Yesterday I found myself in an awkward situation. We left the house way too late for a day trip to Israel's Gan Hashlosha National Park (also called the Sachne) and arrived in the early afternoon to find the park overcrowded, hustling and bustling with thousands of people most of whom were Arab. I do not exaggerate when I say the park was overcrowded. There were simply too many people for the amount of shade, the size of the pools, the narrow strips of grass on the embankments and the toilet and garbage facilities provided. It was more like being at a concert than being at a park. Still we managed to find a piece of dirt (and again I do not exaggerate when I say dirt), under half the shade of a tree where we parked our stuff down, a little too close to the elderly Russian couple who had no doubt arrived at a more sensible hour and were now forced to share their space with our large and rowdy party.
Soon after we arrived a friend and I went in search of the toilets. The white tiled floors were covered in wet slimy brown mud (never a good look in a toilet), and none of the faucets delivered water, a seeming necessity in a toilet block, wouldn’t you say? Not to mention the long line of women waiting, none of whom would get to wash their hands. I shuddered to think what it was like in the adjoining men's block and wondered how many likeminded people decided instead to pee in the unsalted water pools in which we would spend the day swimming.
As we explored the park a little further we came to a narrow grass embankment on the side of one of the water pools where a large piece of shade presented itself. An old Arab man sat alone on a cooler box, smoking a colorful hookah amongst towels and bags that had been thrown down, camp style under a tree, but there was plenty of shade left over and with a respectful distance between us, (I estimated a mattress width), we could happily share the space. A dark blue mattress had been placed at the edge of their 'stuff' drawing a clear straight line down the grass, and a bright red cooler box sat right next to it reading like a full stop at the end of a sentence. In my mind, it was a clear and certain demarcation that would be recognized by both sides as a mark of the end of their space and the beginning of ours.
I suggested my friend return to our party, gather them up before they settle in the dirt and bring them to this better piece of land, where the grass was literally greener. I would stay to keep the spot. I threw my sandals off loosely marking out our territory and sat on the grass making myself as wide as possible without spreading my legs open, which I thought might offend my surrounding Muslim neighbors.
As I sat nervously awaiting the arrival of my friends, a young man approached the neighboring camp dragging a floral mattress with him which he promptly dropped down on the side of the red cooler box that had (in my mind at least) marked the boundary of our 'now disputed territory.' I wondered if he knew that he was transgressing this unspoken boundary, if he was making a political point, or if he was just insensitive to the cultural personal boundaries with which I had grown up. I looked up at him, and in my pathetic Ashkenazi accent I said something in Hebrew that loosely resembled "I have friends coming to sit here." And suddenly, in my mind, we were in Gaza.
By the time our party arrived, his entire extended family had joined him with babies and children and food and soft furnishings happily spilling out and over any semblance of the poetic boundary I had assumed in my head and claimed by my presence. So we did what all healthy Israeli's do; we ignored all regard for personal boundaries and set up our mats right next to the offending floral mattress that now marked the end of their space and the beginning of ours. We too had small children and way too much food and bags and drinks and cooler boxes all of which required protection from the sun and after all, weren't we all just people, enjoying time together with family and friends in the great outdoors of this National Park.
We ate, we swam, we drank and we dozed, as did our neighboring friends, both parties ignoring the contravention of unspoken socio-political boundaries that had played themselves out on this patch of wanted land. Later in the day, I noticed that the offending mattress had been moved leaving a respectful 'mattress width' distance between us, after all who wants to doze in a buffer zone?
And then an offensive smell floated across from the direction of our neighbors and I looked up to see a small child standing with one of those runny bowel movements only a child at a pool of water can do, running out of his little bathing suit and onto the patch of grass that sat between our two camps. We all looked up and laughed, not at the child, but at the situation, as we both moved our camps slightly over and away from each other and the offending odor. By now the afternoon sun had moved creating more than enough shade for everyone to spread out comfortably. The little boy's mother washed down the smell and threw a towel over to cover it and the rest of the afternoon was spent with a clear and smelly boundary between us, and a shared experience of the irony of life in the Middle East.
At the end of the day, like a scene from the film Jesus Christ Superstar, we all packed up our stuff and headed back to our cars. I looked around mortified at the rubbish that lay scattered across the grass embankments. 'Here in Israel, it's like this" my friend comforted me. It's interesting which of our 'rubbish' we choose to carry home with us in our beliefs and our thoughts, and which of our rubbish we choose to leave scattered across the grass of our shared National Pride.
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