We are zooming south on Highway 40 in Israel on our way to a hip B&B in the Negev desert, and my friend Yosefa who’s at the wheel doesn’t realize yet my heart is beating faster not in excitement, but in some undefinable, vague angst. We’re headed somewhere south of the small town of Mitzpeh Ramon and my friend, an Israeli woman recently returned after years in the U.S, where we met and raised our kids together, is driving confidently, rambling on about her memories of her days in the army, when she and her husband were young and in love, and she was based somewhere here in the desert. She is almost giddy and becomes increasingly animated, I can see the excitement in her eyes, and it seems that the deeper we delve into the curvy road and the sandy landscape with its moonlike dunes, the faster words like “freedom,” “open sky” and “happy” pour from her mouth. I, however, feel myself getting tenser in the passenger seat, expecting foes and mirages, rattle snakes and kidnappings at every turn. And there are many turns.
My worries do not stem from the many tensions the region has known since Intifadas and suicide bombings. It’s from a deeper place, seeds and images about deserts planted in my impressionable mind when I was a youngster growing up in Norway. From Westerns on TV or movies in the theater, mostly. You die from thirst and the merciless sun in the desert. Scorpions sting you, rattlers bite you, and you get lost. I don’t know. There are mysterious tribes there that will sell a blond woman for camels, right? The plethora of scary impressions confuse and fuse my imagination all at once, and if I let it take hold, it could get ugly.
“You know, Yosefa,” I say as she veers off to the side of the narrow road, as I grab onto the handlebar above the passenger side window, having a brief it’s now you’re going to die moment, “as much as you love it here, I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic.” The oncoming dusty and dented pickup truck barely skirts our side door whizzing by in the opposite direction, taking up part of our side of the road and not showing any sign of moving over as it approaches at lighting speed. Swarthy looking men crowded into the cab of the pickup sneer at us in passing. Or were they just smiling? “Ach, those Bedouins are crazy,” she yells, doing her best to get our SUV back on a smooth path. “I can’t wait to show you my country,” I add, “I’ll take you to the woods, and there, there you’ll smell the moist, delicious green of plush moss and sprawling evergreens, dripping sap and wet leaves.” Just talking about my native land’s natural beauty gives me courage to face the unknown dangers, doubtlessly lurking ahead in the barren landscape. My rapid breath even seems to slow, and I can almost feel the refreshing coolness of running water the way it rolls over rounded stones under fallen tree trunks in brooks deep in the Norwegian woodlands.
“The forest!? I can’t stand the forest!” she states bluntly. Yosefa always had a way with words. I look at her with a smile, because I am reminded of why it is that I love her so much as a friend. “All the forest reminds me of,” she continues, “is the Holocaust. Every association it brings is overshadowed by the memory of Jews hiding, running, being shot into mass graves, massacred…” she pauses. He father was the only one in his German family who got out in time. She grew up without any grandparents, and just a few uncles and aunts on her mother’s side, a Jew from England. Yosefa’s “memory” is that of her dead family’s, a phantom memory bequeathed her from the testimonies of others who survived, and whose stories allowed grand children to imagine the lives and deaths of the grandparents they did not yet have, since they were not yet born…
Along the way southward we stop at sights to hike around for a bit on trails leading into well know canyons and wadis, or historically significant spots to take it all in. Yosefa tells me stories, from her childhood, from Israel’s history or from the Bible, that all relate in some way to where we tread.
We eventually arrive at our destination without any other scary incidents, and as we settle in to the spa-like tzimmer, as the B&Bs are called here, our room stocked with boutique wine from a local winery and artisanal cheese from the neighboring farm, the sun sets over the dunes to the West, and I find my peace. Nestled into a cozy hammock suspended from the rafters above the stone patio of our private bungalow, it’s not difficult to relax and enjoy the surroundings. No doubt the glass of wine helps. Desert as far as the eyes can see; stars already twinkling in the dark blue sky; a stillness that so palpable it reverberates a sense of existential awe I feel privileged to notice. As Saint-Exupéry said in the classic The Little Prince: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
Yosefa has yet to come to Norway. When she does, I hope to share with her some of my favorite places including the deep green forest, where the smells, sights, and sounds are bound to impact her preconceived ideas. I will hold her hand and I will guide her. And I am pretty sure that eventually, the same intense beauty in the natural surroundings that I experienced in Israel – that in the end helped me break through some of my mental and emotional barriers given me as a child – will win her over. I am no longer scared of the desert, and my friend will overcome her dread of the forest. What are friends for, if not to be there for you when you break through mental and emotional blocks; to walk along by your side when you’re pushing yourself into new territories, while gently and playfully nudging you on? We may not have Bedouins in the forests in Norway, to make things interesting, but we do have trolls…