The following is the thirty-fourth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
Running along the east coast of Africa, the Great Rift Valley is a gash in the earth’s surface created millions of years ago by tectonic movements of the earth’s crust. Prominent enough to be visible from the moon, it was clearly visible to Adam from thirty-five thousand feet.
In recent decades, archeologists had discovered the fossilized bones of early human, and much older hominid ancestors there. Squinting through the window, he tried to imagine his own ancestors, fifty millennia earlier, making their way northward through the valley to North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. From this initial exodus, splinter groups of homo sapiens fanned out and populated the earth.
On a world map in the seat pocket, Adam traced the routes of his own parents’ ancestors. Rowan’s earliest human forebears, after leaving Africa for the Middle East, had taken a northwesterly route to Europe, settling in Italy and Scotland before they’d sailed to North America in the seventeenth century.
Easter’s ancestral route was longer and more complex. It included European genes with a travel history like Rowan’s, African genes (from slaves imported to America from West Africa in colonial times), and Native American genes carried to the New World via Siberia and Alaska by Asian descendants of those who’d once walked through the Rift Valley below. It struck Adam as absurd that racial differences, the source of so much misery and grief, were nothing more than consequences of the geographical barriers and climate variations that these forerunners had encountered as they spread around the world.
Tracing the path his earliest ancestors had followed he felt as if he were closing a great circle. He saw his life as a single tick of the cosmic clock, and himself as the descendant of humankind’s first refugees.
Before he boarded he’d phoned François to let him know the happy outcome of their rescue mission, and tell him he was now on his way to Israel. François suggested a hotel near the Old City in Jerusalem and offered to book him a room. When Adam expressed misgivings about putting the cost on his dad’s credit card, François said that he’d always expected to pay Adam’s college expenses, and felt deprived of the opportunity when Princeton had awarded him an athletic scholarship. More important, he felt that travel would teach his son more than any college, and he was glad to provide “tuition.” All Adam could do was promise to be frugal.
The Boeing 747 set down at Ben Gurion airport, about fifteen miles inland from Tel Aviv, and less than an hour by car to Jerusalem. He shared a taxi with an Israeli couple who provided a running commentary on their young nation’s history. They pointed out the rusty tanks abandoned on the side of the road, grim monuments to the battles that broke out at the moment of Israel’s birth, pitting Israeli forces against a coalition of Arab nations determined to prevent the creation of a sovereign Jewish state.
It took him a few days to realize that a campaign for his allegiance had begun within minutes of his arrival. When the taxi pulled up to his hotel, his fellow passengers made him promise to visit Yad Vashem, the museum devoted to the Holocaust. Only there, they asserted, could an outsider gain an understanding of the depth of Israeli determination to create a secure homeland and defend it to the death. It was not the last time Adam would hear the phrase “Never again” uttered through clenched teeth.
François had booked a room for him at the Jerusalem Garden, a small, inexpensive pension that catered to young travelers, and was just minutes from the Damascus Gate in the Old City. After he’d checked in, he stopped there to compose a photo before he passed through the arched gateway. It struck him that for millions of people—Christians, Jews, and Muslims—Jerusalem, this little piece of ground, was the center of the world, or as the city’s natives call it, “the navel.” He navigated the narrow streets of the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and inside, he saw a sign pointing to the Chapel of Adam. He figured he’d begin there. The text on the sign read that the chapel was built against the Rock of Golgotha, reputed to cover the burial place of Adam’s skull. Though Adam regarded the biblical account of creation as myth, he took quiet pride in bearing the name of the first man.
He’d been exposed to religious rituals all his life, but the extent of his participation had been limited to the few occasions on which he’d lit a candle in a cathedral. At home, the amber glow of candlelight helped him dispel angst; he lit candles at meals or while reading, so why not light one where others did—in a church. He put a few coins in a slot and picked out a small white candle. Igniting it from the dying flame of another, he stuck it on a metal stand below the altar, then sat down on a stone bench to watch his candle burn. In the darkened chapel, the flame was a polestar shining down through the centuries.
On the way back to his hotel he stopped at a café, wrote postcards to Easter and Élodie, and debated sending one to Marisol. He’d often asked himself if he’d left the United States primarily to get away from his sister. Now that his mind had begun to clear he thought that it may have been a factor at first, but it wasn’t driving him any longer. With her appointment at ABT she also seemed to have turned a corner. Her commitment to her vocation strengthened his resolve to settle on one of his own. He ended up sending her the only dance-related postcard he could find—Whirling Dervishes.
Next, he phoned the town house in Paris to let his dad know he’d arrived at the hotel. François insisted that he take down the name and number of Le Monde’s Jerusalem correspondent, and consider calling him. “Paul Maffre is one of our best journalists. I’ve known him for years and I still read everything he writes. I’m sure he’ll be glad to show you a few things.” François then said, in a pointed way that Adam recognized, “Tell me, Ad, how are you doing?”
