A short story of mine was published and illustrated on Michael Dickel’s beautiful blog. I’m so honored…
A Walk in the Desert
October 8, 2014
Tuvi Ornat put the old concert ticket he’d been using as a bookmark between the two pages he had been reading and laid the dog-eared paperback gently on the table beside his chair. He stood up and stretched his arms.
“I’m going for a walk,” Tuvi called upstairs but there was no response.
He scribbled a short note and slid a small corner of it beneath her tea mug on the kitchen table where she’d be sure to see it when she returned. He buckled a fanny pack around his waist and placed his keys and wallet in the zippered pockets. He put a notebook, pen, and the book he was reading in an old backpack one of his sons had left at home. Tuvi locked the door and walked outside.
It was a pleasant enough day, not too warm…
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Michael Dickel posted some of my poems on his beautiful blog site along with appropriate digital landscapes from photos. Enjoy …
Saint Yellow’s Gate Revisited
Raanana, March 24, 2017
Through light Saint Yellow’s gate I’ve fled
Leaves long fallen, trees long dead
To come full circle as she said
No meaning, only clues instead.
Clues pointing to eternity
Open graves to see through pity
Stilted men walk through the city
The death of rationality.
What say you now of dreams my friend?
Succubi make love pretend
Climax waking in the end
Nothing left to comprehend.
When I Was a Kid
Raanana, March 30, 2017
When I was a kid
Everyone round me was larger than life,
Only my sister and I were the size of life
Or maybe a little smaller
When I was a kid.
When I was a kid
Magic was the color of the rainbow
‘Tween green and blue,
It was time that lasted…
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The two subjects that should never be discussed in polite society are religion and politics; but society has not been polite for an awfully long time. If you are easily offended by religious discussions, you’d best skip this post and move on to another one.
A thoughtful analysis of religiosity will show that the road between the states of disbelief and belief are bi-directional; that is, one may start off as a non-believer and convert to a true believer, or one may start off as a true believer and become a non-believer. Of course we can imagine all sorts of permutations and combinations derived from a wide range states in between. One may even start out in one direction and turn back towards the opposite direction or even stand still wherever he/she happens to be between the two end-states.
I’m talking about the possible, not necessarily what may or may not be desirable in someone’s eyes.
I’m a non-believer, somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic. I don’t really have enough evidence about the existence of God as He/She/It is commonly defined (Creator and Prime Mover of the Universe) one way or the other. I would prefer to exist in a Universe in which God exists, but I don’t have any evidence that I’m in such a Universe. Of course I wouldn’t prefer to exist in a Universe in which God, as commonly defined (Chooser of one people over another ignoring the rest of His Creation, Creator of Heaven for true believers and Hell for non-believers, and Tester of peoples’ faith by commanding them to sacrifice their children) existed. I would prefer and follow a God who loved all his creation equally, who was fundamentally rational, and who was ethical; who was patient with questioners and doubters, and provided us examples we could live by.
I was raised as a Reform Jew. I grew to appreciate many elements of it over time. Much of what I wrote above about my preferences for a God are derived from what I learned from Reform rabbis in sermons, weekly religious classes, and frequent family discussions. There were some things I disagreed with, like the moral of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac on the improvised altar on Mount Moriah. I thought Abraham should have stood up to God and rejected His command to sacrifice his son. How many people since Abraham have heard voices commanding them to kill their spouses or children? We hear lots of voices in our heads but we are not supposed to act uncritically on them. Anyway I learned that moral arguments were acceptable.
I would say that, for me, Reform Judaism was probably the last (or the first, depending on which direction you’re going) gas station on the long road of religiosity between belief and disbelief.
From what I had been exposed to, it became clear to me that Reform Judaism was an enlightened, tolerant, and liberal religion. We studied the other religions around us in order to understand the differences and commonalities between us. That orientation spilled over into the daily lives of Reform Jews. When I came across Voltaire’s famous quote from his letter to Monsieur le Riche, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”, it came naturally to me to accept it as an ethical and worthy statement. It was the kind of thing we were likely to hear in a Reform Jewish sermon.
I continued to grow within Reform Judaism, often comfortably but sometimes struggling with some aspect or other, through high school, college, the US Army, marriage with a beautiful Israeli sabra (native), and raising our son in America. Then we decided to pick up our roots and make aliyah (immigrate) from a Democratic country (USA) based on a written constitution, majority rule and minority rights, and the separation of Church and State to a Democratic country (Israel) without a written constitution, majority rule but without minority rights, and no separation of Synagogue and State.
When I arrived in Israel I found that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbinate and religious parties maintained de facto control over marriage, divorce, burial rights, access to the Wailing Wall (Western Wall of the Temple Mount), Jewish conversion, etc. That’s all part of the political status quo, an unwritten agreement that maintains whatever the situation was current at the time that the ultra-Orthodox agreed to support Ben Gurion in his bid to establish a Jewish state. Ben Gurion was desperate. Without the support of the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-ultra-Orthodox, he felt he would not be able to claim that God promised the land of Israel to the Jews. It was written in the bible that all modern monotheists hold holy. Ben Gurion apparently didn’t believe the Holocaust would be enough to persuade the geopolitical powers that be that the Jews deserved to have their own land. In Haifa the buses and businesses are open during the Sabbath; in Jerusalem they are not. Now the status quo is not good enough for the ultra-Orthodox; they want to codify it into law. They want the Israeli Supreme Court to accept the status quo as axiomatic.
Other things I discovered after arriving in Israel were that Reform Judaism is just about the most despicable thing that exists, worthy only of being spit on or stoned, desirous of diluting the blood of the Jewish people, misleading them, and attracting believers away from Orthodoxy to Reform. Frequently, on slow news days, you’d hear reports of veiled or unveiled threats made over phone to Reform rabbis and cantors, stones thrown through Reform temple windows, and spray-painted slogans on temple walls. The police never found the perpetrators. I used to mention how I felt about it to my local friends, but I soon discovered a lack of empathy on that score. It appeared that even among traditional believers and non-believers, the ultra-Orthodox propaganda against Reform Jews was taken as in the case of “where there’s smoke there’s probably fire”. I learned to keep my particular brand of religion to myself.
As time went on I found my belief in Reform Judaism eroded, along with my belief in Judaism or any other religion. There are too many reasons to go into why it happened in this post; maybe another time.
This is just so that you will know where I’m coming from.
Reform Jews comprise roughly 80% of American Jewry; Conservatives roughly 15%; Orthodox the remainder. American Jews have been very generous and charitable, but Jewish American support (financial and political) for Israel has been declining over the years (1997 – 2017).
In spite of the fact that there are many reasons why Reform Jews around the world would rather not give their hard-earned charity and support to Israel or would prefer to redirect their funds and support to more democratic or pluralistic groups in Israel, Israel needs your support and funds now as much as ever. People outside the Middle East (including the Americans) seem to believe that Israel is invincible; after all, they have won every war since gaining their independence in 1948. Those same people don’t seem to realize just how close Israel came to losing the October War in 1973.
I appeal to your tolerant and liberal hearts to give what you can to support Israel as it is today, good, bad, and the ugly. If any enlightened, liberal, or tolerant voice is raised in Israel and it becomes known, hinted at, or public record that that voice received special funding from overseas, that voice will lose its legitimacy here.
I appeal to you to remember the words of Voltaire and take them to heart in our case: “I [may] detest what you [say or do], but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to [say or do so]”.
According to Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity, “The greatest level (of charity), above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others”.
Up until the point of writing this journal, I would have characterized my life as not being particularly interesting, unless you happened to be in the computer programming profession like me. Don’t get me wrong. I have no complaints about my life. It is just that I have had a certain degree of difficulty in persuading other people that what I do is interesting. I write programs and do consulting for a living. I have written a compiler for some exotic micro-code and am somewhat of an expert in the subject of digital signatures in Israel. I have lived in Israel for the last 25 years. I guess that is pretty exciting for a guy from Columbus Ohio, good ol’ USA. I was drafted into both US and Israeli armies and did my best to avoid combat. I was always more afraid of having to shoot someone than of being shot. I was too cowardly to be a conscientious objector, so I went where I was told to go and did what I was told to do. My life was about to get pretty damned interesting.
