There’s only one great road trip in Israel, a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv’s sweltering, interminable bumper-to-bumper through a great empty desert of sandstone canyons and date palms and camels, downhill all the way to the little manicured pubic-strip of beachfront hotels along Israel’s flea-speck of Red Sea shore. The Arava is a single arroyo so big you can see it from space, straining south toward furthest Arabia, punctuated by a massive below sea-level crater you can see a hundred miles across as you descend into it along serpentine switchbacks to its soft, sandy belly. Emerging at the other end, from eastward the craggy red mountain spine of Jordan leers down at you the remainder of the way to Eilat.
This dramatic topography belies the relative size of the speck of map that it crosses, and the contrast gives itself to a sensation of wild freedom comparable to driving from Denver to Taos, or from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. When the highway finally reaches Eilat, you’re still looking downhill, across a long, gentle slope extending between foothills through town, down to the water and off down the coast of Saudi Arabia, as if the whole southern half of the country was one great funnel-shaped beachhead. To the east of you is Jordan, Egypt is immediately to the west, and the bay is full of Panamax tankers. No other place so small and narrow as Eilat could ever feel so wide open.
“They’ve got all these crime families in Israel, kafkazi, Moroccan. Mafia, mafia,” Boris informs me in slow, steady Hebrew as if he’s talking to a chinaman. We’re cruising south in Betzalel’s Lamborghini, top down, full moon beaming, the cool night air swirling in the desert around us. Boris is a street-wise general contractor who grew up in a pnimia, a kind of low-class boarding school for foster kids. Shrewd and charismatic, he has dreams of getting rich and a habit of cultivating useful friendships: Betzalel is the indolent and airheaded rich-kid pushover, and I am the American. I regard Boris with wry skepticism and he respects me for it. Plus we have a mutual sort of anthropological interest going on.
“And it’s true they pimp and run drugs,” Boris continues, “but would you believe where the bulk of their income is derived? From recycling. Municipal recycling! You get 10 agorot for a Coke can, right? Half a shekel for a bottle. So these guys extort restaurants and falafel stands for recyclables. Isn’t that wild?”
“No one in America would think to make a criminal enterprise out of saving the planet,” I respond. “That’s for damn sure.” (Actually, nowadays that’s not true anymore.)
Yotveta is the last stop before Eilat. We pile out. Boris and I grab chips and chocolate milk while Betzalel fills the gas tank.
It’s 1 AM on a Friday night when we check into the hostel. The room’s like a county jail cell, with eight bunks for a total of sixteen beds, a couple of violently buzzing fluorescent lights and a shitty ceiling fan. It’s not Betzalel’s kind of digs, but he was going along to get along because he didn’t want to be too generous.
A boisterous group of guys our age is drinking arak and playing dominos around a card table, monopolizing the space in front of the room’s single window, overlooking a boulevard where revelers are transiting back and forth loudly. These roommates are a half-dozen hairy kafkazi guys in skinny jeans and beaters, with two raven-haired broads standing, because the guys have all the chairs. One of the girls is frumpy and the other is pretty. They’re both wearing heavy layers of make-up. We nod to this group and the girls glance at us furtively, but I can tell the cute one had been looking at Boris.
We go out. We bar hop. We drink and dance and try to pick up chicks. Everyone comes to Eilat in discrete groups and it can be difficult to separate the women. Eventually the night finds us at a bar in this little cabana type place by the water. A largish group shuffles in behind us and in the dark I make out our roommates. As they pulled out stools Boris looked wary, but Betzalel struck up with them very amicably and before long we were all up the street in a nightclub with strobe lights, fog machines, a DJ and everything. Some drunk, sweaty chick was grinding on me, spilling her RedBull and vodka down my shirt in slips and slops, when I realized Boris and Betzalel had vanished. My dance partner was way too drunk for me to fuck honorably, and she smelled like faded Axe body spray and patchouli, so I took off looking for my friends. I found Boris around back by the dumpsters, making out furiously with the cute kafkazi girl from the hostel. Betzalel was off a ways, puffing on an L&M with his collar popped and pissing against a chainlink fence.
I walked right over. “Hey Boris man, where are those guys? You sure that’s a good idea?”
He tore himself off her face like a suction cup and looked around blankly. Then he said, “We’re taking a cab back to the room. You coming?”
“Uh…. Yeah, but what about those guys? You’re not worried?”
“Just stand guard down the hall for me.”
