The Land unfolds beneath, rippling softly, the rumpled silk of a woman’s dress. The morning Mediterranean glistens in the Levant sun. Above, blades slice the humid air. My eye is drawn to the scene below.
Uri has the reassuring air of a battle-hardened surgeon. A creature of the sky, he is a veteran of the Israeli air force, a career spent flying Black Hawks full of paratroopers. I imagine him visor-ed, surveying this glittering scene veiled by night, his only companions the looming thup-thup of silenced rotors and tense soldiers mute before a mission. Those days long behind him, Uri spends his retirement sharing the beauty of Israel.
We leave from Herzliya, a sleepy airfield patrolled by regal peacocks. “Someone once had them at a wedding near here”, explains the attractive security officer who checks my passport, “but the peacocks decided to stay”.
Approaching the helicopter I am briefly alarmed at its small size – I am fairly certain my car is bigger. Obediently I climb in as Uri begins checking the blades. Securing a seatbelt, I wait. And like that, light as a feather, we are away.
We follow the coast, passing the busy route north. Before Uri can point it out, I spy Netanya, ‘Gift from God’ as I had learned from various drivers who had taken me back and forth in recent days. I can see the busy construction of much needed skyscrapers, which are surprisingly few given Israel’s premium demand for space for its growing population.
Soon we are flying over Caesaria. Monied today, monied yesterday, Caesaria is for Israel’s uber-wealthy. I spy Herod’s amphitheater and hippodrome that I only recently clambered with my guide. From the air, whole millennia later the grandeur remains arresting in a way even Herod himself couldn’t have imagined. The petrol sea crashes over palace ruins, a gorgeous dance of green and blue.
At Haifa we hover as air-traffic control asks us to wait. As we circle, I see the new football stadium. Haifa’s coast encircles the sea inviting all to sail toward her. I glimpse the spectacular Technion and the adjoining Rambam Medical campus where newly minted colleagues and friends (relationships I cemented during an extraordinary visit there) are busy at work.
We fly on, continuing over Galilee. Ripe land bears fruit being harvested below. Workers gather my favorite Israeli food. tomatoes. the red boxes immediately eye-catching in a verdant land. A worker waves, smiling at us without seeing. From 400 feet above we connect.
Swooping to avoid an oblivious bird, Uri calls out in delight, tapping my leg for attention. We circle a formation of freshly baled hay. At first I cannot discern the arrangement. Determined I do, he banks hard right to circle again. Finally, I recognize the letter ‘sheen’. “Shalom” read the stacks of straw. At a short distance, the shalom is framed by an arc of bales, a straw smile. We laugh out loud at this private present only we can enjoy from our seat in the sky. As we race away, I tuck the secret Shalom into a special memory.
Rolling fields are immaculately tended. Not an inch of space goes to waste. Dates, mangoes, bananas grow in neat lines, ranks of an impossible army. Some of the more delicate fruits are veiled – protection from bats. For the first time I see pomegranate trees! Gracefully bowed, their short branches deeply curved, weighted with still young fruit supplicate to the Holy land.
North. I spy Tiberius. I am reminded of seaside Liguria. Pretty houses compete with one another along the coastal waters. “This is the Vegas of real estate in Israel, explains Uri “Just watch, property will begin to rise in value.”
Further we fly, towards the Golan. I had been here days earlier surveying the Golan on foot from Mount Bental. Plumes of smoke had then distracted me from the guide’s detailed descriptions. As the guide had talked I was transfixed by the fire. Assad’s war was near, an affront to the pristine vistas – his inhumanity a desecration of the land.
Yet still the land unfolds: fields; lapis-colored reservoirs; soft rolling hills. No one has prepared me for the soft beauty of the Golan. In my brain I had conjured images of a demilitarized zone, barren, desecrated and godforsaken. Instead I see a landscape which speaks England. Neat fields, intensely green, pepper the landscape. Soft brown hills evoke the Scottish Highlands save the purple heather. This land was host to conflicts and wars, bunkers and bombs? Somehow, like the rest of Israel, the resilient land has recovered and not only repaired, but blossomed, responding to destruction with incredible vitality and bold beauty. What spirit, this land!
Southward now, the Israeli side of the Jordan Valley below reveals what everyone talks about but few get to see – the ‘greening’ of the desert. After fifteen years of traveling to the Arab Gulf, I find it impossible to believe desert was once here.
Irrigated green strips interrupt freshly tilled soil eager for crops. On the Jordanian side I see more nascent cultivation, but greenery nonetheless. “It was part of the peace agreement” Uri tells me “Israel had to share its irrigation and agricultural technology with Jordanians as part of the deal. Israel even had to share its water.”
After two weeks of being in Israel, I now accept there are many things here I will not understand, including how Israelis can move towards not only tolerance in peace, but nurturing partnerships with those once their mortal enemies.
