I was eighteen, studying at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem at the behest of my parents. It was my first year of college, and while I’d dreamed of traipsing around Paris or London as a freshman, I somehow ended up in the Middle East, sharing a dirty apartment with seven other girls in the middle of a very dusty, very Orthodox neighborhood.
Friedman’s was a school with a strict dress code, a curfew, and all sorts of rules prohibiting any interaction with the opposite sex. We spent eight hours a day, five days a week getting pummeled with laws, customs, and history, mostly in Hebrew.
I was no match for the well-trained teachers at the seminary, and, bit by bit, their dogmas began to seep through the cracks in my shaky spiritual armor. With their cleverly disguised brainwashing, the school was turning us all into Good Jewish Girls who would get married, have babies and ensure the religion’s survival.
Some logical, detached part of me watched as I adopted the views of my surroundings. I felt my mind bend to the religion and its mandates. Maybe I could marry young and live in the Old City while my black-hatted husband studied all day and I popped out little Jewish babies. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to cover my hair and wear long skirts and sleeves below my elbows under the desert sun.
Then, there was the fear. Fear wasn’t an added bonus, but an integral part of the theology. Fear was the tool that kept us in line, separate from the rest of the world, always reexamining our status as good Jews. Without fear and ignorance, there is curiosity about the world, and the draw to be the social beings that we humans naturally are. To the elders and teachers, curiosity diluted the community. Curiosity led to fraternizing, fraternizing to friendship, and friendship to marriage. There would be no curiosity while we were under the tutelage of the seminary, only fear.
Fear in the Middle East wasn’t hard to come by. A slow and steady distaste for our Arab neighbors was fed to us on a daily basis. Even as Americans, we knew the risks involved with residing in a country constantly on the verge of war. We read stories about kidnapping and torture. We sat around tables, breaking bread on Sabbath, and talked about the dangers of wandering through the Arab shuk alone. We watched CNN as they broadcast images of Jerusalem city buses, burnt to their steel frames, and emergency responders sopping up human remains with sponges so at least something would get a proper burial.
The stories were already there – the fear and disgust only had to be reinforced for us to shut out the possibility that maybe there were a few exceptions to the rule that all Arabs were bad. But we were young, our minds moldable. We took to the religion, we took to the fear, and we lived as such.
Seminary wasn’t entirely confining, though. To their credit, the directors gave us two excursions per month. Over the year we traversed the entire country, top to bottom. We toured wineries, hiked mountains, trudged through deserts, swam in rivers and floated on the Dead Sea. We crawled through ancient caves and parasailed over the Red Sea. We explored temple ruins and castle remains. We ran through olive groves and plucked wildflowers from vast purple fields. And we did it all in skirts below our knees.
On one such tour, we found ourselves up North in the Golan Heights, just south of the Lebanese border. We stayed overnight in a local dormitory and headed out in the morning to the marketplace to shop for souvenirs and provisions for the day. As was my custom in those days, I bought a lunch of fresh baked pita bread, a tub of chumus and a small container of Turkish salad. As a student on a microscopic budget, it was a meal I’d learned to subsist on very early in the year.
Our large group of girls filled two buses, one large and one mini. I was on the smaller bus with my group of friends, laughing and shoving our lunches into our mouths as we made our way up the mountain we were about to climb. As the buses neared the summit and starting point of what would be a six-hour hike, our guide impressed upon us the urgency of sticking together and not wandering off into the pines and sunshine. The trek would lead us dangerously close to the Lebanese border, and there was no guaranteeing how the locals on the other side would act should one of us go missing. They were, after all, Arabs.
By rule, we were provided with a security detail on every excursion: two chayalim, armed to the hilt with machine guns and devastating smiles. One would lead, one would sweep, and neither was allowed much interaction with us silly teenagers. We were told on more than one occasion: girls, you can look, but you cannot touch.
I had never seen a machine gun in person before landing in Israel, but quickly grew accustomed to being in close proximity to soldiers wielding giant weapons. For the most part, I felt safe in Israel; I heeded the warnings, and never ventured into forbidden territory. As far as I knew, my life depended on it.
