An Unclean Break

Image: Antoine Bruy, from “Scrublands”

By Joanna Chen

A parachute appears, floating in a cloudless sky. It lands with a bump in the sand. A small figure unhitches herself, climbs to her feet. She pauses, brushes sand off her blue jeans. That girl is me and I have come back to the same spot where I landed in the Negev desert as a teenager, to remember.

I have been putting off coming here for a long time. I book a room at the Field School, then cancel, then rebook. The man answers me tiredly the third time I call, reeling off what the room has to offer: bunk beds for six, sheets and towels, an air-conditioner I later discover does not work. That’s it. Do I want it or not. When I lived there as a student in high school, it was a small room littered with clothes, cigarette stubs, a faded curtain blown by the hot desert wind in an open window. The view is the same. I used to lie on my bed and look through the window at the white of the wadi overlooking my room. Now my son is here, in another building, probably still asleep, perhaps shifting slightly in the bed as he sleeps. It soothes me to think he is there; when I think of being here without him I’m filled with the old fears of being engulfed by a desert landscape that became a metaphor for despair.

I was sixteen years old when I came to the desert, a lanky figure in a Hard Rock Café sweatshirt my parents bought me in London the night before my flight. It was late morning when I arrived, November, way too hot for anything more than a t-shirt. I did not take the sweatshirt off. I had a blue backpack with me, also new, filled with clothes that had been ironed and neatly folded by my mother. In my backpack a tin of Quality Street Chocolates had been wedged in at the last moment, thrust into my hands by my father. “Give these out,” my father said. “You’ll make friends this way.”

The cab driver slowed down as we reached the campus. Finally, he stopped outside a flat-topped gray building. I was sitting in the passenger seat, clutching my backpack. He turned to me. Cleared his throat. “This is where you get out,” he said half-apologetically. It was my second visit to Israel, my previous one just weeks earlier when my parents surprised me with a two-week vacation. A break, they said, from all the sorrow. They wanted me to enjoy myself. And now, my first encounter with the desert that would last almost two years.

The night before the flight, I heard my aunt arguing with my mother in the kitchen. Don’t do this, my aunt said. But my mother had already made up her mind. The family business bankrupt, my brother Andrew dead in a motorbike accident, she was determined to make a fresh start and I was to be the first step, sent ahead to a boarding school in the middle of the Negev desert in southern Israel. My mother claimed she and my father had nothing left but I, in fact, had a lot: a school I enjoyed, lots of friends, a home I loved and felt safe in. And they had me, I remember thinking, puzzled as to why they would decide to send me away. Years later, a family friend told me she thought I was excited about leaving for a new country. Excited? I said. I was terrified. I don’t think I even realized I was walking out the door and never coming back.

I reconstruct those first steps. I do it alone. It has to be alone. I breathe in the air, already hot and still at ten in the morning. Even air has a color in this desert. You have to be here a long time to recognize it, a transparent, tangible brown, reflecting the earth under my feet. I tread carefully. The walk to the flat-topped school building is shorter than I remember. This is where I walked the day the cab driver let me out of the car, my backpack hoisted onto one shoulder. No one to make introductions with the school principal, a wizened old man with copper-rimmed glasses who looked over his desk at me and shook his head. Go home, he said, there’s no room for you here. I have no home to go back to, I said, and there was a pause and I have paused a thousand times since then.

That pause was similar, I suppose, to all of the others that occur routinely: adjusting the collar of your shirt with one hand before entering a room, or the split second before you drop the bag into the garbage, the parachute suspended in air, or the way honey looks before it falls off the spoon, the way it holds, the way it glistens, its perfect form, or the quiet as you enter the water and you cannot see anything, just millions of air bubbles and blue. This pause was only different in that it signaled a complete break from all of the routines I had known.

Perhaps this was the moment I realized that my home was gone, my friends were gone, my brother was gone, my old life deleted. After several phone calls in Hebrew he reluctantly told me to join the other students in their rooms. I picked up my backpack and walked in the direction he pointed me in. I retrace these steps as well. It’s a short walk that felt at the time like forever.

I had never done anything on my own. I had lived a sheltered life, went to a private girls’ school, wore a school uniform with a tie and never smoked a cigarette in my life. In his introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert, the mystic Thomas Merton outlines the conditions upon which the Desert Fathers, monks who chose solitude, built their lives: “You have the characteristic of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one’s life into an apparently irrational void.” As I read these words today I know that the time I spent in the desert was my unchosen clean break, my irrational void, although not the void implied by Merton.

