The pitch black sky was studded with stars as I crept down the dimly lit paths of Kibbutz Dan on my way to work in the kerem (vineyards) at 4:30 in the morning. My heart thumped as I passed the terra cotta bungalows, children’s houses, health center and hadar ha’ochel (dining room). The exhilarating scent of damp grass filled my lungs. Being out before dawn felt slightly illicit and every cell in my body tingled on high alert.
Shadowy figures converged across the lawn, the men in baggy brown overalls, the women in blue work shirts and shapeless pants, on their way to work like me. A groggy young soldier crossed my path on his way home from guard duty. Although both men and women served in the army, only men pulled night duty. I couldn’t help noticing how traditionally the workforce was divided by gender – men in the fields; women in the kitchen, laundry, health center, school and children’s houses, while men held all the leadership roles. I was beginning to see the gap between the real and the ideal in the collective ideology of the kibbutz. So much for a truly egalitarian society.
Swinging the beam of my flashlight over the darkened eucalyptus and oleander bushes on both sides of the dirt road, I hoped the crunch of my work boots would ward off any snakes. The pre-dawn was turning a shade of gray, a few doves cooed hypnotically, and the pungent odor of manure from the nearby lul (chicken coop) and refet (barnyard) prickled my nose. The cock-a-doodle do of a rooster suddenly piercing the silence, sent a stab of fear up my spine like the point of a knife. What if an infiltrator lurked in the shadows? (We did not yet call them terrorists.) Shivering, I quickened my pace. It was still a kilometer to the kerem, and only a stone’s throw of the Syrian border.
The only visible signs of the still-active state of war between Israel and Syria were a few haphazard warnings posted on rusty rolls of barbed wire and broken blocks of concrete: DANGER, EXPLOSIVES, KEEP OUT! But their faded letters in Hebrew, English and Arabic looked abandoned. A faint braying floated from beyond the barbed wire. Squinting, I glimpsed the billowing white-robes of a man plowing his fields behind two donkeys. The sight sent me back to a bygone time. Compared with the modern tractors used on the kibbutz, his world seemed light years away. In this bucolic atmosphere, war seemed surreal, much less the possibility that Israel might one day capture this territory from the Syrians and annex it as the Golan Heights.
One by one, the stars winked out. A faint glow now silhouetted the hills against the sky’s dark dome. I knew those hills harbored bunkers, and in those bunkers sat Syrian soldiers cradling Russian-made Kalashnikovs that might well be trained on me. But in that moment, the dawn’s beauty eclipsed all human conflict. While part of me realized how easily the soldiers could pick me off, my imagination fancied that the odd sight of a young gingit in shorts, boots and bandana, might offer a welcome distraction from the tedium of war.
By now light was gathering at top speed, rimming the hills with opalescent clouds of apricot, lavender and magenta, until suddenly, in a blaze of gold cannon-balled over the horizon. There was nothing gradual or subtle about sunrise in this part of the world! The intense contrast between darkness and light made me want to cheer the new day and grieve the loss of night all at once. Despite my exhaustion at the end of each shift, I couldn’t wait to creep along the dirt road again the next morning when the sun would give birth to a newborn day.