One mile from the border of Lebanon, our safety became a thing of even greater importance. I was dutifully listening to our guide, and intending on total obedience when our bus hit a pothole in the unpaved road and sent the Turkish salad that was resting in my lap into a grossly inconvenient, upside-down position.
My jean skirt was immediately soaked, and the liquid started to seep through to my underwear. Tomato-y relish, chopped onion, garlic, roasted red pepper and various Middle Eastern spices filled my whole seat. Our guide kept talking, but I didn’t hear a word of it. The Turkish salad was sliding down my body and pooling in my undercarriage in a most uncomfortable manner. I wanted to yelp, to stand up and tear off my skirt, but could do none of these things. I sat, trapped in a burning, sticky mess until the bus stopped and the guide got off.
I cursed. I cursed the sauce, the pothole, the driver. I cursed my skirt, my underwear, and my recent attempt at packing light; I had no change of clean clothes in my overnight bag. The girls around me were equal parts disgusted and entertained by my predicament. They offered tissues, but the damage was already done.
My underpants were full of Turkish salad. My bottom half was burning and stinking of onions. There was no way I could endure a hike in that state. Six hours under the sun was not an option, so, as casually as I could, I informed our guide that I would not be participating in the trek. Instead, I would remain on the bus with the driver and meet the group on the other side of the mountain.
I watched in frustration as the girls filed off the bus and disappeared around a large, flat boulder to the mouth of the trail. I’d come all this way to miss what was meant to be one of the highlights of the year. I had nothing to look forward to for the next six hours but the broken English of the bus driver and the company of my Discman.
It took twenty minutes of stewing in the stagnant air of the bus before I’d calmed down enough to venture out into the open. I informed the driver that I was just going to have a seat on the big boulder and maybe get some sun. He nodded and smiled, and I assumed he understood.
Up on the rock, I removed my socks and sneakers, hiked up my skirt and long sleeves and took in the view. As far as the eye could see, there lay an expanse of purple tinted mountains surrounding deep valleys and plains covered in vineyards, farms, olive groves and orchards. Tall, pointy pines shot up from almost every corner, all seeming to point to the blue sky and puffy clouds, perhaps striving towards something heavenly in that holy place.
Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. Living with seven other girls left little time for privacy or reflection. Maybe this was meant to be; maybe I needed this time alone. Surely there was a good reason for my little food catastrophe. I switched off the Spice Girls and lay back on the stone, basking in a rare opportunity to feel sun and breeze and absolute quiet.
My reverie, however, was short lived. There came from behind a male voice, asking me in a heavily accented Hebrew, why didn’t you join the group? I thought I must have been dreaming. Our driver was full Israeli, and he didn’t speak with Arabic inflection.
I turned in my place to see the silhouette of a man, his back to the sun, the glow casting a shadow on the rock and obscuring his face.
“Excuse me?” I responded in Hebrew.
“Why didn’t you go with your group?” he asked again.
I wasn’t inclined to tell anyone the real reason I had declined the hike, let alone a stranger. “I’m tired,” I lied.
He hesitated for a moment, and then spoke again, this time his Arabic accent more apparent than before.
“You know your bus left without you,” he said.
He repeated himself, and even as I didn’t want believe the stranger, panic began to set in. I scrambled to jam my feet back into their socks and shoes, my mind suddenly bombarded by a million thoughts, the most prominent being, this can’t be happening.
I climbed down off the boulder and ran around its expanse to where I had left the little bus and its driver. The driver whom I had specifically informed that I was not joining the hike and that I was staying behind with him, driving with him to the other side. He was gone. All that was left were dusty tire tracks and a stranger who was staring at me from atop the rock.
I ran a few feet down the road to see if I could make out the bus and its shithead driver. There was nothing. There was Lebanon to my left, an unmarked trail somewhere to my right and an Arab boy smack in front of me. I didn’t know what to say, what to do. I had zero survival skills, no experience trekking on my own.
What was I going to do? I could trudge down a dirt road with no signs or directions, with no idea of my destination. Attempt to follow a hiking path that certainly didn’t have markings or flags like they did in the States. Stay up there and be eaten by wolves as night fell. I had no food, no water, no recourse.
