Monday, July 23, 2007

1982 Israel & Egypt, Kibbutz Grofit Labourer and Sinai Trek

Strong volunteer Manfred wrote, "Arbeit Macht Frei" on his bed foot-board. His father had been a Nazi lager warder, and Manfred did penance for him. Volunteers did all sorts of work, and Moshe shuffled jobs, stopping boredom and kibbutznik volunteer friction. We packed guitar-strings in a guitar-string factory, while kibbutzniks made guitar-strings. I passed welding tools to Moshe. I unloaded girders from a truck with Jacob. We unpacked chicken-house equipment from containers. In date-palm groves, we climbed date-palms, cutting off green spikes on palm leaves, stopping sun-hardened spikes jabbing date-pickers. Leah worked in the laundry, gardens and onion fields.

Some volunteers machine-milked Friesland cows in a dairy. Cattle lived permanently on a fenced concrete-slab, with an iron roof to one side for sun-protection. As there was no grass, cattle were fed lucerne, hay and nutrient pellets. Extra milk was sent to nearby Yotvata kibbutz, which processed milk into dairy products. We drank much yoghurt. Yotvata Hai Bar Reserve preserved desert oryxes, but not Palestinians. When tomatoes ripened, we packed tomatoes at Yotvata, and ate ethane-ripened tomatoes.

Grofit onions and dates were computer-controlled, plastic-pipe irrigated. Jackals chewed holes in pipes and drank fertilised water. (Later in SA, we saw Israeli computer-controlled irrigation- systems). When we worked in the onion packing-shed, sorting, grading and packing onions, we all cried. Leah, allergic to onion juice, cried most of all. There were several onion juice allergies, so toilet rolls for sniffers hung at points along conveyors. Poms laughed at Leah's accent when she wailed, "Mah arse!" when rubbing her eyes. Using an overhead suspended sewing-machine, Leah sewed at the end of the production line, where she received full onion bags, conveyed from a hopper.

Outside the shed where I liked working, groaning tractors tipped onions onto wide, clanking conveyors, where onions bounced along upside-down to a grate, where rotary-blades cut green leaves. Besides tractor-conveyor-cutter-cacophany, a loudspeaker blared disco music. There was only one earmuff-set to protect outside workers. The noisy packing-shed left me with insidious nerve-deafness, which would remind me of Israel for the rest of my life. But I would only realize that years later.

Manfred palletized full bags, then fork-lifted them onto trucks for export. Once Manfred threw Negev sand in the air shouting, "I haf Holy Land saints in my hairs." After work, we boozed Goldstar beer on our stoep. When afternoons lengthened, Leah and I hitched to Eilat, as Egged buses were rare along Eilat Road. Thorn trees and Jericho Roses battled to grow in wadis, which stretched out from valley-wall rock fans.

Across Gulf Waters, we saw ships taking materials to Aqaba for the Iran-Iraq war. Eilat had shops, hotels, Israelis, outcast Arabs, topless sunbathers and troops, as Israel was returning Sinai to Egypt. White UN vehicles whizzed about, bulging with Uzi toting soldiers. At hitching places, soldiers strutted to queue fronts, as lifts for soldiers were a priority over tourist or civvie hitchers.

Marginalized Arab youths, practising their English, were aggressive when rebuffed. If we strolled a street, checked out a bloody street -shambles, lay on a beach, sat on a park bench, Arabs hassled us. Souk merchants said, "Hello, welcome, what's your name? What language you speak?" We spoke Afrikaans or Fanagalo, while discussing prices, to block Arabs.

For our Sinai trek, we loaded barbeque-wood into a kibbutz bus, as there was no firewood in the desert. South of Eilat, down the Red Sea coast, we camped at an oasis, and barbequed under date-palms by a ruined Turkish fort near the coral beach. Bedouin men arrived from a settlement, begging water and food. Their water-truck, which Sinai kibbutzniks filled weekly, was empty.

A barefoot Bedouin woman arrived with her goats. Kibbutzniks gave her nothing. Her nearby tent was black. Long sleeves and collar of her black robe were embroidered red. A black mask decorated with coins hid her mouth, a black scarf covered her head. Her earrings also dangled coins.

Two Bedouin men, dressed in white jelabiyehs and keffiyehs, squatted by our campfire. Smiling- Bedou fanned the flames with his jelabiyeh. Beg-Bedou, unsheathing a curved dagger from his belt said, "Trade my knife for your watch!"

"Sorry," I said, stroking my throat. "We need to catch Egged buses on time... Coffee?"

Smiling-Bedou drew "UN" on sand then said, "Brrrmmm!" and ham-acted steering a car. They didn't know Israel was returning Sinai to Egypt. We explained.

Beg-Bedou said, "Every date-palm owned by Bedouin. These palms - ours." After coffee, we gave them our firewood. They left, and sang under their date-palms, beside their fire. We fell asleep, listening to their camel munching palm-leaves.

