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JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. The Middle East, the Red Sea part 2 of 2

swimming in red sea--fish

The next morning, oh boy, let me tell you about this.  I wake up about six o’clock in the morning and throw back the curtains and my room looks right over the Red Sea—blue, green, little touches of silver.  I get up, I go down and have a little breakfast, and I go wandering out, and I am about to go skin diving in the Red Sea for the first time.

The beach itself is not very impressive—it’s pebbled.  Half sand, half little pebbles.  But as you wade into the water, the instant you get in this water you know that this water is different from any sea water that you ever waded in.  To begin with, it’s as clear as the clearest glass.  Frighteningly clear.  So much so that there is a danger that comes from that clear water.

For those of you who have never skin-dived, there’s several ways of doing it.  There’s the aqua-lung, of course, and there’s snorkeling.  In this case we had aqualungs.  You wade in backwards, and as you do the water starts coming up rather quickly.  This is not a low island situation like Jones Beach, it’s mountainous, so it’s very deep and slants away quickly.  Now you’re waist-high, you turn over, you spin, and you are now on your stomach and you dive under and start gliding down in water that’s maybe six or seven feet and suddenly it slants away and off it goes, down, down, down. aqualung

The bottom under you suddenly changes—it stops being pebbles and sand and becomes sand.  And it looks almost exactly as white as sugar.  When the sun is coming down and hitting the sand at the right angle, it hurts the eyes in the diver’s mask.  As the bottom slants away and goes down and down and down, you look ahead and you can see the shadowy sea getting deeper and deeper and deeper, the ground slanting away almost at a thirty degree angle and you see these great coral reefs rising higher and higher as the water gets deeper and deeper.  All of a sudden you’re in the middle of this unbelievable forest.  For those of you who saw the movie and have seen really good skin-diving movies I don’t have to tell you much about that except that to experience it is a totally different thing than to see it in the movies.

Because you feel all this water moving above and around you and you’re not in the water for more than a few minutes when you begin to have a completely—I suppose the word should be—other-world feeling.  As though you don’t really exist anymore.  If you can imagine this paradox, this is really what happens.  Your body sort of melts away.  You have no weight is the first thing that happens.  You have a sense of almost absolute freedom—which, by the way, is dangerous.  The French word for it means “the rapture of the depths.”  You begin to have this peculiar exhilaration and many a skin-diver is killed because of that.  He often forgets where he is and ultimately finds himself in bad trouble because of the rapture he begins to experience.

As you go down lower and lower, the first thing that hits me is—I had never been in water where the underwater life is anything like this.  The variety of the fish-life in this water, and it’s all hanging in crystal—no sense of water at all in this place and that’s one of the peculiar dangers about it.  There’s absolutely no sense of being in water, it’s as though you’re in some kind of melted glass.  I don’t know how to describe it really.  It’s not exactly like air, it’s as though something, somehow, has suspended all animation.  All you can hear is the roaring in your ears of the aqua lung and the water pressure WHOOOOO.  And that’s it.  Even that, after a few minutes, you forget completely about.

This great purple fish with long, thin, yellow fins comes drifting by.  Big, heavy fish drifts right by.  Big red eyes.  He looks at me as though I’m another fish and drifts on past.  No fright.  Just drifts past.  I’m drifting around, spinning, slowly spinning, and then a whole school of angelfish go past in a V-formation.  Down below me s this enormous coral cave that just stretches down and down.angel fish

Angelfish

The man that I’m skin diving with is a bearded Israeli, a man who, a few years ago was in the world headlines.  Raffi Nelson, who was caught in the Suez Canal trying to make it through in a one-man boat.  In an Israeli canoe.  This is the guy.  He’s drifting alongside of me.  Both of us are just moving along and we begin to explore these reefs.  Of course he’d been down here twenty thousand times before, and he’s taking me to these various caves.  He points, “Look, look, look!”  He’s pointing, and drifting out of a coral reef, a kind of ring of coral—a wreath of coral, yellow, and green and orange coral—comes this fantastic barracuda.  Great big barracuda about four feet long.  He just drifts by, and you can see those gleaming, silver teeth.  He just drifts past.  These big google-eyes.  He moves on past us, flutters around us, gives us another look and POOOOOH—you just see his tail—he moves.

swimming in red sea--fish

The water is maybe forty feet deep and crystal clear. With just a touch of green and yellow about it..  Raffi points, “Look, look, look.”  Down below us we see this eight or nine-foot eel crawling along.  Moving along through the coral, and we continue to move, drifting slowly, spinning up and down, and all the while Raffi is taking pictures with an underwater camera.  Once in awhile I turn to see the water, green and silver, and see the sun above, and down we go, drifting on and on.  You lose all sense of time.  You lose all sense of place.  That too, is dangerous.  I can’t tell you how long we are doing this.  I can only tell you we must have drifted maybe a mile under the sea, and along that great reef of coral.

Riffi drifts up past me, trying to get my attention, he’s drifting past me.  He makes a triangle and he points ahead.  Triangle!

I say, “Huh?”  I shrug my shoulders.  What do you mean?  Triangle.  So I start going—he pushes me back, he’s making another triangle!  What?  What?

Triangle!  Triangle!   He makes his mouth move but nothing but bubbles come out.  Triangle!  Triangle!  It suddenly hits me!  He’s saying, “Pyramid!  Egypt!”  He’s saying, “Look out!”  That next reef is right across the line.

I drift back and forth and I can see there’s a big shadowy reef and you can see a few barracuda drifting in and out.  You see a school of angle fish going across the Israeli-Egyptian border.  I’m drifting around.

I get this peculiar image that, sometime, someplace, there will be a barricaded reef.  Can you see it now?  A pillbox underwater?  To get skin divers who dare to go through or above or around to cross the borders of this country?  Guarded by barracudas?  Trained barracudas?

Twenty minutes later both of us are up on the shore, shaking the water off, taking the equipment off.  I say, “Was that—?”

He says, “Yeah, that was.”

I say, “Is it dangerous?”

He looks at me.  He says, “Well, we lost three of them last month.  Ain’t heard from them since.”

And the sun hangs up over us there and the great red hills move on—march toward the horizon.  Ah!  To be skin diving tonight in the Red Sea!

swimming in red sea--fish

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JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. The Middle East, the Red Sea part 1 of 2

I promised to talk about skin-diving in the Red Sea.  I’m going to find it very difficult to talk about.  Primarily because it’s an experience that in many ways is indescribable.  They talk about things you can’t describe, that you can’t put into words.  Well, this kind of experience is one of them.  Did you see that movie that Captain Cousteau made, called The Silent World?  Most of it was shot in the Red Sea in exactly the place where I was skin-diving just six days ago.

I had an incident happen to me skin diving in that area.  To begin with, you have to picture in your mind how that part of the world looks geographically.  The map of Israel looks something like a long, narrow, truncated triangle, the point of the triangle pointing downwards, the top flattened off.  The left-hand side of the triangle is on the Mediterranean Sea.  The sea slants off, and there’s a little spot, a long line of land that sticks up.  It’s a strange part of the world—a sliver of ground called the Gaza Strip.

redsea. map gif

So here’s the Gaza Strip and way down there Israel goes further on down, and at the end of this little triangle, at the narrowest tip end, is a tiny settlement called Elat.  Elat is an ancient, ancient site and right now there’s a lot of excavating going on.

About fifteen miles north of Elat is generally considered the site of King Solomon’s Mines.  He had a whole mining operation going on there, not mining gold but copper, which was the precious metal of that area, and I’ll tell you this, the area of King Solomon’s Mines looks like one of the great ravaged areas of the world.  Like a cover drawing for a science fiction story of something out of one of the more desolate planets.  The rock rises maybe five-hundred feet directly out of the sand.  Rises directly out of the flat sand of the Negev Desert.

King Solomon Pillars Timna_1

A rocky mountain range that is totally desolate, that extends for, oh—hundreds of miles into the far horizon, and right at the foot of this is this great, dusty cavern with roaring, roaring sound, billows of greenish-gray dust that’s flying up high into the air.  When you’re about ten miles away from King Solomon’s Mines you see this mushroom cloud in the sky.

