brazil. His mother was originally Russian and his father from Germany. Both had been forced to leave Europe during World War II. They met in Rio in the late Forties. Tzvika immigrated to Israel with his mother when he was nine, after his parents divorced.
Eventually Udi showed up. We shook hands and he welcomed me to the kibbutz. Udi didn’t much resemble his father; he was slight of build, and vaguely rasta-like in dress and hairstyle. I had to wait for a bit while he helped his father Tzvika at the bar. By now a lot more military people had trudged in and the bar was full of them. They all carried machine guns and were dressed in standard-issue olive drab. The more devout among them even had matching green yarmulkes. I wondered if any of them would get drunk and start shooting.
After an hour or so, the bar emptied out somewhat and Udi was able to take a break to show me where I would be staying for the next nine days. He helpfully grabbed one of my bags, and we set off through the darkness along a series of concrete paths. We soon came to a small cluster of buildings that under the security lights looked like a cross between a small trailer park and a moon base. Four white prefab caravans surrounded an empty central courtyard. All had solar panels and water tanks attached to their roofs.
Udi fished for the right set of keys to unlock the door and then showed me around my new digs. The accommodations were spartan but completely adequate. I had four rooms in my new trailer home: a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and a second bedroom I had no use for. My furniture consisted of a bed, table and two chairs. There was a fridge to keep the beer cold, a rack to dry the clothes I washed in the sink, and a portable heater to stave of the chill of the night. I would pay $20 a day, all meals included. This was exorbitant by the South Asian prices I was used to, but certainly cheaper than staying in Tel Aviv. There I would have paid at least twice as much, not including food. Plus, here I had the desert. And that was what I was really after: solitude and nothingness, a place where I could concentrate and work uninterrupted, a place where I could sit on a rock and sing into the sky and nobody could hear me.
I had considered staying in one of the so-called “Bedouin camps” that proliferated in this part of the Negev Desert. But most proved to be overpriced desert spas where you slept in a tent and pretended to be a nomad – like Lawrence of Arabia in Palm Springs. I was a nomad, but I was no Bedouin. I had a laptop and a lot of expensive electronic gear with me that I could not afford to replace. I needed power for these things, I needed to keep them dry and free of sand, and I needed something more secure than a tent to leave them in when I left for my daily desert rehearsals. So when the opportunity to stay at the kibbutz came up, I leapt at the chance. From the description Uri had given me (middle of nowhere, cheap), it sounded perfect. But what the hell was a kibbutz? I wanted to find out.
I had the opportunity the next morning after meeting my new neighbor, Kwan. It was almost noon when I finally emerged from my trailer. I had slept badly, as I always do when arriving at night in an unfamiliar location. I had dreamt of Pakistan and angry dogs and soldiers and Bushwick. I figured out how to open the windows and aired the place out a bit. Though it was January, it was warm here when the sun was out. It only got cold at night. A thin, Asian-looking guy was leaning back on a white, plastic chair, sunning himself immediately behind my bedroom. I found a rock to prop the front door open and went over to say hello. This was Kwan.
Kwan was from South Korea. He, like me, had been traveling around the world for some time. He and his wife were riding out the winter in the kibbutz for a few months before continuing on to Europe. They worked on the farm in exchange for free food and lodging. That was the deal here: socialism, pre-USSR. Sounded fair enough to me. Kwan seemed like a nice guy. I explained what I was doing here and told him that if my music ever disturbed him or his wife, they should let me know. He agreed and, when I asked him how to get to the desert proper, gave me explicit instructions. Nice as he was, Kwan had an extremely poor sense of direction. He had indicated to me the exact opposite way I needed to go to leave the kibbutz
This forced me to circumnavigate the entire place, but it also gave me the opportunity to get some idea of what it was all about. The reason I had to walk around the entire complex to leave was because there was only one gate; the whole settlement was surrounded by cyclone fencing topped with razor wire. Even in the cheerful morning light, it gave me the creeps. Where was I housed – in some kind of prison camp? There were several military bases nearby. Could the Israelis inhabiting rural areas like this still live in fear of invasion? Were they locking the world out, or themselves in? I wanted to think the razor wire was so that nobody could break in under cover of darkness to steal a cow or tractor. But I wasn’t sure.
