Friday 21 June, 2013 by Uncle Spike
This takes me back to 1988, a time when I was, hmm, shall we say, bumming around the world, seeking adventure, trying to find myself, blah, blah, blah…
At this time, I was working in the West Bank (Israel or Occupied Palestine: depending your political viewpoint), on a Moshav (farm) called Fatzael, some 25km north of the dusty streets of Jericho in the Jordanian Valley.
The farm had an interesting mix of Jewish settlers and local Palestinian workers. Although at the time it was just after the start of the original 1987 uprising, known as the First Intifada, it was a generally calm place, with a stable mutual co-existence. It was here that I learned so much about this region of the world, and it went on to shape my understanding of the regional conflicts, still ongoing, and no doubt it will probably always be so.
I worked for two families during my months there, one tended the banana plantation, and the other kept a large flock of goats and sheep. I’ve an interesting tale to tell about my adventures as with the goats, but that will be the subject of another post sometime in the future. For now, this story relates to my life and times working for a banana farmer.
I lived with three other fellow travellers, one of whom was really rather special to me, in a two bedroom concrete hut on the southern flank of the Moshav. It was a very clean time in my life I guess, with simple living, hard work, fresh air, no stress, and working/living alongside an interesting mix of people that I considered my friends, and wow, all set in a stunning part of the world. My day used to start around 5am, at first light. Although a very hot place when it came to working under the midday sun, I recall how bitterly cold the valley could be of an early morning as we’d head off on the tractor to the fields for a day’s work.
My chores were to tend the rows and rows of banana plants that grew in organised fields out towards Route 90, the main thoroughfare that stretches the length of the country, from Kiryat Shmona in the north, on the border with Lebanon, right the way down to Eilat in the south, on the northern shores of the Red Sea. Now, apart from the spiders and snakes that seemed to be quite at home in the banana fields, it was a pretty quiet place, even tranquil would be a fitting descriptive term I think. To the west it was dry and arid, with the central highlands that separate the West Bank and Israel proper marking one side of the wide Jordanian Valley; whilst to the east, in the distance, you could see across the River Jordan and the mountain range behind which lies Amman, the capital of Jordan.
On one particularly slow day, I recall the heat of the midday sun beating down on us as we hacked away at the plants with our rusty but deadly sharp machetes. At the time, I was working alongside four young Palestinian lads from the hill villages to the west, we worked well as a team, and only on occasions did the farmer himself accompany us out to the field; we proudly took this as a sign of his trust in our gang, rather than the more realistic notion that he preferred to stay in the relative cool of the farmyard. Anyway, upon loading up the trailer with the fruits of our labour, we clambered aboard ready to head back to the farm for lunch, and a well deserved rest/snooze for an hour; before the inevitable afternoon session back out there, working alongside our arachnid and reptilian friends.
All aboard, ready to go, and…. the tractor wouldn’t start, wouldn’t even turn over.
Of course, every male is a natural mechanic, or so we all think, lol, so between us, we set about fixing our somewhat mechanically challenged ride home. As the driver’s mate, the toolbox was part of my domain. I remember vividly that none of the workers ever went near the toolbox affixed to the rear wheel-guard. Thinking little of it, I opened the toolbox that day, looked inside, checking for scorpions and the like, and selected a few tools for the job. They looked at me curiously, but seemed to relax when I came over, tools in hand, and together we started to work on fixing the tractor. It was just a loose cable in the end as it happens, so our return to the farm for lunch was only delayed by some 25 minutes, much to our relief.
The toolbox incident bothered me, well not worried me, but I was certainly intrigued by the workers seemingly unnatural hesitation back in the field. After lunch, as others settled down for a nap in the shade away from the harshness of the late summer sun, I wandered back to the tractor, and took another look in the toolbox. In there, amongst the tools, was a dark old cloth which looked to me just like the sort of oil rag one would expect to find. But on closer inspection, it was not such an innocent piece of cloth, as to my surprise, it was wrapped around a compact, but very real loaded semi-automatic pistol.
Looking around me somewhat guiltily, I was relieved to see that I was still on my own, and that no one was either approaching me or even looking in my direction. I quickly returned the gun to the toolbox, duly wrapped in the once innocent looking oily old cloth. Later that evening, I asked the farmer about the gun I had found in the tractor. His reply was simple, if a little haunting to me, a slightly naive 21 year old Brit… “Yes, I know. Sometimes you need to maybe stop, and think whereabouts you are lad. This is not some pretty farm growing apples in Europe, this is Israel, more importantly, this is the West Bank (Palestine), and the friends we work alongside may not always have been, or possibly will not always continue to be our friends.”
Life continued at the farm, day in, day out, and thankfully, the interrelationship between settlers and villagers, in my time there anyway, never changed. This was many years ago, and whilst the farmer was indeed a decent guy, as far as I could tell, the political issues in that part of the world have only worsened since then, sad to say. I’m not going to pass comment on my views, but I had learned something, something that I would take with me for my future life; and that is that life is not always what it seems, and to take it at face value could sometimes be a miscalculated risk.