Everything was different here: a mixed boarding school of English-speaking students from Canada, the US, Zimbabwe, Australia. They all came from broken families, or so it seemed to me. I quickly learned to be like them: I smoked dope behind the bathrooms during class breaks, drank cheap wine in the evenings, had sex with more guys than I care to remember and jumped out of the classroom windows when I was bored or wanted a smoke. At night, the boys played poker. There were whispers of abortions; one classmate discovered she was pregnant too late and was sent away to a kibbutz. She returned, without the baby. We never talked about it. No one around us seemed to care as long as we didn’t disrupt campus life for others living there. We lived in a social bubble where there were no rules, only the soundtrack of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Nash, Jesus Christ Superstar or Van Morrison playing full blast in the background. Once, my roommate and I ran away to Eilat, about 100 miles south of the campus, but no one seemed to care.

In my second year, there were occasional raids on our rooms for drugs. This didn’t bother us. We dropped the bottles, the dope and stash of smoked turkey stolen from the school dining room into the wadi. We studied rarely; I thought about the life I had left behind less and less. There was no one who had known me before I came, no one familiar with Andrew, or the shame of bankruptcy when bailiffs came to the house and took away my father’s red Rover, no one who remembered the long walks on the Yorkshire moors we would take on rainy Sundays. Eventually, I couldn’t remember either.

My parents came to Israel a few months later. In my absence, they had packed up the house, sold it, and put our dog, Biscuit, to sleep. The house, I learnt later, was jointly owned by both my parents so was not taken. By that time, I was deep into my new life. I clung to it and in doing so turned my back on my parents. There was no real home to return to. My parents lived in a one-room apartment in an absorption center on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. I would get on the bus to Beersheva and from there would travel to Tel Aviv, not to my parents but to the beach, where I slept. There was a drug dealer there who sold us hash and speed. Other supplies were bought in the Old City of Jerusalem. We’d stock up for the weeks that lay ahead of us.

I wrote to my friends back in England for a few weeks, but eventually stopped. There was no point. Gradually, their faces faded and I forgot about them.

The desert covers everything with its vastness. Sometimes I wandered to the edge of the wadi at night and stood there, looking down into the darkness. Sometimes, through the dark, I saw a parachute, floating softly through the sky.

Two years later, the school closed down. I moved to Jerusalem and enrolled in university for lack of anything better to do. I stopped relying on dope to get through the day, stopped drinking, rented an apartment with two British students, and began studying English literature and communications. This was a choice made out of necessity. After two years in Israel, I still did not speak Hebrew and so my options were limited. I felt alien to the people I shared bus rides with. I stubbornly refused to learn Hebrew, blocked my ears to what people were saying. English, I would say, shaking my head. I didn’t follow the news, not back then. I buried myself in literature and friends. I had no Zionist background, although I was Jewish. People gave me funny looks when I told them I didn’t care about that stuff, and that coming to live in Israel was not my own choice. I visited England every year and still felt more at home there, although I knew I didn’t belong any more.

The change came when I met Raz in the university library. He was different. Tall, smart, he told me quite early on in our relationship that he had not served in the Israeli army for ideological reasons. We conversed at first in long pauses. I told him I understood Hebrew, although it was obvious I had zero language skills. Do you understand me? he would ask. Ken, I would answer, not understanding but wanting to speak his language and wanting to understand where he was coming from. Slowly, the words began to make sense and my world opened out. The walls of silence I had built came down and I began to be aware of people outside my immediate circle. Who are the Arabs I travel with on the bus every day, the ultra-religious Jews who won’t sit next to me, the bus driver? Gradually, I changed direction, beginning to question the people I lived with. I worked with children in a psychiatric hospital, and then moved to work in a halfway house with young women in distress. For a time, I felt comfortable with these young people who did not fit in.

Eventually, I took advantage of my studies in communications and landed a job with the Middle East bureau of Newsweek. As my work progressed, I began opening doors, crossing other people’s checkpoints. By that time I had built a family of my own, together with Raz. Today, I live in an area surrounded by forest and hills, a landscape so different from the desert.

It’s the distance that brings me to those tiny details that cannot be distinguished close up, when the sand is not sand but a myriad of microscopic stones that have eroded away for thousands of years. Each one tells not a story but what really happened: to others, to me. I bend down, scoop up a small, polished pebble with a single crack. I place it in the pocket of my jeans. I will put it back, but later.