I must have looked lost and pathetic. I was about to cry, when the boy, who appeared to be about seventeen or so, spoke.
“Would you like me to take you to your group?” he asked.
Trick question, I thought. This was the enemy. This was like the lion asking the mouse if he’d like to take shelter in his big toothy jaws. This was how tragedies started, how stories made headlines in the papers back home. I could just see it: “American girl abducted by Arabs in Northern Israel, held for ransom.” Or worse, forced into slavery, forced to be one of fourteen wives, forced to breed, forced to live in some small Arab village with no plumbing. My family would never hear from me again. I’d never see my friends, never get to play with my nieces and nephews, never get to live the normal life or future that I had, until now, taken for granted.
I had no choice. The group would never come back for me – as far as they were concerned, I was safe on the bus with the shithead driver. It would be nearly five hours before anyone even realized I was missing. It would be even longer before they could make it back to the top of the mountain.
The boy said, “I can take you to them if you want.”
“How do you know where they are?” I asked.
“There is only one trail from here,” he replied.
I contemplated my options, my heart pounding in my chest, my hands sweaty, shaking. I was lost. I was at the mercy of someone I had been conditioned to hate, to distrust, to curse, to avoid at all costs. His was a group of people who beheaded captives and blew up buses full of civilians. They were extremists who publicly stoned their women for stepping out with a man who was not a husband. It was a sect who notoriously hacked a whole community of Jewish families to death in their sleep with axes during one raid on the city of Tzfat. I had no security team. I had no Bat-Signal. I had stinky underwear and a beat up Discman.
“Okay,” I told him. “You can take me there.”
It was only then that I really took stock of my savior/captor. He was tall and lean, with muscled arms coming out of the cut-off sleeves of his faded red t-shirt. He wore similarly run-down black jeans and carried an enormous stick, hewn from a local pine, I guessed. His bare feet poked out of tattered sandals, covered in dust and dirt, making his toes an ashy shade lighter brown than the rest of him.
He eyed me curiously, as if I were the stranger. I wondered if he could smell the Turkish Salad baking in my underpants. I then felt immediate shame and amazement at my capability to think of trivialities in a situation so dire.
“This way,” he said, pointing to the mouth of the trail. And without further ceremony he jumped off the boulder and disappeared into the path.
The path, which commenced without canopy under the big blue sky, soon led into a forest of sorts. We were surrounded on all sides by bushes, thickets, trees and unknown animals scurrying about.
The boy moved at an incredible pace, crunching along the stony, dusty, dirt path, no doubt aided by his apparent familiarity with the place and his giant walking stick. I hoped it was a walking stick. From the height and width of it, I was certain of two things: 1) it had to have weighed at least ten pounds and 2) it could easily be used as a weapon.
My stomach turned sick. Would he beat me with his big staff? Would he force me into submission through violence? The stories of torture usually involved machine guns and giant knives, but who knew how the Arabs operated in these parts.
As quietly as I could I mumbled any and every prayer I knew by heart. I recited excerpts from morning service, psalms that I remembered by song, supplications from Yom Kippur. I bargained with God, making deals for my freedom, deals for my safety, pleas that if I made it out of the forest alive and not as the token captive in some godforsaken village in Lebanon, I would become a Good Jewish Girl.
God didn’t seem to be listening. I was out of breath and sweating profusely from all the praying and struggling to match the boy’s stride when it struck me that perhaps I could befriend the stranger. Maybe I could win his favor, make him a little less likely to abduct me and other bad things.
“What’s your name?” I shouted up to him.
He didn’t answer right away and I didn’t dare repeat the question. I waited, splitting my view between his back and the rocky path beneath my feet. Finally, he slowed down, turned his head slightly, and replied, “Reslam.”
Great, I thought. Just a few letters away from Islam.
I told him my name and he just kept moving. I would keep on fighting for conversation. Building this relationship was the closest thing I had to survival kit, and I was going to use it.
“What’s the stick for?” I asked him.
Again, he was quiet, as if contemplating his answer. His silence made me nervous. What if it really was a weapon? What if my name were to be etched into its side, a mark of accomplishment for subduing a young Jewish girl.
“It helps me walk through the mountains,” he eventually said.
