Truth be told, I didn't actually take a taxi to the capital of Hezbollah-land. But judging by the number of cabs who flatly refused to take me from Beer Sheva to my home in Efrat the other night, you would have thought that Lebanon was indeed my destination.
It was about 10:00 p.m. and I had long since missed my regular carpool home. Under normal circumstances I would have either stayed over in a Beer Sheva hotel or tried to hitchhike home. But seeing as it was very late and I needed to be in Jerusalem first thing in the morning, I decided to treat myself to a rare taxi ride home.
That's when the fun began.
Each call to the taxi dispatcher went something like this:
Me: Hi, I need a taxi to come to [name of my company].
Dispatcher: No problem, where are you going?
Me: Efrat... In Gush Etzion.
Dispatcher: No problem... someone will be right there.
Within a few minutes a taxi would pull up and the driver would ask, "Where did you say you needed to go?" I would tell him, which resulted in him saying he had to check with his dispatcher. But once back inside the cab, each driver simply sped away.
This was repeated several times.
One or two drivers asked if it was possible to get to Efrat without entering the 'territories', while others offered excuses ranging from not having enough gas in the car to never having heard of Gush Etzion.
I was shocked by this strange turn of events.
At the risk of generalizing, the typical Israeli taxi driver tends to be the salt of the earth... an Israeli 'everyman' of sorts. As a group they tilt heavily towards Sephardi and eastern origins, and even more heavily towards the political right. Most will regale passengers with tales of their combat exploits at the drop of a hat, and all appear to have clear –- if slightly draconian –- solutions to the current impasse in the peace process.
So I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the abject horror that crossing the green line seemed to evoke in these normally devil-may-care men.
Finally, I got a driver who, after a little reassuring, agreed to take me home. But once the lights of Beer Sheva faded in the rear view mirror he began peppering me with a string of non-stop nervous questions:
"How far is it?"
"Are you sure?"
"What's that village over there... Jewish or Arab?"
"Arab!? Is it 'problematic'?"
"What about that one?"
"You really drive this road every day?"
"Have you ever had any problems... roadside bombs... shooting... rocks... Molotov cocktails??"
"Oh God! I see headlights behind us. Should I be worried that it might be a terrorist following us?!"
And on and on and on...
By the time we'd passed half a dozen sleeping Arab villages, the driver had worked himself into a state of panic.
By the time we'd passed half a dozen sleeping Arab villages and were approaching the southern outskirts of Hebron, the driver had worked himself into a state of panic about phantom terrorists who seemed to be lurking just around every bend to turn his wife into a widow and orphan his children.
Five or six times he reached for the same empty cigarette pack, each time tossing it back on the dashboard in disgust. Finally, as much as I loathed the idea of being trapped in a car full of smoke, I decided that we had to do something to reduce the driver's anxiety level. So I suggested we pull into Kiryat Arba where he could buy himself a fresh pack of cigarettes.
Once inside Kiryat Arba he visibly relaxed and stared in amazement at the neat, quiet streets lined with stone-clad apartment buildings, parks and playgrounds.
"All these buildings have people living in them?" he asked me in wide-eyed wonder. When I answered in the affirmative he shook his head and kept repeating "I didn't know... I didn't know..." Apparently he had bought into the media version of 'the territories' where everyone lives in trailers on lonely, wind-swept hilltops.
When we'd finally parked and gotten him some cigarettes, I suggested he take a short break from driving and just sit outside enjoying the cool night air. I figured that not only would this spare me from the stink of smoke inside the cab, but it would also give me the opportunity to point out a nearby feature I had a hunch might be of interest to him.
I pointed towards an electric gate in a chain-link fence that was less than a hundred yards from where we were parked. "You see that gate?" I began. "Just a minute or two beyond that gate is the Ma'arat HaMachpelah (the Cave of the Patriarchs)".
He stared at me as though I'd just told him that Abraham himself was waiting in the dark just beyond the fence. "Are you serious? I thought the Arabs destroyed that during the Intifada! It still exists?!"
I explained that it had been Joseph's tomb that was destroyed by the Arabs, and that the Ma'arat HaMachpelah -- the tomb of the Patriarchs -- was still very much extant.
Apparently forgetting all about the previous 45 minutes of white-knuckled terror, the driver sprinted around the car, reached through the open window for the radio microphone, and called his dispatcher.
"Itzik... ITZIK... you hear me?"
The click of a far-away mic was followed by a laconic, "Shome'ah" [I hear you].
"Itzik, you'll never believe where I am. I stopped for cigarettes in Kiryat Arba and I'm parked within a few meters of the Ma'arat HaMachpelah!