Wednesday 1/10/03 10:30-11:00> A professional article I wrote on our experiences provisioning Internet-over-Cable TV networks was published today in a respected web site (Cable Datacom) in the USA. Nissim, our group CEO, called me up to his office to congratulate me on getting the article published. Then he told me that’s not the reason he called me up to his office and asked me to close the door so that nobody would hear what he was about to say. He asked me whether I possessed a foreign passport. I said yes and that I had an up-to-date US passport. He told me about a business opportunity that involved developing Iraqi Kurdistan’s communication infrastructure. Nissim asked me whether I would be willing, in principle, to travel to Kurdistan to survey the infrastructure to evaluate what we can build on and what needs to be done. I asked whether it might be premature to invest in a business project in Iraq while the Iraqis and Americans are still shooting at each other. Nissim assured me that there is no shooting going on in the place I would be visiting, Suleimaniya. I would probably be going through Turkey, cross over the border into Iraq where we would be met by Kurdish officials and conveyed to Suleimaniya. In fact, it was untouched during the latest war. I said that it sounded interesting in deed and I would be willing to go, as long as it is reasonably safe and my wife agreed that I go. I also insisted on telling Rony (my boss). Nissim said he would tell Rony and Moshe (our company CEO) personally and that I should keep it secret until he did.
Today 1000 demonstrators stormed an Iraqi police station about 3 blocks from the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad to demand jobs as policemen. US troops arrived to help quell the demonstration 45 minutes later. At a mosque in southwestern Baghdad, some Shiites rallied to protest the brief detention by the US forces of the local preacher yesterday. A few US military vehicles arrived on the scene to disperse the crowd, but were driven off by a hail of stones. A US soldier fired a warning shot and some security guards at the mosque fired back with small arms.
Friday 3/10/03 10:20-11:50> I met with Nissim, Eli, and Gabi at the Tapuz in Batzra near Ra’anana. Eli and Gabi are partners in this business venture. Eli is Nissim’s counterpart and Gabi is higher up the totem pole. Eli checked me out to see whether I was suitable to do the survey. After I passed muster, I asked my own questions. What I did not know about the place, the people, the politics, and the project would have filled Encyclopedia Galactica. I told Eli there may be a problem with my going to Iraq because of my security classification. As far as I knew, I would have to get permission from our Ministry of Defense. Eli said he had connections and would try to obtain permission for me to go. Eli thought it would be a good idea to schedule the trip when Uri would be available to travel with me. Uri was supposed to survey the place and people from the point of view of physical security, and to set up an office in Suleimaniya. Uri was ex-service, as were Eli and Gabi. He had operational experience and could be counted on. I left feeling that everything was well planned and under control, and I knew everything I need to know in order to set out on this little adventure.
Tuesday 7/10/03> I began researching Suleimaniya, the Kurds, Iraq, and the technical areas I had to survey over the Internet. I downloaded maps of the area and advisories from the US State Department, US Congressional committee papers, and UN assessments. I started developing a detailed questionnaire that would form the basis of my survey.
Wednesday 8/10/03> I continued my research and survey questionnaire throughout the day.
17:00> Meeting with Uri, Nissim, and Eli
I met Uri for the first time. He was waiting outside Nissim’s office. Uri looked rather nondescript – a bit roly-poly. I wonder how I looked to Uri. Over the next several days of our time together, Uri subtly changed shape in front of my mind’s eye.
Nissim told Uri and me that we would fly to Jordan tomorrow, where we would meet Polad and drive together across the Jordanian-Iraqi border to Suleimaniya. Eli said Polad should be about 25-30 years old. I asked how long the trip should take, start to finish. Nissim estimated four days: 1 day to get there, 2 days to perform the survey, and 1 day to get back.
Tension is growing in Iraqi Kurdistan over the prospect of Turkey sending its troops into Iraq. KDP and PUK Kurds threaten to take up arms against the Turks if they enter Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thursday 9/10/03 14:00> Meeting with Oded (MoD)
Artnet gave me a digital camera to photograph the infrastructure. I received a Sony video camera from Isfar, cell phone, Iridium satellite phone, open airline tickets, and cash for expenses.
Oded instructed me about field security when I travel through Arab countries. Two things he said to me were memorable. I should remove any and all tags in Hebrew or containing Israeli content – no Hebrew/Israeli documents or equipment with Hebrew engraving (pc or cell phone). I could not even take my credit card since it contains a Hebrew word in English letters. Removing all Hebrew/Israeli signs turned out to be harder and more elusive than I would have imagined. After checking and double-checking with my wife and son, before leaving home, I discovered later, at the hotel in Amman, that I was carrying Israeli coins in my pocket. I threw the coins in a public trash can. Next problem was what to do with my Israeli passport. As a dual citizen, I am required by both countries to enter and leave Israel with my Israeli passport and the US with my US passport. Anywhere in between does not matter. Even my US passport was problematic, since a change on the last page was stamped with the location of the embassy where the change was made: Tel Aviv. I decided to bite the bullet and hope that no Arab official would read every page of my passport. The other memorable thing Oded told me was that I should make sure that Uri and I stayed in the same room together. Sorry, but there were limits to what I was willing to do for field security.
16:00-19:30> I go home to pack for the trip. Talma and I go over all my clothes and equipment to make sure there are no signs of Israel or Hebrew. Ari drives me to the airport.
20:30> I meet Uri at BG Airport. We switched from speaking Hebrew to speaking English to each other. After checking in at the Royal Jordanian ticket counter, we go up to departure passport control. Once we are through, Uri and I went to the VIP lounge to avail ourselves of a specialized service. We deposited our Israeli passports in a pouch so that we would not have to carry them with us. We would receive the contents of the pouch upon return to Israel, just outside arrival passport control.
22:30> Departure from BG Airport to Queen Alia International Airport in Amman Jordan
In Baghdad today, a Spanish diplomat was shot as he left his home, a suicide bomber drove his explosive laden car into a local police station killing 8 Iraqis, and a US soldier was killed in a rocket propelled grenade attack on his convoy in Baqouba 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Friday 10/10/03 01:30> Check-in to Intercontinental Hotel and call Polad
09:30> Meet Polad for breakfast
Polad was young (age 24), thin mustache and goatee, and dressed elegantly. He was built solidly under his suit. He said he worked out at a gym every day. He knew that Uri and I were Israeli. He seemed a bit nervous with us. There were sweat stains in unexpected spots on his white shirt.
I asked Polad which route we would be taking from the Jordanian-Iraqi border to Suleimaniya. Polad said we had to go through Baghdad, swing north up to Kirkuk, and then east to Suleimaniya. My blood turned cold. Who decided on our route through Amman-Baghdad-Suleimaniya? A whole new load of unplanned risk had just been dumped in our laps. Polad explained that the risk for him to travel to Kurdestan via Turkey was just too great. The Turks would certainly abduct him along the way to the border. As for us, Polad had heard that the Turkish border guards would not have permitted non-Iraqis to cross their border into Iraq. The only other alternatives were Syria or Iran, which would have been problematic for us.
He said he had to meet someone in the city. We agreed to meet for lunch around 1 pm.
Uri told me the story about his fishing photo album and his hobby of free-diving off the coast of Panama. He explained the technique of free-diving without intention; that is, without betraying your intention to the fish you are hunting, even though you want very much to catch a big fish and you have no air left in your lungs. This was the first in a steady stream of stories (most of which I’ve forgotten unfortunately) which I would refer to as our 1001 Kurdish Nights.
13:40> Lunch at Fakhar-el-Din
The three of us walked to the restaurant. We had trouble locating it on our own, so Polad stopped a group of locals to ask for directions in English. It was amusing that Polad spoke no Arabic. The youths he stopped were polite. One of them took us around the corner and pointed out the correct way to get to the restaurant.
Polad told us how Saddam had attacked his family and people, and chased them into the surrounding mountains. At first they hid. Then the Kurds took control of the narrow passes in the mountains to prevent Saddam’s soldiers from reaching them. Polad told us that the Kurds have a saying: “the mountains are my friends.”
After lunch, Polad ordered a nargila (hooka?) with apple tobacco to smoke. He offered to let me try a puff of the nargila. He told me to inhale the smoke deeply. I did as told and fully expected to cough the lining out of my lungs, since I am not a smoker (except for secondary smoking, which I am trying to give up). I was surprised by the amount of smoke that issued from my lungs without incident. The smell of apple smoke reminded me of the smells of pipe tobacco, like cherry blend, from my father’s meerschaum that I loved so much.
22:00> Oktober Fest at hotel
We all decided to attend the Oktober Fest hosted by our hotel near the pool. It would be good practice for Uri’s German cover and it made me nostalgic for my previous life in the US Army when I was stationed in Germany. I figured the beer would flow freely and help me sleep this night. Polad begged off as we approached the entrance to the Fest. He said he wanted to get to bed early. The beer was good although it was Amstel (Dutch); the umpa-pa band was ok, though the yodeler in the lederhosen was probably American; and the sausages were good, though we were in a Moslem country.
Saturday 11/10/03 04:50-05:10> Check-out from hotel
05:15> Taxi ride with Ali and friend to border
Ali drove too fast for my taste (little did I know that within just a few hours I would be looking back on Ali’s driving with some nostalgia). He was a polite driver and the truck drivers he passed on the road were polite too.