I attempted to put these thoughts to the back of my mind and enjoy the walking tour. The kibbutz boasted a couple of industrial-sized barns: one for cows, one for chickens. There was a factory where they manufactured tractor tires. There was a large central building containing offices, as well as a cafeteria ample enough to feed a small high school. Scattered around the grounds were the living quarters: a suburban-looking lane lined with bungalows, a modern dormitory, some older and shabbier wooden buildings, and ten or twenty modern trailer homes like the one I was staying in. For recreation, residents had a natural hot spring, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a football pitch. Or they could hang out in one of two drinking houses: the C & W flavored “pub”, or a smaller private clubhouse, for residents only. I later found out that the kibbutz even used to have its own falafel stand, but it had burned down the previous year and had not yet been rebuilt. The grounds of the kibbutz were lush. There was plenty of grass and shrubbery, as well as palm and several species of flowering cactus. Immediately outside the perimeter fence lay fields of vegetables like carrots and potatoes, and huge tracts of orchard in which trees branches hung low with enormous lemon and grapefruit.
It wasn’t until I finally found the main gate and left the kibbutz that I realized all this greenery had been created by human hands alone. Walk for ten minutes and you were suddenly in the midst of a seemingly endless desert. The kibbutz was but a small oasis: everything outside its reach appeared as dead and barren as the surface of the moon. Nothing lived there but a few stubborn trees, a thin stubble of hardy grass, and millions of tiny, white-shelled snails. A few days later on Google Earth (Udi kindly lent me access to the computer in the pub’s office to check my email from time to time), I saw that the cultivated areas surrounding the kibbutz formed perfect circles of green large enough to be photographed from space. (If you want to see where I am sitting at this instant, go to Google Earth. GPS coordinates: ).
I crossed the alien desert landscape, snails crunching beneath my boots every few steps. I was heading toward a dry stream bed, where I had been told I would find my rock. But when I arrived there, there was no rock, only lots of sand. What stood before me weren’t exactly dunes; it was more like a maze of jagged hills composed of compacted sediment, cut through by deep gullies that had eroded over thousands of years. With all the snail shells, it resembled an ancient seabed, long abandoned by the sea, left high and dry to suffer the brutal persistence of the elements. I descended into one of the gullies, and suddenly the aspect changed: I might have been in Afghanistan - or on Mars. This was my rehearsal room. I played for four hours, singing to the sand and the snails, until the sun descended in a furious orange ball of flame. I packed up and quickly left for fear I wouldn’t be able to find my way home in the dark.
* * * * *
Later in the week, I got the lowdown on the history of this particular kibbutz – and kibbutzim in general - from Pnina, a long-term Ze’elim resident and colorful local character. According to Pnina, a kibbutz was supposed to be a Socialist collective: all who lived there were expected to contribute equally, and share equally in the products of their labor. She said that while many kibbutzim were founded in the Twenties and Thirties by young European Zionists seeking to forge a new way of life in “their” ancestral homeland, the history of Kibbutz Ze’elim began in 1947 during a second wave of immigration to this part of the Negev at the end of WWII. The founders were a group of young Hungarian holocaust survivors. Over the years, different youth groups from elsewhere in Israel, as well as France and Morocco, joined the cause.
After several years of early struggle and setbacks, Ze’elim was eventually able to eke out an unsteady existence from the soil of the Negev. The kibbutz ideal went through a brief resurgence in the early Seventies when they became a refuge for members of the counter-culture. Most of its long-term members either arrived or were born here around this time. The number of permanent residents gradually grew from a meager 40 in 1947, to over 400 today. In addition to its resident population Kibbutz Ze’elim – like other kibbutzim – hosts many visitors from other countries.
As long as they obey the rules, vistors may stay as long as they like – some for as little as a week (like me), some for several months, or even years. Most of the visitors during my visit Ze’elim were students taking a break between high school and university (I met several from Ecuador, traveling in a group of ten, plus Mat from Germany, and Tayler from the States). They exchanged their labor for a free room and board, and exposure to a foreign culture. Then there were “travelers” like Kwan and his wife, who were using their stay as a sort of vacation within their vacation. There were also “guest laborers” (I met a group of six from Thailand) who seemed to be trying to gain a foothold in Israel, with hopes of eventually immigrating here.
The politics running the kibbutz had shifted gears over time; from a straight Socialist-Democratic approach at its inception, to a philoso phy probably best described as Socialist Realism. The kibbutz had long been hemorrhaging money, so some of its industries were handed over to a private company which had formed from within its membership. Income from extensive agricultural endeavors are now offset by commercial operations such as the hot spring (or Hamam), the pub, and tourism. The hope is that a healthy dose of capitalism will change the financial situation for the better. So far it has not. But still the kibbutz limps on, an oasis of jaded idealism in a bleak Middle Eastern landscape.