The dispatcher's voice burst over the radio, this time full of excitement, and now, apparently on the public channel: "Hey Dudu, Zvika, Hezi... everyone! Yossi's calling from the Ma'arat HaMachpelah in Hevron!"
While this wasn't exactly true since we were still technically in Kiryat Arba, I smiled at the immediate and electric response. The radio speaker began broadcasting a competing jumble of joyful salutations from his fellow drivers in 'far-away' Beer Sheva:
"Kol Hakavod [congratulations], Yossi!"
"Zachita!" [You merited!]
"Yossi, you have to say Tehilim [Psalms] for my mother at the Ma'arah [cave]... she's having an operation tomorrow. Sarah Bat Shifra... you hear me? Sarah Bat Shifra!"
"Aizeh Gibor [what a hero!]"
"Yossi... Tell us what you see."
"Sarah Bat Shifra... Yossi, don't forget!"
"Yossi... did you become religious?"
"How did you get there... did you get lost?"
"What does it look like... is it beautiful in the moonlight?"
"Sarah Bat Shifra... Yossi... Sarah Bat Shifra!"
It was like a replay of Motta Gur's famous "Har HaBayit B'Yadainu!" [the ‘Temple Mount is in our hands!'] broadcast.
Completely forgetting about how frightened he had been just minutes before, the driver turned to me and asked if we could go into Hebron to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
I looked at my watch and noted that it was after 11:00 p.m., but he misunderstood the gesture.
"Don't worry", he assured me, "you're not on the meter. I have a flat-fee voucher from your company so nobody will mind if we take a short side trip."
"No, it's not that. I'd love to go the Cave... I haven't been there in a few months. But I'm almost sure they close it to visitors at 9:00 p.m."
He looked crestfallen. He stared longingly towards the closed gate leading into Hebron and into the darkness beyond, and asked, "Are you sure?"
I just shrugged and said, "That's what I remember, but don't take my word for it. There's an army Jeep parked by the gate... let's go ask them."
We quickly jumped back into the taxi and drove the short distance to the gate and pulled up alongside the idling Jeep. Yossi got out and had a brief conversation with the two soldiers inside. There were some animated hand gestures from Yossi, but they were of the disappointed sort.
A few minutes later the driver came dejectedly back to the taxi, but instead of getting in, he reached over to the recess under the radio and fished out an embroidered velvet kippah and a well-thumbed book of Psalms with an ornate silver cover. Without a word he strode back towards the gate and upon reaching the chain link fence, began reciting out loud into the darkness beyond: "Shir Lamalot... Esa Einai el heharim... mayayen yavo ezri..."
I sat there in the front seat listening to the taxi driver recite the psalm into the darkness beyond the fence. Although he occasionally glanced at the small silver-clad book in his hand, it was clear that he knew the verses by heart.
"What a funny country we live in. We're all terrified of the unfamiliar, but completely unfazed by the things we know."
The soldiers sitting nearby in their idling jeep barely looked up from their coffee and conversation, and the two or three people standing outside the store where Yossi had bought his cigarettes didn't even glance in our direction.
I thought to myself, "What a funny country we live in. We're all terrified of the unfamiliar, but completely unfazed by the things we know."
The secular and religious experience emotions about each other ranging from distrust to hate, simply because they no longer know one another. Israeli urbanites and settlers experience similar emotions about one another due to the same sort of disconnect.
Some Jews and Arabs are just as wary of each other due partly to the scariness of the unknown. Those that live and travel in the territories are (mostly) at ease with commutes that, for some reason, fill the hearts of Israel's city-dwellers with dread.
When my driver, Yossi, had finished reciting a few more Psalms we resumed our journey, and within 20 minutes arrived outside my house in Efrat. I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee for the ride back to Beer Sheva, but he shook his head and said he'd be fine.
I reviewed the return route with him and gave him my cell phone number in case he lost his way, but I could see he was writing it down mostly to humor me. Gone was the cloud of hesitancy and fear under which we'd begun our trip together. In its place was a confident, macho cab driver who was completely at home in his surroundings.
Almost as an afterthought I asked him if he was glad he'd taken the fare. He answered without hesitation, "My whole life I've lived in Israel, most of it in Beer Sheva, and I never realized how close Hebron was. On my next day off I'm going to bring my family to pray at the Ma'arat HaMachpelah. My son's going into the army this year," he confided with a shrug. "If not now, when?"
I couldn't agree more. And as I watched him drive away, I couldn't think of a better way to sum up the need for people's perspectives to change: If not now, when?