The sky of the Negev Desert is about as clear and brilliant a sky as you can imagine.  It is so bright in the Negev that it’s difficult to even look at it.blue sky

This tropical world here is an arid, desert world, which means that the humidity of the countryside probably averages down around three or four percent.  It’s such cold air at night and such hot air during the day that at anytime you breathe it in you know that you’re breathing something special.  Great for the sinuses!  If you spend about ten days standing in the sun in the Negev Desert, if you’ve got sinuses left you’re lucky.  You’ll be boiled down to a little grease spot.

They are mining right now at King Solomon’s Mines, dragging all this copper ore out of the ground and there is this tremendous cloud of dust.  Standing right there are three huge pillars of stone.  They are really scary.  They are dark red color, almost cordovan-leather color and they rise directly out of the dust and go right to the sky.

I went past that place about three times, and every time, up in the sky, circling against the sun, are four or five enormous desert vultures—just circling—great big vultures, waiting for something to die, waiting for something to give up.

Continue straight on south in that country and you strike this tiny settlement called Elat, lying right on the Red Sea.  Elat is on a long, narrow tip that’s at the end of the Red Sea.  They call that area “The End of the World,” and there’s a little restaurant there called The End of the World.  I stayed in this hotel with a great name—“The Queen of Sheba Hotel.”  This is her neighborhood, this is where the Queen of Sheba came ashore when she was on a ceremonial, state visit to see King Solomon.

hilton-eilat-queen-of-sheba

As you walk into The Queen of Sheba Hotel, the one great thing you like about it is that it’s air-conditioned.  Oh, boy, let me tell you, after you’ve gone through that shimmering desert heat for about three-hundred miles, as you’ve driven down through this arid world, with the sun, with the heat, with the buzzards, with that rising grayish-green smoke-cloud of King Solomon’s Mines, when you step into that air-conditioning it is like stepping into heaven.

Directly ahead of you is a big mural that shows the Queen of Sheba getting out of her state barge, surrounded by Nubian hand-servants and giant lions on leashes and all that stuff, and greeting her is the fantastic entourage headed by King Solomon.  There is a lot of talk—I might as well be honest with you—there is a lot of terrible gossip about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  There was a lot more than state talk that went on between those two and I’m not trying to be irreverent here, but they still talk about it around here.  There’s a lot of people who don’t even discuss them, even at this time and this age in that neighborhood.  Awful scene.

About ten minutes after I get into the hotel, I am now down on the beach, which is not itself particularly imposing.  Although there is one thing about this beach that is like no other beach that I have ever been on in my life.  As you stand on the beach you can see four countries.  You cannot only see four countries, but if you’ve got a long enough reach, you can reach out and touch four countries.  You’re lying right on a bay, a long arm of the Red Sea.  Off to your left you see the hills of Jordan, the Moab Mountains run right down to the sea.  Then if you move your eyes slightly to your right, you’re looking at Saudi Arabia.  You’re standing on Israel, then as you look to the right, just past that stand over there where they’re selling the hot dogs, that is Egypt.  Directly ahead of you are these soft, low waves rolling in on this sandy beach.  The beach where the Queen of Sheba’s barge pulled up into the gravel and King Solomon stepped down and greeted her.

queen of sheba

Right down at the tip of this long, narrow, truncated triangle, lies this tiny settlement of Elat, which, a couple of years ago was a military outpost.  They were trying to guard the seaway entranceway to Elat.  This little spot on the map had a radar station and about four or five companies of infantry and a couple of tanks.  Now they’ve built this tiny city right on the edge of the sea, surrounded completely by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Egypt.

Why do they call it the Red Sea?  At a certain time of day, around six-thirty or seven o’clock, just as the sun hits the edge of these mountains, almost like magic the entire sea in front of you turns a fantastic blood-red.  It’s a combination of the kind of sun that hits down through this mountain air and the reflection of that sun off the water and back down again on the water off these red hills that rim the sea.  For maybe five or ten minutes this sea is an absolute blood-red sea.  Just like that.

Then, as the sun goes down—and like all tropical areas, there’s hardly any twilight—one minute it’s daylight, then—pow!—it’s night.  The sky over the desert is a sky like no sky you’ve ever seen.  I’ve seen the sky from the tropical jungles of Peru, I’ve seen the sky from Miami, I’ve seen the sky from Canada, I’ve seen the sky from Australia.  I’ve seen the sky from pretty nearly all around the world, but there is no sky like the sky you see in the African or the Arabian desert.  It is unbelievable, fantastic.  Primarily because the air is so clear.  There is no dust, there is no smoke, there’s no humidity to speak of.  So everything is as though it’s made out of crystal.  You have the sense that you can almost reach up and touch the sky, you can just about pick stars out of this black velvet just above you.  And you can understand why somebody like Omar Khayyam wrote about the sky and about the stars and the night.  A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me.  And you can understand this only, really, completely, when you’re there, in the area of Persia, Saudi Arabia, and that unbelievable nighttime desert sky.

As that sky begins to turn on, another peculiar thing happens.  Off to your left a long line of tiny lights begin to appear along the shoreline.  Blue and green lights like a little, horizontal Christmas tree just lying on its side.  This is Aqaba, a city that belongs to Israel’s enemy, and it lights up about fifteen-hundred feet away, and the people of Elat look over at the people in Aqaba—you have the sense that over there, they’re looking over at the lights of Elat.

You look to your right and you see a couple of other lights on the shoreline.  They’re from Egypt.  There is this little horseshoe of light.  All four countries are at sword’s point.  Very eerie feeling.

 •

And you walk through the night streets of Elat—they have fluorescent lights hanging over the streets and you go into this little restaurant called “The Blue Fish.”  Tiny restaurant that’s known throughout Israel as one of the very few places in Israel where you can really get a good meal.  Inside is a character who looks like an out-of-work pirate standing there, and there are five tables all around him.  They have fishnets hanging from the walls with glass balls.  It’s kind of strangely pathetic, an oddly touching attempt to create a sophisticated gaiety—that just isn’t quite gay, that isn’t quite sophisticated.

I’ll tell you one thing they do serve—the greatest seafood I’ve ever had in my life.  It comes right out of the Red Sea—tropical fish of one kind or another.  We drink the Israeli wine, we eat the fish, all done beautifully.  And there are a couple of other guys who have drifted in from the desert and everyone’s shoveling in the shrimp.

We go back out into the night and we drift down the street and here’s a Moroccan coffee shop, truly Moroccan because a lot of people who came to Israel in the early, founding days, were North-African.  A couple of swarthy Moroccans are sitting there waiting for you to come in and drink their Moroccan coffee, which is vaguely scented.  There are about ten or twenty types of Moroccan coffee, and two types that are illegal.  Flavored with stuff that if you ever drank it you would be floating around the ceiling for a week and a half.  So you sip coffee and the juke box is playing Moroccan music and outside is that velvet, strange, soft, ethereal night.  And the lights of Aqaba are stretching off into the distance.  A jeep goes by—AWAWAWAWAWAWA! with three soldiers in it with Thompson submachine guns over their soldiers—into the darkness.

5526-Thompson-2

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. The Middle East: FATIMA !

Bedouin Bazaar Visions

Visions, imaginations, fantasies. On occasion, Shepherd mixes them all into a delicious fruitcake of a dream. So you have trouble understanding what is true and what is only true to our fondest desires. In their own way they are all rather real–what is more real than our inner, fondest desires?

I’m down in the heart of the Bedouin bazaar in the middle of Nazareth, and it’s a long, narrow, twisted, involved street.  It’s about six feet across.  And as you go step by step you get deeper and deeper into another world.  And you get further and further away from America.  And each step the smells get more subtle.  Oh, yeah, there’s stuff you wouldn’t believe that smells, friend.  Oh, yeah, and when you get a montage of these aromas, it does something to your soul.

You know, I’m a typical American.  There’s a certain point when you think you’re hip and then all of a sudden you encounter something totally alien and all your hip-ness departs.  I walk into this place, and here is this Arab sheik.  He’s got this tarbush on.  He says, “Ah, you are zee American.”

I say, “Yeah.”

He says, “Come into my shop.  Let us sit down and speak of what perhaps you would like to take home to America as a little gift.”

So we sit down and immediately he brings out this Turkish coffee and we sit at this tiny inlaid table.  Me looking at him, him looking at me.

