Last Wednesday morning I was standing at the Egged bus station at Beit She’an, waiting for the 9:30 No. 961 to Jerusalem through the Jordan Valley Rift. I very rarely travel by bus, and the last time I took an Egged bus on this route was in 1979, when I worked for the late Yigal Allon, who lived in Kibbutz Ginossar, north of Tiberias.
The situation was in fact quite surrealistic (at least from my own perspective) since I was on my way home from a botanical trip to the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, and had landed five hours earlier, with the group I was with, in Amman, Jordan.
That, of course, was not the original itinerary.
Twelve hours earlier we were all on a plane from Istanbul, Turkey, headed for Ben-Gurion International Airport. To my left was a Nepalese woman going back to Israel after a vacation at home, to care for an elderly Beersheba man. To my right was a pretty young Israeli who had spent over a year in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles surfing and Zumba dancing, and was returning home to surprise her mother. What we all shared was that we had arrived several hours earlier at the Turkish Airlines hub in Istanbul from various destinations.
However, seconds before takeoff, our pilot announced – without giving an explanation – that we were returning to the terminal. In fact, the flight had just been canceled, and Turkish Airlines – which has five flights a day to Israel – was getting organized to put up hundreds, if not thousands of passengers in hotels in Istanbul.
The recommendation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry was not to leave Istanbul airport, though few bothered to contact the ministry, and even fewer paid heed. Our own tour leader – the resourceful Shmuel Shemes, a former financial controller of the Hebrew University – had a different idea. He managed to convince the Turkish Airlines staff to put our group of 20 on the 12:25 a.m. flight to Amman. Once on the plane, which was packed with perplexed Jordanians (many of whom must have been Palestinians), I suddenly realized that the usual Istanbul-Amman route runs over Syria.
However, we were reassured that due to the situation in Syria the flight was to take a roundabout route, flying south over the Mediterranean, and then turning eastward across the Sinai before flying to Amman.
No words were exchanged between ourselves and the other passengers, who were all well aware of our identity. Some of them had stern looks on their faces, while others smiled knowingly, but no nasty comments were heard.
We landed in Amman at 4:00 a.m., got Jordanian visas, and then went through passport control.
The Jordanian border personnel were correct but stern, and only the bank clerk who converted 40 dinars for each of us for the visas smiled profusely and joked, apparently grateful for the respite in his otherwise sleepy early-morning shift.
We were not expecting to see our suitcases on the conveyor belts since less than an hour had gone by between our being transferred from the Tel Aviv to the Amman flight, but to our great surprise all our suitcases were there (Turkish Airlines gets a tip of the hat), and by 5:30 a.m. we were in a Jordanian tourist bus, on our way up to the border crossing to Israel near Beit She’an.
I had never before been in Jordan, and so the drive up the Jordanian side of the Jordan Rift Valley – from the Dead Sea to Irbid and the Sheikh Hussein bridge – was new to me. The scenery is very different to that on our side. While the Israeli side is desert, the Jordanian side is greener, much more settled and cultivated, thanks to water from the Yarmuk river.
However, just the previous morning we had visited the Botanical Garden of the Georgian city of Batumi – a lush garden that is home to over 1,200 species of trees from all around the world, and it was difficult not to think that when the Creator divided the water resources the world round, he/ she had been very generous with the Caucasus, and very stingy with the Middle East.
And so I found myself at the Beit She’an Egged bus station, with a suitcase, a rucksack, a camera and an Istanbul airport Duty Free carrier-bag, thankful that nine days earlier, at the last minute, I had intuitively decided not to leave my car at the long-term parking at Ben-Gurion Airport. I told the bus driver that only hours earlier I had made the journey northwards on the Jordanian side of the border. Now we were traveling southwards on the Israeli side.
I must admit that I enjoy unexpected and rather hallucinatory situations such as the one I had undergone with the other members of my group, but that on this particular occasion there were some additional perks. The first was that we were saved an unplanned sojourn in Istanbul, which without Shmuel’s resourcefulness would have ended at the earliest on Friday, and at much greater expense. The second was that all said and done, the experience was one of sanity in the midst of insanity, and of good will in the midst of ill will.
Finally, the experience solved my dilemma of what to write about in this week’s column. During the few hours at Istanbul airport between our flight from Batumi and to Tel Aviv, I was working out two topics in my mind. The first was about the warmth and friendliness we had experienced in Georgia.
Those of us who travel frequently are already conditioned to the critical and cynical (frequently hostile) reactions we get abroad when we say we are from Israel. It is refreshing to experience a different reaction, and the question I was thinking of discussing is why Georgia is different to, say, Sweden, and why there are so few countries around the world these days where the population is friendly toward us, and understanding of our basic existential dilemmas. Anti-Semitism is not the answer, in my opinion.
The second topic I considered concerned several anti-Israel articles I had found in an English-language Turkish newspaper I had picked up upon boarding the Turkish Airlines plane at Batumi.
These articles were less fiery and venomous than the statements made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he claimed that we are worse than Hitler, but totally ignored the fact that if Hamas were not a terrorist organization, had invested all the money it had invested in rockets and tunnels in the welfare of the Gaza population, did not use the civilian population of Gaza as a shield from Israeli attacks, and was interested in a viable solution rather than in jihad in general and liquidating Israel in particular, the current war would not be raging, there would be no blockade on Gaza, and Israeli leaders would not be forced to make daily choices between doing what is best for the security of Israel and its inhabitants, and strictly abiding by the rules of international law.
Hopefully by next week we shall have an effective cease-fire, all the tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel will be turned into rubble, and we shall start returning to normal – whatever that might mean in our troubled, abnormal region.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.