To the South Are Banana Plantations

by Harris Walker

The travel agent finally lifted her head from the ream of paper scattered over her desktop, where countless timetables and schedules had been shuffled around with numerous confirmations of reservations, estimates and disbursements. Within the opening of her hijab, wrapped around her forehead and both cheeks, her eyes sparkled with satisfaction and accomplishment, qualified by a wry smile.

It had been a complex conundrum.

Displaying the poise and sure-footedness of a tightrope walker, she’d made use of all manner of transport between Doha and Ramallah. Exploiting serendipity, questioning cancellations, speculating about reliability, and weighing each possibility with the probability of demonstrations and disturbances, she’d drawn a taut line across the entire Arabian Peninsula.

“Thank you, Sir!” she’d said with finality after I’d approved the itinerary.

The agency had proposed a flight to Amman (an overnight stop-off), a drive to the Israeli-Jordanian border the following morning, and a bus ride over the River Jordan, across the King Hussein Bridge. Unsurprisingly, in an area set apart by disagreement, it was also called the Allenby Bridge or Jisr al-Malek Hussein, depending on whether one was travelling from Palestine to Jordan, the other way, or whether one was Arab, Israeli, or neither of the two. From the bridge, a taxi would take me to Ramallah.

“It will be waiting, Sir; there’s no need for the driver’s cell.”

“It will?” I replied.

“He’ll recognize you,” she added, ignoring the improbability of the driver being able to do so.

Unsure how this lack of clarity, in a precise itinerary, would resolve itself, I sensed misfortune waiting for me on the Palestinian bank of the river Jordan.


A group of teenagers welcomed the bus at the Israeli control. They wore jeans, t-shirts, and trainers, with assault rifles like rolled yoga mats hanging from their shoulders. Carrying out security procedures, they prepared an inspection mirror to examine the underside of the chassis.

As midday approached the sun reflected off the convex surface of the mirror and I turned my head sideways to avoid the glare. Through the bus’s panoramic window, I saw a fresh, prepossessing, wiry-haired border guard. ‘JUST DO IT.’ it said, printed on the t-shirt stretched across her chest, the letters barely distorted by her adolescence. It was a piece of clothing in her wardrobe that likely had little significance. Was she aware it was inspired by the killer Gary Gilmore, a modification of his last request to the executioner and his firing squad? “Let’s do it,” he’d said calmly, while his final words before the fusillade were, “Dominus vobiscum.[1]

Knowing this made the popular t-shirt strangely inappropriate.

Friendly and complicit with the other guards, she moved so ingenuously it convinced me that she and the weapon could only have coincided by chance. Her callowness accentuated the weapon’s brutality, while the weapon betrayed her innocence. Looking from afar, the gun barrel seemed closer to her face. The blue steel appeared to touch her pale parchment-like skin. When chatting to colleagues, she nodded, giving the impression that the barrel, like the tender caress of a lover, had stroked her freckled cheek.

None of the other guards were swarthy. There were no complexions with the unctuousness of Galilee’s virgin olive oil. None of Samson’s black ringlets hung from their heads, nor did their chins have a blue shadow. Fair and flaxen, azure-eyed, with smooth jawlines, they radiated entitlement, grandchildren from the northern aliyoths’ accession to the Promised Land.

Turning over the hold in an easy-going manner, for no clear reason they removed an army surplus holdall, a pearlescent pink carry-on and a tapestry carpet bag, the warp and weft woven into a pattern of rose bouquets. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume they were pulling their backpacks from the bus at an Eilat package tour hotel while chatting about gin and Sprite, and other unimportant things.

As the border guards continued their checks, I took the opportunity to look around.
There was a chubby family, the litter of squealing children playing around their mother, pulling her long black abaya. Sitting immediately ahead of his wife, their father swung at them behind his back, as though he were swatting flies from his shawarma. Wriggling over each other, like piglets in a pen, they avoided their father’s cracked hand, skin like coarse sandpaper, which nevertheless on occasions found its target. Though the children welcomed his efforts, seeing it as an essential part of their game, he continued to swipe away, albeit with an enthusiasm long ago diminished by its futility.


Accompanying every swipe, a peculiar guttural noise rose from his belly. An eruption of indignation, rather than indigestion. The children would break into boisterous laughter.

With a taqiyah on his head, stubble like aluminium oxide abrasive, and a collarless shirt that struggled to hold a hirsute chest—matted like a plush white sajjāda—an old rustic waited for the bus to move. It seemed his stillness was a pretence; I thought his eyes betrayed impatience and unease. Now and again his introspection was interrupted by an involuntary shrug, as though without volition memories of an unpleasant experience had come back to trouble him. As the returning driver climbed aboard the bus he broke the rustic’s melancholic stare, at least for the moment freeing him from his preoccupations.