08:45> Arrival at border crossing
We waited a long time for the passport clerks to check our passports by phoning up the next echelon in the bureaucracy. The clerk called Polad up to his window just to tell him to go back and wait two or three times. When the Jordanian appeared to tire of his game with Polad, he released us all.
09:30> Cross border and meet family security detail and convoy
We were met at the border by Polad’s family body guards and drivers, and smiling US soldiers. Polad took our passports into an office and came back in less than 5 minutes with our passports stamped. We were on our way.
The body guards wore combat fatigues, black chest webbing, and M4 carbines. There were 3 Saddam cars (SUV’s) for us. Uri and I would ride in one SUV, and Polad would ride another. The body guards were distributed among the three cars. The “Saddam” cars are suburban jeeps (SUVs) that used to belong to Saddam and his henchmen. After the US and allies drove Saddam underground, the Kurds expropriated the cars for their own soldiers. The rest of the Iraqis are afraid the cars are haunted by Saddam’s ghost.
09:45> Journey to capital
We traveled in close formation, flying low at 160 kph (100 mph), often swerving suddenly to avoid bomb craters in the middle of the main road through H3 desert. Uri pointed out to me that we were traveling through “Scud Country”, the area from which Saddam launched his scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.
We stopped for gas and oil. I told one of the body guards that I had to go to the WC. A body guard with an M4 accompanied me to the latrine. I entered a stall and was confronted by a squatter toilet (a hole in the floor with a foot print on either side) and a plastic pitcher of water to clean the left hand (fecal wiper). No toilet paper and no poop from this camper.
11:00> Lunch at truck stop/restaurant
The restaurant laid out quite a spread for the body guards, drivers, and us. I was not particularly hungry and the food did not look particularly appetizing, but the effort was appreciated. The meal included bamiya (ochre?) and rice, a bit of lamb meat on a bone, pita, and thick tea. There was too much competition with the flies and I finally gave up.
16:00> Stop at Mum’s residence in the capital to rest a bit and look around
The picture below is Mum Jalal’s back yard. The house used to belong to one of Saddam’s half-brothers. The property extends to the banks of the Tigris. The area in which the house is located is known as the “Green Zone”. Newsweek called it the “Beverly Hills” of Baghdad. I am the one in the red shirt.
16:45> Continue on to Suleimaniya
We continue driving at 160-165 kph, weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly missing oncoming trucks, cars, and motor bikes.
Uri tells me a story about a friendly fishing competition with his free-diving buddies.
After dark, cars drove without headlights. Trucks parked in the middle of the road, in the dark, without warning lights.
20:00> Arrival in Suleimaniya and check-in at Abu Sanaa hotel
This is the hotel where an English news reporter, Gaby Rado, fell to his death from the roof, 30/3/03.
The bathroom had a leaky but Western-style toilet and douche, but no toilet paper.
21:00> Picked up for dinner in the back yard of a nice restaurant
Meet with Qubad and Lahur (Polad joined us later)
Meet with Norwegian prosecutors (meeting with Kurds to decide whether or not to extradite Mullah Krekar, the Ansar al-Islam terrorist, to Iraq), US Special Forces, and FBI liaisons
Sunday 12/10/03 09:00> Breakfast at hotel and change $50 to KID
I commented to Uri that it was strange that I had not heard a single dog bark. Later someone explained to me that the people do not like dogs and are usually afraid of them.
Uri told me about one of his more famous clients: he trained Noriega’s security staff.
11:20> Picked up, driven to Suleimaniya Palace, and checked-in
We were told Aras would meet with us at the hotel around 13:00.
14:00> We decided to go to the restaurant on the top (7th) floor to photograph the surroundings.
I talk to the maiter’d with the pale blue eyes while Uri clicks away on his camera.
This picture is looking north-east from the tallest building in the center of Suleimaniya, in Kurdistan. The 4-story white building with the larger satellite dish on its roof is KurdTel, the local PTT.
Somebody notifies Qubad (or he comes by accident), who comes and politely but firmly asks us to leave the restaurant immediately. Apparently they were making arrangements for lunch with some high-level dignitary.
We go back to our rooms on the 4th floor and wait
16:00> Qubad called me to meet with Uri and me. He came to my room. I went over to Uri’s room to bring him over. I saw Polad and Iwah (Polad’s body guard) standing on the stairs in the hall way.
Qubad gives us the 3rd degree (politely but firmly). He had not been told about Uri’s arrival – only mine. He insisted on knowing who was informed about our visit. At first he seemed to believe that we were both intelligence operatives. I do not know whether Qubad would have been more comfortable with the idea of both of us being intelligence operatives or civilian businessman. I told Qubad the truth – that we were businessmen with business objectives (the evaluation of local communications infrastructure in order to make a business proposal to the local PTT) who were officially sanctioned by our government. I told him that our Ministry of Defense was aware of our trip and that I could not have come to Iraq without the MoD’s express approval. I said that my bosses and their business partners also knew – as well as my wife and three sons.
16:20> Qubad says he has to leave and will come back around 18:00.
17:30> Qubad came back to talk with Uri in his room. Uri thought Qubad would come over to talk with me too, but he did not.
18:00> Uri came over to my room to tell me about Qubad’s 2nd visit to our rooms and I told Uri that Qubad never returned to me after our first interrogation.
I wrote down my impressions regarding this business trip so far. I described the obvious snub of the family not meeting with us, our political liability in the eyes of Qubad, and our security exposure. Uri asked to read my notes. After he finished reading them, he asked me whether I could remember what I had written, and then he proceeded to rip them up into little pieces of paper and flush them down the toilet in my room. I told Uri that I had committed my notes to memory and could reconstruct them when we returned home. Uri was concerned that my notes might be embarrassing to our hosts and therefore dangerous for us.
I don’t know whether Uri was trying to calm me or we both found each other interesting to talk to. Maybe he was trying to prevent me from being sucked under in a whirlpool of fear and analysis. In any event, we talked constantly and non-stop about everything that we had learned or experienced. At one point, toward the end of our stay, I expressed a fear that we might run out of subjects to talk about at the current rate at which we were running through verbal material. As it turned out, we hardly scratched our respective surfaces.
20:00> After waiting in vain for Aras and not eating since breakfast, Uri and I went back to the top floor restaurant to eat dinner.
Today a suicide bomber detonated explosives packed in a car just outside the Baghdad hotel killing 7 people and wounding 40.
Monday 13/10/03 09:00> Uri and I met for breakfast on the ground floor.
Uri tells me a bit about his part in the Sabena affair with Barak and Beebee Netanyahu.
We continue our wait for Aras in our rooms. None of the local phone numbers that we have for the family or the body guards are in service. We call Nissim and Eli. I say I want to go back home. We have accomplished nothing and there is no prospect of accomplishing anything in the near future. Eli asks us to give him a few hours to see what he can do about our situation. I have no viable choice. Of course, we did have other choices and alternatives: we could have thrown ourselves on the mercy of the US or allied soldiers or we could have left the hotel on our own and tried to reach the Turkish or Jordanian border, like in Bravo-2-0, without maps, weapons, or a snowball’s chance in hell.
We have lunch at the Indian restaurant on the 1st floor.
18:00> Aras calls me from the lobby. I get Uri and we go down to meet him. Aras is very genial and explains to us that something important came up and he had to take Mum to the North Western border. I was so relieved to finally meet with Aras and hopeful for the first time since arrival about being able to do what I was sent to do. Aras promised he would try to set up the meetings that I requested and provide us with a driver, translator, and a local cell phone that would work (AsiaCell).
19:00> We go back to the top floor restaurant to eat dinner.
Around 10 p.m., rival Shiite factions clashed in Karbala at a local shrine about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. A fire fight ensued with small arms and RPGs throughout the night.
Tuesday 14/10/03 08:30> Uri and I meet for breakfast on the ground floor.
Uri and I talk about the US special forces and British SAS team sitting at tables near us. He tells me about his invention which is still called Uri’s ear to this day. He tells me a story about being unemotional while playing backgammon.
09:10> Aras calls Uri while he was waiting in the lobby (I went upstairs to brush my teeth). Aras confirms the meeting with the local PTT.
09:20> We meet our translator (Rebaz) and our driver (Qatab). They take us by car to our meeting at the PTT.
09:45> Even though the PTT is less than 5 minutes walk from the hotel (as we later found out), we drove around and around until we found out where the meeting was supposed to take place. We met with Hushiar, Bakhtiar, Shezad, and the support guy from the country north-west of us. The meeting went very well. Bakhtiar gave us a tour of the facilities.
