Overnight, it seems, a new large bookstore was opened in Hadar, Haifa's old commercial district. It used to be a bank, and now the spacious hall is full of elegantly designed shelves full of books, discs, videos and computer games, and a nice little coffee shop. The music is not too loud and you can watch an old movie on TV while you have coffee. The place is called "Coliseum," and the sign is in two languages, Hebrew and Russian. Inside, however, they gave up: all the signs indicating "Fiction" or "Nonfiction" or whatever are exclusively Russian. So are the books, discs, videos and games. The movie is dubbed Russian-style: two actors, male and female, read the lines, while the original English soundtrack is faintly heard in the background. It's a sort of simultaneous translation, as in conferences, not real dubbing.[back to top]
Walking around the store is an adventurous journey into a foreign country, foreign culture. On the magazine stand, right next to the soft porn magazines, there are three large copies - issues 45 to 47 - of "Gun Master," or so I deduced. My Russian, alas, is even worse than it was in 1968, when my grandmother taught me the Cyrillic alphabet and a few words, of which I now only remember "Kukuruza," meaning "Corn." No. 47 shows a close-up of an old gun handle, with an engraving of some hunting scene. Right underneath there are at least three other magazines dealing with hunting, the covers depicting dramatic nature scenes and a lurking hunter. Then comes "Cosmopolitan" in Russian.
The music section has Russian music, and nothing but Russian music: from chubby middle-aged Dievushkas with mid-fifties style make-up to dangerous-looking rockers in leather jackets and boots. Even "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", if you look carefully, is actually "Sergey Chernienko (I made that up) Sings Sgt. Pepper." The cover is a replica of the original, with minor changes - the background is the onion-shape steeples of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square.
But, as a distant son of the Great Patriotic War, what really caught my eye was another picture of Red Square. It took me some time to recognize it. In fact, my first assumption was that it's Berlin. The thin book was in the midst of colorful Russian short adaptations of "Gulliver" and "Alice" for kids. The dramatic, sinister background in greenish grays brings out the magnificent white horse upon which a stern-faced general is mounted, looking bravely ahead. The horse looks excited, his forelegs in the air and his mouth open; the general has approximately 23 medals on his chest. The horse may be agitated because he is stepping on swastika flags, lying defeated on the ground. It's hard to see, but behind him there's another rider, on a black horse.
I could make out the book's name - Dva Parada - two parades - but it took me some time to realize what it's all about. Simple enough, it's the story of two parades which took place in Red Square, the first one in 1941 and the other in 1945; the earlier one, presumably a morale-booster at the early stages of WWII, looks surreal and gloomy in the pictures. It was November, and it was snowy. One strange picture shows a rather disorganized group of soldiers in white camouflage uniforms, and a lady with a shopping bag hurrying home at the front of the frame. A cavalry platoon rides in the snow.
Did they actually use horses in the World War II? It's a well-known fact that the brave Polish cavalry brigade charged the Nazi tanks as they invaded Poland in 1939. The results were as tragic to the horses, I believe, as they were to their riders. Also, I once heard (from a university professor) about a Russian general who claimed, when confronted with the telegraph or some other modern mean of communication, that it's all very nice, but this will never replace the horseback-riding messenger carrying sealed orders to the front. Military men seem to have had great difficulty parting with their horses. I suppose they grew up on this song with a very catchy tune, which, as so many other Russian songs, has a Hebrew version: "Cossack horse riders, from the Battalions of Budyoni- (yoni! - the choir replies gallantly in the song) are galloping into battle ...."
There are several other horses in the book: someone looking very much like Stalin rides a horse in front of a line of soldiers. But it's someone else - the real Stalin appears in other pictures, looking benign and fatherly. (The whole thing, by the way, looks very much like a product of the Soviet era, but in fact was published in 1995.)
The second parade is the victory parade, performed in June 1945. This is when they've gathered a large number of Nazi flags to a big pile in the midst of Red Square, and presumably walked the horses on top. The cover painting appears again, in its full glory, inside the book. I couldn't resist it. It cost $3, so instead of coffee I bought the book. The lady at the counter asked me, smiling, if I speak Russian. Not really - I said - and then, from the somewhere in the back of my mind, a question materialized: "Is that Zhukov?" I asked her, pointing at the decorated general on the white horse.
"Yes, it is", she nodded and smiled. I came home and phoned a veteran of the red army. I described the book, but didn't really have to - he was familiar with the details, and added a few. It's Marshall Zhukov, the most legendary commander of the red army, on the white horse and Marshall Rokosovski, a lesser-known commanding officer, on the black one. In fact, he said, Stalin was supposed to lead the parade on the white horse. But as he mounted it, the horse misbehaved, rose on his hind legs, and threw Stalin off his back. Stalin decided to give it a miss and told Zhukov to ride the white horse instead.