* * * * *
Udi proved to be a better man than most: a few days later he hooked me up with a Bedouin friend since his childhood, named Selem (pronounced Se-LEEM). Selem was a nice guy. He picked me up and drove me to his farm, 40 minutes from the kibbutz, in his Nissan four-wheel drive pick-up. We arrived an hour before sunset, so I just had time to check the place out before nightfall. Darkness seemed to descend more swiftly here in the desert. The farm had no electricity, only a generator which Selem made clear was for special occasions (like watching the TV). I was introduced to his wife, Selma, and his mother. Selem had 3 children; a girl, Lala, 10; and two boys: Madi, 13, and Kaed, 16. (Kead was still working at the carwash, so I didn’t meet him until later.) After the introductions, Selem said I should feel at home and treat the place as my own. So I walked around and took a few pictures, with Madi following curiously but discreetly 20 steps behind.
Selem’s farm had 50 sheep, 4 dogs, 3 cats, 2 donkeys, and a camel. According to Selem, the Bedouins of the Negev were now only semi-nomadic. Most Bedouins here were all pretty much settled on farms, and only migrated with their flocks to better grazing grounds in the spring. Selem’s kids stayed in school year round, and his wife and mother looked after them while he was away with the sheep. Most Bedouins in this area still had camels, but these ships of the desert were now relegated to the status of mere pets - or more likely, status symbols; a 4-wheel drive truck was a far more effective beast of burden these days.
While there was still some light Selem showed me my room, before driving off in his truck on some mission or other. I was housed in a sort of converted cowshed. There was no heat or power, but it was clean and comfortable enough. The shed was built on white foundation stones that appeared to have been appropriated from an ancient structure. One of these limestone blocks had carved decorations that looked distinctly Roman to me.
Selem’s wife Selma brought in some tea, which I drank with Madi, the youngest son. I settled in, and, after it got dark, practiced my songs by the light of a kerosene lantern for an hour or two, Madi sitting quietly across from me and watching my every move. He had probably never met an American before, let alone one that played the guitar and howled like a dog. But he was a forgiving audience - he seemed to find everything I did entertaining – although at times I felt a bit like a Martian that had landed in someone’s backyard.
A few hours after dark Selma brought a tray of food she had prepared. The meal that followed probably ranks among the best cuisine that has ever passed my lips. Madi and I devoured it. There was home-made flat bread cooked on an open fire, served with eggs, tahine, potato soup, and stewed spinach. There were no utensils; you simply tore off a piece of bread and formed it into a sort of spoon, then dipped it into the bowl of your choice. I was in heaven. Selem and Selma’s oldest boy, Kaed, showed up after getting off work at the carwash. He sat down on the floor with us to help polish off the food.
By around eight most of the family seemed to have settled in for the night, except for Selem, who had not yet returned. It had suddenly grown very cold, so I happily made my bed. Thin mattresses were strewn on the floor, Bedouin-style. I stacked three of them up into a comfortable pile. There was no heat or fire, but there were plenty of thick, heavy blankets. I burrowed into my bed and found that I was quite warm despite the chill.
The next day I would play my guitar and sing surrounded by the hills and stones of the naked desert. But that was tomorrow. Tonight, as I drifted toward sleep I thought of the stones the building I was lying in had been erected upon. The white limestone blocks reminded me of Jerusalem. On a brief visit there three years ago I recall being awestruck by the puniness of the old city. It was really only the size of an average American shopping mall. Could this be what all the fighting was about – a couple of thousand rocks? I remember thinking how much less it would have cost – in both money and lives – if someone had simply dismantled the whole place, packed it into boxes, and shipped it to New Mexico or Australia. There was plenty of room in either place for at least five Israels or Palestines. Then, with a gentlemanly, UN-officiated coin toss, they could have decided who got to keep the land of his forefathers, and who got to live in the land of Cheers re-runs and “All You Can Eat”.
I was sound asleep when Selem returned and popped in to check on me at about 10:30. I told him I was as happy as a Negev snail and soon fell back to sleep. At one point around 5 am I got up to take a leak on the edge of a field behind the cowshed. I stood under the great dark dome of the sky, a billion Biblical stars splayed out across it. As often happens when looking at the stars, I couldn’t help but think of my own insignificance in the face of all their haughty grandeur. But I also marveled at my luck: just to see this many stars but once in a lifetime felt like a privilege – a privilege that made life worth living.
Not far away, a dog barked. Further in the distance a generator clacked away with sullen insistence. All along the horizon the sky glowed eerily with the lights of small settlements. Even in this sparsely populated corner of the world, civilization was encroaching from all sides. Eventually the world would run out of room for all these humans.