Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The Final Frontier

When Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon blasted off into space last week, he accomplished something ten years of Oslo failed to do. He restored for us the ability to dream, however briefly, of a new Middle East again.

What was the new Middle East really about, in the end? The breaking down of borders. And what better symbol for a borderless world than an Israeli in space, as far from fences and demilitarized zones as one can possibly be.

Now, sure, the cessation of hostilities was the immediate prize of the peace process. But when we set our imaginations free, to imagine what life would truly be like in a region at peace, it always turned to the ability to drive on a whim to Amman to pick up some humus. To pack up the Mitsubishi and trek north through Lebanon, Syria and Turkey on a continuous land voyage all the way into Europe.

In short, to road trip with abandon through the vast reaches of our exotic neighborhood. Just like we did in North America.

The road trip is a classic American tradition, immortalized in countless movies and, for me, in real life. When I was in college, there was a popular service called “Drive Away.” Car owners who had been relocated from one end of the country to the other would contract with a Drive Away company to have their car driven by someone else to their new home. College students and free spirits would sometimes wait weeks for just the right car going to a desirable location.

The rules were simple: you got a car, usually a luxury GM model, at no cost except for the gas and a fairly loose limit on miles and time. I drove from coast to coast five times by myself, and once with Jody.

It was 1987 and we had just arrived back from Israel in 1987. With an impossibly romantic waterfall in Zion National Park as a backdrop, I almost proposed. Then I noticed my feet were getting wet from the cold spray of the mist. (Alas, the real proposal would have to wait another four months.)

Fast-forward ten years and concept of the road trip was all the rage throughout the Holy Land.

Remember when Israel was in negotiations with Syria and some spunky travel agent looking for the publicity, announced a set of upcoming tour packages to Damascus and other picturesque Middle East locations?

Remember when Israelis regularly high-tailed it to Petra for the day without risking life and limb?

My brother and I did just that in the spring of 1997 – over the Allenby Bridge, down to Red Rock City and back, with a swing through the Amman suburbs, all in one long 17-hour mini-bus ride. I was struck by the fact that the highway from the Dead Sea up to Amman was so similar to the one from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. Same curves. Same landscapes. This is one land. Why shouldn’t we be able to go from here to there freely?

And what are we left with now, in the ruins of our great hopes? We can drive for an hour to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, but a journey of the same distance in the other direction is off-limits again. Not officially, but who would risk it these days?

Before the 90s and dreams of a new Middle East, science fiction and fantasy programs like Star Trek were conspicuously absent from the Israeli airwaves. What did the words “to boldly go where no one has gone before” mean to a society that couldn’t road trip more than five hours in any direction before running into a barbed-wire fence, anyway?

After Oslo, Star Trek became big business here, and both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise play regularly. The genie is still out.

For a kid raised on a steady diet of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein, space was the ultimate goal. Both the space up there – the space I fully expected to be visiting someday in my own personal spacecraft – and the space to spread my arms, reach out and touch the vast emptiness around me, down here on earth. When I watched the Jetsons with flying cars zipping through the wide-open skies, it wasn’t just a cartoon. It was a blueprint for life.

In some ways, the harshest thing about living in Israel is the feeling of constant constriction. The lack of space. The inability to move.

When we came here in 1994, it seemed space was finally in our grasp. Today, we have to worry that simply traveling to Belgium might result in one’s being arrested, depending on who you are and where you live.

But now we have Ilan Ramon, our own blue and white astronaut. If you weren’t in Israel last week you probably didn’t realize the extent to which the launch of the space shuttle Columbia captivated the population. People stopped what they were doing to watch it live. At work, they turned our main auditorium into a TV screening. It played to a packed house.

As a kid, I watched the Apollo missions. I was up when they landed on the moon. I heard Neil Armstrong’s words in real time, and I watched them playfully bouncing around with their lunar vehicles on that dusty rock so far away. And now, Israeli children have been given their own chance to dream.

To believe that someday, if we can put an Israeli into space, the dream of a new Middle East is not dead. And that we should certainly be able to drive to Jordan and back for a really good shishlik.

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