|A book by|
William H. Calvin
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON 98195-1800 USA
The Throwing Madonna|
Essays on the Brain
Copyright 1983, 1991 by William H. Calvin.
You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).
Scanned, OCR'ed, and webbed -- but NOT proofread (14 Jan 97)
Last Year in Jerusalem
My career as an Israeli tour guide began only five weeks after my arrival in Jerusalem to be a visiting professor of neurobiology. Not that there was any lack of natives, but I had a car--albeit the only car in Israel with Nevada license plates.Nothing happens just as one fears or hopes.THEODOR HERZL
(a phrase particularly apt for professors' sabbaticals).
I had bought the orange VW Rabbit from a refugee from Las Vegas. I met various immigrants from the Soviet Union and Rumania--but in Israel, it is Las Vegas that is considered exotic. He had used it to transport his household belongings across the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean via the hold of the Queen Elizabeth 2, had driven it across Europe to Venice, whereupon he took it by ferry steamer through the Greek islands to Haifa. Considering that the port of Haifa was the only way to bring a car into Israel--all the land borders were closed to private cars then, this being just before the Egyptian border opened--it was remarkable how many different foreign license plates one saw on Israeli roads. But a blue Nevada license plate was unique.
Neurobiologists were not. Especially for two weeks in March when we had a lovely meeting at the university's new campus on Mount Scopus, which overlooks Jerusalem to the west, the Judean desert, Jordan River valley, and Dead Sea as you turn to look east.
In addition to the dozens of Israeli neurobiologists, there were more than a dozen invited lecturers from abroad. I was the first to arrive, since I was staying for a year. I found that the planning for the meeting was causing some problems around the Russian compound. (I must digress. The neurobiologists at the Hebrew University were housed in an old Turkish hotel which had previously served as administrative headquarters during the British Mandate, and then as the medical school after the university lost its Mount Scopus campus to the Jordanians during the 1948 war, which left Jerusalem divided. And, after a new medical school was finally built out in the western suburbs, the neurobiologists were given part of the stone-walled premises whose plaster was pockmarked from sniper bullets, the border having been just down the street from 1948 until 1967. It now had a noticeable odor of kerosene the fumes from heaters which coped modestly with the cold and damp of the Jerusalem winter.)
Preparations for the Mount Scopus meeting were interwoven with the research in progress. And there were problems. For example, the lobsters on which I was to do research were not available yet. For a backup, they had ordered leeches (there is some logic to this, as the nervous systems of arthropods and annelids are surprisingly similar, so much so that some people think a mistake was made in making two different phyla out of them). The supply of leeches ordered from a European supplier hadn't arrived either. Undaunted, Itzhak decided that we would undertake a leech-hunting expedition on the Ramat HaGolan, which is familiar to newspaper readers and television viewers in the English translation: "Golan Heights." The decisive battles of several recent wars have been fought there.
And so at five o'clock one winter morning, we drove through the dark streets of Jerusalem in the zoology department's battered old VW van, past the walls of the Old City, and then started down the road to Jericho. From Jerusalem down to Jericho is about like descending from the rim to the bottom of the Grand Canyon: in the false dawn, the mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea even reminded me of the Grand Canyon. Halfway down, you pass a little marker alongside the road which says "Sea Level" in several languages. And in thirty minutes we were in Jericho, where the smell of orange blossoms permeated the morning air. We stopped at a gas station to fill up, passing the many Arab trucks waiting for the customshouse at the Allenby Bridge to open, so they could drive to Amman, Jordan, with their produce from the West Bank.
We drove out of town to the north, past a strange-looking hill: Tel Jericho, where excavations have uncovered one of the earliest towns known to archaeology, dating back 10,000 years. And then we drove up the Jordan River valley (the Dead Sea is 400 meters below sea level; we were climbing toward 210 meters below sea level at the top of the valley), though with the Jordan River hardly ever in sight. This is an enormously deep river valley, and you expect to see a big, rampaging river with a flow suitable for carving such a valley, say like the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. The river is very minor, even timid. The Jordan is a rift valley, the northern extension of the East African rift valleys in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, where early hominid remains have been found. Those early-man places with names like Hadar, Omo, Turkana, Olduvai, and Laetoli are physically connected to early-civilization places like Jericho by that long rift valley. It was formed by the edges of two tectonic plates grinding away at each other, with maybe four major earthquakes every century to shake things up.
To see the winter dawn through the mists of the Jordan valley is to experience it as it must have been some morning at the end of the last Ice Age, as our ancestors were beginning to cultivate the wild grasses, to occasionally settle down near good water supplies such as the spring at Jericho.
We stopped for a mid-morning snack on the southern shores of Yam Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. Then we drove around the lake, through Tiberias. There we first encountered Roman baths and UN trucks, the latter supplying the UN peacekeeping forces separating the Israeli and Syrian armies on the Golan. Then we headed up the Hula valley, the northern agricultural valley which lies in a horseshoe of surrounding mountains. The border with Lebanon is at the crest of the western ridge line; over the years, lots of rockets have come over that ridge, landing on the settlement town of Kiryat Shemona ("Village of The Eight," named after those killed in an earlier attack). The border on the eastern side, however, used to be down just 100 meters from the valley floor, giving every Syrian soldier an opportunity for target practice on farmers. And a good view too, from their antitank fortifications on the hillside.