We picnicked at dirty Nuweiba port, and admired desert views - red, grey, brown rocks and sand. Dry turds littered town. Israelis were leaving...

We bussed to palm-hutted Dahab and its ganga smoking dropouts...

At Ras Nasrany, we climbed a stony hill. Saudi Arabia coastline shimmered across Tiran Strait. An Israeli soldier strolled up, pointing his Uzi saying, "See Tiran Islands there. They caused the Six Day War. Nasser's Egyptians blockaded Israeli shipping going through Tiran Strait into Aqaba Gulf. Egypt remilitarized Sinai. Israelis took Sinai during that war. Now we must return them to Egypt. For fifteen years Israelis have settled kibbutzim in Sinai. Now we must leave..."

From Sharm-el-Sheikh, on our backspoor to Eilat, our Arab bus -driver swung his speeding bus round corners. Soldiers shouted, "Slow down!" Our driver shouted back, only behaving himself after the biggest soldier strode up the aisle and threatened him. South of Eilat, we passed a ruined castle, crumbling on Farun Island. We spent our last shekels at an underwater observatory on the coral shore. Later, cheap Egged bus fares would enable us to visit other parts of Israel.

Unrest: The Jerusalem Post reported that in SA Treurnicht had left the Nationalist Party, forming his own Conservative Party.

Coda: Two decades later, long after Israel had returned Sinai to Egypt, Arab terrorists repeatedly bombed Dahab, Sharm-el-Sheikh and Eilat.

See Tiran Isles, Sinai.


Mark JS Esslemont said...

Email exchange with a Yorkshire man:

"... here from Yorkshire.

I was reading your description of kibbutz life on the net and was curious to know if you were at Kibbutz Grofit between March and May 1982?

I was there then for around a month before heading off to hitchhike for a couple of weeks around Israel.

I have heaps of photos from that time.

I do remember a chap who was staying on the kibbutz for a few months, perhaps even a year, in order to experience kibbutz life to the full and to document daily life throughout the seasons. Was that you? [No].

I remember the gents' shower block blowing up one night which meant all the volunteers were assigned a kibbutznik house to shower in. [I remember having to rod shower outflow pipes to clean out panties, underpants, condoms, tampons!]

I also remember one of the volunteers hopping over the fence into Jordan which created a bit of a situation as the Israeli army appeared after spotting worrying footprints in the sand between the two countries.

Where did 26 years go?"

My reply: "Thanks for the Grofit Kibbutz feedback. Your blown up shower / toilets; Israeli army tracking down wayward volunteers in Jordan seemed more exciting than our two months agricultural and guitar-string packing work at Grofit, January and February 1982. We may have missed you by a few days, as we left Grofit to Egged bus / hitchhike Israel during the month of March 1982 - we only had 3 month visas.

We have fond memories of Grofit and touring Sinai and Israel. Seems Israel has become more like the brutal apartheid SA we lived through, what with its continued oppression and separation of Palestinians as well as wars in Lebanon. Your stay in Grofit houses must've been more comfy than ours' in army barracks. Wonder if the shower / toilet bomber was one of the volunteers we worked with - from Canada, England, USA or Germany?...

Yep the years have flown, that's why I'm blogging them."

Mark JS Esslemont said...

Further email exchange with the Yorkshire man:

"I seem to think that the guilty party blowing up the shower block was a German chap who was experimenting with the turning of a valve on the outside of the building where the showers were housed. What he was actually called I can't remember! What we called him at the time I can remember but would not dare repeat such unthoughtful words.

I remember the guitar string packing vividly. Didn't Grofit purchase the whole guitar production and packing facility from Wales? [Dunno].

I also remember climbing date palms to pollinate them with pollen contained in plastic bottles, packing onions, planting mango trees and stacking hay bales on a trailer down in the fields below the kibbutz buildings.

Every morning at 0430 or whatever unholy time we were roused from our slumbers, I recall avocados being left by the volunteer 'army barracks' accommodation doors for a pre-dawn nibble to sustain us in our labours before breakfast in the canteen at 0830 or thereabouts.

I also have fond recollections of collecting some very large black beetles - scarab perhaps - from the tennis courts and placing them beneath the sheets of beds located in the female volunteer accommodation when the girls were elsewhere. The odd thing about these beetles was that they would remain perfectly still when it was dark and so stayed put beneath their covers until the girls turned in for the night. Then, of course, as sheets were flung back, the beetles would begin to scurry and the girls would scream in a most disturbing manner. Excellent fun for a rather immature self just 22 years old!

I also have a clear memory of the water tower which I climbed one day to enjoy the view and take a few photos. Up was easy. Summoning up the courage to climb back down was a tad more difficult and I remember being up there for some considerable time.

There are wonderful images of storks on haystacks silhouetted against the purple and orange dawn as the sky changed colour in Jordan to the east, the sound of chirruping at night - crickets or cicadas - and the ever present challenge at night of either switching the noisy ceiling fan off and enduring uncomfortable heat or leaving it on and enduring a cooler but noise filled sleep.