Ten minutes later I’m leaning on a vending machine with Betzalel when our douchebag roommates come bowling up the stairs like West Side Story. You could hear Boris fucking the shit out of this girl down the hall. “Hey, guys, how’s it going?” I put on a shit eating grin and tried to distract them, but they brushed right past me and into the room. I wasn’t gonna let them beat up my friend, but as I started to follow them in they burst out, dragging Boris by the scruff of his neck, shoeless with his belt buckle dangling. As the girl came slinking out, shamefaced and shoulders arched, Betzalel slipped into the room behind them and shut himself in. Betzalel’s grandfather owned an oil refinery in Greece, meat-packing plants in Israel, and God-knows what else. I’d been trying hard to like him but the fact was he was exceptionally stupid and contemptible.
In any case, I decided I’d play dumb with these kafkazi guys and see how far it got me. I trailed close but not too close behind them as they made their way to the parking lot, and when we emerged into the early morning I put on the thickest, most ham-fisted American accent I possibly could. “Hey where we going guys? We going back to the club?”
“Go back to the room, Sam!” Boris entreated. But as they opened the sliding side-door on their Mercedes Sprinter I slipped in behind the driver’s seat. “We going for breakfast or something guys?” I tried to look as moronic as I could. They all glanced at each other sidelong and kind of shrugged. Then they shoved Boris in beside me and five of them hopped in behind us. The sixth and runtiest one had bad acne, a ridiculous overbite and coke-bottle glasses with a headband. He grabbed the girl by the hair and slammed her face against the passenger-side window, then walked calmly around the front to the driver’s side. She snuffled and wiped a profuse stream of blood from her nose up her forearm, then from her forearm onto her pants. Then she climbed in the front passenger seat resignedly and buckled up.
There’s a ring road that goes up around Eilat into the burnt hills and comes out at a highway that winds up to an observatory and on along the Egyptian border. Dawn was breaking over Jordan as we turned east off the highway down a dirt track and off onto an endless, sandy mesa. Pretty soon we pulled over by some bushes and the driver snuffed the engine.
Boris was not the kind of guy to go quietly like he had, and the fact that no explicit threats had been made nor weapons brandished told me that on the one hand, these guys had good reason to be confident of being feared, which was very bad for us; but also that the situation was negotiable, because if you don’t need to make a threat explicit you don’t lose face by back-peddling. The question was how to give them latitude.
I hopped out ahead of the other guys in back as they dragged Boris out by his armpits like he’d been condemned to a firing squad. They threw him on the ground. I helped him up. Then they surrounded us as the biggest one, this choad-like, walleyed kid with a ginormous globule of neck fat separating his head from his shirt collar, brought out a tire iron and waddled over to right behind the little guy with the glasses. The runty one got right in Boris’s face.
“The name Benziad mean anything to you?”
“Yes, of course.” Boris replied. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything. I didn’t know.”
Eyal Benziad was one of the most feared names in Israel. I hadn’t lived in the country eighteen months and barely spoke the language, but even I knew that. The resemblance suddenly asserted itself: we were face to face with the son and protege of a mass murderer.
“Guys please,” Boris continued. “This is all a misunderstanding. I apologize. I really mean it. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Please….” His voice was breaking. He was on the verge of tears.
Now, we may have been facing death, but I wasn’t going be murdered without my dignity, and Boris’s groveling pissed me off. At that time the U.S. wigger imitator of boogie lip-flap was a well-known comedy trope internationally, and I’m not proud to admit that I was going through a bit of a phase myself. In fact, at that moment I was dressed in a Sprewell jersey, Timberlands and basketball shorts down to my ankles. I looked like J-Rock from Trailer Park Boys. I even had on a sweatband. That’s when it dawned on me. I knew just what I had to do.
“Yo dawg, this some bullshit dawg!” I shoved Boris aside and got right in this kid’s face. “This my boy, dawg. We aint’ going out like no punks!” I said all this entirely in English, gesticulating as niggerishly as I possibly could. I tapped the runty kid lightly in the chest. “You fuckin’ with my boy, you fuckin’ with me dawg! We ain’t goin’ out like that. My boy ain’t no punk.”
The others tightened the circle around us. I’d tried, but now we were completely fucked. Just then the corner of the runty kid’s mouth turned up, and he glanced wryly around at the others. The walleyed kid in back burst out laughing like an orc receiving a handjob. That set off a chain reaction. First, the runt started cackling, then the others until they were gasping for breath. Boris glanced at me for a nanosecond, subtly enough to not be seen, with a look of supernal relief and amazement.
“What’s this guy’s name?” the runt asked Boris in Hebrew.
“Sam? Nice to meet you.” He gave a mirthful snort as he stuck out his hand and we shook. “You America? America good. George Bush. Dr. Dre. You many good, many ha ha ha.” He said all this in English. “You friend name?”
“Boris,” I replied.
“Okay, Boris,” (now in Hebrew). “I think we can call this a misunderstanding. You need to have respect and be aware of who you’re dealing with in the future.”
“Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you.”
Then we all went back into town for omelettes and hair of the dog.