Actually, you'll never see the pre-1967 borders marked on an official Israeli map. But you can still guess where they were: just look for two dirt roads about 1 kilometer apart, running parallel to one another on the map but never crossing. Those were the old border-patrol roads on each side of the border. And in the Hula, the trees tell the story too: tall stands of trees were densely planted along the border road after 1948, to shield the farmers from the view of the Syrian soldiers. When the Israelis talk about the need for defensible borders, they have that pre-1967 situation in mind, among others.
The Israeli army has fought its way up that hillside, however, first in 1967 and again in 1973 after the attacking Arab tanks overran the Golan. We drove up it, at a pace suitable to our ancient vehicle. And saw the enormous view open up of all of northern Israel, the Sea of Galilee, and southern Lebanon. Near the road, bombed-out blockhouses still abound. There are yellow mine field signs everywhere, warning of mine fields which have never been cleared. And this is where Hagana Tiva ("protection of nature," short for The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, their equivalent of the Sierra Club) conducts nature tours? And where we are going leech hunting? All in the interests of science.
Our first stop was next to the military base at the Kafr Naffakh crossroads. Someone, undoubtedly from army duty, remembered a creek that had leeches, running north of the camp. So we started hiking overland, following the creek. I started to cross a muddy patch--and sank in up to my knees. It was a tank path, indeed the whole area was a training ground for tanks to wallow in. Everyone else knew not to step in tank tracks, just as all farmers know not to step on other kinds of off-color mud. There were, fortunately, no sounds of approaching tanks (like fire engines, their lack of adequate mufflers is quite distinctive).
But no leeches were to be found under any of the rocks. We continued following the creek, however, past some disused barbed wire which everyone else ignored. And soon I looked up from my leech hunting to discover that we were inside the army base, amid rows of parked tanks and armored personnel carriers. But no people. We had seen a lone guard at the front gate. We decided, after failing to find a single leech, that it was the better part of valor not to leave by the front gate. So we retraced our muddy steps the long way around back to our van. I was beginning to get the idea that there was another side to the visible security which so overwhelms the visitor, such as having your bags and packages inspected each time you enter a grocery store or bank: terrorists never attack army bases, only civilians.
We drove farther north--and encountered a cowboy on horseback, herding some cattle. Never in my travels through the American West (which is, of course, considerably east of Seattle) have I seen such a sight except at a rodeo. I had to travel to Ramat HaGolan.
Had the Israeli cowboy seen any leeches? Yes, indeed, there were lots in the cattle drinking troughs, back on the ranch, and he would lead us there. But he accepted an invitation to ride with us, turning his horse loose to find its way home. And the horse naturally beat us there. Dipping nets into the drinking trough was, however, unsuccessful. The leeches were undoubtedly in the mud on the bottom of the tank, which hadn't been drained and cleaned for a long time. But we were welcome to drain the tank. Which we did. Two hours later, we had six leeches--and the cowboy had a clean cattle trough. I thought the cowboy had gotten the better part of the deal.
On the road north once again, we stopped for several Druze men who were hitchhiking. The Druzes are Arabs with their own secret religion (who are often at odds with the other Arabs), and they are the primary indigenous inhabitants of the Golan. Itzhak had a long conversation with them in Arabic, then fished out the jar of captive leeches and pointed to them, when it became apparent he wasn't using the right common word for the species in that part of the world. Oh, yes, they knew where to find them. There was a pond, right near the road they wanted to travel on if they could get a ride. So in they climbed, gesturing directions to the driver as we bounced along.
We stopped alongside a big pond, complete with herd of cattle and a few goats. The Druze men led the way, and there were indeed many leeches. You just have to ask the right people.
The rest of HaGolan is also most interesting. It is mostly a high plateau with several peaks, Mount Hermon being the tallest. But the plateau slopes off to the east into the plains which eventually lead down the biblical road to Damascus. The plains are zigzagged with deep antitank trenches, scarring the earth everywhere, dramatic evidence of a level of warfare quite different from anything anticipated along the Jordan River valley. Defensible borders.
Back in the lab, I got an experimental setup going by playing repairman, as the electronics technician was off to the army again. Experiments like these are often done in big screen-wire cages atop a table, the screening meant to keep unwanted radio waves from being picked up by the neural recording wires. If the screen door wasn't properly closed, your nerve cell might seem to be emitting a political harangue though, in fact, the attached amplifier was merely receiving a broadcast from Radio Damascus. Except for the radio station received, the problems were little different from neurobiology labs elsewhere in the world.
There was, however, a locked cabinet in the wall adjacent to my table, and it was not long before I discovered what it contained: the armory. Periodically, someone would come in, lay down an Uzi submachine gun on my table or chair, and unlock the cabinet to put the gun away. All the faculty and students shared in the guard duty for the Russian Compound, usually a few hours every month. I became accustomed to moving submachine guns out of the visitor's chair in a professor's office when I went to talk shop, or accompanying someone on patrol to continue a conversation.