From left to right: Rebaz, Hushiar, me, Bakhtiar, Shezad, and the Iranian chap.
13:20-15:00> Bakhtiar took us all out to lunch at our hotel. We walked to the hotel. We ate lunch on the top floor. It was a power lunch and generated a lot of productive information. Bakhtiar asked me whether I would like to accompany him tomorrow to see one of their residential communications closets (boxes). I thanked him and said I would call him when I knew my schedule tomorrow.
16:30> Rebwar and Qatab picked us up at the hotel and drove us to Lake Duchan to see the dam and hydroelectric power plant.
Uri asked our driver to stop by the road so that he could take a picture of the approach to the lake. He walked through the front yard of this family’s home and was met by the family. Uri took a picture of the family on the side of their home and showed them the picture on the digital camera display. The old woman said that she wanted the picture. Uri promised to give it to her next time he passes through. In the picture, you can see half a bomb shell next to the side of the house.
Qatab and I are standing on top of the dam, overlooking the hydroelectric power plant. Rebwar is standing behind us near our car.
20:00> We returned to the hotel. One of the Americans we met at the dinner on our first night in Suleimaniya recognized Uri just outside the hotel and called over to him.
We had dinner at the Indian restaurant on the 2nd floor. Lahur walked into the same restaurant with his wife and Iwah. We waved and invited Iwah over to our table. He sat down with us but did not want anything to eat or drink.
Polad calls me and says that he will try to tear himself away from his mother to come and see us tomorrow.
Before dawn today there was gun fire near the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The local police came and shot at a few buildings in the area, in response, and then left. Later on, a car bomb exploded outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad killing 2 besides the suicide bomber. A group of people trying to cross the Syrian border into Iraq were intercepted by US and Iraqi forces in the area. The group fired RPGs at the US and Iraqis. The friendlies returned fire killing several infiltrators. No friendlies were hurt.
Wednesday 15/10/03 09:00> Uri and I met for breakfast in the usual place.
Uri tells me a story about the time he played a trick as a chauffer on Ephraim Kishon in Berlin.
09:30> Rebaz came to collect us for our meeting at the Ministry of Communications and Transportation.
10:00-11:20> We arrived on time at the office of Minister Dosky of the MoC&T. Dosky called his technical staff to join us. The meeting looked like it was going south. Maybe we violated protocol by meeting with the PTT before we met with his ministry and maybe we exuded the impression that we were white men trying to sell cheap trinkets to the Indians. On top of it all, Dosky was not physically well that day. Nothing we said could distract him from his dark mood. He dismissed us to go down to the director’s office and continue our technical discussions. The staff turned out to be quite friendly and helpful.
From left to right: Jamela, me, and Saman.
11:30> We drove to the family’s headquarters in town. Uri saw and pointed out to me Mum’s wife driving past us. She does a lot of charity work for the local orphans. We also met Aras.
Rebwar and Qatab (who knows a few words of English, but I’m not sure which ones he knows) took us to the market for a short tour. Uri was looking for a bush jacket like the body guards wore.
12:20> We drove to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce (or Chamber of Commerce). We arrived at the minister’s office late (12:40). Aras had set up the meeting for 12:30 but the secretary said she had understood that the meeting was set for 12:00. The minister came out at 12:45 and said he had waited since 12:00 but now he had to leave for a meeting with the parliamentary council. We scheduled a meeting with the minister at our hotel at 17:00.
I called Baktiar and we agreed to meet at 19:00.
13:00> We went back to the market to walk around a bit with Rebaz.
Rebaz warned us that we may see pairs of men walking together holding hands, but we should not conclude that they are gay. It is a culturally acceptable show of affection between men, liking kissing the proscribed 4 times on alternating cheeks.
14:20> Rebwar found us in the market and told Rebaz to tell us that there had been a mistake at the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. We had met with the wrong minister in the wrong office. The gentleman we met at 12:45 was actually the Minister of Humanitarian Aid and Welfare. The Minister of Trade and Commerce was waiting for us.
14:35> We met the Minister of Trade and Commerce and some of the members of the Chamber of Commerce. They were all gracious and helpful. After the meeting, the minister invited us out for lunch across the street but apologized that he would be unable to join us. Some of the Chamber of Commerce members took us down to lunch. I asked Rebaz to go to the office of the Ministry of Aid and Welfare to explain the mix up and to politely cancel our appointment with the minister at 17:00 at our hotel.
I called Bakhtiar to ask whether he would like to meet at 16:00 instead of 19:00. He said that slot was filled, but we could meet at 17:00.
15:30> After we finished lunch and said our good-byes, Rebwar dropped Rebaz and us off in the market. We looked around for maps. In one book store, Rebaz showed us a book of popular songs he had translated from English to his language. Walking along the narrow passages, Rebaz warned us that public displays of affection between man and woman was culturally unacceptable and that soliciting or engaging in prostitution could land a person in jail for months, whether he was a foreigner or not. Rebaz bought a small sack of hot fool. Uri stopped to get his shoes shined for a couple dinar and I did the same.
17:00> Rebwar picks us up, drops Uri off at our hotel, and takes me to the PTT to meet Baktiar for our small excursion.
17:20-18:00> I meet Bakhtiar and Shezad. We drive in Shezad’s car out to the residential area of Suleimaniya. We stop at a communications box. Bakhtiar explains how the phone cables are distributed from the Main Distribution Frame to the communications boxes to the houses. We discuss his plans to increase capacity by putting up fixed wireless cellular antennae near the boxes and replacing copper trunk runs to the MDF with fiber optic cables. We drive back and they drop me off at the hotel.
18:10> A few minutes after I checked in with Uri, Aras called us from the lobby. We came down and briefed him on the good results from our meetings. I told Aras that we had accomplished everything we needed for our business plan and proposals. We were ready to leave. Aras said he would arrange a 2-car convoy of armed guards to drive us back to the border tomorrow morning, sometime between 09:00 and 10:00. We thanked Aras for everything. I joked with him that it would be nice if his people could drive us all the way home.
18:40> Polad and Iwah join us in the lobby. Aras invites us to dinner at a very nice restaurant on a mountain top overlooking Suleimaniya. Aras apologizes that he will not be able to join us, but Polad and Iwah will accompany us. Polad gives us a half hour to freshen up in our rooms. We are to meet again at 19:10.
19:30> Polad and Iwah pick us up and drive us to the restaurant. We sit at a table outside at the edge of a precipice. Later Polad receives a call from James, a British chap working at the local TV station as a news broadcaster, and invites him to join us.
Polad explains to us the local custom that we should not be too ready to leave tomorrow, right on time, as that would insult our hosts. We should be a bit late and draw out our stay, so that our host will receive the impression that we would stay longer if only we could. For instance, we should not be all packed and ready to go at 09:00 tomorrow morning. 10:00 would be a good time to come sauntering down.
Thursday 16/10/03 09:00-09:30 Uri and I have a leisurely breakfast at the usual place and check out of the hotel.
Uri tells me about his surprise somersault at his stuffy client’s office in Berlin.
10:10> Aras arrives with our escort. He tells us that he has arranged to pick up a taxi driver in the capital tomorrow morning, who will join our convoy to the border and take us from there all the way to Amman. Aras gives Uri and me each a gift: a beautiful chess/backgammon board with pieces, in canvas carrying bags. We thank Aras profusely for the gifts and everything else that he has done for us.
10:30> We take off – 2 cars and 6 men (not including us).
11:00> I asked to stop at the air strip just southwest of Suleimaniya to judge its suitability for commercial flight landings and take-offs. It is on our way.
13:00> We stop for lunch in a small restaurant in Kirkuk, a 100 km west of Suleimaniya.
16:30> We reach the capital city. We drive through town to the Babylon hotel. There were no vacancies. We drove around some more and pulled in back of the Palestine hotel. There was heavy security there and the local police had us sit on the sidewalk while our body guards went into the hotel to check for vacancies. We were alone with the local police and quite exposed. Our body guards came back to collect us. There were no vacancies there either. We drove back up the street and tried the Al Safeer hotel. It was about as flea-bitten as Abu Sanaa, in Suleimaniya, but at least they had vacancies. Uri and I shared a room on the 3rd floor. I thought to myself that Oded would be happy that I was finally taking his advice. The body guards took rooms on either side of us.
We heard a dog barking in the distance. We also heard the sharp report of a gun shot not so far away.
19:10> The body guards knocked on our door and called us down to supper.
Friday 17/10/03 03:40> One of our body guards woke us up. We dressed, packed, and went downstairs to breakfast. Mariwan had gone to get our taxi driver (Majid) and get some food. We all ate at one table while the cab driver ate alone at another table.
04:10> We checked out of the hotel and began our final run to the border.