There were suited businessmen, others in thawbs and burkas, two large round ladies who chatted without respite, and an anxious redhaired, ginger bearded young man who sat as upright as a ladder-back chair. He’d placed his backpack, covered with embroidered badges from around the world, squarely on his knees, the multicoloured metallic threads glistening in the gloominess of the bus’s interior. He hadn’t moved since we’d left the Jordanian border.

Security checks completed, the girl waved the bus through with a genial smile. She lifted the assault rifle from her shoulder and continued chatting.


In passport control, the officer sat inside a booth—stern, with seductive, long, dark corkscrew locks tumbling from her Israel Airports Authority beret. Examining my passport filled with stamps from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia she asked, “Why are you entering Israel what is your business here what are your parents’ names where did you grow up what do you do how long will you be here where will you stay?” Answered by an entry card presented with my passport, she seemed satisfied with my less than forthcoming replies. I diverted my attention towards the radial pattern of holes in the booth’s acrylic screen. Drilled through its considerable thickness they allowed a Babel of tongues to pass through with the minimum of misunderstanding. While effective, the holes had been bored at unequal intervals around the perimeter of a half dozen concentric circles. The necessary mathematical function[2] should have created a pattern of precision, revealing a distribution of hypnotic beauty, openings complicit with imaginary line segments and circumferences. This geometrical distraction was cut short—I noticed she’d found my full-page Saudi visa. It was very Arabic. All crossed sabres and palm trees, a mixture of Latin script and Arabic abjad. She spoke to a passing colleague, holding the cabin door open with one hand while the other flapped the open passport towards me like the wings of a fevered butterfly.

They nodded to each other.

“Please. Holding room. Wait!” she said, pirouetting to face me on the cabin’s spinny chair.


My confirmation and bar mitzvah had followed circumcision. Friday night after schul, having shed a tear over a psalm transcribed to Mozart’s “Soave sia il vento,” I’d sipped watered-down Palwin No.10 (Palestinian wine) and stuffed kiddush cookies with candied cherries into my mouth.  Between us we’d swapped bubble gum cards of Semitic celebrities—though had we known Michael Caine, Marilyn Monroe and Kirk Douglas (Maurice Micklewhite, Norma Jeane Mortenson and Issur Danielovitch) were boychik, we would never have swapped them for Topol, Barbara Streisand or Woody Allen. Even boychik had a hierarchy of popularity. I’d sat in Sunday school balancing a yarmulka on my head, fascinated by the equilibrium others enjoyed using bobby pins from their mother’s sheitel; maintaining their piety while turning multiple cartwheels. I’d learnt alef, bet, gimel, to tav while observing the new country—the shape of a flint dagger—cleaving its future between the Sinai and Jordan, elbowing Palestine to either side. I’d seen sand turned into soil, citrus grown from deserts, those who’d lived in space age dodecahedrons, Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winners, and others who’d planted and harvested together in a social utopia.


During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Palestinian Jews secured armaments from Europe that had been smuggled through Soviet Czechoslovakia.

They’d called it Operation Balak.

I wasn’t sure if my grandfather had collaborated with Operation Balak. Parrying questions by equivocation he would justify whatever he’d done with the riposte, “Because buses pass the door”; while “Timbuktu” had countered questions about where he was going. This had fed the idea, my mother had propagated, that intelligence services were tracking him.

I wanted to think he’d only facilitated the supply of humanitarian aid: unused C-rations, first aid kits, dressings and bandages, or blood—centrifuged, packaged and refrigerated for plasma transfusions. With regard to their destructive potential, I reasoned none of these had born comparison to three Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses; with a wingspan of almost thirty-two metres, a length of nearly twenty-three metres, weighing not much less than twenty-five thousand kilos, and carrying an incendiary or two less than a payload of eight thousand kilos. By subterfuge they’d disappeared from the US, reappearing on bombing raids over Cairo, Gaza and Rafiah. An illusion that had surpassed the Hungarian Jew Harry Houdini’s recent vanishing elephant—which had been smaller and weighed only four and a half thousand kilos.


Throughout my journey, emotions filled me like rising flood water—a flash flood that would swell, brim over, as if within me, the forty days and forty nights of Noah’s rainstorms had been compressed into a single moment. I thought they emerged not from my own idealism, but from memories of my partisan grandfather and the impending, vicarious fulfilment of his aspirations; but in truth, I wasn’t sure. Undeniably my childhood idealism had been eroded by Israel’s intransigent and antagonistic acts of self-protection that I believed had become aggressive and oppressive: intense and indiscriminate bombardments, illegal settlements, the West Bank wall, annexation, and apartheid. In response to provocation, I was disappointed that Israel had repeatedly refused to take the moral high ground.