We pass an innocuous fence. I can hardly see it. Uri becomes even more animated. “Can you see it? Can you see it? THAT’S the border!” At first, I see nothing. Straining, I finally spy the slender wire fence which separates Israel from Jordan. This, a border? Couldn’t possibly be. There is no separation. Compared to the borders of the United States or Pakistan or India or Afghanistan – all of which I have visited – this is incredibly intimate. But good fences, an abiding and treasured value of observant Jews (to define, separate, enshrine, and through this separation respect and honor) -make for good neighbors. Israel’s neighborliness is visible from the air.
South now we head, down to the Dead Sea. I feel like a flying fish, the sun gleams on the surface and, descending, our glass-walled helicopter begins to heat anew. The altimeter descends into the negative range. We are flying yet we are descending below the sea. In a metaphor made only for Israel, like this land, we defy nature.
Faster, we chase the helicopter’s rakish shadow, ever out of our grasp. The rotors beget heavy ripples stirring the sleepy, salty sea. We sweep at ever lower altitudes over the Dead Sea, “like a power boat’ says Uri as we reach the lowest point on earth. The delight in his face is evident. I am too excited to be afraid. We are lone, in the air, land and sea. Israel ensconces us.
West now, the final leg of what I already know to be a pivotal journey. Finally, Uri shows me a landscape fitting of ‘The Middle East’. This is the desiccation to which I am accustomed. Scant shrubs stubble the landscape, the unevenly shaved beard of an aged man. The undulating land mesmerizes. The beauty is extraordinary, unholy. We fall into silence.
Ascending a precipice, we approach a lone tree reaching upwards to its Maker. The brave shock of green is besieged by the land of gold. God-centered in the face of hardship, sturdy and strong, the tree is an icon to Israel’s Sabras.
Saluting its strength with an overhead circle, we head for a nearby mountain. Gentle as a kitten, the chopper lands. Rotors still on, we discard our headphones and disembark. ‘The wishing mountain’ Uri explains. Remains of a fire are testament to a sunset witnessed, a nightfall treasured. A perpetual breeze brushes our cheeks. The silence of the desert mutes even the rotors. The ground temperature begins to rise to our faces. I make a wish, two in fact: one for Peace, and another, most selfishly, for my return.
Again we board. This time we are leaving the desert. Peeking at Jericho we head on, westward and finally, as I had promised myself so many years ago, on to Jerusalem.
In the days before I have clumsily clambered over Jerusalem. I have competed with tourists from every corner of the globe. I have stayed in East Jerusalem and West. I have visited shrines to the three great monotheisms and cast prayers at every site, some written, some spoken, all heartfelt. But nothing prepares for the view of Jerusalem as God sees it – the view from His heavenly throne.
Rolling green Cypress-laden hills yield to tawny cemeteries, some Muslim some Jewish. Golden domes of Russian orthodoxy echo the gold leaf of the Dome. Dove gray domes to Christianity are tipped with perfectly proportioned crucifixes. A gorgeous Christian hospice, St Augustine, forms perfect angles in a city defined by circles and globes.
My heart leaps with an inexplicable bolt. In just a few short days I have become deeply enamored of this ancient, gorgeous epicenter. Jerusalem is magnetic. A centripetal attraction draws me ever in. The helicopter follows this strange gravity. Trapped in this orbit, we circle again and again, neither of us sated with the extraordinary view.
As we circle tighter and tighter, and I become dizzy from the revolutions: images in my mind; images I can see; images I greedily ensnare in my buzzing camera. Finally, visually overwhelmed, I simply gaze, the beauty below beyond my computation. May it be branded in my memory until my death.
Those final minutes stretch into hours of captivation until suddenly, in a dusty clearing my pilot has landed, soft pawed like a big cat. Stepping out of the craft, I am awakened from my reverie.
This is the Land. This is what my American Jewish friends in New York City, surviving on the other side of The Holocaust, yearn for without words. This is the fabled place to which deeds from the 20th century are still treasured by Palestinian families long gone. This is the scene from where Islam’s Prophet began his night journey. This is what he must surely have seen as he charged ahead on Barak.
This is the Land. Ha’Aretz. And I learn, quite simply: like many, I had long loved her without knowing, and will love her wherever I go, whomever I become, whomsoever I worship. Wherever destiny may choose to pit me upon her unseen path, this will always be Israel.
Dr. Qanta Ahmed is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York (Stony Brook).
She is also the author of the book ‘In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom.’ (Sourcebooks 2008). The book, which details her experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia, has been published internationally in 13 countries and is now in its 11th edition.
Dr. Ahmed was the first Muslim woman and the first physician to be selected to be a 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge, England.
Qanta Ahmed has published several blog posts at The Times of Israel, including Israel’s Jihad is mine, Intimidating freedom: The Muslim imperative to oppose Islamists and Pakistan and blasphemy.