05:00> We ran into a check point manned by US soldiers. They told us we could not go this way. The area was closed to civilian traffic indefinitely. We were told to turn around and go back. Our two cars and the cab crossed over to the opposite lane and regrouped, in sight of the armed soldiers and tank. Our cab driver (we were in another car still) took the lead and started driving up the exit ramp in a wild and ill-considered attempt to pass over the check point and drive through the closed area. Our drivers started to follow him. I was about to ask Uri whether he knew how to say “stop” in the language of our drivers, but he had already grabbed the right shoulder of our driver and yelled at him in English to stop. We told Mariwan that this attempt would get us all killed for sure as the US soldiers would not hesitate for a moment to shoot us for driving so suspiciously. Somehow, Mariwan communicated to our other driver and the cab driver in the lead to stop, turn back, and regroup. We decided to drive back in the direction of the capital until we were out of sight of the check point and then turned off on a side road that took us on a slight detour around a lake that eventually rejoined the main road to the border. This bit of resourcefulness was thanks to our crazy cab driver’s rather intimate knowledge of his country’s back roads.
Along the way, our car (Land Cruiser) had some problems, but after stuttering and stammering for awhile the problems worked themselves out.
09:20> We reached the border. Meriwan paid the cab driver half the trip price ($100) and asked us to pay the rest ($100) when we reached our hotel. We said that it was no problem and would be happy to pay the whole amount instead of Aras paying half, but they refused to take our money. We said good-bye to our body guards and got into the cab to make our ways through both border controls. To speed our passage through the long lines, our cab driver told the local soldiers that we were traveling on diplomatic passports. This was neither true nor a very good idea in our humble opinion, since our passports were not diplomatic. Our cab driver gave us his passport and we went into the border control office to get exit permits. I was sure we would be arrested for impersonating diplomats. The clerk looked at Uri’s passport, which was German, and said “Germany good”. Then he examined my passport, which was US, and pronounced “America not so good”. After that remark, I was wishing that my cover had a cover. On a large fresco on the wall where our cab was parked, a likeness of Saddam gazed at me unrepentantly.
09:50> We re-entered the cab and drove the 2 km no-man’s land until we reached the Jordanian border control.
We were directed to the office where an entry visa could be purchased. We passed through passport control. It seemed to go faster than last time we went through and obtained our exit permits. The young officer was friendlier this time. Our luggage was checked thoroughly for security and customs. I had to pay 1 JD for the extra cameras I was carrying in my suitcase.
12:00> We finally cleared the Jordanian border controls and drove towards Amman.
12:30> We stopped at a small restaurant in a dusty town along the way. We paid for the driver’s meal too.
16:10> We drove into the northern suburbs of Amman and stopped at the cab company’s dispatch office, so that one of their people who spoke English could ask me which hotel we wanted and direct our driver to the hotel. I told the guy we wanted to go to the Intercontinental Hotel. He explained directions to the driver and we continued on our way.
17:00> We pulled into the hotel and paid the driver with ample bakshish. We entered the hotel and I tried to call the Royal Jordanian reservations office to check whether we could catch an earlier flight back to Israel this evening. There was no answer from reservations. We decided to check into the hotel for one night.
We showered and went to sleep until 21:00. Then we went up to the 8th floor lounge where we partook of the happy hour and had a bit to eat and drink.
Today a bomb exploded at a police station in Kirkuk. A suicide car bomber was shot and killed near the police ministry in Irbil before he was able to detonate the explosives in his car. A US humvee was damaged by a home made bomb near Falluja. In Baghdad a US MP was killed by a roadside bomb. In Karbala the fire fights continue, killing 3 Americans and 10 Iraqis.
Saturday 18/10/03 09:00> We met for breakfast at the 8th floor lounge. Afterwards, I tried calling RJ reservations again to check whether we could get a flight home today. The reservations office answered the phone but said there was not routing available for us today. We had no alternative but to stay with our original confirmed flight schedule tomorrow. I reserved our rooms for another night.
We had lunch at the Atrium restaurant buffet in the hotel. It was excellent.
Uri told me about the free-diving people he met in South Africa and he showed me his photo album.
Uri and I worked on our notes in our rooms.
We had dinner at a Lebanese pool-side restaurant at our hotel.
Two US soldiers sent to investigate an explosion were ambushed and killed in Kirkuk today.
Sunday 19/10/03 09:00> We had breakfast at the usual place. The reception desk said we could check out as late as we liked.
I went down to the hotel book store to look around.
We packed and worked on our notes.
We had lunch again at the Atrium buffet.
We browsed through the gift shops.
18:00> We checked out of the hotel and a cab took us to the Queen Alia airport.
We arrived a half hour earlier and waited before check-in for our boarding cards. We passed passport controls and security inspections without event. We visited the impressive duty free shop.
22:30> We boarded our flight at 22:00 and took off on time. The flight lasted about 25 minutes. We touched down, cruised to the disembarkation point, and took the bus to the arrivals terminal. As we landed in Israel, Uri and I switched back from English to Hebrew. At the entrance, we were met by a stewardess who gave us our Israeli passports.
After we went through passport control and picked up our luggage, Uri and I walked through customs control with nothing to declare except, perhaps, how good it was to be back in our country once more. Ari was waiting for me as I came out. Eli was waiting for Uri. I said hello to Eli and good-bye to Uri.
If you want to know whether or not I was afraid we would not make it back alive, that is a secret between me and the poor laundry staff who had to clean my underwear. I thanked Nissim for the once-in-a-lifetime adventure on which he had sent me, but also told him never again in this lifetime.
Friday 10/12/04 12:30> The following picture was taken by my wife at Coffee Anan on Mt. Bintal on the Golan Heights in Israel.
Ten Easy Steps to Kurdish for English Speakers
Rebas was working on a book with this title. I could have used it. Unfortunately, he feels it unlikely that he will ever get it published. We picked up a few Kurdish words from Polad, the cleaning girl at Hotel Suleimaniya, and Rebas, but most of the following gold mine came from our body guards and drivers during supper on our last night in Baghdad.
|Peshmerga||Those who face death||The name for Kurdish men and women who are ready to die for their cause; Kurdish guerillas|
|Zor spas||Thank you very much|
|Sha’eniniya||Not at all (you’re welcome)|
|Mum||Uncle||As in Mum Jalal (Uncle Jalal); a term of respect. Everyone calls Jalal Talabani Mum Jalal.|
|Kaka jan||Dear elder brother|
|Ser chow||On my eyes (OK, etc.)||Good for everything unless you don’t intend to keep your promise|
|Bash niya||Not good|
|Bayar matit||Sorry (excuse me)|
|Sor serria||Go fast|
|Ded min mo’a||See you|
|Lute berrez||snob||Literally “high nose”|
|Ser tcher||Prick head|
|Bechuein||Eat||Not sure about that|
|De me we bechom||I would like to eat|
|Deteve becut||Would you like to eat?||Or “You would like to eat”|
|Sorum yu’ard||Bon appetite|
|La pesch||Forward||Or “future”|
|La dua||Backward||Or “past”|
|Baani bash||Good morning|
Basic Training: 13 June to 7 July 1983
Monday, 13 June 1983
The bus took us from Tel HaShomer Hospital to the induction center. There we received our yellow cards, were photographed (front and profile), had our mouths xrayed (deep throat), were vaccinated (both arms), issued uniforms, fed, and got dental checkups. We waited around for several hours until we were told to board a bus. Nobody knew where we would be sent. On the way, it became apparent that we were going to Beer Sheva. We arrived at our base after dark, stowed our baggage in one tent, and went to the mess hall. On the way, a red haired kid asked us whether we felt we were on a holiday or the Exodus from Egypt. Somebody answered that it felt more like a holiday, so far. The Gingie (“red head” in Hebrew, pronounced “Jinjie”) swore he would make sure it would be no holiday for us. I was stuck on KP duty with Barry, a vegetarian Goliath from South Africa. We finished around 9 p.m. and rejoined our group to get our duffle bags, mattresses, and sleeping bags. We had to carry it all back to our tents. After we set up our living quarters, we stood formation and met our drill sergeants. That night I slept poorly – not more than a couple hours.
Tuesday, 14 June 1983
We got up at 5:15 a.m. to make formation at 5:30. We had to shine our boots and shave (except for those of us who had beards) before the breakfast formation at 6:25, and we had to be dressed in full battle gear for the 7:30 formation (“mishtar hashkama”). Today we received M-16 rifles. In military life the M-16 is our wife as it was in the US Army.
Thursday, 16 June 1983
We had evening exercises with Riki, a robust and not entirely unattractive young girl. We ran after her to the Eilat – Beer Sheva road and back, did sit-ups and push-ups, and ran relay races. I fell in one of the races and cut my right hand pretty badly. I had to wear a bandage for the following week. No KP.