“Feeling a little lost, but I’m okay.”
“Seek and ye shall find,” François quipped. “And enjoy the seeking, because once you find what you’re looking for, it may take over your life.
“Let me know when you move on. I don’t want to be a nuisance but I’d like to know where you are. One more thing, Adam. Your mother called the other day and she’s quite concerned about your future. Be sure to keep her in the loop too, okay?”
“I just sent her a postcard.”
“You owe her an occasional call. If you let her in on your doings, I think you’ll find that she wants to be part of the process more than she wants to control the outcome.”
“Don’t worry. I know things were tense before I left, but all that’s behind me now. I’ll stay in touch with you both.”
Although Adam felt utterly alone, he also felt absolutely free. In this novel state it was as if he were seeing everything, including himself, for the first time.
The next morning, he put in a call to Paul Maffre. Hoping to predispose Maffre in his favor, he spoke French.
“This is Adam Merle-Blue. My father thought you might give me some pointers.”
“Pointers for what?” came Maffre’s gruff reply.
“I take photos.”
“I’m hoping to document the conflict here. I want to …”
“Listen,” Maffre interrupted him. “To get even the faintest idea of what’s going on here, you’ve got to get out of Jerusalem. Go to the Palestinian refugee camps. I’m taking a film crew out to one this morning. We could probably squeeze you in.”
“That would be great. Thanks! I’m at the Jerusalem Garden.”
“Be outside in a half-hour.”
An SUV pulled up and, before it had come to a full stop the rear door swung open. From the backseat Maffre yelled impatiently at him to jump in. A cameraman in the front passenger seat nodded his greetings as the driver merged with onrushing traffic, and they were off.
“I met your father here in the late sixties, just after the Six-Day War,” Maffre said. “He was traveling and I was a rookie reporter. What brings you here?”
“Same as my dad, I guess—exploring—but with a camera.”
“Most people come here for either religion or politics.”
“For me, it’s not religion, and I’m baffled by the politics.”
“Don’t be fooled by the religious labels. The conflict is primarily political, not religious. Both sides claim the same real estate.”
The car reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and stopped at a roadblock. After Israeli soldiers inspected Maffre’s press credentials, they waved them through.
“I’m doing a story on the camps,” Maffre continued. “Most visitors to Israel just visit the religious sites and Yad Vashem. The Kalandia Refugee Camp will give you a peek behind the headlines.”
Not since Somalia had Adam been so agitated. Late that afternoon, back at his hotel, he wrote to Élodie.
I’ve just been to a Palestinian refugee camp outside Jerusalem. One thing I’ve realized on this trip is that outsiders have no idea what’s going on here.
The main thing I saw in the camp was kids. Kids everywhere, from toddlers to teenagers. They’ve spent their whole lives in camps—hot, dusty, crowded places, with nowhere to play.
My presence drew a crowd. The older boys wanted to talk sports. When I said that I played basketball, they asked if I knew Michael Jordan. They insisted on showing me a hoop they’d nailed to a telephone pole, no backboard. We played a few games, and although it was the most pathetic basketball court I’ve ever seen, it was very satisfying
The miracle of the Jews surviving Nazi death camps to become citizens in a sovereign Israel is matched only by the irony of them now being accused of genocide by the Palestinians. So long as the Palestinians have nothing to call their own, it’s hard to imagine an end to the uprisings.
Is there no way out of the cycle of indignity, indignation, and revenge?
I’m planning to arrive in Peshawar on Groundhog Day. That’s a pagan version of Easter observed on the second of February.
See you then,
In the days that followed, Adam explored Jerusalem on foot, twice getting terribly lost in the backstreets of the Old City. He visited sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and kept his promise to visit Yad Vashem. When it came to indignity writ large, nothing compared to the Holocaust.
At first, he seized every opportunity to discuss the political situation. But whether he talked with Jews or Arabs, Europeans or Americans, they were all brimming with passionate conviction, and he soon grew weary of partisan polemics.
In early December, he received a note from Ben confirming his arrival on the fifteenth. Ben’s parents, who were prominent supporters of Israel and spent at least one month a year there, were treating their son to a stay at the posh King David Hotel.
He had time before Ben arrived, and he took a bus trip around the country. Its proximity to Africa suggested that the first humans to leave that continent had settled in this area before they’d dispersed and populated the rest of the earth. If there were a crossroads of the world, this land had a strong claim to the designation.
A garden terrace at the King David Hotel looked out over modern Jerusalem toward the Old City. Guests lay sprawled on lawn chairs taking in the sun and sipping drinks delivered by waiters in formal attire. Nowhere else in Israel had Adam seen sumptuousness, and it made him vaguely uncomfortable.
He spotted Ben at a table typing on his laptop, and after they got caught up, Ben regaled his friend with stories of his amorous adventures the last time he’d stayed at the hotel.
“I hooked up with an Aussie, a Brazilian, and an Indonesian,” he said.
“How did you keep them apart?”
