Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Romantic Dinner in Camp 80

Many Israelis know Army Camp 80. The Army is deployed all over the country but certain camps are more than just military installations and have become part of the physical and historical landscape. Camp 80 is such a place. It dates from before the creation of the state, when it was a British Army base. Its location, in the center-north part of the coastal plain makes it a place you find yourself passing by quite often. Moreover, since Camp 80 has been a main base for the infantry battalion known as “Pioneer Fighting Youth”, a term inherited from socialist times, Camp 80 carries a weight which is part of Israeli history and nostalgia. Back in the 1950s, the “Nahal” (the Hebrew acronym for the Pioneer Fighting Youth), was a central part of the ideology which called for a new kind of Jew to be forged in the Israeli melting-pot: tenacious, pioneering, constructive. Nahal units would settle the frontier areas, build new collective settlements (the famous kibbutzim), to be nurtured by young soldiers living there and protecting the remote sites until the kibbutz could be “turned civilian” and become a new Israeli settlement. For many years, basic training of those infantry units took place in Camp 80. The soldiers serving in the Nahal divided their time in the army between settling the remote parts of the young country and functioning as an organic infantry fighting force. When I was enlisted, in the early 1980s, only girl Nahal soldiers did their basic training there, but it still was, as it is today, a main base for Nahal infantry. Nahal still exists today, mainly as a fighting battalion, with marginal social aspects added to the soldiers' service (helping new immigrants, teaching in difficult neighborhoods and performing other valued tasks within civic society).

Now since Camp 80 is such an old, well-established part of the Israeli landscape, right by one of the main coastal roads, it's no surprise that just like in the vicinity of other large permanent camps, a little business has sprung up. Families visiting their newly recruited sons and daughters as well as the soldiers themselves are glad for a place to have a quick bite, fill up gas in the family car and so on. Given its location, it's natural that a glorified gas station does excellent business right in front of the camp's main gate.

In the years since I was a young soldier, a generation ago, Israel has changed a great deal. The roads have become much better, and modern road-sides amenities are commonplace. In addition, coffee culture has evolved greatly. While once a military camp could sprout a kiosk with soft drinks, newspapers, cigarettes and simple hot-dogs, the gas-station in front of Camp 80 is now almost an American road-side stop. Israeli gas-stations now offer small sleek little supermarkets and espresso bars. This is how the area in front of the gates of Camp 80 has evolved since I first entered it in 1981. Indeed, the gas-station is now a small complex and its café is well-known as a good place, recommended by some of the best guides to the country's eateries. You can even find it on the Web, unanimously recommended by the critics. Naturally, it's called “Café 80”.

Camp 80 is located near a coveted upper middle-class expanse of red-roofed private houses. But certain things have not changed, indeed they cannot change. The British had good reasons for putting the place right where it is, way before the impressive urban growth the area has enjoyed in the last generation. Camp 80 is not just on the northern coastal plain, but at the entrance of a long, diagonal valley which connects the country´s coast and its northern part. The narrow valley is called “Eeron Valley”. Well, that´s its name in Hebrew, which almost no one uses. We all call it “Wadi Ara”, its Arabic name.

Wadi Ara is still the connection between the North, up to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and the heart of Israel. It is also one of the areas of Israel most densely populated by Arabs. Immediately to the east to Wadi Ara you are in occupied land, some of it controlled by the Palestinian Authority. In fact, I did my basic training in an old Jordanian camp which was under the authority of Camp 80, right across Wadi Ara. Today it´s in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, off-limits to Israelis. So not only is Wadi Ara heavily dotted by Arab-Israeli towns and villages, but it´s a border-zone, touching what will surely be the future Palestinian State, and is now an area of friction and a source of worry and violence. In fact, many attempts to infiltrate Israel and carry out suicide bombings have taken place right there, in Wadi Ara. Now Israelis drive along its modern road, from Camp 80 at its southern entrance to the fertile valley to which it opens in the north, or use it to connect to the super-modern national toll road which is being built all along the country. Yet, the gas-station in front of Camp 80 has more to it than the successful “Café 80”.