While Zion had been my grandfather’s passion, his aliyah had been thwarted by nothing more than my grandmother: the Law of Return[3] had been there to welcome them as olim chadashim, but being an émigré—like her mother had been in London—had never suited her. Memories of a shoeless childhood, living in two rooms with her parents and twelve siblings, with sawdust between her toes, had made her cling to the status quo and their relative wealth. Over the years her reluctance fed his fervour. Like the children of Israel, millennia before, he’d wandered in a personal wilderness for forty years, awaiting entry to his Promised Land. After forty years, unlike the children of Israel, death rather than the realisation of that aspiration had relieved him of its necessity.


Despite being well qualified by birth, I was increasingly uncertain of entry. A passport that would have unlocked border controls around the world had been compromised by a handful of errant stamps.

I took the opportunity to imagine my journey back to Amman, through the Jordan River valley and irrigated fields west of the King Abdullah Canal, that ran over a hundred kilometres between Lake Tiberias and the Dead Sea. The taxi would continue along the King Hussein Bridge Road. On the right, the canal and ploughed fields would mix with plastic tunnels and verdant strips of winter crops, with acacias, uncultivated olives, the occasional myrtle and pervasive brush scattered between them. To the south were banana plantations.

Soon we would rise from well below sea level up onto the desert plateau of the northern steppes. Under the shade of a solitary olive tree, a goatherd might lean on his crook and stare at the eddies of sand that blew around his feet, dusting his well-worn boots. Over his shoulder, his tribe of Mountain Blacks would graze on brush. Behind everything, the tops of sandy white barren hills would smudge themselves together with the bright hazy sky. From here it would be a short drive to Amman.


After the war of 1948, they’d taken flight to Toronto. Unlike Canadian children, whom she’d complained were pulled from their mother’s womb with ice skates laced to their feet, my mother hadn’t risked skating along the frozen streets, creeks and rivers of the city. My grandmother had always known she would miss her extended family. Only necessity had forced their expatriation.

They’d returned a year later.


Behind the silver coating of the holding room’s expansive mirror, there were no inexplicable shadows. It was certainly a two-way mirror, but I saw nothing that moved beyond my reflection.

An hour passed.


I’d already scrutinised the tourist posters of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Eilat, and the Dead Sea. I was also knowledgeable about the oasification of the Negev Desert through a handful of Israeli Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development booklets, scattered on the coffee table. And though the Israeli border control’s holding room was like a budget hotel’s lounge (furnished with the onus on practicality and durability,) the booklets—filled with pie charts, graphs and tables, explaining crop hectarage, irrigation and fertigation, tonnage of exports, and export dollars earned—were irrefutable proof this insignificant windowless room really was the gateway to the Land of Milk and Honey.

The Negev, which once covered sixty per cent of the country, had been rolled back for olive groves, citrus, cherry tomatoes, and fish farms. Impressive as it was plucking fruit and vegetables from the sand, finding fish in the desert was a modern-day miracle. Something the prophets of the Old Testament hadn’t accomplished. The chances of a kibbutznik finding a dreidel in a haystack were greater.

I was also surprised to read that shrimp and catfish make up most of the production.


Neither of them is kosher.

Oy vey iz mir, meshuggah, what kind’o job’s that for a Yiddisher boy!” my grandmother had cried after a cousin had started work at a bacon processing plant. Though cloven hoofed, pigs don’t ruminate—unlike cattle, sheep and goats—so they’re as treif as shrimp and catfish:  even ibex, antelopes and gazelles—among other exotic chewers of cud—might have found greater favour in the stockpot of my grandmother’s kashrut kitchen. She’d even vilified Smith’s prawn cocktail crisps that had contained no seafood of any kind. Their taste the invention of food scientists rather than the catch of a goy fisherman. And though the Negev’s fish farms may not have been to my grandmother’s satisfaction, they were the envy of fishermen from the overfished Red Sea, whose dhow’s nets and lines found fewer emperors and groupers every year.

The great agrarian revolution also exported basil, popular for pesto alla genovese and salsa di pomodoro. To the contrary, it was as though Italy was exporting kosher matzah to Israel. The dough’s ingredients apportioned to perfection, baked within eighteen minutes of kneading (to prevent the leavening process), impeccably toasted and their evenly spaced perforations pierced in calibrated lines as true as the King Abdullah Canal. For millennia of Passovers, since Moses had led them from Egypt, they’d baked matzah without much thought, now, faced with fierce international competition they might give up and turn their ovens off.