Israeli Army Life:
People in my tent:
Meir – US
Freddy – Russian
Marian – Russian
Gerald – South African (sleeps in pajamas)
Michael T. – South African
Gavid – Iran
Gabi – Iran
Other memorable people:
Giora (Elephant) – Rumania
Alex – Rumania
Andy – US
Roberto – Argentina
Barry – South Africa
Baruch – Britain
Michael S. – US
Moti – Odessa
Harris – US
Kenny – US
Gingie – Somalia (not really “red-headed”)
Sidney – India
Hajaj – Morocco
Papa – Greece and Alexandria
Ben Shalosh – North Africa
Israel – Argentina
Things I took with me:
Underwear and cotton socks
Shoe shine kit
Soap, shampoo, tooth brush, tooth paste, baby powder, skin cream, mirror, aspirin, sewing kit, wet naps, and tissue
Rope, clothes pins, laundry soap
Thongs (I think they’re called “flip-flops” elsewhere)
Stationary and envelopes
Diary and two books
Swiss army knife
Friday, 17 June 1983
I am stuck on base over the week-end. We drew lots to see which of us would get a pass. I lost and so did 17 others.
Tuesday, 21 June 1983
We were bussed to some base Lod for two days of participation in an officer training session. We had to dress up like Syrian commandos and take up positions in the hills so that the officer candidates could try to spot us from a distant hill. I carried a kalachnikov (a Soviet rifle) with Arab and Russian markings. It had been captured during one of the previous wars. The Galil (an Israeli rifle) is based on the kalchnikov. Our group was in a forward position. I had to run to the road to lay a “mine”, actually a decent-sized rock. I wonder whether they spotted us. The colonel in charge of the exercise said it was a success. The day was exceedingly hot and I could feel my brains boiling under my steel piss-pot. The colonel held us over, between the morning rehearsal and “the real thing”, to organize an exhibit of our captured weapons and uniforms after the exercise. We drove back to the mess-hall, a pretty hungry bus load. Some rasal (sergeant major) told us we had arrived too late for lunch and would not be served. We sat on the bus a half hour and our moods turned from irony to mutiny. Shaul, our captain, argued with the rasal, but to no avail. Finally he ordered the strongest among us to enter the kitchen by force and take all the food we could. We filled our stomachs and left, early that evening.
On the way back to our base, we stopped in Beer Sheva for ice cream. It was the most heavenly ice cream I ever ate. It was also the first time the army had shown a human face. This small gesture won our loyalty for Shaul and Yoram, one of our drill sergeants.
Thursday, 23 June 1983
We went into Beer Sheva again, in the evening, just to walk around. I got back to the base an hour and a half late for my guard duty, but Alex filled in for me. Beer Sheva was definitely not worth jeopardizing my week-end pass.
Just before we went into town that evening, an officer came to interview us regarding what we wanted to do in the army after basic training. I said I would be interested in communications. I thought I would be fixing broken radios and things like that. It sure beat guard duty. Little did I know.
Friday, 24 June 1983
Week-end pass: short and sweet.
Sunday, 26 June 1983
I left home early Sunday morning, dressed in my uniform and carrying my M-16 loosely from my shoulder. On the way to the bus stop, I passed an Arab gardener in our neighborhood. He had seen me many times before, but never in uniform. We had always exchanged pleasantries. “Manishma?” (“How are you?”). “Manishma” back to him. “Be healthy,” he said to me. I wonder whether it was said in irony, while thinking of his young son. I think of mine.
I returned to the base around 11:30 a.m. and learned to take apart a Galil.
Monday, 27 June 1983
While waiting for the commander to come and lecture us on grenades, one of the soldiers in my group gave an extemporaneous talk on genetic engineering, his civilian work. Then we learned the theory of grenade throwing. No lobbing. I flashed back to my days in the US Army when I really screwed that part up.
Tuesday, 28 June 1983
I fired the Galil. We were supposed to fire the Uzi and throw some inert grenades today, but that did not come to pass. Those who performed well with the M-16 and the Galil said they scarcely hit anything with the Uzi.
I became sick with stomach pains and nausea. I skipped lunch completely and ate only a plum for supper. It was a day of fasting for the religiously observant, from sun-up to sun-down, but also for the sick. Sartre would have been proud of me.
Wednesday, 29 June 1983
I relaxed in bed all day and felt kind of guilty about being sick. By evening I felt ok and was able to eat supper. Afterwards I did guard duty. Yoram walked up the road towards the gate with a pretty girl soldier at his side. I said “good evening” and he asked me how I felt. When I finished my duty I called Talma. It was good to hear her voice. She sounded so close, as though she were in the next room.
Thursday, 30 June 1983
This morning on the way to breakfast, Yoram leaned out of his doorway and asked me to bring him a sandwich, yogurt, and a canteen filled with tea. I heard a girl’s laugh behind him so I brought two sandwiches and two yogurts.
At 5:15 p.m. Shaul organized those of us who had only had one weekend at home and issued us passes. The truck waited for us. The only thing lacking was permission from the Tel Aviv command for us to leave the base. At 8:00 p.m. we were turned down.
Friday, 1 July 1983
We waited until 8 a.m. for the elusive permit to leave the base, which never came. Neither did any of our commanders. Elephant, our group leader and also a trainee like us, told us to leave one by one. It was a command I should have followed with only gladness in my heart; instead, there was uneasiness. Even that passed, by the time I arrived home. “Papa” had to stay on base and asked me to call his kibbutz and leave a message for his wife: “I miss you and love you, and I’ll miss you for Shabbat (“Sabbath”)”. Papa, Yitzhak, is a strange guy. He cannot (or will not) speak a word of Hebrew, even though he wears a kippa (skull cap) and talit (prayer shawl). He was born in Alexandria, raised in Greece, and speaks French and English fluently.
Sunday, 3 July 1983
I caught an army bus, on its way to Mitzpeh Ramon, back to my base. The bus that was supposed to pick us up at the North Tel Aviv train station never showed up. No mention was made of our leaving base without permission from Tel Aviv.
Monday, 4 July 1983
Today was no too exciting; just a lot of work: guard duty from 4:00 a.m to 7 a.m. and from 9 to 11. After lunch we were ordered to the chapel for afternoon services and a lecture on moral introspection. I understood nothing of the service1 but the lecture went at my speed. Afterwards I had kitchen duty from 1:30 p.m. to 9:00.
Tuesday, 5 July 1983
At breakfast Sidney read the names, which he had copied into English, of those of us who had been accepted for the communications course. I felt a bit surprised and disappointed when my name was not called, but I figured it was all for the best. Later in the morning, Elephant saw me and told me that I was on the Hebrew list of those to go, after all. Now our commanders are attempting to compress the remaining training into the next day and a half. We learned drill and marching, fired the Uzi and the “mag” (machine gun), and threw hand grenades.
In the Negev desert, a couple hours before sunrise, the fog rolls in so thick with dew that you can hear the plop-plop of heavy dew drops from the tree branches and roof eaves. If you stand under the tree with your mouth wide open, you will catch their taste on your tongue. It is ironic that most people stand under trees to escape the rain; not in the desert.
Wednesday, 6 July 1983
We turned in most of our gear today. After lunch we were given gamma globulin shots in the buttocks, to prevent hepatitis. In the evening we participated in the traditional swearing-in ceremony at the end of basic training. We marched 2.5 kilometers and carried two of the fattest soldiers in our plugah (company) on stretchers. When we arrived at the site of our swearing-in, impressively outlined in fiery torches, we handed our rifles to our commander. We were formed around the commander in a Het (a Hebrew letter: ח) and shouted in unison “ani nishbah” (“I swear…”). The very religious soldiers, who are forbidden from swearing before anyone but God, said instead “ani matziah” (“I propose…”). The commander gave us back our rifles and a Bible. A bus brought us back to the base, where we had a party to celebrate the last day. Victor played an accordion and some of the guys persuaded girl-soldiers, who just happened to be walking nearby, onto the dance floor. We joked around and played games. Our commanders also participated in our party and were so relaxed and friendly that it was difficult to recognize them. I pulled guard duty after the party from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00.
Thursday, 7 July 1983
We turned in the remainder of our equipment, which we had received the first night we arrived, so long ago. We were processed out of basic training and into the communications course by two officers from our next base near Tzrifin. We exchanged warm good-byes and boarded busses for home. Most of the guys who did not make the course were sent down the road to an artillery course. I felt very lucky to avoid that.
