It’s the nearness that astonishes me. Mythical names. Biblical names. Names that possess an otherworldliness that separates them from reality. And yet there they are now, right before my eyes as I survey the landscape. Jericho, Jerusalem. Across the Dead Sea, close, but just beyond reach.
On the drive down from Amman, the driver, Mohammed, had pointed out those other, more modern names, that spark a different, more tormented recognition. Ramallah, The West Bank.
I stare at the barren, hostile looking strips of land, places known to me only from television screens and news. Can this desolate landscape really be the source of so much turmoil?
It’s strange to see Israel is so close. I never thought about the proximity of Israel to its neighbours. Perhaps it is this which provokes so much of the apparent anxiety in the region.
As the car pushes on down the road, through the dust, I try to imagine the deeper reasons that exist here for loving this land, for coveting these surroundings, but my mind cannot tolerate the idea, cannot appreciate the emotional, political, religious, attachments that bind people to this place.
But then again, I am an emigrant. Someone who has abandoned their birthplace, and feels no powerful attachment to it. Perhaps it is simply not in my emotional fabric to understand what ties a person to a land.
I stare out the window, my gaze fixed on the shores of the West Bank.
The driver watches me in the rear view mirror and mistakes the intensity of my gaze.
“Are you okay? Should I stop the car?”
“Oh no, no I’m fine. I just didn’t realise how close Israel actually is. It’s surprised me.”
And immediately I realise my mistake.
70% of the Jordanian population are “West Bankers” the local term for Palestinians. How could I forget that?
“Palestine of course. I mean Palestine.”
The driver laughs “Palestine, yes, Palestine…”
And there’s a flatness to his voice that suggests that in different company, he would sigh at the mention of this name. Continue the conversation, reveal what is on his mind. But politeness and diplomacy silence him.
Ahead the road starts to wind its way downwards and I lean back into my seat and allow myself to move along with each bend and swoop to be lulled by the movement, when suddenly we pull to a stop.
“Here we are.”
It takes a moment to understand what it is I’m supposed to be looking at. A road sign that announces the descent towards the Dead Sea, 400 meters below sea level. The map outlines a strange hollow in the earth, some deep crevasse that has been hollowed out by unearthly means.
“The lowest point on earth.” Mohammed adds.
Even coming from Holland, the thought of it is bizarre and slightly disarming.
“You’ll feel your ears pop as we drive down, but don’t worry, this is normal.”
Down we go, and as my ears pop, I sit back and think of that. Normal. It’s not the word I would have chosen for this most unusual of places.
But if the Dead Sea seems strange from a distance, the close up reality of it surpasses the imagination.
As I stand by the shore the following morning, I realise nothing could have prepared me for the sight that lay before me.
The boulders and rocks that pepper the shoreline, have a glossy white gleam to them, like melted candle wax, the salt crystals encrusting them like a membrane, a skin, a living thing that I am initially unwilling to touch.
I gaze down and see the same crystals strewn around the ground by my feet and scoop up a fist sized chunk, turning it in my hand and marvelling at the sharp, multifaceted structure. As I turn it over in my hand, it catches the sun, the milky white opaqueness, glinting slightly, like a jewel. I lick it, and shudder slightly as the dry saltiness coats my tongue.
Up-shore, I watch a man as he chisels away at the rock, scratching the precious salt into a bucket.
And as I watch him, I realises that his is almost the only sound. There is no breeze to wash the water ashore. No wave or tide to force the water to lap against the shore.
Out on the water all is still. Even the people out there, float away so quietly, so still, as if alseep.
I slip off my sandals and wade into the water, trailing my fingers through the viscous liquid, and marvelling at the way it flows, so thickly through my fingers. Then a flop backwards and simply float, tingling as the salinity prickles and burns my skin.
I had thought the sensation would feel alien, unnatural. That buoyant weightlessness. But the opposite is true. The calm that washes over me at that moment, in that strange, still sea. The immediate emptying out of my mind. The dampening of the senses, is perhaps as close as it is possible to get to emptiness, in this world.
I lie there, turning in the water, absorbing that peace, as the mountains of the West Bank rise up before me and the turmoil there seems more improbable than ever.