My favorite spot in the Russian Compound, when I wanted to take a break from the leeches in the screen cage, was a park bench in the grassy area in the middle of the old hotel compound. One could bask in the winter sun while still protected from the breeze, and read a manuscript. Since the Israelis publish mostly in English, I was always being asked to read a manuscript and improve the English. Often I would walk a block down to the corner of the Old City, the walled portion of Jerusalem inside which everyone lived up until the last century. There was a bakery where I would practice my fractured Hebrew and then carry back a sack of salty bagels to the courtyard. There was a friendly dog, an experimental animal that had free run of the place, who liked the bagels too (some were indeed as hard as bones).
The Friday morning seminar was informal, often devoted to talks by graduate students on their current work-in-progress. They were somewhat nervous and my presence didn't help the matter at all, as the rule was that they had to speak in English if I was present. All of the students had learned English in school, and they read a lot of English in their work, but that is surely very different from giving a talk where you have to think on your feet in one language and speak in another. The faculty were happy to have me as an excuse, since they knew that the students would soon need to give talks at international meetings. But they would sometimes relent in the middle of a talk if questioning in English wasn't getting the question answered. There would be a long dialogue in Hebrew until the issue was resolved, and then back to English.
Part of the informality of the Friday mornings was that someone usually brought a cake. Friday was a half-day of work, as the shops would all close by about two in the afternoon as the last of the weekend shoppers ran around. Shabbat started at sunset, but the noisy diesel bus traffic would disappear well before then. Shabbat was quiet in Jerusalem. But if you had forgotten to buy bread, you could always walk over to the eastern section of the city where the stores were open. Saturday mornings, there were walking tours of the Old City and outlying archaeological sites.
On Sunday nights there was another, more formal, seminar called the "Jerusalem Nervous Club," whose audience seemed to come from all over Israel and whose speakers might come from anywhere in the world. Quite often, someone would have driven up to Jerusalem from Beersheva or Tel Aviv or the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. I spoke there twice during my year; the occasions were memorable not only for the vigor and intelligence of the questions, but because after the second talk, I was presented with a poem--a funny critique of my topic, written during the talk on a paper towel by a professor who could obviously listen and do a few other things at the same time.
The planning for the Mount Scopus conference created some distraction from the leech research. There was a small problem. Both Passover and Easter happened to coincide with the dates for the conference, this fact somehow having escaped the planners but not the hotel reservations clerks. One of the earliest Hebrew slang phrases which I learned was "Vitamin P," approximately translated as "influence." To extract a dozen rooms in various pensions (and monasteries!) around town took a considerable amount of repaying favors and asking friends here and there to intercede.
So, the organizers' solution to the housing problem involved a room here and a room there. Which meant finding enough drivers to pick up the guests each morning and ferry them across town to Mount Scopus. Having a car, I was transformed from guest into host--and instant tour guide. And around not only Jerusalem but the whole country, as excursions were planned for the guests.
It all had really started several weeks before, with the arrival of the second of the invited lecturers--my wife. Several days before she was due to fly in, and I was to see if I could remember my way from Jerusalem back to the airport east of Tel Aviv, it happened. Six PLO terrorists came ashore on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, killed a woman photographer in the nature preserve where they landed, then commandeered a bus on the coastal road (at that time Israel's closest approximation to a superhighway). Firing at cars as they sped south toward Tel Aviv, they killed a number of civilians. The Haifa symphony lost a beloved violinist. The army set up a roadblock at the intersection just north of Tel Aviv, known to all Israel as the place where the used-car lots are located. The bus was stopped during a long exchange of automatic-weapons fire; thirty-nine were dead inside and along the highway; there was a possibility (only later ruled out) that several terrorists had escaped. The first curfew in the nation's history was declared, covering the area north of the Yarkon River, and the army searched day and night for the terrorists while families stayed within guarded apartment buildings. There are only a few English-language newscasts during the day, and I carefully checked the clock to be sure to hear them.
When I started out from Jerusalem for the airport, the curfew had been largely lifted, though the traffic was moving slowly because of the frequent police checkpoints. They had portable spikes which they lay out across one lane of the road, forcing drivers who value their tires to slowly weave a zigzag course and come to a stop. Passports and driver's licenses were frequently inspected, destinations asked.
The airport had an armored personnel carrier at the gate, but otherwise it was business as usual--though that implies an unusual amount of invisible security. Katherine emerged, extra luggage and all, from the giant customs hall, and we made it back up to Jerusalem, getting lost twice and getting inspected only once. Our next experience with the airport was somewhat novel. Several months later we had to ransom a radio from customs. In order to put up a deposit for one year in dollars rather than in the rapidly inflating Israeli pound, we were sent from the freight docks to the passenger terminal, which was the only customs of fice that could accept dollars. With the correct slip of paper, we were admitted through the "no admittance" side door to the giant arrivals hall, completely empty in the lull between morning and afternoon arrivals of jumbo jetliners. While I left to make a quick round of the branch banks to acquire sufficient cash, Katherine remained near the customs office in the arrival hall. Suddenly there were alarm bells and a small army of plainclothes security men and women invaded the empty hall, leaping over luggage conveyors with their Uzi submachine guns and scattering throughout the great barn. Katherine would have been alarmed, except for noting that the clerk at the nearby travelers aid desk continued to file her fingernails, apparently having seen the drill before. Back in 1972, an impressive Israeli neurobiologist named Aharon Katzir-Katchalsky was killed in the same room, together with many others, when Japanese Red Army terrorists pulled weapons out of their luggage and attacked the tourists.