Communications Course: July 10 – 22, 1983
Friday, 22 July 19832
I finished my course on being a telephone lineman. It was fairly uneventful, except for the comical relief of Eli Aleli, Roberto, and the tragicomic outbursts from Notkin. I passed my final examination. Today I was assigned to the Central Command in Jerusalem. It sounded like a safe distance from Lebanon.
Sunday, 24 July 1983
We showed up in Tzrifin to be bussed up to Tzfat (Safed). On the way we stopped at Roberto’s kibbutz, Mishmar HaSharon, to eat lunch. I ate a gulash of hearts and kidneys. I could not tell which was which and anyway it all tasted a bit like liver. We continued on our odyssey. At one point our bus driver took a wrong turn towards Tulkarm, an Arab-Israeli town. We arrived at the Tzfat base, where we were sent into town to stay overnight at a hotel. The hotel owner removed his towels and linens before we came. Barry guided us through the old Jewish quarter and the artist quarter. We visited a 500-year old Sephardic synagogue and were treated to an interesting lecture by the ancient gabai.
Monday, 25 July 1983
I was assigned to a battalion in Aley Lebanon until the 5th of August. We were divided into three groups to be dispersed in Lebanon, except for Notkin. He was assigned to the Golan, within Israeli borders, probably because he made such a fuss about being an only son and not wanting to go to a combat zone. I do not believe any of us, except for Roberto, wanted to go to Lebanon, but we kept our feelings inside. They say that the landscape is beautiful in Lebanon. We climbed into the bus and drove down from Tzfat. We dropped off some girl-soldiers in Tiberius and continued on to Haifa to receive our duffle bags and rifles. We will sleep overnight on the grass in our sleeping bags. In the remaining light I have time to be alone with my thoughts. I do not know what will be. I am quietly apprehensive, but not yet afraid. I will deal with that later. I do not want my sons to go through what I am going through3. I feel sorry for Talma, who must be far more anxious than I. I look around me. Eli, always the funny one, has not told a single joke single joke since we got on the bus this morning.
Lebanon: 26 July – 4 August 1983
Tuesday, 26 July 1983
Last night I heard that Aley in the Shouf mountains where the Druse and Christians are constantly shooting at each other with the Israelis playing monkey in the middle. Moshe came back from the Shouf visibly shaken; shelling every night – impossible to sleep. But why write about it now, when I still know nothing about it? Soon I’ll be able to experience it for myself in the first person singular. People around me are starting to wake up after sleeping the night on the grass of the Haifa camp. Some are still sprawled on the ground, not having been bothered about the amenities of a sleeping bag stuffed in the bottom of their duffle bags. I had lain my sleeping bag over five duffle bags rolled together like a motel water-bed caught in mid-wave. Those who are up look around at the others, many of whom they had never seen before yesterday afternoon. They are sizing up the people around them. Will this one crack up? Will I be able to depend on him? This one looks like a sissy. Why is he smiling in his sleep? Probably someone is also looking at me and wondering what I am writing and what kind of person keeps a journal. Will he break? My God, I honestly don’t know.
I woke up this morning with the warm sunlight on my eyelids around 4:30 a.m. I showered and began the characteristic military behavior of waiting around. At 8:00 a.m. we left the base by bus and drove to a target range north of Akko (Acre) to check our rifles. I emptied a magazine in the general direction of the target. Then we drove to the Haifa airport to wait for our flight to Lebanon. Around noon we were bussed to Kibbutz Usha near Kiryat Ata for a very nice lunch. Afterwards we returned to the airport to wait. We finally took off in a C-130 prop at about 4 p.m. and landed in Damour at 4:30. As we ran out of the back of the plane the heat around the propellers scorched my skin and eyes. We road in a convoy of “safaris” (2.5 ton trucks – I think we called then duce-and-a-halfs in the US Army) to Aley arriving just before 7:00 p.m. On the way we saw Lebanese soldiers and a Phalange base. As we made the final turn up the winding road between Beirut and Damascus into the Israeli encampment, the guy sitting next to me said we were home now and we didn’t have to be afraid anymore. His name was Shalom and he had been here four times already. I guess I had been too dumb to be afraid along the way. We will be eating and sleeping overnight at an impressive villa taken over by the Israelis for headquarters.
Wednesday, 27 July 1983
I am writing this entry in the remaining light. Today was a day of getting to know our surroundings, getting used to things, and getting acquainted with people. Nothing much happened, thank God. We were assigned our rooms. I am next to a window with a beautiful view of Beirut and the surrounding mountains. I sat at the telephone switchboard awhile, watching the talking spaghetti. I went to the “sometimes” kiosk just outside the gate to get a Pepsi. Luckily, somebody who spoke both Hebrew and Arabic was there to translate. The price in shekels (the owner accepted Israeli money) was cheaper than at an Israeli PX. The area around our camp is totally Druse. Yesterday evening a Druse came up our steps to talk to us. He told us about the former owner of our villa, a Kuwaiti prince. Unfortunately, the Druse fellow only spoke Arabic. He was a funny character dressed in white, the loose pants with a low crotch, and a hat which was a cross between a skull cap and a fez.
Thursday, 28 July 1983
So far, today has also been rather uneventful. Several people left for a weekend at home. I called Talma. We heard some katyushas fired down the mountains. The day has been a bit cloudy and pretty cool temperature-wise. I worked on the switchboard alone for the first time. It’s not so difficult but there is a lot of pressure. In another two hours I will have guard duty on the mag (machine gun). It is true that one becomes acclimated to any situation, even on the Shouf mountains. My existence here is surreal. One can live under tension only so long and then the tension disperses. Sitting on the over-stuffed easy chair behind the mag, I watch a young shepherd boy climb up a tree to pull down pine sprigs for his sheep to eat. He could have been an enemy for all his suspicious behavior; he could have been my son. The sunset spilled a golden path over the waters igniting Beirut in a soft glow.
Friday, 29 July 1983
Boredom sets in. Soldiers look for any way to kill time. Boredom is the flip-side of anxiety. I heard that this villa had been taken over by the PLO before we got it. Many of their victims are buried in the grounds here. In the morning it was sunny and hot. Now in the afternoon the clouds roll in low and it is a bit cool.
We are forbidden from sitting at any of the kiosks near our encampment or talking to any of the local people. We are allowed to buy what we want (Soap, soft drinks, etc.) quickly and get the hell out of there. Obviously it is hard to formulate any accurate impression of these people – all Druse on our part of the mountain at least. What I can say is that they seem quite indifferent about us. Young children walk under my gun emplacement on their way to school, sachels and cream-blue jackets, without looking up. Just down the hill, a girl and her younger brothers are throwing pine cones and washing laundry with a water hose. Smiles for each other, absorbed in their play, and oblivious to me. They just don’t seem to care that we are here or maybe they feel secure.
The villa we occupy has three floors and a flat roof for sunning and taking in the view of Beirut and the sea. There are lots of rooms, each with its own toilet and bath facilities, although most of them don’t work properly. We have a corner room on the third floor with a tall ceiling and a magnificent view through the trees and down the mountain. One is impressed, not so much by what the villa is today, but what it once was: columns and porticos. Today it is filthy and run-down. Garbage piles up and overflows down the steps. The stench from the bathroom persuades us to keep its door closed. The walls and ceiling are peeling and covered with graffiti and sexy pictures. In another six weeks we will pull back to the Alwali River. I wonder who will take over our quarters? Druse, Christians, PLO, or Syrians – certainly not the Lebanese army or the Americans. Blood will fill the vacuum which we will leave. I think of those children I watched this afternoon and wonder whether they will also be indifferent to the new occupation army or whether they will survive at all.
Saturday, 30 July 1983
How easy boredom dissipates and fear becomes naked. Last night we were placed on high alert as the Syrians had begun shelling Israeli positions along the front. Our villa is about two miles from the Syrian army. We were told to sleep with our protective vests, steel helmets, and ammo pouches beside us. I was able to sleep, in spite of the heavy shelling during the night, and woke up in the morning. Today there was some light arms fire down the hill, a few canons talking to each other. Some children waved to me and smiled big smiles.
Sunday, 31 July 1983
Today I went on escort duty to help provide fire cover and protection for the regular army linesmen while they searched for the source of a problem on a phone line near the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line. I could see the Syrian-occupied villas across the valley on the other side of the Beirut River. Our forward position didn’t look very impressive, but if it impressed the Syrians it was good enough for me. After awhile it became clear that the search for the problem would take too long, so the regulars decided to lay down new line instead. On the way back, a long cavalcade of local cars passed us and turned sharply up the hill. The cars were covered with flowers and honking constantly. Fifteen minutes later, we heard shots very close to us. I jumped for cover and took up position with my rifle pointing in the direction of the fired shots. The regulars had a good laugh at my expense. “They’re shooting! They’re shooting!” they shouted and laughed. Later I read that it is customary at Lebanese weddings to fire their weapons into the air.
