So what do you do when you’re at one trail marker, and you can see the next marker — but there’s a 10-foot security fence between? Did I mention the heat? The lack of shade? The mountain I’d just come over and didn’t want to re-traverse? The biblical number of flies? I didn’t mention these things? Good — I wouldn’t want to sound too pitiful.
The phone number I’d been given for just such situations yielded a recording letting me know that there was no voice-mail, but I could send a text. Texting is not a strength of mine. I can’t say I’m all thumbs; more like illegible. Nonetheless, I took a half-hour or so to text something like: “vug fenx blkinm pgth neddhel pnow.” Then I decided to walk east to a bend in the fence, and see what it got me. Many thistles and stumbles later , it got me to more trail markers, the way mysteriously reconstituted farther down the hillside. An hour later, I received a text inviting me to walk east to the bend in the fence…
I came onto a surrealistically wide boulevard, with flower planters, decorative brick, and a line of palm trees between the lanes–the entrance to one of my planned visits: Nebi Shu’eib, the tomb of Jethro, father-in-law of Moses. It is also a chief shrine of the Druze, an offshoot of an offshoot of Shi’a Islam (in this regard, Shi’a is a bit like Protestantism). Druze men wear distinctive clothing–long, dark blue shirts, billowing dark blue Ottoman pants, and white head coverings–large skull caps, or a kind of pillbox fez. Every man I saw also had thick, thick mustaches–to risk disrespect, it looked a little like a Joseph Stalin pajama party. Most Druze live in Lebanon or Syria, but many live in Galilee. They value loyalty to the country where one dwells, though–so those who live in Israel are the only Arab group to serve in the Israeli military. The Druze largely hold to a version of Islam, but also believe in reincarnation.
The guidebook said no bare legs or shoulders (churches and mosques here have the same restrictions), and no photos in the actual tomb. So I zipped on the legs of my convertible pants (“shants” for fans of Modern Family) before entering the grounds. But I still had my camelback-pack and camera as I wandered into the Nebi Shu’eib courtyard–which, for the record, can be photographed (above). An older Druze man came to me expressing apparent concern, in Hebrew. It was gotten across that the sanctuary toward which I was heading is not open to non-Druze–especially, I suspect, ones toting cameras. But I could see the tomb of Jethro? Yes, if properly prepared. I took off my shoes, pack, and camera, and was given a long blue robe–right off the visitors rack. I was instructed to step over, not on, the threshold. I knew from my reading that parts of this room dated to the fourth, seventh and eleventh centuries–and that the site had been venerated even longer. Mostly I appreciated how much my guide loved this place, that he should so gently guide me in the proper reverence for it.
As I walked back across the parking lot (full of Druze tour buses), I was hailed by a boy of perhaps ten. “Ah, CaleeFORnia!” We exchanged names–I heard his as “Waleed.” He shadowed me through a handful of shops, where I eventually bought a snack and some Druze symbols. He refused my offer to buy him an ice-cream bar, but he sat and watched me eat my lunch. And he demurred when asked if I could photograph him. But as I got up from the picnic bench, he asked, “You, Facebook?” I got his full name, and wrote mine out on a scrap of paper.
I spend a portion of the afternoon visiting the ruins of the Hittin mosque, left from a village destroyed, like hundreds more, in 1948; and then took a couple of hours to walk down the narrow Arbel Valley, full of olive groves and purple flowers, using stepping stones to cross and recross Arbel stream. By the time I got to my lodging and got online, Wled’s friend request was waiting for me, and we are confirmed. Not a 10-foot fence, but perhaps another barrier overcome.