I had seen Katchalsky's brother several nights before. He is, or was then, the President of Israel, Ephraim Katzir. We had been working late in the labs at the Russian Compound. Hearing a band playing outside, we wandered out into the cool night air to see what was happening. Next door at the city hall, there was a school band. And there was a receiving line outside the door of the city hall with some familiar-looking people standing in it. Such as the mayor and the prime minister. We walked over, two Israelis and myself, to stand behind the receiving line, but were finally waved back by a soldier who was the only visible security person. So from 10 meters back, we watched President Katzir arrive. I could not help but reflect on a similar scene in the United States, where spectators would have not gotten within a city block of a small security army. And this informal security was on the old border where the anti-sniper wall had stood when the city was divided between 1948 and 1967, a part of the city next door to Arab Jerusalem, not in a Jewish suburb.
And then I went to a reception at the president's residence, Beit Hanassi, an annual event for visiting professors. I remembered to take my passport for identification and approached the guard at the gate, briefcase and invitation in hand. He didn't look at anything, just waved me inside impatiently. I had a pleasant chat with President Katzir about a brain research organization in which his brother had been a major figure; he had been following its activities with interest, having the advantage of having been a chemistry professor before becoming the chief of state. There was only one security man visible anywhere--a point which I will re-emphasize so that the "siege state" image that everyone gains from the popular press will have another side. Israel has many sides.
We neurobiologists at Mount Scopus had the best of meetings, full of the warmth of the people and the springtime sunshine. The only moment when security concerns really entered my mind was, however, suitably dramatic and personal. It occurred while I was giving one of my lectures. The door at the rear of the room opened and in crept a soldier with submachine gun. Mind you, I was quite used to seeing soldiers on the streets carrying weapons: soldiers on leave are required to keep their Uzi or M-16 or whatever with them, so the sight is rather innocuous. They aren't even on guard duty. But the soldier entering the door at the rear, whom no one but me could see, was obviously on active duty--I had learned by that time how to tell, by the suspenders supporting the ammunition belt and canteen. I realized, in midsentence, that maybe I had a problem.
My professional training had not exactly prepared me for lec.tures being interrupted by armed soldiers, presumably looking for something hostile. Should I catch-the eye of one of the Israeli professors, or.... But a split second later, I smiled and waved. Beneath the grime, the soldier in field gear was an old friend from Beersheva, due to lecture at the meeting the next day. Except that his reserve unit had been called up. Like Easter and Passover, army schedules take no account of Mount Scopus conferences. Mike's appearance in the doorway meant that he'd finally been able to persuade his commanding officer to give him some temporary time off, and that we'd get to hear his lecture the next morning after all.
The conference was on the topic "Interactions Between Neurons and Target Cells," a title which takes in a lot of ground. Most Israeli neurobiologists attended; counting the twelve foreigners, we perhaps numbered thirty-five. For a small country, Israel has outstanding science; neurobiology is one of their best areas of expertise. I know excellent neurobiologists in several of the surrounding countries, who struggle largely alone with no one with whom to talk, and for whom even getting the scientific journals through the mails is a struggle. Israel's neurobiology outranks, in many areas, that in all but the largest European countries. And it is largely because the professors really care about their students; they see that their superb students are thoroughly trained, they send them abroad for years of postdoctoral training, they work hard to create jobs for them to come home to in Israel. For any developing country to have more than just a few scientists trained elsewhere, it will have to build up in much the same way. To have the end result also be of such high quality--well, that probably requires an educational system of real depth, a society that values learning, an ability to attract learned immigrants, and some measure of good luck. Israel has those things.
Like their political traditions, the academic traditions in Israel owe a lot to Britain--so the speakers were often interrupted with penetrating questions and occasional expressions of disbelief. A livelier meeting I have seldom seen. Between sessions, we gathered out in the warm spring sunshine and sipped coffee. I tend to remember facts by associating them with the place where I learned them. I am forever recalling dismal hotel lobbies and conference rooms, but I am surprised how often I recall Mount Scopus in remembering all the science I learned there.
Then I played driver and tour guide to some of the other visitors. The highlight of touring was undoubtedly the weekend descent into the Jordan River valley, down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and hence along the Dead Sea to Herod's plateau-top palace at Masada. Driving through the Arab areas was then not a problem; the troubles came across the borders, and there are strips of plowed earth and mine fields along the Jordan River, though minor by comparison to the defenses at the border with Syria.
What surprises most visitors is the extent to which the Jordanian and Lebanese borders are open. Thousands of Arabs weekly cross the Jordan River, visiting relatives or attending colleges in various Middle Eastern countries. Trucks filled with West Bank produce cross over to the markets of Amman. Relatives of West Bank Arabs, citizens of various countries at war with Israel, are admitted for three-month stays and wander around Israel like the rest of the tourists. Checking the freight and the people for weapons is routine, but mistakes happen. A Russian-made rocket, fired from somewhere in the West Bank, landed a kilometer from my apartment building, digging a large hole in someone's backyard, breaking windows and scattering laundry hung out to dry. The city government promptly sent some men out the next day to plant a rose garden in the crater. But the border stays open, as Israelis doggedly try to make friends with their neighbors, try to demonstrate that they are not really the devil incarnate of the propaganda broadcasts.