I remember wandering off into the Negev by myself in the heat of the afternoons when it was too hot to work and hitchhiking to Eilat to snorkel on the days off.

Good memories!"

My reply: "Always interesting to get another's views on places my wife Leah and I travelled. Memory tricks: I don't remember the water tower or the tennis courts. I remember the Friesland cow milking shed, guitar string factory and onion packing shed well. You remember some different things to us. I expect you did other agricultural work as the seasons changed from winter to spring to summer heat. It wasn't hot enough for fans during our time at Grofit. Our time was cool, and we also rose at about 0430 when still dark. I also remember two German blokes, (fiddling with equipment and German joking), two Kiwi girls and an Aussie girl besides other nationalities I mentioned. I forget all their names.

Seems our guitar string and onion packing was mutual, as well as date palm pollen jobs. We collected pollen from palm flowers, which was mixed with talcum powder in a shed near the palm grove, to make pollen spread further and save valuable pollen when pollinating. Mango work and hay baling we didn't do, but we packed tomatoes at Yot Vatar Kibbutz down the road towards Eilat for a week. Avocado treats in the mornings we didn't get. We laid black plastic irrigation pipes after the onion harvest. We unpacked girders from trucks, and unloaded new chicken house equipment from containers from England(?) for the new chicken house. My wife did a lot of laundry work and gardening. All volunteers were rostered work in the communal kitchen, and after suppers we socialized with kibbutzniks, drinking coffee in their moadon lounge, and had weekend movies in the communal dining hall.

I don't remember scarabs, but I do remember kibbutznik dogs and cats. There was a mad Alsation dog which chased thrown stones and once had a ferocious fight with another dog, with kibbutzniks and volunteers screaming and jumping around to separate dogs. Water hosing did the trick. A cat birthed a litter of kittens in our room before we left Grofit, so we nested them in a shed below the perimeter trench. A volunteeer told us in Jerusalem that a kibbutznik drowned the kittens after we left, as kibbutzniks didn't like unproductive mouths at Grofit.

We also wandered the Negev, enjoying the views. We too liked the spectacular sunrises and sunsets - made us yearn for SA. We liked the play of sunlight and shadows on Aravah Valley rocks, endless variety as the sun moved. We still have some dessicated Jericho Roses, found in a wadi, which open up when placed in water. We saw tons of sea fossils in the Aravah. I remember a night camping and BBQ'ing in the Negev with volunteers, when the moon was full and we could see almost as clear as day the rocks and eerie shadows, all in grey and black and white. We too escaped to Eilat by regularly bussing or hitchhiking to Eilat in the afternoons after our kibbutz work finished, and we returned in time for supper. We still drool over the variety of delicious yoghurts (made at Yot Vatar), which we consumed at Grofit meals.

Will Look for your "Written in Jest" book in Christchurch libraries, and also your name to see what's on the shelves. Some books don't get as far south as Christchurch. My blog widgets show I have many readers in SA, Oz, NZ, Britain, USA and Europe, also other countries - very satisfying."

Anonymous said...

I was at Grofit for a couple of months in the spring of 82. I remember working in the guitar string factory imported from wales( where i'm from), laying irrigation pipes in the desert, planting sweet potatoes. I remember a few names, Mitch, Ruth and Aubrey from London, Hippolyte who was Swiss, Jurgen from Germany.
I don't remember the shower block blowing up but I do remember sharing the shower with a scorpion

Mark JS Esslemont said...

Thanks for the feedback. Great goodwill Grofit created. Years ago, I met 2 Durban girls in NZ who'd also worked at Grofit, years after us. Loved it.

You lot were sweet potato planters after us winter onion packers. I was back teaching in SA early April 1982, so would've missed you at Grofit.

The above Yorkshire author who I also missed at Grofit is Michael A. Lee. Grofit volunteer names pulled from my 1982 address book:

David Eidelman, dentist (Tel Aviv, ex Durban). After Grofit I visited David in Tel Aviv & briefly corresponded with him from SA. Saw two Durban Jewish dentists he recommended.

UK: Kevin Parkes (Tipton). I briefly corresponded with Kevin from SA. Maggie Markle (London); Ian Lunn (Newcastle on Tyne).

NZ: Noel Dent (Mt Somers); Jill Squire (Waimate); Lenore Gee (Invercargill); Wayne Craddock (Wellington).

Australia: Pam Newport (Modbury North).

Israel: Uri Shmuel (Ramat Gan). After Grofit, we met Uri again on Tel Aviv beach.

USA: Eve Loren Weeden, Marty Wilyer (New York).

Germany: Manfred (forget surname) was the "Arbeit Macht Frei" bloke. I think his mate was burly Jurgen? (Forget surname).

You may've met the above who stayed longer than us at Grofit. I wrote to the Kiwis before we emigrated to Christchurch, NZ, over 10 yrs ago, but got no replies, maybe they'd moved on. I expect girls' surnames would've changed due to marriages. Go well.