Then he says, “What was it you desired to take home as a souvenir?”  There is a slight flicker of his shoulder and I see a figure behind in the darkness appear from behind the beaded screens.  It is this fantastic alabaster dream.  What a chick!  Whooo!  She has these almond eyes, and she just appears for an instant—and then disappears.

His eyebrow flicker just slightly.  He says, “Is there anything you see?”

I say, “Well, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”

He says. “That is exactly what I thought.  Now let us speak.  What was it you want?”

I can see by a flicker of his left hand that it is expected of me to discuss water pipes, which are over here all piled up, marked “For Tourists Only.”

I say, “How about a water pipe?”

He says, “Ahhh.  I have superb water pipes.  I have many water pipes.  Zis one was made during the reign of the Turks.  And zis goes back to the Byzantine Empire.  And I have ozzers.”

I say, “I’m interested in ozzers.”

He says, “Ahhh, I can see you are a man of taste and discretion.”

Behind us I can hear this oriental, this Arabic music, begin to play toomdatoomdatoomdatoom.  I can hear the sound of those pipes Eioroiretoomdatoomdadatoom.  And boy, I can feel my blood boiling.

And he says, “I can arrange to have whatever you wish sent to you duty free.”

I say, “Duty free?!”

“Duty free.”

I say, “Well, he he.”

We settle back for a long moment like that.  And there is a sudden moment, a sudden instant, and once again I see this alabaster form.  This time it’s another alabaster form.

He says, “I have much in stock.”

Little did I realize at that moment that I had engaged myself in a subtle bargaining, a subtle but very, very well-established pattern.  I was about to buy, gentlemen, the ultimate souvenir.  Haven’t you, as an American, as a traveler, haven’t you wanted someday, to bring back the one thing that really said it?  Yes!  And you get it back home and it just turns out to be a rotten little vase.  Just a crummy vase, and you see them up and down 42nd Street.  And you lugged it back in your bag six-thousand miles and it turns out to be a rotten little vase.  Well, I am sitting with this Arab sheik and he says to me, “Of course, you realize, that zes things take time.”

I say, “How much?”

He says, “It depends on za sort of negotiation that you wish to enter into.  Do you wish to pay cash or do you wish to charge it?”

Little did I realize how spectacularly successful my Diners Club card could be.  Well, I am sitting with this guy for fifteen minutes and we are talking back and forth with this subtle innuendo of two old, experienced men of the world.  Until finally, he says, “Za deal is complete.  It was a pleasure to do business with you.  Her name is Fatima.  Of course you can call her anything you care to.  She prefers Fatima.”

And I say, “Fatima.  Fatima!  Oh boy, wouldn’t they love to see Fatima in Hammond, Indiana!”  Yes, Fatima!  Little did I realize that I could get her not only duty free, but I could get her disguised as a lamp.  That’s how she’s coming in.  And it is through a long, involved, subtle negotiation like that that I finally achieve the ultimate!  I don’t know how long the law’s going to let me get by with it.  I don’t know, but I’ve had that moment of fantastic success.  I’m watching now for the call from the American Express Company.  I wonder how she’ll be wrapped.  I wonder what you say when that first moment comes.  “Come, Fatima, come.”  A true slave!  Imagining this first moment was the most fun I’ve ever had.  I don’t think anybody who has ever bought a Doberman Pinscher has had as much fun as I had.

Well, I’ve made my peace and I’m going to continue to live with it.  You know it’s a funny thing about people.  When you travel out and you learn about your land, you know.  I am in the middle of this fantastic scene in a town north of Tel Aviv.  This is another time when you discover yourself.  It’s a low mud hut and I’ve been taken in by this guy who says, “So you really want to see how za native world loves?”

And I say, “Yeah!”

So we go into this place.  It’s all lit with purple lights and I can see people lounging on the floor.  There’s guys wearing tarbushes.  You ought to see an Arab when he’s in his full regalia.  They wear shades.  You ought to see an Arab in his shades.  That is an Arab in full heat.  Two o’clock in the morning.  Here they are.  They’re all in this dark place.  I can hear the tinkle of little bells somewhere in the distance.  I can smell some subtle aromas, which even by just smelling them, I know they’re illegal.  I step over these bodies.  I’m in this dark den of iniquity in the Middle East.  We’ve all vibrated to that.

And out of the darkness comes this man who runs this place and he says to me, “What is your pleasure?”  What is your pleasure?!  What are you going to do when somebody asks you that?  In the middle of what appears to be a den of decadence, of decadence beyond measure!  He says, “What is your pleasure?”  And the only thing you could think of is, “You got any Coke?”  It’s terrible being an American!  We’re very uncreative sinners, you know?

So, in the middle of all that, I’m sitting there and I can remember my mother.  I’m a little kid, see.  This is one of the remembrances that I think clouds our thinking about places like that.  I can remember my mother, she’s got this fantastic hang-up.  A hang-up on Gary Cooper.   I remember going to this movie with her—we followed it all around the Midwest.  Every afternoon she was off she’d take me to see the picture with Gary Cooper in the French Foreign Legion.  My mother had this idea in her head that if she could only get to the desert, Gary Cooper would grab her.  Or Rudolph Valentino would grab her. She could see herself being carried away on a horse.  Off into the desert to this tent made out of camel hair.

Sheik

Rudolph, the Arab sheik

and Mrs. Ann Shepherd.

For those of you who are wondering, we will be broadcasting live at the Limelight this week.  I’m going to wear my tarboosh and I am bringing my Arab slave girl down to the Limelight to make a personal appearance.  She arrived today and I’m delighted to report she arrived undamaged, duty-free, and she’s magnificent.  Alabaster skin, sparkling eyes.  Oh, by George, it’s the perfect souvenir.

the-bedouin-dancer-otto-pilny

FATIMA

•the perfect souvenir•

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. Middle East, Beersheba & The Desert Inn (2)

beersheba coaster

I’m lying in my sack and it must have been about one o’clock in the morning.  I’ve got my little transistor radio on and I’m in this town not far from the Jordanian border, and it’s on the edge of the Negev Desert.

It’s hot and you can smell that peculiar smell of the Middle East.  Once you’ve smelled it you can never forget it.  It isn’t like any other smell.  I think that a large part of it is the Israeli cigarettes they smoke.  The Arabic type of tobacco, which has a strange aroma that is somehow closely related to burning mattresses.  Awful stuff.  That, combined with moldy camel dung, baking sand, five-thousand years of Roman sandals that have decayed into dust.  Put this whole thing together and you’ve got the smell of the Middle East.  It has no other counterpart anywhere.

I’m lying in my sack and that smell is coming in through the window.  The shades are sort of half-drawn.  There’s a big, heavy, full moon.  The moon is so bright in the desert that you have to pull your shades down or you can’t go to sleep.  They really have a moon here!  They really turn it on in the Middle East—and they do it, of course, at the peak of the tourist season—they’ve got a big master switch.  They turn this thing on—it’s got a dimmer on it, and when they turn it on really full blast, you can get a sunburn from the moon.  You’ve got to wear shades and everything.

So the moon is up there, blasting down, and I’ve got the shade half-drawn.  They have this Somerset Maugham-type of shade all over the Middle East and the tropics—these wooden slat-like things, and above my sack is this big, four-bladed fan.  You’ve seen these movies starring Rita Hayworth and Peter Lorrie and Humphrey Bogart.  They’re always someplace just a bit east of Suez.  That kind of scene.  The fan is going kachoo-kachoo-kachoo-kachoo-kachoo, just a steady thump as it goes around and you can hear it hitting the larger horseflies as it revolves.  This is a part of the Middle East you don’t hear much about—they have big bugs. The fan goes kachoo-kachoo-kachoo and I can hear things thump, bump, the bugs yelling and hollering, and the fan is whistling around and I can smell the Middle East.

I’ve got my little transistor turned on.  I would recommend to anybody who wants to travel, by all means take your transistor radio with you and take an extra set of batteries, too, because if you ever try to buy nine-volt batteries here, you will find out not only will it cost you an arm and a leg, but when you put the doggone thing in, it’s four years old and it’s been dead for two-and-a-half years.  I’m tuning around the dial and I’m listening to these various radio shows coming in—the wildest stuff coming at you.  There are a lot of programs that countries broadcast in English, which is the second language here, and the English programs are almost purely for propaganda.