Mice of the road
As I was crossing the Haifa-Tel Aviv coastal road I saw at the corner of my eye something moving on the ground - small and fast. A lizard? I looked down and saw a little mouse.
The road, while still within the municipal borders of Haifa, has flowerbeds on the strip dividing the lanes. Rich and brown soil is poured and plastic drip-irrigation pipes run through the length of the strips for miles on end. It was evening, but strong yellow streetlamps were overhead, and there was a constant roaring of passing cars. So I could see the mouse - several others joined soon - clearly from a short distance, and didn't have to be particularly still and silent: they couldn't hear their own squeaking in that noise. I watched for a while. They were as cute as they get, and I know someone who would burst into high-pitched squeaks and shrieks at the sight of their beady black eyes and tiny round ears. I mean sounds of joy and happiness, not panic - the sight of mice makes you wonder about those stale chauvinistic cartoons with a frightened woman on a chair, escaping a mouse: they were so small! So small, in fact, it made me curious, until mommy came out of the hole and I realized these were cubs, not full-sized yet.
Why would a nice family of mice immigrate to this long narrow island between two oceans of dangerous asphalt? I suppose they were transferred against their will, with the heaps of fertile soil brought from afar. Their world ends, it seems, at the black-and-white curb: though one puny mouse, a future Magellan, was leaning against it, testing it, recoiling every time a car went by. Mostly they were running along a shallow gorge from one tunnel opening to the next - I could see three entrances - or standing and wondering, their dark eyes shining. I suppose they were looking for food, but who knows. I don't think they have any natural enemies on their island, which is good - they wouldn't be able to hear them coming. There is certainly enough moisture, but I'm not sure about food - no one crosses at that spot to leave behind sandwiches or snacks. I watched for ten or fifteen minutes and realized I'm not much of a naturalist. I got bored and went on. When I came back from "The Camel" [a cafe by the sea near the Carmel Beach train station -ed.] I crossed again to take a look - they were still there, doing their thing.[back to top]
Walking with Giraffes[back to top]
Recently I had a musicological insight. I discovered that all music is divided into two categories: good to walk with, and not so good to walk with. The insight is naturally a derivative of my recent craze for long walks. I walk with a mobile disc player and listen to things I haven't heard in a long time, or else bought, heard once or twice and neglected. The division has to do with beats and rhythms, naturally, but not exclusively - it's a complex issue. Bob Ostertag, I'm afraid, is not-so-good-to-walk-with, if I do say so without actually ever hearing him; the Buena Vista Social Club is perfect. Of course there are gray areas. Some good-to-walk-with music is that way just because it functions a bit like Muzak - it lets your thoughts drift away, being unchallenging, not demanding constant attention, without being, like Muzak, nagging and unbearable.
Giraffes are excellent to walk with. Their melodic, smooth, sort of soft-rock sound contrasts sharply with the lyrics: those are bizarre, with lots of dark humor. [In Hebrew -- the band is really called "Jirafot." -ed.] The first song on their debut album is called "Giraffes"; the giraffes are metaphorical. It is a rather brilliant depiction of a nightmare, with well-hidden symbolic insinuations of the holocaust. Other songs include torn, overheard excerpts of casual and not-so-casual conversations, amusing pseudo-intellectual gibberish, and so forth. [I also hear there's a wonderful story by Orly Kastel-Blum about a fad among North Tel Aviv yuppies for keeping tiny miniature giraffes in their apartments, but I never read it. -ed.]
Walking and listening I came across a billboard with a poster announcing "The Camels" performing at Indigo, but it was too late to get there - I thought of going since the keyboard player's name sounded familiar. But what I really thought about was the fact that while the historical map of rock is spotted with dozens of bands named after animals, covering all major life forms on the planet, I can hardly remember any songs about animals, other than kindergarten songs. I'm sure Yoav Kutner [Israel's leading critic and DJ, raised as an intellectual prodigy, woke from a coma at 17 caring only about pop music, esp. the Beatles -ed.], or Douglas [where do I begin? -- the general idea is that these two guys between them can name every song recorded since 1955 -ed.], could come up with a list longer than mine, which consists of "Mary had a Little Lamb," "Shock the Monkey," and "A Horse With No Name," but as a percentage of total song topics, it hardly seems as if animals are a favorite with rockers even though they like naming themselves "The Squids" or "The Lemmings" or whatever.