It is walking around Jerusalem that dispels the tensions which the two-week tourist might feel. The tourist might tend to worry about those armed soldiers on the streets, not knowing that they are heading home on leave, having to lug their rifles along. The tourist might jump at a loud noise, thinking it a bomb, not realizing that the rocky ground forces the construction industry to use a lot of dynamite in town. Once, when I was absolutely certain a bomb had exploded nearby (because I saw people running in great excitement down the street), it turned out to be a blowout of an overworn bus tire. (The closest I came to a bomb was, in a way, after I returned to Seattle. Watching the morning news on television, I saw some film footage of a bomb being disarmed in Jerusalem. The scene looked familiar. I finally recognized it as along a shortcut path that I habitually took from the labs to pick up falafel for lunch.)
But walking around, one rubs shoulders with people who don't act worried, who stop strangers on the street to ask the correct time or to ask directions. In walking ten blocks from my apartment to the lab at the Russian Compound, I would often be stopped three times by people asking directions--sometimes by tourists, but often by Israelis. The standard way of getting from here to there is apparently to walk out to the street, stop the first person you see, and ask directions. Then you repeat the process at every street corner, gradually zeroing in on your destination. And the different types of people you encounter in Jerusalem-- Europeans, North Africans, South Africans, Russian and Vietnamese immigrants, all manner of Middle Eastern types--is far more varied than on the streets of cosmopolitan London or New York. People walk in parks at midnight. That is not the behavior of people worried about violence in the streets.
The best part came after the Mount Scopus meeting was over and the visitors were delivered back to the airport. Katherine and I took off for ten days in the Sinai, driving down the Dead Sea past Masada, past the saltworks at Sodom and the pillars of salt seen in the hypersaline shallows of the Dead Sea, down through the Negev to the Red Sea. The road to Eilat parallels the border with Jordan, which is out in the middle of the Arava valley, only a few warning signs and less than a kilometer away. There is a roadblock at the beginning of the highway, where a soldier asks you to wait until another car comes along, then the two cars drive together and keep an eye on each other. The purpose of this, considering how lightly guarded the border seems to be, is probably to keep tourists from stopping and wandering out into a no-man's-land. If you're supposed to keep driving, and there's a companion behind or just ahead of you, you probably won't stop to get your picture taken standing on the border. This simple device no doubt saves a lot of trouble.
Eilat is the Israeli port city on the Red Sea, paralleled several kilometers across the valley by the Jordanian port city of Aqaba. They are at the head of a gulf off the main body of the Red Sea, variously called the Gulf of Eilat or the Gulf of Aqaba, depending upon whose maps you read. The west side is the Sinai peninsula, the east side is Jordan and then Saudi Arabia. Eilat has the aspect of a European spa combined with a busy port-- scuba divers and bathers on one hand, oil tankers on the other. But, because of the expansion of the oil port, there are only several kilometers of Israeli shoreline left undeveloped (there are only about 10 kilometers total, between Jordan and Egypt).
Each day we drove south to a different region of the Sinai coast (this being while it was still occupied by Israel, before its 1982 return to Egypt), exploring the coral reefs with face masks and snorkels. It is hard to imagine just how colorful the underwater sights can be all manner of varicolored fish, fans of coral, an octopus here and there. And above water, the incredible mountains on the Saudi Arabian side towering over the gulf, facing the rugged terrain of the Sinai behind our beaches. Back in Eilat, we stopped in at the university's marine biological research station, talked shop, and got advice on research animals for a friend. The Red Sea has a red and white mollusk called the "Spanish Dancer" whose elaborate swimming motion (for which it is named) is probably controlled by the same group of nerve cells that have been investigated in a related nudibranch mollusk in the San Juan Islands near Seattle.
We eventually drove all the way south, to the very tip of the Sinai peninsula at Ras Muhammad. Israel managed this bit of occupied Egyptian territory as a sort of national park, with a park ranger to advise you at the entrance gate. We drove up and were greeted, in English, with "Ah, from one desert to another!" It was only a few minutes later, as we were driving along the washboard road, that we realized that he had been referring to our Nevada license plates. I might compare the Sinai to Utah or Arizona, but not Nevada. And the only thing comparable to the Red Sea isn't located anywhere close to the American Southwest. The Great Barrier Reef north of Australia is the only place with comparable underwater scenery.
Standing at the Y-junction of the Red Sea with the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba, one looks west across the Gulf of Suez to Africa where, beyond the range of coastal mountains in Egypt, lies the Nile. To the east is the Arabian peninsula. To the north is Mount Sinai. To the south, the Red Sea stretches toward the Indian Ocean and the horn of Africa.
And one sees a fascinating contrast in geology. The tectonic plates of Arabia and Africa are separating all along the Red Sea, which is why the view from space makes the horn of Africa look like a piece of jigsaw puzzle detached from the Arabian peninsula. The spreading, with new crust welling up from the depths of the earth, is probably much like that which is taking place in the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and which separated Africa from South America. Spreading can give rise to a basin-and-range landscape much like that seen in Nevada and Utah, which are also spreading apart. Looking northwest, one sees the characteristic shallow western slope of the Sinai mountains, gradually descending into a wide sandy beach along the approach to the Suez Canal. But looking up the other gulf to the northeast, the mountains come abruptly down to the water on both the Sinai and Saudi Arabian coastlines. This is where the old East African tectonic fault line goes, whose northern extension runs up the Arava valley into the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley, eventually up through the Sea of Galilee to Lebanon and Turkey. All the human history of the Sinai is but a brief footnote on the time scale of the hominid evolution that took place along this geological spectacle farther south, down in Africa.