I’m listening to this girl in Jordan talking about Arabic music.  Very serious program, not a laugh in six months of listening to these things.  She says, “Many Westerners do not understand the subtleties of the various forms of Middle-Eastern, Indian, and/or oriental music.  The forms follow very closely a variation of the fugue, a variation of the cantata movements, and a variation of the basic symphonic structure.  Now, the love song or the ordinary popular song of the Arabic nations…”  She goes on and on and on, explaining all this music and about how the West should understand this fantastic stuff and go along with it.

And I’m sitting here—yeah, yeah, that’s good, that’s right, ahuh.  Yes, very good, highly complex, ahuh, yes, I understand that I must attune my ear to new sounds, very good, must have open esthetic possibilities to see new avenues of beauty, ahuh, very good.  I’m listening to this half-hour show and I’m really interested in it.  I say to myself, “Well, now we’re going to get some of this stuff.”  She stops and says, “You are listening to Radio Jordan broadcasting twenty-four hours a day.  In one moment, our next program.”

On comes the same voice: “And now we present music as you like it.”  I expect Arabic music.  After all this talk about how we should listen to this great music, what do you think comes on?  Elvis Presley.  This is the ironic part: she starts giving all of these dedications and every last dedication is from an Arab!

It’s funny when you run into the reverse chauvinism that’s going on in every country.  For example, throughout America, all the hippies are digging, let’s’ say, Welsh folk songs and they’re digging Israeli folk songs.  You go to Israel and all the hippies are digging West Virginia folk songs.  They couldn’t care less about Israeli folk songs, and as a matter of fact it took me three days to get an Israeli to take me to a place where they are really singing Israeli folk songs.

 beersheba coaster

Here’s one of the most disillusioning things that happened to me in the Middle East.  I’m in Beersheba, a desert city that traditionally, throughout the ages, was a famous oasis, the crossroads of the great caravans that crisscrossed the Negev, went down into Arabia and up into Persia, and all the way up into India.

beedouin markey beersheba

They have a wild market there that starts at four A. M. every Thursday.  One of the weird sights is to see a group of Bedouins—these guys are living as they must have lived five-thousand years ago—leading their camels and riding their horses on the move across the Negev Desert, and outlined against them you see this fantastically modern, superbly designed hydroelectric plant.  They’re moving across as though they don’t even see it.  They go through Beersheba, and every Thursday at four A. M. they meet in this big open place—a chunk of the desert that they’ve got sort of pegged out.

The Bedouin sheiks are still there, and they do not look like Rudolph Valentino sitting in a Hollywood plastic tent.  You see them huddled up in their dark tents and five or six camels moving around and a herd of goats tended by two or three tiny kids.  You can tell the girls because they always have what looks like a scarf wrapped all the way around so that you can just see their eyes.  And there’s that low, flat, black and brown and earth-colored tent that’s the Bedouin’s house—his castle, and you see one little hole in it that’s the doorway.  Sometimes, looking in you can see this white figure looking out at you—that’s the Arab sheik.  The women are almost impossible to see.  They’re always kept away, hidden in the back of the tent.

The whole area is filled with camels at dawn, it’s like a parking lot at the A and P.  The stars are still out and you hear this cacophony—this uproar of Arab talk in about six-thousand different dialects.  And the overpowering smell of sheep and goats, because this is what they’re dealing in.

 sheep

S h e p – h e r d

In the middle of this insane market place in Beersheba, I saw a fantastic sight—an Arab had this typical, Chevrolet, Country Squire station wagon, baby blue with a fin.  The whole interior had been gutted, the doors hanging loose, the windows cracked, and it was filled with goats, all looking out.  Obviously it was the pride of his life.

And always, when any of these people get together, especially the Yemenites, you instantly hear their music break out.  I saw a group of Yemenites—they look sort of gypsy and Spanish, kind of a wild, fascinating look, and they are all dancing in a circle, their music is going, the drums are going, and suddenly they rush into their bus.  How they manage to dance and yell and holler in a bus I don’t know, but the whole bus is rocking.  Off it went down into the desert.  It was a group of Yemenites going around the country on a tourist trip.

Beersheba at that hour is a cacophony in that one spot.  Westerners come down and look at the market that has been here for hundreds and hundreds of years.  As far back as recorded history goes, this marketplace has been in operation.  And it continues to trade in the same thing it traded in—camel hides, the things that a Bedouin needs.  He’s constantly trading back and forth—his weapons—because, after all, he does live in the desert and it contains rattlesnakes and cougars.  All the Bedouins go armed.  They usually carry a dagger.  They have a working dagger—when you meet an ordinary enemy.  Then they have ceremonial daggers—silver with inlaid handles.  That’s if you want to kill somebody close to you like your mother-in-law.  So when you go to the bazaar, all this stuff is being traded and it was at this bazaar that I picked up my tarboosh.  I look fantastic in it, I’ll tell you!

tarboosh

Tarboosh

Here is Beersheba at the crossroads.  And in the middle of Beersheba is this hotel—which is lying right on the edge of the desert.  I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and I took a look at this really exciting-looking place—except for one thing.  The hotel looks like a little bit of Las Vegas.  And they’re very proud of that.  They believe Las Vegas is one of the more civilized spots in the world.  You have the feeling they’re replacing one kind of barbarism for another.  One is plaster and the other happens to be made out of copper.  So here’s a little bit of Las Vegas—The Desert Inn and it’s all plastic, with a plastic swimming pool in the back and plastic deck chairs.  And it’s right on the desert, right in the middle of this waste and about six-and-a-half minutes away from it is the genuine Arab Bedouin crossroads of the world, the meeting place and marketplace.  Here is The Desert Inn with ceremonial Bedouins painted on the outside of it.  Phony Bedouins who look like they were done by Walt Disney.  Cute Bedouins.

the-bedouin-dancer-otto-pilny

“The Bedouin Dancer”

(Cute Bedouins, not by Disney.)

And right in the middle of this U-shaped building, in the center, is a genuine Bedouin tent!  It’s a very eerie sight.  It’s as though you have arrived in front of the Waldorf and somebody has pitched there, a roving band of Genghis Khan.

There’s a little sign inside the lobby that says: “Be Sure to Attend the Show in the Bedouin’s Tent.”  So I made my reservation and I’m ready to go.  I say, “By George, here’s where I’m going to see the real thing!  The real thing!”

So, now it’s eight o’clock at night.  The elevators are going and all the people are heading for the Bedouin’s Tent, and I walk out through this hot desert air.  You feel that baked sand in the night and you can see the stars above you and here’s the Bedouin’s Tent lying there in the moonlight.  These tents are very low and dark so I duck my head down and go in.  It’s a big tent.  Must be seventy-five feet long and maybe forty feet across.  That’s the way the tents are out in the desert—about that size.  Long, low, flat, hut-like tents with many poles, the roof looking scalloped.  You can smell the smell of camel—the camel hair it’s made out of, and goat hides, camel hides, sheep hides, all sewn together.  That’s why it has a kind of mottled, camouflaged look.

It takes about a minute-and-a-half for your eyes to get used to the darkness and you see all around you on the sides these low, big leather cushions, and this is the way the Arabs live.  It’s all low and the people sort of lounge.  The Arab knows how to live in his world.  They lounge.  You see these low blue lanterns hanging, the flickering light, lit with kerosene.  Blue and yellow lenses.  Wow!  The people are all lounging around the walls.  It’s the international set that has gathered to sip of the insanely erotic delights of the Middle East.  And I’m ready to go.

The show has not yet begun as I am led through the tent by this hooded Arab.  I lounge down against a big camel pelt behind me.  Shep has come all the way.  I light one of my sinister, Middle-Eastern cigarettes, which, of course, shrivels your lungs right down to your feet.  I’ve got my shades on now.  I want to look kind of like Humphrey Bogart on his day off.  He’s come down here to meet Peter Lorie.  And they’re going to exchange a few little bits of information because they‘re both going to go out and get Sydney Greenstreet in half an hour.  And Lauren Bacall will show up.

shep closeup

Bogy on his day off with shades.

So I’m lounging, and I see all these other guys with the white coats, oh yeah, and there’s about five-hundred nubile chicks who all look a little like Bridget Bardot’s kid sister.  Oh boy!  I’m ready, see!

