Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Begin at El Arish

Bygone days: Oh, for the embraces of El Arish
May. 20, 2008

In the early hours of a Sunday morning in May 1979, four tourist buses, two Egyptian and two Israeli, wound their separate ways along the coastal road of Northern Sinai bound for El Arish, a sand swept, lazy oasis of some 45,000 anchored in desert dunes and lapped by a velvet beach. El Arish is the administrative capital of the Sinai, which was why Premier Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat had chosen to meet there on that May morning 29 years ago for its ceremonial transfer back to Egyptian rule in accordance with the military annex of the recently signed peace treaty.

The passengers in the tourist busses were not tourists. They were disabled veterans of the two armies who, time and again, had charged at each other across the sands of Sinai, in tanks, in half-tracks, in gun carriers, in command cars, in aircraft, and in helicopters and, in doing so, maimed each other for life. Now, at Begin's instigation and with Sadat's concurrence, they had agreed to rendezvous at El Arish in a gesture of chivalrous reconciliation.

It was a thrilling spectacle to witness, prior to the men's arrival, the honor guards and military bands of both armies marching in unison on parade in files of five before the prime minister and the president. However, when the time came for the bugle to sound as the Israeli flag was lowered and the Egyptian flag raised in its stead, many a Jewish expression turned melancholy. It was a moment of indefinable disquiet, like fog rolling toward you across the sea.

In rigid homage the two leaders hearkened to the playing of their national anthems, whereupon they retired for a private talk while a number of us, members of the entourage, strolled to the flag-bedecked recreation hall close by where the wounded veterans were to meet.

The two Egyptian busses churned up much dust as they came into view and drew to a halt at the entrance to the hall. There must have been 70 men in all, resplendent in fresh uniforms of different rank and insignia, and all lavishly decorated in campaign medals. Their exit from the busses was painfully slow. Some were missing a foot, others a leg. Four at least had both legs missing. Some wore hook-like contraptions where their hands had been, and the sleeves of those without arms were neatly folded back and pinned at the shoulder. A number were grotesquely disfigured; some were blind.

THEY WALKED, wheeled, limped and hobbled their way into the hall's cool interior, on crutches, with canes, and in wheelchairs. Medical orderlies guided them to the far end of the hall, where they were seated, and handed refreshments.

Five minutes later the two Israeli busses, red and cream-colored, pulled up, and the identical scene took place. One by one the Israeli war invalids emerged, some lame, some disfigured, some with artificial limbs, some paralyzed, some blind. Unlike the Egyptians, however, none wore uniforms or decorations of any sort. Leaning on their crutches and canes, or in wheelchairs, and assisted by medical orderlies, they hobbled and limped and rolled their way inside, lining up at the near side of the hall adjacent to the entrance.


Egyptian eyes locked Israeli eyes in a palpable suspense of conflicting emotion. Cripple appraised cripple, as if striving to pick out the one who had pressed the trigger, pulled the pin, pushed the button. Gallant though this encounter idea was, no one had thought it through. The wounds were too fresh. Nobody knew what to do or say as the two groups of smashed men confronted each other across a distance of perhaps ten or twelve yards that was an impassable no-man's land. A restless stirring gripped the hall. Some asked orderlies to get them out.

Close to where I stood an Israeli in his thirties, blind, bent low to embrace a child. Their resemblance was striking. The child was eight or nine, with big eyes as black as his curly hair, just like his dad's.

"Kach oti eilehem" [Take me to them], whispered the father. The child looked up at him pleadingly, and whimpered, "Aval ani m'facheid mihem." [But I'm scared of them]. Gently, the father nudged the child forward and he, the child, timidly led his dad into the no man's land. And even as they began to move an Egyptian officer in a wheelchair, legless, rolled himself toward them. They met in the middle and the officer placed the blind man's palm into his own, and shook it.

Instantly, the commotion eased. A Jew began to clap; he was joined by an Arab. Incrementally, the sprinkle of clapping swelled until it burst into a boisterous applause that rattled the rafters as the two sides limped, hobbled, and wheeled themselves toward each other, melting into a huddle of embraces, handshakes, and backslapping. With laughter and tears, the maimed soldiers of the 1948 war, the 1956 Sinai War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1970 Attrition War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War fell on each other, calling out "Shalom!" "Salaam!" "Peace!"

And even as they embraced prime minister Menachem Begin and president Anwar Sadat entered, and the applause rose to an even higher pitch. The two leaders circulated among the men, asking about their wounds and where they had fought. And when the premier and the president mounted the rostrum to laud their brave armies and their wounded veterans, many in the crowd wept and called out to each other in Hebrew, in Arabic, and in English: "L'chayim!" "Lihayot!" "To life!"

Enveloped in the midst of this raucous camaraderie, the child clung tightly to his blind father. He looked bewildered, terrified even, his eyes darting back and forth at the animated faces of Arab and Jew. Nothing in his young experience had prepared him for this. For as long as he could remember he had played escort to a father who would never see because he had been made blind by such Arabs. They would always be the enemy and, by definition, bad.

Sensing his son's apprehension, the blind man lifted his child into his arms, kissed him gently, and said, "Al t'facheid b'nee. Ha'Aravim ha'eyle tovim." [Don't be afraid, my son. These Arabs are good].

TWENTY-NINE years later, that child of El Arish would be in his thirties and his dad in the sixties. I have no idea who they were. I merely wonder whether the dad feels the same way today as he felt then. I don't.

Oh, for the embraces of El Arish.