Monday, 1 August 1983
We started a six-man chess tournament among the linesmen today. I traced a map of Beirut and our area in Lebanon in order to orient myself. Tonight Hanan Yuval came to our compound to sing to us. It was very nice. Three kids who belonged to the kiosk owner were standing near the improvised stage listening. One of the children asked a soldier who happened to be standing beside him whether they might be permitted to sit on one of the benches among the soldiers. The soldier nodded yes. Another soldier lifted the smallest of the children onto his lap. Later on, one of the older kids ran back to the kiosk and brought back pita-bread and Pepsi for some of the soldiers.
Tuesday, 2 August 1983
At breakfast I sat at a table between two reservists. Each one silently reached over my plate to get the salt or the tomatoes, never asking for the object of desire. I noticed the guy to my left take bread and look over at the margarine to my right, so I handed it to him quickly. To my surprise and consternation when he finished spreading the margarine he reached back over my plate to return it to its former place, his hand carelessly grazing the food on my plate.
I heard in the morning that the Phalangists are infiltrating our area in preparation for our departure. Today one of the soldiers in our area was wounded by Syrian shelling. We went to sleep on high alert tonight.
Wednesday, 3 August 1983
We received a debriefing from our commanding officer. Barring a real state of emergency, we should be homeward bound tomorrow. The Aley Linesmen Chess Championship ended in the following order: Alex, Vio, me, Roberto, Steve, and Natan. I made a gold cup out of an empty Lebanese pineapple juice can. The CO told us that our homebound odyssey will be an exact reverse of our Aley-bound odyssey.
Thursday, 4 August 1983
A little after nine in the morning, my group left Aley on the convoy for Damour. We turned slowly onto the twisting shell-pocked Beirut-Damascus road. At every point at which the road curved, an Israeli tank stood guard. Other than one explosion along the way, the trip was uneventful although silently tense. I was smart enough to be afraid this time. We rode around the outskirts of Beirut to the south. As we were passing the Beirut International Airport, I saw an American flag and the US Marine barricades across the long field. A strange feeling came over me. I wanted to stand up and shout across the field, in my most exaggerated American accent, “Hey! It’s me, a fellow American!” but they were too far away to hear and probably were watching our convoy with a mixture of suspicion and indifference. This was where the US Marine captain had run across the railroad tracks and single-handedly, with only his service pistol, stopped three Israeli tanks on patrol. I tried to look as tough as I could until we arrived at Damour for the benefit of the locals who were watching us, but if someone waved, I always smiled and waved back. We were on the fifth flight out of Damour, on a Hercules again. This time I unrolled my sleeves and put on glasses to protect my skin and eyes from the super-heated air at the rear of the plane. A half hour later we landed in Haifa and some kind people handed us popsicles as we passed through the gates. I changed my filthy sweaty uniform on the bus going back to the base in Haifa. After turning in our rifles and equipment we each boarded busses, our separate ways, home.
Friday, 5 August 1983
We had to return to Tzrifin to be released from reserve duty. We received certificates for National Insurance and were paid one shekel for each day of service. I donated my shekels to the army fund.
Saturday, 13 August 1983
My father-in-law held a Kiddush (a meal after prayer services) in honor of my safe return from Lebanon. The rabbi recited a prayer thanking God for my safe return from a dangerous trip abroad, an ancient but timely formula.
I was drafted into the Israeli Army Reserves from 1983 until 1996. I was sent to Lebanon one more time. Most of the time I drew border observation duty. In 1990 the army asked me whether I would be willing to take care of families of soldiers who had been killed in action or had died during their military service. I guess I was asked because of my BA in Psychology. I agreed and that is what I did during my reserve duty several weeks a year until I was released from the army in 1996. I continued to volunteer another two years in the same capacity.
I am sure there are as many Israeli Armies as there are Israeli soldiers. Still, having been in the fairly unique position of being in the US Army and the Israeli Army, I would say that the IDF is the most ethical army in the world, in so far as it is possible to be concerned with ethics while ducking bullets and protecting your buddies. War is not a Sunday school picnic.
1 My Hebrew was pretty basic back in 1983.
2 There was nothing of journalistic interest during the course. I learned a lot about military field telephone equipment but nothing more than that. That is why the first entry in this chapter starts with the end of the course.
3 My middle son, Ari, did time in Lebanon as a tank driver and my youngest son, Ayal, was an officer in the Combat Engineering corps in the territories. So much for a parent’s wishes…
Today I was listening to my favorite Saturday morning radio broadcast, Dr. Yitzhak Noy reading and commenting on interesting newspaper articles from around the world. I had just come back from walking Daisy and tuned in to the tail end of an article he read about these strange bursts of radio energy and how some astronomers at Harvard had suggested they might be alien space travelers zipping around our galaxy at close to the speed of light.
Well, since I didn’t think Harvard was your usual source of unsubstantiated “Abducted by UFO” headlines, my curiosity was piqued and I Googled some key words and phrases I remembered from the article Dr. Noy had talked about and found Fast Radio Bursts Might Come From Nearby Stars from 2013 and then Harvard Scientists Theorize That Fast Radio Bursts Come From Alien Space Travel from a couple weeks ago (March 9, 2017).
Why was I intrigued? Although the conspiracy theories about incarcerating little green beings with elongated heads in Area 51 or UFOs coming to us from millions of light years away just to make crop circles, mess with our minds, and leave before we can talk to them may very well be true, I tend not to believe them because there seem to me to be many alternate explanations that could be offered that would be just as good if not better. Remember Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation of those available to us is most probably the correct one. Here’s what intrigued me about the Fast Radio Bursts: since 2007 when they were first discovered by astronomers, nobody had ever come up with an explanation of how they could occur naturally. In other words, there were no other competing theories. The Harvard researchers went one step further and used currently accepted engineering principles to show how an alien technology could propel space craft weighing a million tons at 20% of the speed of light and be visible to us in the frequency and amplitude our radio telescopes recorded.
Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about this particular speculation about Fast Radio Bursts. If you want, you can read the articles yourselves. But the articles did get me thinking about what other kinds of conjectures might be made.
So, without further ado …
The Stone Conjecture:
- Life is probably pretty common in a mature universe. The first generation of stars after the Big Bang were made of relatively simple elements, but subsequent generations of stars were composed of increasingly heavier elements in a variety of configurations. Atoms of various elements bound together into increasingly complex molecules, giving rise to organic molecules. When the circumstances proved adequate, organic molecules combined into organelles and cellular structures igniting the engine of life. Cells differentiated into colonies of specialized organs giving rise to plants and animals on our planet to adapt to its ecosystem. When the variety and complexity of these adaptive systems reached a critical mass, consciousness arose and then self-consciousness. The same kinds of processes probably happened with other kinds of systems in other kinds of ecosystems randomly occurring around our galaxy and others throughout the universe. A system beyond a certain level of quantity, variety, and complexity would be unlikely to remain integrated in a dynamically changing ecosystem over a certain period of time without developing self-consciousness. Entropy would cause the system to break down. This is what happens when we die.
- Given #1, self-conscious life that developed significantly before us would possibly be significantly more advanced than us. The stars in the center of our galaxy probably gave rise to civilizations far more advanced than civilizations in our solar system located pretty far out along an arm of our galaxy. Our local star was created long after the stars clustering around our galactic center. What I’m talking about is only orthogonal to the Kardashev scale.
- There may be more dimensions of space than the three we perceive. Given #2, an advanced civilization might know whether there are more than three dimensions and take advantage of those dimensions in traveling from one point to another or they would perceive only the three dimensions of space that we perceive.
- Given #3, if space spreads out over more than the three dimensions we perceive, then an advanced alien civilization would either know the short cuts through higher dimensions from one point to another or know how to warp one of the observable dimensions to access hyperspace.
- As far as we can see with our telescopes pointed in every direction from the vicinity of our planet, there is something: meteors, moons, planets, stars, and galaxies. What we can’t see is probably dark matter. These are all potential obstacles for us to travel in a single vector at or near the speed of light. In other words, in order to avoid running into these obstacles we’d probably have to slow down our speed significantly and jinx up, down, left, or right, to go around.
- If there are only the three dimensions we perceive, then traveling through the galaxy at close to the speed of light would require tunnels of emptiness through our galaxy. Tunnels of emptiness through our galaxy or any other would not appear naturally. It might be an indication that an advanced civilization had ploughed that tunnel to allow near light speed travel. Travel between galaxies at light speed could probably be made without tunnels because the space is mostly empty. Of course there is the issue of dark matter, but current theories posit that matter does not interact with dark matter. See Why Doesn’t Dark Matter Interact with Ordinary Matter.