I see the stage over there.  Oh boy!  In just a few moments I am going to see the delights that will make this Mid-Western mind reel!  Ahhhh!  This is what I’ve come for.  I see strange instruments lined up against that goatskin background.  Little flickering blue lights on it and I can hear it in my mind already.  I can hear those finger cymbals kachingkachingkaching, I can see that writhing figure, that comely figure picking up those flickering purple lights.  Oh, I can see those muscles that human beings rarely ever have shown to the roaring public.  Kaching!  The flashing eyes.  I can smell the hashish rising, and the opium.  Aha, bring it on!  Stronger women!  Ahhhhh!  More subtle wives.  I’m ready for it, see.

There is a slight stir among the assemblage and I am aware—you can sense it in the air, like any time you go to a show you can sense it in the air that something is about to begin.  My Arab waiter puts down before me a bowl of figs and a long string of grapes.  I say, “By George, grapes!” Aha, this is the beginning, just the beginning.  I sip my drink, which turns out to be a watered Scotch of an obscene variety.  “Well, it’s the way they drink it here in the Middle East.  No doubt it contains some strange elixir that I do not yet know of.”  I take one of those plastic grapes—ah, I’m ready!  And I sense the stir in the audience.  It’s about to happen.

And then the curtain parts and out step three guys, right out of the Catskills, wearing sequined jackets.

sequin jacket

“Wanta welcome ya

to the Bedouin’s Tent.”

Three guys—Manny, Moe, and Jack.  They are a rock and roll swinging trio.  One steps up to the microphone and says, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we wanta welcome ya to The Desert Inn.  Wanta welcome ya to the Bedouin’s Tent.  Now let’s get under way.  Let’s go, It’s time to swing, it’s time to groove, it’s time to rock and roll.”

The next thing I know I’m listening to the worst rock and roll I’ve heard this side of the “Action Station.”  These guys are wearing these sequined jackets and I’m waiting for the show to begin and then it hits me like a bomb on top of the head.  THIS IS THE SHOW!  Oh no!  This is the show!

I sit there eating that plastic grape, sipping that obscene Scotch, watching those three rock and roll guys.  Holy smokes!  They finish.  “All right, folks, let’s give them a big hand!”  Two or three languid-looking Arab chefs are applauding, and to add to the fantastic irony of it, sitting next to them on the stage is a prop-Arab.  A real Arab.  He’s the sheik. He’s sitting there and he’s watching with glazed eyes, these rock and roll musicians.  His glazed eyes.  He just sits there.  And he keeps smoking Luckies. Watching this scene, I wonder when they’re going to start playing those strange instruments that I see behind them.  And then I recognize them for what they are.  They’re also props.  They’re just props.

 sexy-goat

Goat

I could smell the scent of the desert wafting in—the real desert, and somewhere off in the distance you can just feel the padded feet of camels moving toward the Mojave Mountains.  A few Bedouins riding easy in the saddle look over that long, black plain and they see the neon glow in the sky of the Bedouin’s Tent and they wonder what strange things go on in the minds of Western man.  The stars shine and the moon hangs like a great silver mirror over the changeless desert.

And old Shep lounges there on his foam rubber Arab seat waiting for the next chapter to begin of Man’s upward climb.  (Ah, come into my tent, come!)

beersheba coaster

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. Middle East, Beersheba & The Desert Inn (1)

I had an experience in the middle of the Negev Desert which has given me a peculiar and sickening insight.  Not really sickening.  Put it this way—it is as though somebody has pulled aside a veil of something you suspected all the time and never quite wanted to put into words.

beersheba

The moment that I am about to describe takes place in the desert city of Beersheba.  It’s a great name—Beersheba.  It does not sound like Pittsburgh.  Even the name excites you.  When I say Beersheba or Dar es Salaam or Ramada al Ashid–these are all great little towns that I visited.

I am about to approach Beersheba and I’m sitting in this car.  Beersheba lies like some kind of artist’s creation, right in the middle of this plain of the desert.  You can look out from Beersheba and almost see Canton, Ohio, it is that flat—nothing.  Mile after mile, and way off in the distance you see outlined on the horizon, a camel standing, and a Bedouin and a couple of little people.

It looks so romantic—we come up over a hill and there on the hillside is a Bedouin tent.  These are true nomads.  They move in the night—they disappear—nobody knows where they went.  The next morning they may be seventy-five miles away on another long, hot, dusty hill.  They take up their place there for a couple of days and they move on endlessly, endlessly they move in the desert.

We come down this long, winding grade and right there on the left is a Bedouin tent.  How does a Bedouin tent look?  It’s a long, low, flat tent that blends right in with the surroundings.  There is no color.  They don’t paint them red or yellow, they are sort of brown, earth-colored, black, flat tents and they look like they’re made with about ten poles in them.

bedouin tent

They look like waves, strange, flat, irregularly-shaped mushroom—like growths.  And they’re very low—I doubt whether anybody can really stand up in a Bedouin’s tent.  This dark tent lying up against a sheer cliff.  And there it is.

There are about twenty-five goats wandering around being goats, and you see two or three little, miniature figures, all of them swathed in Bedouin dress, ragged-looking dress, their faces covered, you see these two little eyes.  They’re kids.  The children take care of the stuff that is walking livestock.

You see a little boy—it’s hard to tell how old a Bedouin is, but let’s say seven or nine, maybe.  And there is a little girl.  The moment a girl stops being in that age group, she is whisked into the tent and you never see these Bedouin girls except under very special circumstances.  There are innumerable taboos that a Bedouin has about his women and one of them is that, to begin with, a Bedouin never works—this is women’s work.  The Bedouin sheik knows what life is about and he sits all day in the tent, presumably, and there you see this tent lying up against the side of this hill, and standing in front of the tent, tethered there, is this magnificent, white Arab stallion.  You couldn’t believe it—it’s like out of some fantastic, corny, rotten movie.  A white stallion standing there, and a couple of camels grazing behind the tent.

ancient beersheba

Ancient Beersheba

We drive on past.  Ahead of me down this long, curving road, I see Beersheba, a traditional meeting ground for all the great caravans that moved across Palestine and the Middle East hundreds of years ago and even to this day.  They crisscrossed Beersheba.  Beersheba was like the Times Square of the Negev at one point.  And the Arabs, every Thursday morning at four, have their market and they come in from wherever they are in that darkness out there, that great, howling wilderness of the Negev.  They trade camels, they trade goats, or they trade cheese, or they trade girls.  Whatever it is they’re trading.

I see Beersheba.  I feel inside me coming up this fantastic excitement.  I am the man of the urban world, the Western man, approaching one of the ancient cities of mystery.  One of the ancient cities of desire and intrigue.  I am approaching the great crossroads.  You see this city lying there all by itself in the middle of the desert.  Nothing but the big sun hanging over.  Beersheba.  The crossroads of the camel caravans.  Thousands of years old, and thousands of camels have crossed these plains, have stopped briefly, near the oasis, right outside of Beersheba, and then moved on to Arabia, to Persia, to China, to the great ports of India, and back down to Spain and to the edges of that vast subcontinent—the Middle East.  Beersheba!  Oh! Wow!

So we come down this long road, and I say, “Beersheba!  Where are we going to stay?”

And the Rumanian guide sitting next to me says, “You won’t believe it.  Unbelievable!”

I say, “Really?”

He says, “Yes.  Unbelievable!”

Ten minutes later we pull up on the edge of Beersheba, in the middle of this plain where you can see nothing for mile after mile after mile—we pull up in the middle of this plain in front of a little bit of—oohhhh—I couldn’t believe it, a little bit of Las Vegas—The Desert Inn of Beersheba.  It is made out of plastic.  Plastic palm trees.

desert Inn, Beersheba

“The Desert Inn” of Beersheba

Here are plastic palm trees and clean glass, standing on the dark, howling plain of Beersheba.  Where the camels had crossed for centuries before, the Bedouins had rested, and intrigue was a way of life.  The Desert Inn.  I walk into this unbelievable place and it’s all air-conditioned and there are a thousand ladies running around wearing blue hair.  And they’ve got sequins.   The Desert Inn in Beersheba—doesn’t that sound exciting?  As exciting as the Howard Johnsons Motel outside of Wooster, Mass., ‘cause they’re blood sisters.

I walk up to the registrar’s desk, and standing there is a man who is obviously a man of the Middle East.  With these narrow eyes he watches me.  He’s got high cheekbones and he’s got dark hair and he’s got this impenetrable, difficult-to-pin-down accent:  “Vere is your papers, please.”