My idle speculation was cut short after ninety minutes. The entry stamp had been slipped into my passport on a separate piece of paper, so as not to antagonise surrounding countries I might one day pass through. I walked from border control into a coach park, encircled by chain link fencing topped with swathes of razor wire. Beyond, rose hills cut by earthmovers, fashioned into the stepped pyramids of Egypt. Between the coach park and the horizon were nothing but unvegetated ziggurats of sand and rock. They stood like craggy megaliths sculpted from gravel, against an unremitting, cloudless, cobalt blue sky.


His middle name was Israel. I never knew if Israel was his name at birth, whether he’d adopted it, or if it was a soubriquet awarded for his zealousness.


The taxi!

Almost certainly the taxi driver had got tired of waiting and was having a coffee while smoking a Liberty cigarette; the three were inseparable throughout the coach park. There was no espresso bar that might have served popular matcha latte, cafe hafuch or the driver’s favourite, mud coffee, though there was a simple coffee stand. Like a thimblerig sharper outside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, the sweating barista shifted a handful of battered tin ibriks around four burners. Sleight of hand maintained the five pots close to perpetual motion, as he searched for one of the four flames to froth the coffee, sliding others clear before they brimmed over. He served drivers dressed in drab jackets, grey trousers, and scuffed shoes, who were captivated by his mastery of brewing coffee grounds. With a few shekels in the palm of their hands, they slapped payment onto the counter. I made eye contact, but they would avert their gaze; not one of them appeared to be looking for a customer.

Rooted to the spot, it was unclear where the ground began, and their dusty shoes and trouser bottoms ended. Each was a prickly pear: barbed and spiky, growing independent and obdurate from the desert sand. Their charm rarely flowered, but when it did they were like floribunda roses: vibrant, colourful and fulsome, gesticulating either with cigarette butts that smoked between yellow stained fingers or polystyrene cups of mud coffee viscous enough to remain unspilt.

One by one the drivers returned to their leviathan coaches, called by the cackle of their tour party, a mix of vibrant parasols, bright wheelie suitcases, colourful t-shirts, floral dresses, and fancy head scarfs—an oasis of colour within the featureless desert. The drivers threw their cups, thick with grounds, into the waste bin, and returned round-shouldered to shepherd the tour parties aboard their coaches. They reversed from the bay sounding a larghetto of warning beeps delivered with metronomic precision before they peeled off towards Jericho; the shepherds driving their flocks towards the Holy City.

As the dust cloud settled, there was no evidence of the abundant crops or teeming waters I’d seen in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development booklets. Here, next to the banks of the River Jordan, it was an archetypal desert. The Dead Sea was ten kilometres to the south and fed only by water flushed from fish farms. Every year the level fell a metre more below sea level. It was hard to imagine beyond the river and the saline sea that the Negev supported any vegetation, much less a successful agriculture and fisheries program. Nevertheless, though it had been difficult to predict when or how frequently they might occur, biblical miracles had regularly taken place in the Holy Land, so it was no surprise that like Moses—who had according to the psalm, “split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep,”[4]the aquaculture engineers drilling for subsurface geothermal water had achieved a present-day miracle of equal stature to those of the great prophet.

These same engineers might also have assured me that the extinction of the Dead Sea is unlikely. As the water level decreases, salinity rises, extracting water from the air and preventing its complete disappearance. In truth, the geophysical advantages of a saline endorheic lake interested me less at that point than my inability to find the taxi.

I phoned the travel agent, “He’s waiting, Sir!” she said.

And true enough he was; past the towering chain link and razor wire fence over a hundred metres down a dusty road, at a bend where the taxi drivers had fashioned an unofficial waiting area. Having cast his Liberty to the ground he twisted his foot over it, smothering the last embers. After glancing at his twenty-five dollar Rolex, he raised an eyebrow questioning my unpunctuality and inability to find him, within the barren hillocks of the arid desert.

[1]“The Law: After Gilmore, Who’s Next to Die?” Time. Monday, January 31, 1977.

[2] “Generator of evenly spaced points in a circle, in Python.” Stack Overflow.

[3] Prime Minister’s Office, “Nativ.” The Law of Return, 1950.

[4] Bible. Old Testament. Psalm 78:15-16.

A Londoner trained as a retail designer Harris Walker also worked in Qatar and India, before settling in Spain. He’s an emerging writer with six published pieces. His first piece of fiction was published last year in Hearth & Coffin while creative non-fiction has previously been published online and in print under his name Tim Harris in Litro, La Piccioletta Barca and Litbreak among others.