This is the story of the first time I crossed paths with my young Syrian companion.
The Golan Trail winds south from Mt. Hermon to the Sea of Galilee, passing on the outskirts of Moshav Odem through acres of abundant cherry orchards and the Odem Forest Reserve. Hikers navigate by following a striped rectangular tag -- green, blue, and white -- painted on rocks and fence posts along the way. The trail is narrow and dusty in some places. It overlaps with roadways in others, exploring the dynamic landscape. My friend Shlomi and I set off northward toward Mas’ade, an hour’s trek from Odem, in the glowing late afternoon.
Descending on this path from Mt. Odem, about nine miles from the Syrian border, opens a view of Ram Pool and surrounding Druze communities. High elevation topography encloses the area. Druze buildings meld into the hillsides, layering upward from the valley floor. Typical homes are several stories high and constructed from square, stone blocks of a similar shade as the ground they rise from.
The smooth surface of the trail weaving through the cherry orchards is trafficked by farmers and families working their crop. Tattered blankets and mattresses, couches and chairs, gather under the canopy. Laborers rest there during the day. Swollen fruits dripping from the branches vary in shades of bright red to dark purple. Crossing paths with the workers usually results in a handful of cherries or a cup of coffee, their generosity overflows.
The bright tags directing our way split sharply from the road. Plunging into the Forest Reserve, the trail transitions into an uneven dirt path whose twisting roots and boulders grab the toes of your boots. Low-hanging branches and overgrowth crowd the path broken up with large boulders. Gradually, space grows between the trees entering the valley floor.
The evening became chill as we approached the village, dense fog coming to rest below the caps of the hilltops. Nearing the highway we stopped to make a decision: continue down the sloping road another mile to Mas’ade, or turn back. Unable to discern the rational choice, we put the outcome into the hands of fate. Neither of us had a coin, so we flipped Shlomi’s passport. The toss sent us continuing on.
We had just crossed the roadway about a mile from our destination when a young dog emerged from the bushes and trash, scurrying close to the ground toward us. His wide eyes locked onto mine, dark with worry and fear. Veering suddenly toward oncoming traffic, I intersected him and pinned him to the ground. He squirmed and rolled in the dirt and I could feel his ribs jutting out from beneath his filthy, tan coat.
“You have two options,” Shlomi counseled, “Leave him, or bring him with us.” Picking him up, I carried him away from the roadway and crafted a collar and leash from the piles of rubbish. A rusted coil of wire wrapped in a child’s cast off t-shirt functioned as the collar, attached to a leash of plastic tubing. The dog was skinny, too skinny, with fat ticks lodged into his hide.
Despite this, his Syrian eyes remained sharp, a deep gold color surrounding black pupils. I noticed a sweet face with a black dimple on each side. One of his pointy ears was flopped over, his curious black snout exploring everything in reach. Gangly legs and oversize feet further revealing his youth. He began to relax, his pink tongue licking my hand.
He joined us for the return back to Odem. Our attempts to hitch a ride while toting a mangy dog became an exercise in futility, so we set off on foot.
Stay tuned for Part Two
Click here to view the extended and edited version as hosted by the Jerusalem Post.
Israel surprised me. Six weeks after flying into Tel Aviv, my expectations lay in shattered pieces on the ground. This place is beautiful, stressful, peaceful and intimidating all in the same breath.
The Golan Heights, the beautiful northern region bordering Lebanon and Syria, was my initial destination. Moshav Odem, where I lived for four weeks, is described by the owner of the local hostel as, “an island of peace in an ocean of chaos.”
The tiny, fenced community is alive with families and visitors. Cherry orchards and the Odem Nature Preserve surround the Moshav, resting at the base of Mt. Odem and an unoccupied Israeli Defense Force base. High elevations ensure mild weather, warm during the day and cool at night. Early summer cherry crops draw crowds from across Israel traveling to harvest the fruit and stop at the winery. The wine, oh the wine! I can never buy seven dollar bottles from the gas station again, I’m ruined for it. The place is truly a patch of heaven.
This reality is cracked by a massive explosion waking you up at 5 a.m., and you remember you’re on an island. The ocean of chaos surrounding the Moshav seeps in through the gates as IDF training awakens residents with shelling and explosions, and sometimes the sound of bombing in Syria makes its way in as well. A lot of IDF training occurs in the Golan, and these exercises are not uncommon. The Golan Heights is a safe place to be, relatively. I hear of concerns the war in Syria might spill over, but the locals do not live in the shadow of this threat. They live peacefully, and without a sense of urgency.
One clear night I went to the border to watch the fighting between forces within Syria. We stood at a high elevation on a hill looking down into the valley. Flashes of light sporadically crisscrossed in the darkness. From a distance, it all moves very slowly, with intermittent periods of calm. Standing there twisted my mind into an uncomfortable position.
When I was a kid my family visited the Gettysburg Battle Field in Pennsylvania, and we stood on the hillside where people brought picnics to watch the Union and Confederate armies fighting. I remember thinking how bizarre it would be witness such violence so casually. And now I know.
It was sad, and uncomfortable, and distressing. There is a tender place in the human mind triggered by the suffering of others -- the place that drives you to leave the room when commercials featuring the wide-eyed faces of starving children interrupt your show, the place where you are enticed to open your wallet and give money to a stranger. Standing there, unable to respond to my own humanity was just…weird. There was nothing I could do, people dying within sight and I could do nothing. The subtly of the violence observing from a distance obstructs my grasp of what I know is going on.
Weirder still, it was not my place to do anything. Not in that moment of course, but I’m still working out the expectation that I am allowed to go observe people suffering, dying, then walk away, and that’s the end of it. I am not ok with that, but still processing this idea. Maybe it is an unavoidable reality in this world I am just now encountering, and I am still wrestling with it.
I eventually returned to my island of peace, and it was even more beautiful. The people live with this reality, not in denial, but in acceptance and with a steely resolve to remain and remain positive.
If you get a chance, go to Moshav Odem, and witness the beauty of this region and the people for yourself. Beauty is more than sunshine and forests and cherries. It emanates from the hearts of all people who call this place home, choosing to live in peace with their neighbors, Druze and settlers alike.