“Hell, serial monogamy. They were tourists looking for a good time. We’re likely to meet some like them tonight.”
In years past Adam would have welcomed a chance to go clubbing, but now his response was a noncommittal shrug.
“What’s wrong, Ad? Is it Marisol?”
“No, we’ve resolved it.”
“Not her either. I’ll be joining her in Pakistan in February, but she has a guy in Paris.” Eager to forestall further questioning about his love life, or lack thereof, Adam said, “This place is way more complicated than I thought.”
“I suppose, but a few things are perfectly clear.”
Leery of another harangue, Adam was silent.
“Israel can never expect peace so long as it has settlers on Palestinian land. You’ve been to the West Bank, haven’t you?”
Adam nodded. In the last few weeks he’d learned enough to recognize Ben’s position as one that was common among liberal intellectuals in Europe and America. In this view, the Israelis were occupying land that they would relinquish to the Palestinians in a trade for peace, a peace deal patterned on the Camp David Accords with Egypt.
“Yes, I visited a refugee camp. It was pretty awful.”
“As a Jew, I’m embarrassed by Israelis who argue for a ‘Greater Israel.’ The Palestinians have lived here for centuries and have a strong competing claim to parts of this land.”
Adam had heard this and counter-arguments many times, and changed the subject.
“I’ve got lots of photos. From all over Israel and the West Bank.”
“Your last ones sure had an impact.”
“I don’t think a show of images would work here.”
“I don’t see why not, but let’s leave that for tomorrow; today, let’s party.”
“Did you get laid?” Ben was yelling into the phone. His call had awakened Adam from a troubled sleep. He sat up in bed and propped himself against the headboard, trying to relieve a punishing hangover by closing his eyes.
“I have an awful headache. Why are you calling so early?”
“It’s noon. What did you do after I left with Ruth?”
“I had a few more beers, and came home,” Adam said, omitting to mention that he’d had several more at his hotel. He opened his eyes and counted six empty green Heineken bottles around the room, then remembered what he’d been trying to forget. After just one day, he had doubts about the value of meeting up with Ben in Israel, and they’d multiplied to the point where he was questioning the rationale for his entire journey.
“Alone?” Ben asked, incredulous. “Ruth’s friend seemed ready and willing.”
“I’m not in the market.”
“What’s come over you, Ad?”
“Do you want to see my photos?” Adam said, closing the subject.
“Come on over.”
Grabbing a table in the hotel café, Ben ordered a full breakfast while Adam settled for a café au lait.
“I never had sex with an Israeli soldier before,” Ben said. “You sleep with Ruth, you sleep with her rifle.”
“Did it give you performance anxiety?” Adam joked.
“It was kind of exciting,” Ben admitted.
The waiter arrived with the order and, after a few mouthfuls of his omelet, Ben started looking through Adam’s photos.
There were several hundred, sorted by subject: panoramic views of the old city, ancient sites, sacred places, and people. There were photos of the Mediterranean and Red Seas and desert landscapes taken in the Negev and Sinai. Ben zeroed in on images of teenage faces from the Kalandia Refugee Camp.
“These show the squalor of the camps,” he said. “Maybe they could get people thinking.”
“You know Israelis better than I do, but I don’t think making them feel guilty will improve things.”
“Why not? Making Americans feel guilty about the famine in Somalia sure loosened the purse strings.”
“That wasn’t guilt; it was empathy. The Somalia photos didn’t reproach anyone, they simply aroused compassion.”
Ben nodded and turned back to his omelet.
“I learned something when I was ejected for charging the high school player at basketball camp, remember?” Adam asked.
“How could I forget? I’ve never seen you so pissed.”
“I let his trash-talk get to me. It felt good to flatten him, but it hurt our team and helped theirs. Answering one indignity with another won’t help in this situation either. Somalia was beginner’s luck.”
“What do you wanna do, then, Ad?”
“How about if we put on a basketball clinic at a refugee camp? Teach the kids the basics, and perhaps organize a tournament including both Israeli and Palestinian teams.”
“Now you’re talking! I like it. But we’d have to put on two tournaments—one for boys and one for girls.”
“That’s okay. Now, who do we know here who can help us? I did meet this journalist…”
“And through my dad’s connections I’ll bet I can get to Israelis who can cut the red tape.”
Their partnership rekindled and their energy redirected, the two old friends spent the rest of the morning making plans, and the rest of December bringing joy to a few hundred teenage boys and girls.
At year’s end, Ben left to resume his Rhodes at Oxford, and Adam’s thoughts turned to the East. Since he’d left South Africa, every time he’d opened his notebook his eye had fallen on the name Lahiri—Vishu’s guru at Banaras Hindu University. Vishu had characterized Indian philosophy as nonpartisan, nonjudgmental, and nonviolent. That seemed the perfect antidote to the bitter quarrels of the Middle East. Why not spend some time in India, he thought, before he joined Élodie in Pakistan?