But I excluded the Beatles' white album, side B. It has been a relatively recent realization for me that some people don't think much of the Beatles. I accept this strange phenomenon as fact, though I can hardly sympathize with it; but even fervent Beatles loathers, I think, cannot help but appreciate a song ("Martha My Dear") in which the author tells his beloved bitch, "You have always been my inspiration"; then, after "I'm so tired" - which, incidentally, was written by Lennon, and not, as some people hold, Alex Chilton [I knew that! -ed.] - come (the admittedly anemic and by now banal) "Blackbird," "Piggies," and "Rocky Raccoon." Ok, they are not really about animals, but close enough. Also, in an article about a new book about the Beatles - this one a picture book of their time in India - I discovered a piece of trivia I wasn't familiar with: "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" was written there, at the Maharishi's Ashram. The song ridicules a real-life character, an American who came to find his inner light, got bored and went tiger hunting, then came back.
And yes, I'm aware of "I Am the Walrus", "Hey Bulldog", "Dig a Pony" etc.
The white album is ok to walk with, except for "Revolution No. 9."
[back to top]
Har Dov Part II
"Animal Review" is a wholesome, family-oriented product; the following is not quite in line with this spirit, no matter how delicate I'll try to be. Readers are forewarned.
I don't remember if it really was on Har Dov where I first heard the horrendous story of the shepherd and his sheep. But it's most likely, since Har Dov is an important observation point, and people with all sort of equipment live there, stalking the other side. Young soldiers spend many hours looking through strong telescopes at Shabaa, searching for suspicious activity. One of them told me and others of the extraordinary experience his colleague had when, looking at an Arab shepherd, alone with his herd in an isolated spot, he saw him committing the obscene and cruel sin of bestiality. He went into great detail - though how much detail can there really be? I immediately remembered the Taviani brothers' film "Wooden Clogs." A Sicilian youngster, anxious and curious, asks his friend (at the time they are underneath a huge statue of a local saint, which they carry in some religious procession) what's it like to be with a woman. "It's the same," the friend replies, "only no tail."
I suppose this is a real phenomenon, and someone, probably an anthropologist, must have researched occurrences in various cultures. But after hearing a third version of the same story I finally realized it was nothing but a rural urban legend: there were always specific names and locations, to give the story credibility, but details varied slightly: one time the victim was a donkey. In yet another version no animals were involved, just a shepherd girl and a lover - a U.N. soldier; in another variation, a Mufti. It seems long lonely boring hours looking at Shabaa or similar places give rise to such imaginary stories, which of course teach you something mainly about the guy who invented them. This is the sort of story that really brings out the best in any of us: sexual abuse, violence, racism.
Speaking of which, Har Dov was a small mixed community consisting of Israeli Jews, Bedouins, Druze and Cherkesians [Circassians? -ed.]. Most army trackers (the guys who look for footprints of guerrillas crossing the border) belong to the last three ethnic minorities. Born hunters, they don't need much training, or such is the common belief. They spend their childhood away in the hills with the herds, grow up to be sheep rapers, and eat what they hunt, which is rabbits, porcupines and wild boars, all non-Kosher animals. Porcupines are rumored to have very tasty meat, but I never tried any. On the other hand I tasted the meat of a wild boar, but at a different time, different place. Friends of a nice guy from a kibbutz came to visit on a Saturday, bringing a mobile barbecue, coals, and huge chunks of dark-reddish meat in nylon bags dripping blood or marinade. This was so very blasphemous I was eager to try it - I was young and adventurous at the time. I got a piece in a pita bread. It had no taste but felt like gum. I think even the cats couldn't overcome it. I have never seen the trackers eating anything more suspicious than chicken breast schnitzels in the dining room, and Pesek-Zman ["Time Out," a candy bar with a little picture of a basketball on the wrapper, I'm pretty sure -ed.] from the mobile canteen.
There are still more delightful sides to life on Har Dov, but those will be elaborated in Part III.
Har Dov (Part I)
[Introductory note: "Bots" is made by pouring boiling water over powdered coffee grounds (the word means "mud"), and Bashar Assad is the new president of Syria. -ed.]
Har Dov is Israel's John O'Groats, the northernmost point, or pretty close. Innocent strolls in the area may end up in Beirut or Tehran. A mile or so south of the Lebanese border runs a lesser-known border: the southernmost habitat of the Persian squirrel. It's true I had to go to Regent's Park to actually see squirrels, but there is in fact a forlorn peak nearby which the military map names "Har Snaim" - Squirrel Mountain. Come to think of it, Har Dov is "Bear Mountain," and I bet no bear has been there in decades, if ever. But perhaps it's named after a dead soldier called Dov, I don't know.