Relief. Just for a moment, I felt relief.
“And also it’s a weapon,” he added.
I froze. I knew it. He was going to beat me to death with a walking stick.
“A weapon,” I wondered aloud. “What do you need weapons for in these parts?” I asked.
“To fend off wild animals,” he said. “Like wolves and bears.”
I wasn’t sure which was worse: following a stranger who was wielding a giant tree trunk, knowing that dangerous beasts roamed free in those parts, or just the simple fact that I was lost somewhere in between those two significant threats.
As if the tension of the day hadn’t yet reached its peak, Reslam quite suddenly stopped in his tracks and cocked his head to the left, cliff side. Had I been keeping up with his incredible gait, I’d have walked smack into his faded red t-shirt. Too afraid to ask what had halted him as such, I just waited. He appeared to be straining to hear something.
After a few tenuous moments of uncertainty, Reslam directed a shout up the cliff, in Arabic. A distant bellow answered his call, and what I assumed was a conversation ensued.
This is it, I thought. This is when the group of Arabs hiding around the bend ambushes me from all directions, ties me to a donkey, and drags me back to their village. I closed my eyes, felt a tear slide down my overheated cheek and braced myself for the impact.
Impact didn’t happen. I peeked out at my guide as he continued to converse with the mysterious voice coming from the other side of the mountain.
Finding my own voice somewhere inside my fear, I asked him, “What’s going on?”
“It’s my father,” he said. “He wants to know where I am.”
Oh god. How could this ever, in a million years, turn out okay? His father was shouting to him from across the wilderness. Who knows what Reslam was telling him? I could only imagine that it went something like, Pop, I just bagged us all a young, dumb American and she’s just ripe for the taking. Or something equally as abhorrent.
I wondered aloud, my voice cracking, “What have you told him?”
“The truth,” Reslam said.
At that, I stopped asking questions. Lost as I was, a young woman in the wilds of the Middle East, I gave up. Resigned to my fate as community concubine, or worse, I simply let the crying happen. Conversation over, Reslam picked up where he left off, and continued down the trail, nearly running now, his giant stick practically propelling him off the uneven ground.
We continued that way, in silence, for ages. My guide sprinted down the path, and I desperately tried to keep up with him. He was a blur in front of me, an apparition in black and red. My legs ached and screamed at me, begging for rest. My lungs burned hot and dry as I ran after Reslam. Sweat poured off me from under my long sleeves, my long, heavy jean skirt. My body was on fire, my palms cold and damp. I was so tired, so thirsty and so afraid.
As trapped as I had been in Seminary, even with the rules, the curfew, and the ideas forced upon me on a daily basis, I suddenly realized that this was real captivity. I was at the mercy of a stranger, a man born of my sworn enemies, and there was no escape.
An hour must have passed and we were still on the move. I felt like a fool. Why couldn’t I have been more careful with the Turkish salad? Why couldn’t I have endured the discomfort and hiked in underwear filled with onions? Why didn’t I know more about survival in the wilderness? How come I felt so completely helpless? What would my parents think? Maybe they’d feel bad about forcing me into seminary in the end. Or maybe they’d even go so far as to think I willingly ran away with an Arab, absurd as that seemed. What shape would my life take from that point on?
I had no answers to the questions ping-ponging around my mind. Just fear.
“What are your friends’ names?” Reslam’s accented Hebrew interrupted my thoughts.
I couldn’t imagine why he needed the names of my friends. Maybe he’d remind me of them in a month or so and say something awful like, remember those girls…well, you’ll never see them again. Ever.
Feeling brave, I asked why he wanted to know.
“So that we can call to them,” he replied. “Voices carry far over the mountains,” he explained. “We’re getting close to the first stopping point on the trail. Your friends will be there now.”
“Oh,” I said, at once embarrassed and relieved. I looked at him, and, for the first time, I felt hope. Hope that defied the cynicism fed to me for so many years. Hope that began to dissolve all the fear and uncertainty of the afternoon. Perhaps he wasn’t going to kidnap me after all. Maybe this boy, this Arab, had only good intentions where I was concerned.
“Hannah,” I told him. “She’s the one to call.” She would be the one to respond if someone hailed her.
