Monday, February 27, 2006

Sun, Ski and Syria

Mt. Hermon is the highest point in Israel, with an altitude of more than 2200 metres. It lies at the northern tip of the Golan Heights, and is divided between Israel and its arch-enemy, Syria, overlooking another source of strife and worry: Lebanon. The Israeli Army has a fortress carved into the rock. Mt. Hermon, which is mentioned in the Bible, was taken by Israel in 1967, along with the Golan Heights. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians managed to storm the mountain and it took two huge efforts by Israel in order to recapture the mountain. The first effort was hasty and failed, costing a huge number of losses. A few days later, a well organized force took it fighting on foot, rock by rock. It was then that a simple soldier, interviewed on TV, coined the immortal phrase: “The Hermon is the country's eyes”. Today, Mt. Hermon is quiet. And it's Israel's only ski resort, attracting many thousands of visitors who come to revel in its whiteness, just under the military zone, a stone-throw away from Syria.
In fact, the Mt. Hermon ski resort, developed by Israel since the 1970s, is located between two fortresses: the present-day Israeli one with a jungle of antennae and assorted military equipment, some of it manned by the Israeli Army's Alpinist Unit, which would be an oxymoron but for the fact that we indeed control the snowy place, and the Army does have to train a specialized force to protect it; the other fortress is somewhat lower down the slope on the Israeli side: “Nimrod's Fortress” (Qal'at Namrud in Arabic), a huge, impressive stone fortress built in the 13th century. As to the question regarding who built it, archaeologists differ in their views. Some believe it was the Crusaders, while others feel they have proven it was the Arabs from present-day Syria. In any case, it seems to have been completed in 1230, and naturally meant to control the passage from Syria to Palestine.
On a bright winter day, the white mountain, which can be seen from many miles away, attracts skiers of all levels looking for a day of fun. Given the unique setting a day on Mt. Hermon feels almost as a day abroad. Visitors flock from all over Israel to have fun at the snowy site. Hebrew refers to the mountain as “Grandfather-white Hermon” while Arabic calls it “Jabal a(l)-Sheikh”, meaning “the Sheik's mountain” or even “Old Man Mountain”.
Anyway, Mt. Hermon offers not only a breath-taking, panoramic view of Northern Israel and the border with Syria or a philosophical, ironic time-tunnel from Biblical times to Israel's wars passing through the Crusaders. On a busy day it offers a view of the people who make up Israel today.
A great number of families with children of all ages come to play in the snow, Jews from all parts of Israel. Taking the funicular to the top is an adventure, and the children love and fear it. But as the years pass and Israelis become more ski-savvy, taking winter vacations in ski resorts in Europe, Mt. Hermon is becoming more of a classic ski-resort. People gadgeted to their teeth with ski equipment, from special goggles to high-tech gloves down to carbon-fibre skis and special, brightly coloured suits. Many of them stay in small hotels on the lower part of the mountain, with their wooden structures and the Swiss look. You see them adopting what is surely “ski-resort behaviour”, with that blank look of detachment one sees abroad, so different from the invasive looks typical everywhere else in the country. The more ski culture invades the mountain, the more it seems to be abroad. Hosts of Japanese tourists, with their own excellent equipment, fully prepared to race down the relatively humble slope. The day I was there they truly seemed at home. They meant business, ski-business. And I never saw even one of them take out a camera.
Still, Mt. Hermon is not abroad. It's right here. So, sitting by the huge glass window, enjoying the sweet sun, I saw a group of Filipino women on a day trip. It was a Sunday and it seemed that they'd used their day off not just to go to church and meet, but to experience snow and the mountain. Filipino women come to Israel to tend for the elderly and the gravely ill. Jews, Japanese and Filipinos mingled on top of the mountain. And there were Arabs too. From all over the country. A trio of young Christian Arabs, smoking, drinking beer, discussing women and nightclubs in the North. As they did that, a large extended Arab family made its way to the snow, ignoring the young men almost making a point of not seeing them. Muslims, I gathered. The older couples had wrapped their feet in nylon bags. One of the younger women was visibly pregnant. She watched on while the kids just went out to get soaked. It looked as if for them the snow was like the sand on the beach along with the sea blended into one whiteness, and without the problem of exposing their bodies, which usually makes them feel inferior to secular Jews, who have adopted a fully Western beach culture, from string bikinis to swimming. On a beach, these Muslims would feel awkward. In the snow they seemed to relish their physical freedom. A few days later, I'd hear on the radio that a young Arab woman, nine months pregnant, who had come to Mt. Hermon with her husband from the far South would have her water break up on the top of the mountain. Her husband would run to the soldiers to ask for medical help. The woman would be evacuated by the emergency services and would give birth to her first child in a nearby hospital. Elated, she would retell it all on the radio, in fluent Hebrew. The management of the resort would present her with a free pass for life for the newborn boy. “What will you do?”, the radio presenter would ask her, to which she'd answer gleefully: “I will come every day and have a baby there every nine months!”

But all that was still to happen. In the meantime, I watched the soldiers look on, guns in hand, bodies well protected from the snow, their feet in military snow boots. After all, Syria is 5 minutes away in the snow. A snow bike rattled nearby. The fully equipped soldier had taken the military path, on his way to the fortress. One could easily imagine how these young Israelis will look in two or three years: a group of five guys, no more than 25 years old had come to ski. Surfer types. Long sun-burnt curls, deep tans, loud, talking about the wild night they'd spent and about getting up early to snowboard. On their way up the mountain they got into comparing skiing techniques. One of them mentioned a special trick he was going to try. His friend considered it, scratching his unshaven chin, his smile exposing a row of the sort of white teeth you see only in American commercials. “Yeah, it's a good one. I tried it in Sri Lanka last year. You should have seen those waves!” Maybe next year he'll be riding a water motorbike in Australia.

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