My sister and I left Jerusalem yesterday mid-morning, made a stop to visit with a niece living in a settlement on the West Bank, and came down to the Dead Sea.
Settlement. That’s the political word describing it, no two ways about it. I gather there’s a tentative agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that in case a two-state solution can be reached, Israel will keep three areas of the West Bank in exchange for other territory given to Palestine, and her town lies in one of those three areas. But for now, there is no agreement, so settlement it continues to be.
She has a beautiful 3-story home overlooking the desert, the bottom of which is rented out to weekend vacationers while she lives in the other two with her husband and five children. They are among many young families that couldn’t afford to live in big cities like Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv, and the Israeli government, with subsidies and incentives, made it favorable for them to move into the West Bank.
Many people think it’s only Israeli ideologues who live in the West Bank, but in truth, many young people find it economically viable, where they could have the American dream and own a home, as they’ve told me. Over the years I’ve watched families take root there, their children unable to conceive that the home where they were raised could ever become part of another country.
We drove back onto the highway, flew down past the sign saying You are at sea-level, past Bedouin children guiding goats up the barren hills, feeling the temperatures climb steadily, a welcome change to Jerusalem which is high up and cold. Past the left turn to Jericho , past more left turns to the Bet Sh’an Valley and signs to the Allenby Bridge (closed to all but Palestinians crossing from Jordan to West Bank), till we reached the big service area at the very bottom before the right turn that takes us alongside the Dead Sea.
Traditionally we stop here, and that’s where I took the photo above. They made me fresh orange juice from half-a-dozen small oranges and I watched the peels collected carefully in a plastic bag. Compost, I wondered? I came outdoors for the warm, welcoming sun and watched those same peels being fed to the camel that happily pushed its head across the barrier to gobble them up. The place is completely staffed by Hebrew-speaking (and English-speaking) Palestinians, though the service area is owned by a nearby kibbutz.
I didn’t need the camel to know I was in the Dead Sea. It’s not just the lowest body of water on earth, it’s also the lowest point on earth, more than 1,300 feet below sea level. The Sea itself is ten times saltier than the ocean, so that you don’t swim there, you float naturally.
“Do not splash in,” I warned a friend of mine from Czech Republic years ago when I brought her here, but she ignored me, and instead of wading in slowly and carefully like everyone else, she threw herself in, getting heavy sulphury water into her eyes. She cried for the rest of the day.
We drove south, the Sea on one side and the Judean Mountains—where mystics roamed years ago and people lived in celibate spiritual communities and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls—on the other. It’s probably my favorite drive in the world.
We’ve come down here often, sometimes for an overnight, more often for two nights. Bernie and I would come down to one of the hotels on the Sea and bring my mother along for the weekend, a tradition for many years. Now it’s my sister and I. It’s an expensive couple of days, especially if you add massage or facials, but I never say no.
You feel like you’re closest to the center of the earth. If the earth meditates, then this place is its hara, its very center. Here—due to the desert dryness and heat, and the water’s salinity—is where things slow down to a crawl. You can’t splash into the water, you can’t swim fast, you can’t walk fast. The body gets sluggish, doesn’t sweat, while you sit and contemplate Jordan across the Sea. You’re warned to drink lots of water.
In a place so hostile to life, life abounds. You can identify the mountain canyons by the green plants and cacti that lie by their openings, flooded by infrequent Jerusalem rains that gush down those canyons from miles away. Rare herbs can be located in the shadows thrown by big rocks and hundreds of kinds of fungi abound in the seabed.
It’s part of the Jordan Rift Valley and lies on a fault line that over the eons separated the African continent from the Arabian. The cluster of hotels, big as they are, is small compared to the pull and push of tectonic plates that altered the earth over millions of years and continues to do that now. Here is where you sense the awful power of the forces carving up the world, the scale of which has very little to do with what we think of as the Middle East.
I was going to write about the people who share this hotel with us, Jews and Arabs alike. But I think I will leave this for my next blog. Right now, as the sun sets behind the mountains on the west, leaving the Sea and Jordan in a velvet dark, I feel called to bear witness to something way more vast and mysterious. Here, closer to the center of the earth than any other place on earth’s surface, I sense deep forces at work.
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