While the espresso-bar which is the critics' pet awaits on one end of the gas station, on the other end there's a restaurant. The “Eeron Restaurant”. A traditional Arab restaurant, and it's not called the “Wadi Ara Restaurant”. Owned, managed and run by Israeli Arabs living in the area, in the Arab villages nearby. On the last evening of 2005, I had dinner there, stopping on the way from Haifa to Jerusalem. I didn't expect the place to be festive, even though it was the 31st of December, and I wasn't wrong. Wadi Ara is largely Muslim. Maybe if the restaurant were a popular eating-place for Jews the owner would have catered to the fact that many secular Jews mark the end of what we call the “civilian year”. But this place is strictly Arab. And that evening it was easy to see that we were the only Jews sitting down to have dinner there. The place was quite busy, it was a Saturday night, and platters of skewered meat were being carried across the large hall. Yet it didn't take much effort to see who the customers were that night. Families with children, groups of men, young married couples. And all the women wore the hijab, the traditional head covering of pious Muslim women. In a funny way, I felt relieved. Usually, in a popular Arab restaurant serving a large Jewish public, the attitude tends to be servile, obsequious. There's a little “Jew entering Arab restaurant” routine played by the staff, including overplayed smiles and a host of “manly” gestures. The “Eeron Restaurant”, its paper napkins declaring its Hebrew name, was simply not that: the Arab waiter was proper, to the point, and functional in his approach. As we were served, I reflected on the fact that the place reminded me of “family restaurants” in India. Food to feed you, a place to sit, safe for children and women, who nevertheless do not come by themselves but are always part of a family or newly married, dining with their young husband.

Seen by Western eyes, the hijab and in fact the whole way Muslim women in the Middle East are part of an attempt to conceal femininity, to erase the contours and features of the women. That night in Wadi Ara, I had the opportunity of seeing two young couples without children dining in intimacy in a public space. Heads covered meticulously with hijabs, long straight dresses down to the heels, two Muslim women sat with their husbands, clearly enjoying the evening, being served by the all-male staff. One couple ate in almost total silence. They were both busy tearing bits of chicken with their hands, dipping them in the assortment of small plates spread on the table. But the other couple was eating together, romantically together. I followed their meal furtively. She tore a bit of chicken and handed it to his waiting hands. He ate and while still chewing, handed her a plate of hot-peppers, which she took thankfully. Then, while she was munching on pickles, he took a meat patty, split it in two and fed her with his fingers. She smiled as she took it with her lips. He made sure she'd miss not a bit. The other half he stuffed into a bit of pita-bread, offering to add some veggies and hand it to her too. Her mouth full, she gestured lovingly, signaling “No, no, have some too, it's wonderful”. And so it continued. A man and a woman eating together, being very proper in the middle of a large crowd of fellow-Muslims, not an inch of her hair was exposed, and her long sleeves never revealed her wrists. A couple in love, Muslims sharing dinner at the entrance to Wadi Ara, in front of Camp 80 used by the “Pioneering Fighting Youth” of the Israeli Army, near the trendy espresso-bar, a stone-throw away from the Palestinian Authority, on New Year's Eve 2006.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and touching description of a romantic dinner so close to a place that constantly reminds you of violence, a controlled one, but still…
The discrepancy between the violence of reality and the beauty of simple things in life maybe is huge, but in the end of the day we are all alike. We enjoy simple things and we tend to forget the violence surrounding us. Well, until you remind us of it...

It must have been quite a romantic evening...she is giving him chicken and he is giving her a plate of hot-peppers!:)


Anonymous said...


Forget the romantic evenings.

Iron is the best and cheapest Middle Eastern restaurant in the country, and you shouldn't be plastering its name all over the web, so that it will get to be impossible to get a table and the prices will double.

Loose lips sink ships, and good restaurants.


nornin said...

I agree with Ilana, a touching description of love, in a place I feel is filled with hate.
I have come to realize that the situation in Israel is quite different from what is depicted to us here in Iceland and I am thankfull for your deep insight in human nature.
Reading your blog fills me with hope. A hope that the world isn't full of evil people, doing evil deeds.
Things like this romantic dinner convince me that in the end, love (in all it's forms) will conquere and the world will be a better place :-)