I reach down for it.  Beersheba, The Desert Inn.  This is where Peter Lorre was at his best in all those movies of the French Foreign Legion.  I’m standing in front of a sinister desk clerk at The Desert Inn.  “Vere is your papers, please.”  I take out my passport and hand it to him and I try to look mysterious, as though I’m an enemy agent.

“Aha.  You don’t mind if we keep it here for a moment.  It’s the police, you know, have to see it.”

“Of course.”

And he puts it away under the desk.  Then he says, “Would you care to make reservations for The Bedouin’s Tent.  The reservations are going fast.”

I see this placard with little sequins, done in the best Las Vegas style.  It says, “See Harry Wadanobby and His Swinging Four in The Bedouin’s Tent tonight.”

I look at it and say, “By George, I’m going to have the real thing.  I’m in the Middle East now.”  For years I’ve been hearing, “When you get to the Middle East, you’ll see these real belly dancers, not these cheap, imitation belly dancers we’ve got here down on 14th Street.”  This is the real thing.  This is Beersheba.

I stand on my tiptoes and look over that potted palm over there and I can see a real camel outside.  He’s looking in the window at me right now.  Then I realize it’s a plastic camel.  But tonight, in Beersheba, I am going to be in the Bedouin’s tent.  I make my reservation.  I enter the automatic elevator with the air-conditioning blowing down my back and the sound of Musac playing “Tea For Two” in my ears, and I am ready for a night of Middle-Eastern adventure.

beersheba coaster

“…a night of Middle-Eastern adventure.”

Maybe in Part 2.

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JEAN SHEPHERD- Travel. Middle East, Tel Aviv (2)

I am now walking along this main seaside road that goes up to Jaffa, the Arab quarters of Tel Aviv.  I can see the moon hanging over and I can smell the Mediterranean, and I’m coming down toward the Arab quarter.  You can smell the Arabic quarter, a smell that I remember from one summer when I was about ten or twelve, when I got a job on a farm in Indiana.  It’s not really a barnyard smell but it’s the smell of a sheepfold. Ever been around sheep much?  Around goats much?  Ever been around places where they roast coffee?  Ever been around places where strange tobaccos are smoked?  I’m talking about tobaccos that are dark, kind of tar-y, tobaccos that are smoked through perfumed water pipes.  It’s a strangely attractive, sharp, bitter, biting, exciting aroma.  This is the only way I can describe the Arab quarter.

 jaffa streetJaffa Street

Now Americans are very funny people.  Americans believe that Lifebuoy smells good.  That’s a special kind of people.  We’re the kind of people who live by Dial Soap ads, who believe if a person is totally antiseptic, he’s a good person.  Nobody in the world is as hung on cleaning and laundry and soaps and deodorants and all this stuff that’s designed to eliminate our humanness, designed to erase, somehow, the animal side of mankind, than Americans themselves.  So, when I say something has an aroma, immediately, people say “Ug!” assuming it’s bad.  Don’t be so sure it is.  As a matter of fact, I find that when you’re not around it, you miss it—yes, it’s all part of it, it’s a part of the world there, and I’m only sorry for you if you don’t appreciate it.  You’re really not getting a very important facet of the life in the world.

A little vignette.  I drive down through a long, winding passageway with a friend of mine and he’s taking me to a very good Yemenite restaurant.  It’s considered a very good, high class one, one of the best in all Tel Aviv.  And here are cars all pulled up, a couple of Mercedes, there’s a Rolls Royce, here’s two or three long, low Ferraris pulled up in front of this place.  Not more than one car can get through at a time.  And this restaurant has a big, blue neon sign with the name in Middle Eastern script.

You can see the people of all nationalities sitting in there, all finely dressed. There’s nothing more exciting to me than to be in an area where there are all kinds of things, nationalities, all types of languages spoken.  There’s a certain dynamism.  I suppose it’s the endless excitement of endless variety.

It’s a long, low restaurant that bends around this sharp corner.  The Mercedes, the Ferraris.  Inside, the candles are lit, and what do you think is standing right in the middle of the street?  A great big, fat sheep. It isn’t that someone parked his sheep out in front and went into the place to pick up some shish kabob—he just lives there.  Just standing there tethered to a fire hydrant.  That would be the equivalent of going along 48th Street, you get to about Lexington Avenue and somebody has parked his water buffalo out in front of the restaurant.  There it is in the street and everybody is going around it paying no attention at all.  That’s it.   That is what makes a place exciting.

I go around the corner, driving this little European car.  We’re trying to park the car, so we take it up an alley and finally stop.  Just as we stop, out of a little alley right in front of us, you hear clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, this little furry burro comes clop, clop, clop, clop, clop. A kind of white burro with black ears, clop, clop, clop, clop, and sitting on its back is this fantastic chick—ohhh!  This girl looks at us with her sloe eyes.  She’s carrying what looks like a little silver platter, and on it are three green peppers, clop, clop, clop, clop clop, clop, clop, clop.  She goes right across the alley in front of us and into another dark passageway and disappears.

All around us these windows are open and you see people and the girl is sitting up there.  She’s got big, golden, sparkling ear rings and she’s looking down, and you hear this music all around, it’s just drifting down from everywhere.  It seems to come out of the gutter pipes, drifting out of the alleys, just all around. You can smell the sheep, you can smell the tobacco burning, you can smell the pavements on which people have walked for maybe five-hundred years, and a lot of other things have happened in five-hundred years or more.  You can smell the edge of the old Mediterranean.  It’s just a night out in the restaurant—Ahhhhh! Yeah!

Good bye, Tel Aviv. Next, hello, Beersheba.

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JEAN SHEPHERD- Travel. Middle East, Tel Aviv (1)

tel aviv waterfront

Tel Aviv Waterfront

I’m walking along this waterfront street in the ancient city of Tel Aviv.  The time is now one A. M. and you can hear the ancient waves of the Mediterranean laving the beach below me.  I’ll tell you, coming back to the subway, coming back to Nedick’s after Tel Aviv is a rather sharp delineation of values.

There’s a high seawall—maybe chest-high, concrete and heavy stones.  As you look over the seawall it drops sharply down maybe thirty to forty feet, and there’s a short strip of sand and there’s dark, rolling waters of the ancient Mediterranean.  The sea of the Romans.  The sea of all the ancient tribes who moved over it.  In fact, in the days of Rome’s glory, this sea was called the center of the world.  You can smell it.  There’s a smell to the Mediterranean that isn’t quite the same as Jones Beach.  As that ancient sea rolls over those sunken urns of Grecian wine casks, it produces something just a little different from Coney Island.  Ahaaaa!

As you walk along,  you can hear the sound of Middle Eastern music.  You can’t tell what country it’s from, whether it’s Jordanian, whether it’s Syrian, whether it’s Lebanese, whether it’s Israeli.  What it is no one quite knows.  It just comes out of the air from a thousand windows, from a thousand darkened rooms, from ten thousand radios and record players, and it rises to the night, higher and higher.  Ahhhhh!  And all the while that ancient old friendly Mediterranean rolls on under that fantastic moon.  Tel Aviv—do you know what Tel Aviv means?  It means the city of spring.

Enough of that Middle Eastern music for now, before I go mad!  I have felt for a long time that the music of any given area of the globe tells more about that area of the globe than almost any other form of communication—the literature, the sculpture, the movies—because somehow there’s something very basic about music.  This really is the way the Middle East is, friend!

middle east music

It’s Thursday night in Tel Aviv and boy, the place is roaring!  The life gets almost to a frenzy about ten-thirty or twelve at night and there are thousands of people just wandering the streets.  It’s very hot.  People rise late in the morning in these tropical cities and they stay up late.  Everything is moved down just a little bit in time.  The stores close at one o’clock in the afternoon and that’s it.  Everything stops, and it begins again at four.  The whole afternoon—they just cut that hot part of the day right out.