I spent many weeks on the peak of Har Dov, code named "Gladiola." (Military spots in the area have names of flowers in Hebrew alphabetical order. That makes Gladiola third, just before Dahlia, if you start at Aster – I never discovered the lost "B.") I was there approximately three weeks per year, for six consecutive years, in different seasons, doing practically nothing. The spring comes late to Har Dov, being so high, so June is very wonderful – flowers all around, clear sharp air and snowy peaks all the way to the horizon. I used to stand outside the bunker in a ditch, leaning against the concrete plates which constitute the walls, drinking Bots from an azure plastic cup and watching butterflies, as well as some six hundred different kinds of unknown insects, come to the blue-purplish flowers for nectar. The one that caught my eye was a furry creature, the size of a honeybee, with a very long, folding beak; instead of landing on the flower, it would hover above it, flapping its wings so fast they were only a vague haze, send the beak down and suck away. It looked exactly like a tiny hummingbird at work. I was reading just then about the way similar organs can develop separately at different species - the same trick invented over and over again; and I thought this honey-sucker insect was surely a prime example. I saw him coming - I swear it was the same individual insect – every day for more then a week. I believe this was as close as I could get to becoming attached to an insect.
The only mammal I saw on Har Dov was a mongoose, at the time still a novelty to me; and a brown little mouse, but that was in December. He left footprints in the snow. This was in fact my first ever serious, knee-deep snow experience. It was very exhilarating – childhood picture books coming to life: little furry animals in the snow! All I needed was bunnies, but there weren't any to be seen, though the big placard in the dining room named rabbits as residents of the area as well.
The foothills of Har Dov are deer land, and I managed to see a small group – very graceful in a green meadow, probably full of land mines - also, it's allowed to hunt them since there are so many - they damage the agriculture somehow. Free range cows are also to be seen in the same killing fields. Supposedly, there are also wolves, foxes, jackals, porcupines - you can find their beautiful black and white quills sometimes - and of course wild boars. They are very famous, because they are strong, smart, and have a healthy disregard for man-made borders, which they cross at night, setting off sophisticated alarms and sending armed troops on high alert into the cold to check for Hizballah infiltrations.
The New York Times' Thomas Friedman just fabricated a letter by Clinton to Bashar Assad. Clinton is alleged to maintain that Shabaa Farm is nowadays the most dangerous spot on earth – Armageddon will start at Shabaa unless Bashar acts carefully and responsibly. Looking down at Shabaa from Har Dov, it appeared very pastoral, but Friedman must have better sources. I will avoid Har Dov for the time being even if someone tries to make me spend another vacation there. Wildlife in the vicinity of No. 6 Military Prison should be just as fascinating.
Early editions of AR announced, "We welcome all contributions relating to music, animals and plants." So when I was walking uphill from Zim and saw, near the Bahai gardens, a daffodil lying on the sidewalk, I immediately thought of AR, since my mind was otherwise blank. The daffodil, in schoolbooks and children's songs, is "king of the swamp," not a title to be proud of, I would say. It is usually depicted with its pistil as a crown, and frogs sittings underneath. But as is ordinarily the case with childhood myths, it has little to do with reality. We have daffodils all around, growing in rocky, mountainous terrain. They grow in swamps as well, I suppose, but all swamps in Israel were meticulously drained by early Zionist pioneers, naively destroying whole ecosystems, which could have become great tourist attractions. The only place resembling a swamp where one could see daffodils until a short while ago was a field on the banks of the Kishon River, easily the most polluted river in the Middle East, perhaps the world. In season, coming near this field, at the side of route 58 from Kiryat Yam to Haifa, you would suddenly smell the delicate, heavenly perfume of wild daffodils (cultured daffodils smell like cheap lavatory disinfectant). The scent would drown the prevailing stench of petrochemicals and radioactive isotopes rising from the Kishon, a river that, incidentally, has no water running in it - if all the industrial plants in Haifa Bay would stop operating all of a sudden, as Greenpeace wishes, there would be nothing but an empty gorge. Anyway, since development plans included the daffodil meadow, a rather expensive (but politically popular) operation took place, and the field was literally moved to a different location - that is, tens of thousands of daffodils bulbs were carefully taken out and planted in an alternative, protected spot. Now is the time to find out if the plan worked.
The big question, though, is why do I write about fucking daffodils instead of really fascinating topics like sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, or in my case sexual obsessions, Acamol addiction and the music you hear when you call Zim and are kept on hold, which is the "Onedin Line" theme by Khachaturian. The answer is philosophical, hence very boring, or else psychological, even more boring. Maybe writing about daffodils beats not writing at all, but I'm not quite sure about that. The truth is out there, in the foggy swamps where daffodils grow.