During my time at boarding school, we were discouraged from contact with others; the kids in the Israeli high school on the same desert campus were out of bounds for us and we grew used to this to the degree that it became an accepted norm, an invisible wall that barred any dialogue. The school claimed to promote assimilation of Jewish youth to Israel. It had the opposite effect on me. Being cut off physically from my family and friends only served to increase the gap. Surely this is what a concrete wall of separation dividing Israel from the West Bank does? The fact you cannot see others does not mean they do not exist, breathe, go about their lives. I suppose it is possible to dragz on like this for centuries but this is not peace: it is stagnation where the wounds of war fester in imagined and supposed isolation.

Since beginning this essay, I’ve taken several trips down to the desert. My memories wait for me there but also my son, Daniel. In a certain kind of closure for me, he asked to study there in an Israeli boarding school that specializes in environmental studies. He is fifteen years old, just one year younger than I was when I first went there. At first, I refused. Let me go, he said to me in one of the many arguments we had. It’s your trauma, not mine. He was right, of course. As I get into the car, I think of him, waiting for me in the parking lot.

This last time I travel down there, I am ready. It feels about time to make my peace with the rocks, the pale wind, the vastness. GPS is essential for me, even though I have made this journey countless times both as a teenager in a dusty, creaking bus and as an adult in my own car with my own family. You can get lost in the desert because everything looks the same and the road stretches out for miles and miles with no distinctive features.

But I am learning to distinguish between them, slowly. A cluster of low trees to the left, a dip in the road and a steep climb back up, a makeshift parking lot with a lookout point where you can watch the sun set pink over the world.

We walk across the desert sands, away from the campus, a bitterly cold wind blowing in our faces. The ground is damp from the recent January rains and there are scattered succulents, peeping green out of the earth. We begin to climb up the steep wadi, Daniel grabbing my hand and pulling me up. We do this for twenty minutes or so and I begin to wonder how I will ever get back down.

The ground becomes drier as we climb, less yielding to the weight of our footsteps. When we reach the top, panting for breath, the cracked ground flattens out into a wilderness. We share a bottle of water and Daniel admits he is not sure where the tents are. One of his school pals told him earlier that day to keep walking southwards and we would see it. There are no addresses in the desert. Sure enough, after a few minutes we see the encampment looming in the distance. As we draw closer, a woman exits one of the tents, her scarf flying, her hand waving in greeting. This is Majdalene, a sturdy, bright-eyed woman who has lived here all her life, a land that her family has lived on for generations but that remains unrecognized by the Israeli authorities. No electricity, no running water but still a warm welcome for my son and I on our strange pilgrimage. I carry a gift that Daniel suggested I bring, a carrot cake I made earlier that day. It is still faintly warm from the oven. We enter one of the tents. A fire burns in the middle of the tent and thick smoke rises from the embers. She pats a bare mattress and we sit down obediently. A dusty television sits in one corner of the tent; tattered sheets flap in the desert wind. Sweet tea arrives, and fresh labaneh made from goats’ milk. Majdelene sits on an upturned crate, her right hand mixing flour, salt and water for pitta bread that she will make later on a round taboon over the fire.

Majdalene lived here, across the wadi, at exactly the same time as I lived here, but we never met. Now we meet. We speak in a mixture of broken Arabic, Hebrew and English. She calls me binti, my daughter, and I laugh because she is ten years younger than I am and my mother has been dead for three years. She reaches out with her free left hand and strokes my cheek. Her fingertips are rough on my skin and they linger there for a moment.

Before we leave, we follow her to an empty goat shed where Majdalene disperses stale bread and matzot. They will be coming home soon, she says, gazing into the distance, her dough-caked hand shielding her eyes. We hear the goats before we see them, their hooves pounding over the ground as they rush for the shed like children coming home from school. Majdalene clicks her tongue and calls to the stragglers in a low guttural tone. Here’s Maya, she says, and Mina, and Rosa. They all have names, even the little ones on spindly legs, tails wagging.

I offer to pay for the tea, labaneh and pitta. I had prepared loose coins in the pocket of my coat for this. She shakes her head. Binti, she says, you do not owe me anything. We embrace, two women in the desert, and we take our leave, Daniel carrying my backpack as we begin the descent, leading the way.

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