Driving back north through the Sinai, the car broke down in the middle of the desert. Naturally. What else? Inspection revealed that the washboard road had caused the engine to rock back and forth enough to fray the wires leading from alternator to battery, indeed to break the connection. My trusty pocketknife solved the problem temporarily. Later I tried to replace the wire and connector properly, but the part wasn't available anywhere. When I left Israel, the temporary patch was still holding tight.
The Jewish New Year is a special time to be in Jerusalem. For the final day, Yom Kippur, there is literally no vehicular traffic in most of the city starting at sunset and lasting twentyfour hours. A nearly full moon rose later that night over the walls and towers of the Old City. Without the cars and trucks and wheezing buses, it looked like a dramatically lit stage set from a biblical movie.
But the people made it real. Near a synagogue, an entire city block would be filled with people talking. The next morning dawned a beautiful autumn day, and soon people were out everywhere walking in family groups, visiting relatives and friends in the Old City, hiking all over West Jerusalem. Few people used the sidewalks; they occupied the middle of the street. The atmosphere was one of a people reclaiming their city--and perhaps themselves.
Thanksgiving is a holiday not widely celebrated in Israel. But we had a Thanksgiving dinner in the Old City, though with chicken substituting for nonexistent turkey. We were a collection of Americans and Canadians, together with a few Sabras. One of the professors had an apartment in the renewed Jewish Quarter of the Old City, looking out over the Temple Mount, the Western Wall nearby, with crowds of worshipers passing by below the balcony. The local vegetables and breads from the typical Middle Eastern shuk (or in Arabic, souk) several alleys away substituted for the cornbread and pumpkin pie.
Katherine--fortunately, as it turned out--had real turkey in New York, having been delayed in the States after a trip to a scientific meeting. Several days later, I had another trip to the airport to pick her up. The rains of winter were starting. The hot desert winds of the summer, the shariv or hamsin, which had lasted several weeks without respite, seemed long ago. On the way home from the airport, we did get in a visit to my favorite biblical ruin, Gezer, which I had earlier discovered on my own, rather off the beaten path.
Gezer is on a minor hilltop in the foothills leading to Sha'ar HaGai ("the gates of the valley") as one drives from Tel Aviv toward the mountain valley up to Jerusalem. Gezer has one of those views, like the one Michener describes in The Source (which is based on Megiddo, perhaps 150 kilometers to the north), which surveys the critical travelers' routes through the area, looking out over a rich agricultural valley to the north (the same "Vale of Aijalon" where the moon supposedly stood still for Joshua). It is within gunshot of the pre-1967 border, which is perhaps why it was never prepared for tourists after the archaeologists had excavated it. It appears on the big survey maps of Israel, but they show no roads leading there. On my first visit, I had driven many kilometers down dead-end forest roads, seeking a way in. Finally I drove into Kibbutz Gezer and asked, in my limited Hebrew, directions to Tel Gezer. Oh, they answered in Brooklyn-accented English, just drive through our plowed field over there and head up the hill on its far side.
Not only are there cowboys on the Golan Heights looking like refugees from Wyoming, but there are farmers in the plains sounding like refugees from Flatbush. I do recommend a jeep if it has rained recently. But Gezer is spectacular, both for its views and its archaeology, which includes ten monolithic pillars at which ancient pagan goddesses were perhaps once worshiped.
The cold spell naturally coincided with the failure of the heat in our apartment building. It took five days to replace the boiler; the standard one-word excuse that repairmen offer for delays is milium ("reserve duty" -- which is sometimes even true, judging by how often my academic colleagues disappeared). Sitting around in the living room wrapped in a sleeping bag gave way to invitations to tea from neighbors with electric heaters. In the midst of which came a forty-five-minute phone call from the States, urging me to return for a visitation from the government people who dispense money for our research. No, they couldn't schedule it later, I really needed to return home four weeks hence. Right in the middle of a research project that needed intensive work, I had to pull up stakes and head home. Without the short vacation we had planned in Europe.
We took up jogging in frustration, doing laps around the nearby park. Except that I found that I couldn't keep up with Katherine. And sometimes couldn't even climb the three flights of stairs to our apartment without rest. Such, I thought, are the physiological manifestations of psychological stress.
On the day before Christmas, we finally got to take a long-awaited walking tour--the one that covers the eastern side of the city, up the Mount of Olives, along the ridge to Mount Scopus, then back to the western part of Jerusalem near the Russian Compound. Because it is so long, it isn't often given. Our favorite guide for the municipality's Saturday morning free walking tours, Shera, had campaigned with her superiors for some time to offer it. My fatigue vanished and I walked 7 kilometers, up and down the hills of the city, along the northern walls of the Old City to the goat and sheep market, then down the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane, up the Mount of Olives through Christian shrines and Jewish cemeteries. We told Shera that we were unexpectedly heading back to Seattle, leaving in several days, and talked awhile about the virtues of Jerusalem and Seattle. Many Israelis are from somewhere else, but Shera seemed to be the only one who was from Seattle. She now lives down on the coastal plains at Kfar Sava, but frequently commutes up to Jerusalem by bus to teach and guide tours. There are many stories like that in Israel.