The traffic stops, the sidewalk cafes empty, the trees just hang there, the sun is lying overhead.  And once in a while you see somebody walk by.  And, I’ll tell you this, you have to see the girls of Tel Aviv to believe it.  That’s all I can say.  To use a graphic analogy, these chicks generally start where Sophia Loren stops.  I couldn’t believe it!  I mean, the first five minutes in Tel Aviv I thought it was the heat that was getting me.  Or maybe it was a mirage.  They would come by in singles, they would come by in pairs, and then in threes, sometimes in squadron formation.  You could hear the finger cymbals, you could see the muscles rippling up and down!  Holy smokes!  There’s something that the tropics does to female figures.  It’s terrible.  Wow!  And I’m sitting in a sidewalk café.  It’s terrible.  I swallowed a whole cup of Turkish coffee when the first crowd went by me—cup and all!

It’s a full moon.  The moon in the vicinity of the equator, particularly in this region of the world—this moon stretches across the sky about four-hundred yards and it is a silver, angry, white, brilliant, almost too-bright moon.

moon full

It gets very difficult, I understand, to get any kind of privacy when the moon is really in business in certain areas of the country.  This is my third or fourth night in Tel Aviv and I’m just beginning to get the flavor of this.

Of course, when most people come to this part of the world, unfortunately, they head for the big, plush hotels, and you’ll find most Mediterranean areas, stretching all the way down from Beirut, places that are on the Med like Haifa, like Piraeus, the island of Crete, the Isle of Rhodes, stretching along the golden horn of the Mediterranean, there are these great hotels lying right on the sea, magnificent hotels.  The beaches—oh boy!  Most people go to these and too many people, I’m afraid, don’t go into the city itself, go walking into where the non-tourist world is, where it’s just happening, where people are just walking around and scratching.

Of course they do that in New York City too.  Most tourists immediately head for Radio City and then they go down to take a look at the Statue of Liberty and they go down to Chinatown.  But the whole, great, vast area of the city that’s just simmering there under the heat in the summer, just never gets seen.  I don’t know how many tourists have ever seen Fordham Road in New York, or Pelham Parkway in heat!  I think if I ever wanted to show a tourist from a foreign country what it’s really like in New York, I’d take him to a magnificent Alexander’s up on Fordham Road at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when the pack is out in full cry.  That’s our native bazaar.

Take them through the housewares department, watch the screaming and the yelling.  The ladies summerware department.  Take a tourist from any country—a tourist from Nigeria, and take him to see all the ladies with their shopping bags `going and their girdles creaking and their daughters dragging behind and their kids behind them and yelling and hollering.  And try to explain.black-friday-crowd-rush

Black Friday, Anywhere U.S.A.

Of course he would not have to have it explained—he would understand that this is the bazaar.  And we all have our own bazaar.  You can spell it with an “a” or an “i.”  Depends on how you approach it.

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JEAN SHEPHERD-Travel. Middle East. Negev Desert and Camels

negev desert map

Southern Israel=The Negev Desert

For the past two weeks I have been in the Middle East.  I have been as far removed from the world and the reality of New York and mid-twentieth century Americana urbanus as it is possible to be without perhaps being in the Sea of Tranquility on the dark side of the moon.

I am lying in my sack and there is a hot desert wind blowing in off the long gray, brown, gold reaches of the Negev.  It’s two o’clock in the morning and off in the darkness I can see the low outline of the Moab Mountains just across the border in Jordan.  I’ve got my transistor radio quietly weaving its way between night-flying insects and the sound of Middle Eastern music.  It’s just lying there like a heavy cloud all around me.

And you can smell the edge of the Red Sea slowly drifting in as it does at night when the cold air hits the surface of the warm water raising just the slightest edge of condensation.  It never gets far in the desert as the aroma does—the smell of the ancient Red Sea.  Ohhh! And hour after hour, those sounds through the dark night air:  Radio Jordan! Radio Iraq!  Radio Damascus!  Radio Tel Aviv!  Hour after hour.  And you can see in the moonlight—and I was there the night of the full moon just a few days ago—a Bedouin tent outlined against the black cloud that lays along the side of one of the low, sloping hills.

bedouin tent

A Bedouin tent.  And grazing in the unyielding sand just beside the tent itself are two tired camels, forty-five goats, two sheep, and what appears to be a small, one-legged man.

There I am in my sack in a cold sweat, with that strange desert wind playing over my forehead.  Yeah, and the moon hung high.  And the next morning I was in twelve fathoms of Red Sea.  Ah, Middle-Eastern music—they all sound the same—like salami.

It’s almost impossible to know where to start.  I’ve spent the last two weeks.  Once in a while I would look at my watch somewhere.   I remember sitting on an Arabian horse, going up the side of a hill in the Upper Galilee—and I glanced at my watch and I remember saying to myself, “You know, I will be on the air in New York in about ten minutes.”  A very strange feeling to be so removed and so completely cut out and hacked off.  I guess it’s almost impossible to realize the unbelievable gulf of difference—the ocean of difference—that exists between so much of the world that you read about in the paper all day long.  You read the news items about this country and that country and they’re just sort of like type on the page with the fantastic gulf that exists in reality between those countries and the country that all of us accept as so much part of our world.  It is our world.

I glanced at my watch, and this horse—you’ve got to understand too, that the Galilee district is practically made out of old rocks stuck out of these arid hillsides—and this horse was far more efficient than I was.  He’s climbing over the rocks and grunting and sweating and once in a while turns and yells at the horse behind him who is struggling up this hillside and the horse ahead of us finally kicks my horse in the mouth.  My horse shies and jumps over a rock fence and I just stay there.  I just stay in this strange world which is so completely removed from our world.  Not really strange.  Once you’re in context with it, it is our world that becomes strange.

I guess that’s really the keynote of the human animal—we are infinitely adjustable.  Infinitely and almost totally adjustable to almost anything that occurs to us.  Today we accept moon-travel.  I know people who don’t even look at the television any longer.  Pictures are coming back from the moon and they’re bugged because The Beverly Hillbillies are being preempted.  Wait, in a few years they’ll be a little Venus probe, landing on Venus and it’ll be sending back pictures of another planet and people will be complaining that it will be cutting into the news.

So I’m lying on my sack there remembering the first time I went to the Middle East, which was in the late fifties.  I went through Syria, Lebanon, and one of the things that I always remember—something that you never hear about is the smell, no matter where you go.  Whether you’re in Haifa, whether you’re in Tel Aviv, or even Jerusalem or Nazareth, or you get to a place like a small desert outpost.  One of the most exciting experiences to a modern man involved in today’s urban world, is to get into a real outpost.  I’m not talking about the romantic picture we have of the kibbutz, I’m talking about a genuine desert outpost.

NEGEV_REGION_NEW

The Negev Desert

There were two or three of them that I was able to be involved in briefly, going through the Negev Desert.  I remember one scene.  I doubt whether there is a more bleak, peculiarly beautiful desert anywhere in the world than the Negev.  Strange desert.  It lies in a trough, and off to your right there’s this mountain range that rises a couple of thousand feet, and they’re stark mountains, there’s no trees, no vegetation, no green, and way off to your left you see this other mountain range in Syria or Jordan, depending on where you are in the desert.

The Negev just lies there, and you can smell the sand that’s been baking now for forty-thousand years.  There has been one caravan after another going over it.  One invasion after the other—the Turks, the Romans—it just goes on and on and on and on.  And always the Negev is just there.  It doesn’t care who’s doing all the running and the yelling, the Negev desert remains the desert.  I think this is one of the things that gets you about the desert.

We are driving along, myself and this guy I’m with.  Driving into this rough, single-track road.  Off in the distance we see camels.  One thing about animals is that they’re non-denominational.  An animal does not know from being a Catholic or that he is an American French poodle, for example.  I see the camels slowly moving in a low growth of what looked like Western mesquite, but it was a local version, a low plant life that grows in this desert.  Very arid, very hard, rough plant life that looks twenty-thousand years old.  There are some trees there, they say, that have grown in that desert, that are over three-thousand years old.  Just fighting that weather all the time.

Camel,(Petra,_Jordan)

Clumsy kind of grace–and they spit.

These camels are moving in and out of the trees.  Totally wild, nobody with them.  If you’ve ever seen camels moving, you see a strange, clumsy kind of grace—which sounds like a contradiction—but it’s quite true of a camel.  And a camel always looks like he’s going to fall over.  When he moves, when he walks, his whole body is moving.   They’re very alert, they’re very vicious.  A camel that’s wild is a bad scene.  You don’t go over and pet the pretty camel and chuck him behind the ear.  And they spit—they tell me a camel can knock a fly off the trunk of a tree at forty yards and decide in which eye he’s going to hit him—ptaaaa!

