The Absurd Regions

Below is the complete reportage — published here in English for the first time on my literary website — that was published originally years ago in Hebrew, on the pages of ‘Iton77;’ the literary, cultural Israeli magazine. It was titled ‘The Absurd Regions’ back then, and was comprised of twelve separate vignettes, reflecting my lyrical impressions of the ‘First Lebanon War’ of 1982-85, in which I participated. So here goes:

First Gathering
No smiles on the rough faces. The regular questions: How things? How’s life? The answers are heavy, occasionally harsh: shit, life’s in the dumpster. Ninety percent of our battalion’s command personnel identify with the ‘Peace Now’ movement. Objecting to the war. Objecting to the stay in Lebanon. Detesting what’s require of them to do next. One of the officers demonstrated yesterday in front of the Prime Minister’s house in Jerusalem. Before that, he marched from Rosh HaNikra up north to Tel Aviv. His wife advised him not to come this time. Refuse to go. But he is here—of course he is. Maybe because his friends are here. Who is he that he will allow them to be fucked with this shitty job without him. Maybe for the sake of democracy he came. The democracy Sharon and Raful crushed when they started this war. It’s been proven already before that there are more important things than this war: you, me, son, daughter. Life.

Traveling
The visions passing by us reflect a mixture of the bizarre and the absurd. Beautiful countryside, on the one hand: the small villages are cuddled by the rolling hills, while the mountains merge so nicely with the scenery and don’t bite at it, like some of our mountains do back home. On the other hand, dirt and filth everywhere. Ecology is a nonexistent word in the local jargon. Here, one does as one pleases.

It’s harvest time now. The small fields in the bottom of the hills are harvested using sickles, and the sheaves are gathered by hands. An old combine then sorts the wheat grains apart and fill the air with golden dust, fog like. Peaceful cows are grazing in the meadows. The shoulders in the narrow roads are littered with potholes. And with old cars, scattered about here and there. One of them, you know that, is a death trap waiting for you.

Lawless Country
In Lebanon there are no taxes; no licenses; no one pays for electricity. Teenagers drive the cars on the roads. Kids drive the tractors, with dark covered women walking beside them, majestically balancing sacks of wheat grains and tobacco leaves on their heads. New, shiny vehicles zoom by, passing by old ones whose guts are exposed.

Muslims, Christians, Druzes, Shiites and Khomeini supporters coexist in this country side by side. Mixed multitude. And there are, of course, the Christian Militia and the Chadad Falangists. The latter are the road-robbers of this country. They reside under the shade of the Israeli Army’s camps and wear its uniform. “Tell me who your friend is, and I will tell you who you are.” So say the soldiers here, who play bad cops in this grotesque drama.
The circle is rounded and closed with the UN soldiers from Holland, France, Senegal, Ireland… you name it. Some are friendly to us; some hate our guts and look down on us. A black soldier wearing blue uniform and brown overcoat stands in attention in a remote, forgotten ravine. His rifle is erect in his arms. No enemy in sight, though. He belongs, like all of us, to a different world.

The Village Women
Before sunrise the women of the village go out into the small tobacco fields that close in on their houses. They pluck the green leaves and put them in their brown sacks. After that, in full morning light, they carry the sacks on their heads to the houses. There, with their children, they sort the leaves and hang them on thin ropes to dry them up in the hot sun. Later still, they will milk the cows, lead them out into the field to graze, feed the children and clean the houses. They shoulder their responsibilities with primeval dedication.

The husbands, meanwhile, will enter their Mercedeses late in the morning, and will drive to town to attend to their businesses. Maybe visit the coffee house in a nearby village. Play backgammon there with friends and smoke the narghile. In the evening they will return home and receive from their dutiful wives what they’re owed: food, love, and respect. The Bible, in certain terms, is alive and well here.

Yoel The Handsome
Dead. Was killed in an accident on a treacherous road in one of Lebanon’s regions. A meaningless Lebanese accident—just like that. Those demonstrating in front of the prime minister’s home can add him to the list of the fallen. We spent six months, the entire army’s ‘Combat Officers Course’ together. He was the handsomest among us. In his kibbutz, Ayelet HaShahar (Morning Star) he left behind four orphaned children and a pregnant wife. They too, are among the casualties of this useless war.

The “Status of the Logos”
On our daily patrol we pass by the spot where three soldiers from the reserved battalion that preceded us on duty here were killed. One short burst of gunfire slaughtered them all. Luckily, we are still alive. For how long, though, it’s hard to say.

Back at our base, from the radio blaring in our kitchen tent, comes the voice of a scholarly literary critic, talking about the “Status of the Logos,” the “Sacredness of Art,” and “Esthetic Beauty.” It sounds as if the voice comes from a faraway country, whose residents, so it seems, are unaware of what their sons are up to here. “Dust to his feet we are,” so says the critic in regard to the poet he is talking about. And so are we, in regard to our country, our elders. So we climb on our armored vehicles. Load our guns. And off we go.