Christmas Eve is like most others in Jerusalem, as the Christian population is small. But since they started televising the Manger Square crowds in Bethlehem, sending them around the world live via satellite every Christmas Eve, half of Jerusalem seems to go to see and be seen. Thousands of cars stream southward to Bethlehem, which is almost a suburb of Jerusalem these days. It creates an immense parking and traffic problem: while Bethlehem is geared up for tourists, they usually arrive by tour bus. There has thus developed an elaborate system of invitations issued by the church authorities, and the Israeli police treat them as parking permits, simply turning back cars without them. To get an invitation now takes Vitamin P.
I spent Christmas Day selling my car. Transferring ownership was a full day's work for, as it turned out, three people: myself, the British professor to whom I was selling it, and a friend who came along to translate. Christmas is, of course, an ordinary working day in most of Jerusalem. We started out at the customs office, waiting in a line that had become familiar to me, as I had had to make numerous visits to keep up the paperwork of owning a car without paying taxes equal to twice the value of the car in the States (which an Israeli citizen would have had to pay).
It was while waiting at customs that Pat told me of his trip down to Bethlehem the night before. It had all started with a large and very rambunctious dog which Pat had somehow acquired months earlier in a weak moment. Said dog tended to knock over things at home and in the lab, when it followed Pat there. Pat had tried to train it to stay in the seminar room outside the lab entrance, so as not to frighten the rats inside and threaten the experimental equipment. The dog had a stiffly wagging tail, however, and so it churned the papers which I had carefully laid out atop a coffee table while rehearsing a seminar. I have a feeling that Pat's wife may have had a similar experience with the ever-so-friendly dog.
Pat gave the dog away to an Arab boy. But the boy couldn't take the dog home on the bus, so Pat offered to drive him home, using his wife's car. Pat was indeed anxious to get rid of that dog.
The boy, it turned out, lived on the outskirts of Bethlehem. And Pat forgot about the Christmas Eve crowds. So at roadblock after roadblock on the way to Bethlehem, Pat tried to explain to the police that no, he didn't have an invitation, he was just trying to take this boy and his dog home. The police were trained by the British, and Pat is the very archetype of a London professor (he even writes an occasional mystery thriller), so he eventually made it through to the Arab village in the hills outside Bethlehem. The boy set out with the dog across the fields, and Pat turned around to head back to Jerusalem.
But the dog broke loose from its new owner and came bounding across the rocky fields, happily chasing Pat down the road, tongue hanging out. Boy retrieves dog. Dog escapes again. Unrequited love. Rather a different view of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem than the one televised each year in its sameness. The Keystone Cops comedy enlivened the long wait on the hard bench at the customs house.
After the car had been transferred from my passport to Pat's--that is the phrase, as they stamp your passport with a big form which causes the airport people to ask about the car when you leave the country--we drove down to the motor vehicles off~ce for the next step in the process. This office, with which I also had become increasingly familiar, was bedlam. Dozens of Israelis crowded along a counter, behind which were severalharried clerks struggling with paperwork and shouting people. We had lost our interpreter by this time and were on our own. The filing system seemed to be quite elaborate. As we waited, two deep in the crowd, for our papers to reappear from the depths of still another filing system, I kidded Pat that, after all, the Israeli bureaucracy was inherited from the British. To which he instantly replied, "Yes, but I think the British were trained by the Turks." And he is probably right--there likely was an automobile registry back in 1917 when the Ottoman Empire still ran this part of the world, and the British probably just took it over.
My knees were sagging all through this, my fatigue having returned. Pat told me that the couple who hosted the Thanksgiving dinner were both sick with something. All I needed was flu. For on top of all of the packing up and last-minute running around, a new urgency had been added. Another long transatlantic phone call brought the information that my mother was to be operated on for cancer in several days. I changed my plane ticket destination from Seattle to Phoenix but couldn't move up the day of departure.
On my last day, I had one final chore, scheduled long before--to give a lecture at the medical school in Tel Aviv. I borrowed back the car, now adorned with Israeli license plates, and drove for a pleasant hour down the twisting road from Jerusalem to the plains, detouring by the airport on the way to transact some business with customs, as insurance against snafus the next morning before the flight out. Again, a visit to an empty arrivals hall. Though no one put on a drill of antiterrorist tactics for me, I did learn the secret back passage out of the arrivals hall, as they had to escort me up to the departures lounge, that being the location of the only branch bank then open which could refund my customs deposit in dollars. Enriched, I drove on to the medical school and a round of shop talk. Fatigue vanished again, in spite of the siege of packing the night before, and I had a pleasant, though preoccupied, day.
But it all went well and by dusk I left to drive back up to Jerusalem one last time. I stopped to pick up a succession of hitchhiking soldiers--which always meant explaining the American-style seat belts in the car--and we had the usual problems of where to fit in the assorted rifles. One really does "go up to Jerusalem" as in the Hebrew phrase, ascending from the plains, past the monastery at Latrun with its vineyards, through Sha'ar HaGai and then up a winding road still littered with burned-out armored cars, left over from ambushed convoys during the 1948 war. Then one crests a hill and sees Jerusalem on the next hilltop, a city of light and of decent people.
