Thursday, February 20, 2003

Colours of Eilat

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The clouds and cool breezes added extra magic to the sunset in Eilat last Shabbat. We sat cross-legged on the mostly empty southern beach, not far from the Egyptian border, watching a flock of seagulls lazily swoop and soar over the water. The gentle waves lapped at the shore as the fading light produced a dazzling display of colours.

Through the clear water we could make out each pebble and shell, a mosaic of reds, pinks, greys, greens, browns and blues. Here and there were cauliflower-like fragments of dead coral, washed ashore among the smooth stones.

Across the gulf, the rugged mountains in neighbouring Jordan changed from orange to red to magenta to purple to blue. The clouds above them also metamorphosed, appearing pink above bluish mountains before the sun finally disappeared. Once darkness descended, the full moon turned the clouds to white puffs above ominous grey mountains. Lights twinkled from the cities of Eilat and Aqaba, with the moonlit Red Sea punctuated by the garish neon displays of passing pleasure boats.

A few dozen yards to our right an Israeli Arab family were enjoying a beachfront barbecue at the end of the Muslim Eid Al Adha holiday weekend. From time to time we could hear snippets of darbouka percussion or wailing Arabic song from their boombox.

Down the beach to our left a man was tending to a coffee pot on a little campfire and beyond him a group of youngsters were lounging around a kid with a guitar, humming Israeli rock ballads.

Driving through the Negev desert on the way south, we had been treated to an exceptional display of wildflowers nurtured by the runoff from winter rains. (For the first time in years we've actually had a rainy winter, the way it's supposed to be, hence DH's yearning for Eilat's eternal sun.) The road through the Ramon Crater was particularly lovely, with the rough, rocky browns and oranges of the desert scenery offset by the delicate, cheerful flowers and foliage, a profusion of purple, red, yellow, pink and green.

Just north of Eilat we had stopped at the Hai Bar Nature Reserve, a unique wildlife sanctuary home to species once native to the region in biblical times, but now extinct in the wild. Among the project's achievements is the successful restoration of the Arabian oryx antelope and the onager wild horse to Israel's southern desert. The site was once a major tourist destination offering up-close glimpses of elusive antelope, wild asses, ostriches and nocturnal predators. Sadly, with the economic crisis and the slump in tourism the Hai Bar is due to close at the end of the year unless they can make up the lost revenue. We wanted a chance to bid farewell.

We saw plenty of wildlife outside the reserve too, accompanying a local bird expert in pursuit of a rare eagle recently sighted in the vicinity. Alas, there were no eagles to be found on Eagle Mountain, but I spotted my first Barbary falcon and a charming family of desert gazelle.

The only thing missing from the scenery was that endangered species known as the foreign tourist. Looking for some postcards of Eilat to send foreign relatives, I found several shops with yellowed, old cards. One storekeeper explained that there were so few foreign visitors it was no longer worth his while to restock.

Not long ago, Eilat was a favoured destination for sun-starved northern Europeans. You could hardly move without bumping into Germans, Brits and assorted Scandinavians. This time the only non-Israeli holidaymakers we came across were some local UN and USAID personnel on vacation from their Jerusalem offices, and a family of French Jews.

Such a shame. Away from the terror alerts of central Israel, Eilat would be a perfect place for snowbound Americans and Europeans to come for some R&R, escaping the Orange Alert on the East Coast and the pro-Saddam rallies in the cities. Nothing but quiet beaches, sunny skies, desert mountains, coral reefs and the birds.

As my late grandmother would say, a mechaya.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Southbound for Eilat

Thursday, February 13, 2003

I did a double take this morning when I checked my e-mails. There, in black and white, was a serious request from a friend in New York asking how to seal a room against chemical and biological attacks. Maybe here in Israel we have some kind of special protective plastic sheeting for such purposes? Perhaps I could send her some?

Truth be told, I don't really know how to seal a room against non-conventional weapons. Like all Israeli citizens I have a standard gas mask issued to me by the army. I have a "mamad", a secure room in my apartment, a sort of personal bomb shelter with special rubber airtight seals on the door and window. Following the 1991 Gulf War, such rooms became obligatory in all new apartments. I'm almost done clearing the junk out of my mamad. It's the smallest room in the flat so we use it for storage.

When I told a neighbour that we're going down south for the weekend she jokingly asked whether we knew something she didn't about when the attack on Iraq will begin, that is. She wanted to know whether we'd be taking our gas masks along.

Far from Israel's main population centres, the holiday resort of Eilat at Israel's southern tip is widely held to be the safest place in the country in the event that Saddam Hussein does decide to send some missiles Israel's way, as he did in 1991. Rumour has it that the US embassy has booked a floor of the Dan Hotel there for use if Israel is attacked and the foreign diplomats clear out of Tel Aviv.

Actually, we're heading south not for safety, but for the flowers. And for the birds. And for some nice clear desert air to clear up the colds my husband and I have come down with this week.

Oh, and we're taking the opportunity to go now, before all the guesthouses are booked up by people from the Tel Aviv area fleeing Iraqi missiles.

Any minute now I'm going to get a call from a concerned relative chiding us for not panicking enough. Well yes, we do know what Iraqi Scuds can do. A cousin's apartment was nearly totalled by a missile during the last Gulf War. The residents miraculously escaped harm.

On the other hand I'm personally more concerned with what our devoted Palestinian neighbours are up to. The country is currently on high alert due to a large number of terror warnings. In recent days a number of bombers have been caught en route to Israeli towns. They are certainly a more imminent danger than the possibility of Iraqi missiles.

The Israeli media, though, have been playing up Iraq-related scare stories for months now. They portray us as fleeing overseas, booking up all the guesthouses in the remote southern deserts, buying up world supplies of protective clothing and plastic sheeting, installing special filter systems, hoarding food and inoculating ourselves against smallpox. Household supplies stores are hawking everything from bottled water and battery-operated radios to portable toilets and full-body chemical protection suits.

I have yet to meet anyone doing any of the above, but I guess calm or indifference doesn't sell newspapers.

Today's headlines screamed that we should start hoarding food and water from Saturday. The small print read that those would be the orders from the chief of staff if war broke out.

The papers also report that the US embassy has begun evacuating non-essential personnel and their families, and that Israel's anti-missile batteries have gone on high alert. For what it's worth, that does make war look that much closer, but then again, we've been told that war with Iraq is imminent for at least four months now.

In the meantime I'm going down south to enjoy the winter sunshine and dust storms.

Have a great weekend.

Shabbat shalom.