The guy says, “The funny thing about camels, you know.  Those are Jordanian camels.”  From the other side—this is the enemy over in that particular area.  He says, “You see, they won’t breed over there—they come here to breed and then they go back.”  Strange interaction here in the middle of the desert.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. Middle East Beirut part 3

Life-Mag-1958-07-28. lebanonjpg

They were operating twenty-four hours a day combat patrol.  That old catapult was going up there every ninety minutes as another flight would take off.  The flight that was out would land and you’d hear the arresting gear.  You’d hear that bullhorn:  “There is a banjo in the groove.  Banjo in the groove,” and you’d hear that SHROOOOOM! you’d hear that bounce and a plane had landed.  Thirty seconds later they’d start launching.  The launch is a special sound.  You hear this thing cocking itself.  It’s a great, steam-operated slingshot!  An enormous piston that literally hurls the planes right off into the void, right down the carrier deck.

As a pilot, I must say, you have never really experienced the ultimate flying thrills until you have been in an aircraft that is landing on the deck of a tossing carrier in a spanking wind—oh, wowee!  And I have done this on several hairy occasions.  Holy Smokes!

Here it is, two o’clock in the morning.  We’ve been up for maybe eighty hours.  Sweaty, hot, and I’m lying there in nothing but skivvies and T-shirt.  Just drenched, the bunk is so wet that it was like sleeping on a sponge.  You can feel that water all over, just clammy and at the same time you are so hot.

I’m lying there in the darkness and everything is fine and you hear this SHHHHHH GEROMOMOMOMMMM! That’s the sound of a plane being launched.  A long pause between the cocking of the mechanism and then GEROMOMOMOMMMM! 

catapult detail

Catapult and plane on an aircraft carrier.

GEROMOMOMOMMMM! Off she goes and another guy has been hurled out into the night.

We’re now in the immediate vicinity of Lebanon and there’s a lot of enemy action going on.  There’s a lot of stuff happening.  Lying there, everything is kind of funny to me.  You reach a point when you’re so tired that you can’t sleep.  You’re physically tired, your mind keeps running on and on like some kind of giant flywheel that won’t stop, and I had been trying to sleep now for about half an hour.

This is down in the junior-grade officers’ quarters where every bunk had a tiny light above it and I turned on the light.  I reached down into my seabag, looking for something to do, something to read, and I pulled out a book and started to read, and I started to laugh—I couldn’t stop.  It was a hysterical, tired laugh, and I looked across the darkness and there on the bunk across this little stateroom, lying in the dark and sweating like hell was Bob Gaffney, the man who committed the Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster epic movie disaster that was made a few years later.

Bob is half asleep, and he says, “What are you laughing at?”

I say, “I don’t know, Bob, just everything.”

He says, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

And then SHOOOOONK! AAAAWUUU! Off it goes again.  We both start to laugh—at the sound of the planes being shot off.  Then we begin to ad lib a giant movie script in the darkness.  We’re laughing like hell—can’t remember a word of it next morning.  We’re ad-libbing a movie script at two in the morning in the heat and sweat, and all of a sudden this clanging bell goes through the ship DOING DOING DOING. It’s General Quarters.  We jump up out of our bunks and run through the dark corridors, which are lit with these dim red lights, to our battle stations down below in the intelligence department, where they have the great radar screen.  We’re down below and we can’t stop laughing, and the Lieutenant Commander is looking at us.  “What?  What?  What’s up now?  Take it easy, guys.”

Uncontrollable laughing.  We’re in the big navy helmets and all.  And that night is just one long, involved, curious nightmare, with the heat and the script and all the sounds of the planes being launched high above us on the flight deck and we’re hurling through the night off the coast of Lebanon and Syria, we’re at General Quarters and the radar screen keeps whirling round and round.  A fantastic, total nightmare.

After they called off GQ, Bob and I are sitting in the ward room soaked in sweat and drinking navy coffee, trying to remember the script we just invented.  I saw pieces of it in the Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster movie years later, I really did.  That strange, nightmare quality to it.  These are things that even Stanley Kubrick would never under understand.  No way!

frank. and space monster 1965

[Note  above, Shepherd’s sound effects made by his voice alone. He loved sounds of all kinds and he loved to produce replicas of those he heard–and he was very good at doing so. My printed word attempts can’t possibly produce and elicit the pleasure of hearing him do what he did with his voice. On  a few of his programs he played the actual sounds of various machinery (such as vintage airplane engines). He once commented that such sounds should be preserved as much as should the actual objects from our past.]

 Village Voice, “Night People,” Jean Shepherd, October, 1957.

“In Beirut When It Was on the Hit Parade”

Jean Shepherd begins by stating that he arrived in Beirut with five or six other passengers in a 15-year-old Navy transport plane by way of Naples and Crete.  Apparently the Carrier Essex dropped him off in Naples after he’d completed his work on the documentary film on board.  He comments that Beirut was at this moment at the top of the news media’s hit parade, but would not be there for long when the public got tired of its temporary celebrity.  At the moment, with a headline including the important word “crisis,” Beirut was it.

Seeing a man with an ice-cream cone in the airline terminal, Shep is pointed in the proper direction, and soon has his own frozen custard cone just like those a New Jersey Dairy Queen ladles out daily.  He is happy, ending his column by exulting, “By God, I was in Lebanon.  I caught a bus and went to town.”

 •

“Trouble in Beirut?  Not Before Dinner.”

The Village Voice comments that Jean Shepherd has just returned from working on a movie in Beirut, indicating that he was there during the crisis.  Shepherd tells how he has just gotten his room in an elegant hotel in Beirut, describing the place as having the aura of a class B spy movie, with people coming and going who would do well in Hollywood if found by a good talent agency.   He describes Beirut as being the Riviera of the Middle East, with rich shipping magnates surrounded by brown-skinned girls in pink bikinis.

Rushing toward the elevator in his swim trunks, he asks the bellboy what he thought of the current troubles.  “Oh,“ the bellboy responds, “that doesn’t start until 8 p. m. every night at dinnertime.”  Shepherd enters the terrace, feeling like “a bit player in a Sydney Greenstreet movie.”

Bye, bye, Beirut.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. Middle East Beirut part 2

Like anybody in show business I have done many curious things.  And many things that I have done have no relationship to radio or television, but they’re all deeply involved in show business.

summer_incident_2

Shepherd was part of a film crew for

the documentary “Summer Incident.”

This is why he is on the carrier

heading through the Mediterranean

toward Beirut and an American invasion.

I remember one night in the Mediterranean, deep in the bowels of an American aircraft carrier.  Temperature down below decks in that carrier one-hundred-fifteen, maybe. I am lying in a bunk and the ship is hurtling its way through the nighttime sea and we’re off the coast of Turkey and we’re heading around the great golden horn, it’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m lying in the bunk sweating my head off.  Have you ever been so hot, so sweaty and so tired that you’re kind of out of your head?  Most people in their lives haven’t.  Most people have never driven themselves to the total limits of human endurance.  Most people work their eight-hour day, come home, drink their beer, and go to bed, and that’s about the extent of it.  So they don’t necessarily find themselves ever really driven to the limits—which are beyond your control.

So here we were, on the aircraft carrier that was out doing its sweaty job.  This particular carrier was the last remaining World War II carrier that was on active fleet duty as a carrier—an attack carrier.  It was not air-conditioned below decks, which the later ones were.  Hotter than the hinges of hell, barreling through the sea and I was way below decks, lying in a bunk which was about the width of your average bookshelf and about that softness—and hot.  You put your hand on the bulkhead, which was armor plate—steel, and water would drip down the walls.  Very humid in that part of the world anyway.  And way out to sea it’s very humid and salty.  The drinking water out of the little faucets was brackish and lukewarm.  This was on tropical duty and they had it laced with salt.

So we were lying in the bunk there, hotter than hell, and up to this point we had been working so hard—this group of guys I was with—this particular mission we were involved in, so involved and so long that we had gone maybe seventy-two hours without sleep.  I’d say, close to four days without sleep.  This produces a peculiar psychological effect.  That, coupled with the heat, and everything started to seem funny.  And directly up above us was the steam-driven catapult.  Sleeping under the catapult was an experience.

Aircraft-Carrier-Steam-Catapult-1953

Part 3 of the Beirut/carrier story to come

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