[I took a free trip to Israel in winter 2012 as part of the sometimes-criticized ‘Birthright‘ program, which is an Israel/non-profit/private-funded trip for American Jews between age 18-26 to visit Israel. I would turn 27 shortly after the trip, so I got in just under the wire with Shorashim. It was a great opportunity (to be taken with salt, surely, because nothing in life is free), but my favorite parts of the trip were where we had opportunities to encounter Israel’s natural history. Politics aside, the Israel-section of the Mideast is a geological and biological treasure trove. I wrote the following story sometime in early 2013 in recognition of this.]
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The ibexes were out. We got to the kibbutz later than expected, hours after sunset, and that’s when I saw them.
I don’t know how long we’d been driving. I was out of it for most of the bus ride. Maybe there was bad traffic around Be’er Sheva. We had stopped there for lunch after our morning at the Havat MaShash farms. I thought it might have been the overstuffed shwerma that knocked me out, but my dreams weren’t the empty sort brought on by a big meal. Instead there was something like a gray, synaptic daze brought on by the dry heat of the Negev—that undulating, sepia skyline. I have a faint memory (fata morgana?) of a few Bedouin men wandering camelback through the hills, though there was a weatherworn Peter O’Toole lingering in the periphery of my dreamscape.
I came out of it later. There was a buzz. Other voices on the bus said the shimmers to our right were the lights of the magnesium refineries reflecting off the surface of the Dead Sea. If it was day, we’d be able to see across to Jordan. I tried to extract shapes from the darkness, but there were only those distant florescent orbs, blinking like stars. It was as if I’d swapped one twilight for another.
Soon forms came into view and the bus drove past the various resorts and spas lining the shores of the Dead Sea. They seemed mostly empty. It was still winter in Israel, which meant the temperature only hit 85 on a warm day and dropped to the low 40s at night. As a native Chicagoan, I’d take an Israeli winter over a Lake Michigan February any day.
We pulled into Kibbutz Almog. Like most of the kibbutzim in Israel, the commune once functioned as an mini-socialist-agrarian-utopia, but respondent capital insistence, Almob started to pay the bills by offering cheap hostel services to groups like ours: bleary-eyed Americans needing a place to crash before running off to the next thing. At the other kibbutzim we visited, many in our group would kill the dull night hours with alcohol and summer-camp flirtations, but this night, there was something heavier in the air.
Our guide was a thirty-something Israeli Defense Force veteran, as are most Israelis who aren’t ultraorthodox, Arab, or disabled. He looked like an older version of Encino Man, weathered by the Mediterranean sun. His home was in Tel Aviv. “Set your alarms for 4 a.m. tomorrow morning,” he said. “It’s a long climb, but it’s worth it.” He had done it a hundred times, and said this line at least that much.
Our goal was to catch sunrise from the top of Masada, a former Herodian refuge. It’s set on top of a 1,400-foot plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. According to Josephus, the Sicarii (Latin: knife men/contract killers), a group of anti-Roman Jewish Zealots, took claim to the refuge around 66 CE. They made it their home base for a few years, but were eventually isloated by the Romans. Rather than be taken alive and enslaved, the hold-outs killed themselves. A practical defeat, but an ideological victory, supposedly.
Though it only afforded five hours of sleep, 4 a.m. still seemed a long time off. We unloaded and laid claim to our respective rooms. I threw my luggage down on a random bunk, washed my face, and headed down to the mess hall to catch the tail end of dinner. Rice and tomatoes. The mess hall started to clear out as people split into their factions, embarking on their late-night rituals. I hung back to let my food digest. I knew I should get sleep, but after my afternoon reverie, there was no urge. I could smell the Dead Sea (mineral oil, milk of magnesia) through the open windows.
Outside a mineral haze hung low, thick. Saline molecules hovering like moths around porch lights. I found a secluded portico, beyond the welcoming center. The air was still, stirred by soft echoes of laughter and bats flying blindly through the trees. I felt content, alone. There was everything I had been told about Israel, and then everything I had seen—but there was nothing that intimated this.
I’m not sure how long I sat. I closed my eyes. After 2 minutes? 20 minutes? A sound snapped me out of it; a break in the night rhythm. Inhuman. An animal grunt. Not unfriendly. More of an announcement. An ibex emerged from behind the flora. Roughly the same size as the goats I’d seen on my friend’s farms growing up in Wisconsin, but more regal. Its semi-circular horns curved halfway across its body like scimitars. Black, opaque eyes and a little grey beard, like its American relatives. It gave me the same look a dog gives when it wants your scraps. I showed it my empty hands and shrugged. It snorted again, which I interpreted as an ibexian shrug.
Another ibex emerged from the darkness, and then another. They paid me no mind, but I still got the feeling that I left my meeting notes at home. They sniffed around, quietly scrounging. For a moment, I heard them speaking. Nothing that translated to the human language of rhetoric and fervor. It was gentler than that; placable and amoral. I began to feel like an intruder, and soon, I felt fatigued, as if I’d suddenly remembered my sleeplessness. I left the gathering and wandered back through the campus to my room, where my bunkmates had already turned down for the night. I took off my shoes and fell asleep in my clothes.
It was a slow, hot climb the next morning up the IDF-cut Snake Path on Masada. The haze still hadn’t receded, but we made it to the top just in time for the sun to peak over the Judean Hills on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. The rays ignited the lingering mist. Is this what the Sicarii watched and wondered at?
I walked to the summit, which reaches a mere 190 feet above sea level, and looked east. There were the ruins of the Roman ramparts and beyond those, endless desert canyons. A few vultures circled high above. On a distant escarpment, barely distinguishable from the striated canyon walls, I spotted a group of young ibexes, their horns still pointing upwards. They were casually exploring the cliffside, minding nothing. One wrong step would send them plummeting 800 feet to the desert floor, but this is a hard-wired capran habit. A goat climbs because, why not?
The air was growing hotter, sapping whatever moisture still lingered. I could almost taste the sun. I didn’t feel like an intruder watching the ibexes this time. Just an outsider.