A Hand for Peace
The local population, so the papers back home told their readers, received the Israeli soldiers with cherries, flowers, and kisses in the air. The other side of the story is a lot less celebratory, and a lot more depressing. We don’t even receive smiles anymore. Only the kids, inexperienced in war and in politics, sometimes raise a hesitating hand for a wave as we pass on the road. They stand on the roads’ shoulders, littered with burned armored vehicles. Above them, swarms of bloodsucking mosquitos constantly hover.

A Dog Burial
A puppy was killed on the road. For the whole day he was lying dead on the roadside, and was beginning to stink. At the end, we were the ones to bury him. After a short hour, his mother found his burial place. She burrowed and excavated her dead puppy; exposing him again to the beams of the sun and the eyes of the world.

One of our soldiers committed suicide in a checkpoint. Those who knew him claimed he brought his troubles from home. Another soldier was sent to the “soul-health’s officer.” Those in the know said he brought his “mantel-sickness” from home. Last night, a soldier in the Border Brigade was killed in an ambush. Those who knew him said he loved the army more than he loved his home. His funeral service and burial followed the required Army protocol.

Settlement Number One
One of our provisional bases has turned into a settlement. The details, of course, are secret. But in principle, what has begun as a temporary position on the sideroad meant to protect soldiers from guerillas, turned into a permanent basis. They took possession of an olive orchard despite the local owner strong objections. Tents were raised and stakes were hammered into the ground; a fence was stretched and a flag was raised; showers were installed and latrines were dug; armed positions were built and weapons were placed in them. The commander of this new base, who comes from a left-leaning kibbutz, found it difficult to acquiesce. But his superior commander has decided so. And the silent objector, though his conscience has kept bothering him, hasn’t refused the order. That the way he was brought up in his kibbutz.

To See and To Live
A roadside munition exploded not far from here. Two soldiers were killed and sixteen were injured. Two of them critical. The mother of Amir from kibbutz Shamir—who was killed in that attack—was also killed by terrorists. Amir hated this war. He sensed it would kill him. But he didn’t refuse to come. He enlisted and died. On his bed, in his small room, he left his guitar…
A respected journalist from a very popular newspaper arrived at the sensational terrorist attack’s location, where the 70-killograms roadside explosion threw a truckload of soldiers 20-meters away. She came to see the charred remains of the truck. There was hardly a word about the dead in her report. She now sips cafe au lait at a breezy, trendy coffee place on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. Maybe noshing on a cold watermelon.

My Commander
My commander is 50-year-old. His head is balding, his eyes are in need of glasses constantly. His reserve duty service is voluntary. In his civil life he is a high-school principle. He leads by personal example: stands on duty-guard at nights with his soldiers, goes out on patrols, sweeps the yard, and washes the dishes. He never raises his voice. Sometimes he is on the point of losing control of his nerves, but quickly regains control and resumes his duty. My commander is truly an exceptional person. He hates the war in Lebanon. He even said that much to a governmental security committee inquiring about the war. He stated that what’s being done to us here is equal to the Biblical story of “Uriah the Hittite.” Generally, he hates army life and wars. So why the hell is he here?

Finale Party
Darkness. True darkness. Our replacement soldiers are here with us already. The night is full of stars. The skewers are on the fire. The coffee is on the coals. The dog is yelling. She senses that we are leaving. The Georgian and the Bedouin are brothers; the Persian and the Yemenite are brothers; the American and the Moroccan are brothers; the Ashkenazy and the Sephardic are brothers. It is a true situation—believe it or not.

The jokes and the laughter fly with the burning sparks into the night. We sing “How beautiful the nights in Canaan,” and “Hey to the South,” and “My flak-jacket is my Lover.” Since the war-songwriters didn’t write any war-songs this year, only the wrath-poets wrote wrathful-poems, the soldiers are forced to write their own songs. So we sing the most known soldiers’ song of this war, with one additional stanza of mine:

Go down on us airplane, take us fast to Lebanon; we will fight for general Sharon, and come back home in a coffin.
How it happened that the conquest, suddenly turned into defeat; you should ask the pawn, deep in the king’s carton.

At the ‘Finale Party’ of the previous company they didn’t sing. They didn’t tell jokes and didn’t roll laughter into the air. At their ‘Finale Party’ they stood in attention. A moment of silence for three of their comrades who got killed.

We were lucky so far, but for how long…

The next day, late at night, we passed the Rosh HaNikra checkpoint at the border, crossing from north to south, from Lebanon to Israel.

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