He belted out in a beautiful, almost singing voice, “Haannnanah!”
It sounded like a call to prayer. Lilting, guttural, full and rich. It was only a name… one I had spoken thousands of times in the past years, and never once rendered as beautiful as it was in that moment. I pictured the vibrations of his voice rising up above the tree canopy and finding their way in a pointed, swirling, invisible journey to Hannah’s ear. Would she hear it the same way I did?
We waited to hear a call back. There was none. I worried.
“Are you sure they will hear you?” I asked Reslam.
“Yes. They will hear me. This is how we talk here in the mountains.”
He called her name a few times more and I joined in, feeling a certain release in raising my voice. It was a tentative reprieve from the crippling fear of my captor and dubious future.
There was no response. I strained my ears and prayed, although prayer seemed a bit moot at that point. I hoped and wished and pictured my lumpy little single bed in my dirty little apartment in Jerusalem. I so wanted to have the luxury of experiencing the mundane again, regular life and ordinary doings of an ordinary girl who was not living as a captive in Lebanon.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that if I wasn’t on my way to slavery, then this moment was actually one of real freedom. I was on a mountaintop with a local, under a beautiful blue sky, breathing fresh Northern air, miles away from the confines of my crushing religion, without the discerning stares of my peers or elders. I could do, say, be anything. I wasn’t quite relishing a sense of complete abandonment, but still, there was something magical about those few moments in which I realized that I was, in many ways, more free than I had ever been in my eighteen years on Earth.
I looked at Reslam, at his hawk-eyed stare, recognizing for the first time his intent to get me back to my people. I wondered if I could I stay here a bit longer. If I could befriend him, learn about his culture, his language, his life in the wilderness of northern Israel.
Reslam turned to me and said, “Listen.” He then slipped through small path between two large rocks to the right of our trail. I paused for a moment, heeding his command. What I heard brought both solace and regret all at once. It was the inimitable noise created by a big group of American girls, yapping and singing and laughing with each other.
I had longed for this salvation. I had prayed to the big, bearded God who lived up in the heavens, bargained away everything I could for this one moment of redemption. And yet, there came with my relief a feeling of disappointment. My newfound freedom was coming to a swift end. I would soon join the rest of the seminary and fall back to being just one of the girls, with all the restrictions, all the rules, all the boundaries. I would no longer be the one lost girl, saved by a stranger out in the nowhere of Northern Israel. I’d be one of them.
I followed Reslam’s steps through the rocks to find him standing tall on another boulder, staff in hand, pointing down towards a large clearing. Sure enough, they were all there.
I turned to my savior and said, “I have nothing on me. Nothing to give you. I want to repay you for your kindness.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” he said simply.
“I do,” I protested. “You saved my life. How can I ever thank you enough?”
I contemplated giving him a hug and would have done so had I not been in such close proximity to the others. Touching a male outside of a husband or immediate family member was strictly forbidden. I just looked at him, taking in the rich dark color of his eyes for the first time, hoping that maybe he could see the gratitude in mine.
“Please wait,” I asked him. “Maybe one of my friends has something I can give you. I will be right back.”
With that, I clambered down the rocks and ran into the clearing, once again shouting Hannah’s name. She turned, surprised to see me there, and asked where I had been. She knew that I had chosen to stay back on the mini bus, so my presence must have seemed odd, to say the least. Other girls ran over and chimed in, asking questions on top of questions, all panicking as if I was in trouble of some sort. I didn’t know where to begin.
“The boy,” I managed to breathe out. “He saved me. I was lost. I was so lost. The bus left me, and he saved me.” I gestured behind me to where I had left Reslam.
“What boy,” Hannah asked, looking even more confused than before.
“That one,” I said, gesturing behind me. How could they not notice the giant Arab shepherd perched on the rocks?
I spun around to point towards my new friend, maybe call him down, introduce him to the group, see if we could repay him somehow. But he was gone. The rocks were empty. The path was clear. There was no one there.
“Reslam,” I shouted, my heart suddenly sad. “Reslam! Are you there?”
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I called out again, my voice filtering down an empty path, a hollow canopy in the mountains, and coming back to me in a small echo.