About five the next morning, the taxi drove us down through Sha'ar HaGai again. There was an almost-full moon shining over the valley where Joshua had commanded it to stand still. Beyond the road, one could imagine the landscape looking much as it did in Joshua's day, about 620 B.C. The valley has not always looked so peaceful. It has been swept by one army after another since Joshua; for nineteen years of recent history, it was an armed border. I looked carefully and spotted the silhouette of Gezer to the south, standing guard silently.
We cleared airport security quickly. I had my usual cup of cappuccino at the airport coffee shop. We got on the plane to Rome and I collapsed. Usually I get in four hours of work at the start of one of those long flights, but this time I slept. At the Rome airport, I again had some good cappuccino, though everything else was tasting flat to me. Then I slept from Rome to New York. We hauled our seven suitcases up to the customs man at New York, expecting to have to defend our purchases of the last year. To my astonishment, he just said welcome and waved us through. Katherine had business in New York, so I continued on to Phoenix by myself with most of the year's luggage. And slept all the way. I arrived twenty-four hours after leaving Jerusalem, but flying west through nine time zones made it seven in the evening rather than four in the morning. My father met me. The operation was over, patient asleep, all's well, come over in the morning. I went to sleep again, this time in a bed.
The next morning, I cornered the surgeon and went over the pathology report. Yes, it was a tumor but the prospects were excellent. Then I went up to see my mother, trying to convince her that the statistics gave her an almost normal life expectancy. It is very hard to explain statistics to someone who might reasonably be worried; scientists and people who bet on horses may think statistically sometimes but they too, when worried, seek certainty. Then a quick trip to the main post off~ce to arrange overnight delivery of some last-minute grant proposal revisions to Seattle. Then, sagging, I went back and slept.
But this time I didn't get up so readily. Soon my father was having to divide his time between visiting the hospital and nursing me. I still remember the days when I would stare at the irregularities in the white ceiling, and then see my father come in the door with a cheerful smile.
My wife flew out to investigate and hauled me in to see a physician. His nurse looked at me from across the room and asked how long had I been jaundiced? Hepatitis. And I hadn't even thought of it, fatigue and flu being easy explanations. The jaundice was then hard to spot, but I soon turned more distinctly yellow.
Later I remembered the people in Jerusalem who had gotten sick just before I left. I inquired. About eight of the people at the Thanksgiving dinner had eventually come down with hepatitis after the one-month incubation period, all of them Americans or Canadians by origin. Those born in Israel didn't catch it, either being immune since childhood or not having liked the food. One visitor in 50 to the rural Middle East gets hepatitis, compared to 1 in 350 visitors to Mexico or West Africa, or 1 in 9000 to southern Europe. When friends inquire whether I caught hepatitis eating spicy dishes in oriental restaurants, I explain to them about the American-style Thanksgiving dinner. You just can't win for trying.
I made it to Seattle in time for the visitation, though I was still notably yellow as I gave my presentation and answered questions. We got most of the money. A friend from MIT told me about the time he had come down with hepatitis--that it had taken him a full year to get his strength back, that he had been unaccountably sleepy and fatigued much of that time, but that one does eventually recover. The day after telling me that, he won the downhill ski races at Sun Valley, rather emphasizing the point.
And it was indeed a slow year. I haven't won any ski races since then, but I've taken several white-water trips down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The river running through the mountainous desert didn't remind me of the Jordan, but the canyon certainly brought back memories of the Jordan River valley. I still think of that winter morning, winding our way up the valley north of Jericho, whenever I want to imagine our ancestors starting to settle down to agriculture at the end of the last Ice Age. Such settlements were the foundations of civilization.
I hear, from another visiting professor just returned from a year in Jerusalem, that my poor car broke down in the Sinai again, causing Pat to be two days overdue in returning and worrying everyone. This time the car had been beyond pocketknife repair methods. Alas. And to think that the car was properly trained in the Nevada deserts beforehand.
The Throwing Madonna:
Essays on the Brain (McGraw-Hill 1983, Bantam 1991) is a group of 17 essays: The Throwing Madonna; The Lovable Cat: Mimicry Strikes Again; Woman the Toolmaker? Did Throwing Stones Lead to Bigger Brains? The Ratchets of Social Evolution; The Computer as Metaphor in Neurobiology; Last Year in Jerusalem; Computing Without Nerve Impulses; Aplysia, the Hare of the Ocean; Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology? What to Do About Tic Douloureux; The Woodrow Wilson Story; Thinking Clearly About Schizophrenia; Of Cancer Pain, Magic Bullets, and Humor; Linguistics and the Brain's Buffer; Probing Language Cortex: The Second Wave; and The Creation Myth, Updated: A Scenario for Humankind. Note that my throwing theory for language origins (last 3 essays) has nothing to do with the title essay: THE THROWING MADONNA is a parody (involving maternal heartbeat sounds!) on the typically-male theories of handedness.
Many libraries have it (try the OCLC on-line listing, which cryptically shows the libraries that own a copy), and used bookstores may have either the 1983 or the 1991 edition.
- Powell's Books in Portland lists used copies in their web database.
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