Friday, 27 November 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part X: The Chicken Kings

world-map israel


Another week and I’ve been getting stuck into my North Korean travelogue which is coming along nicely but is now making me long for a second trip. Also on the writing front, there is a new story of mine up on Cultured Vultures, one for fans of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, All Except Susan.


Back to UTM, this is the penultimate instalment of Holy Land but don’t fear, there’s plenty more to come after this has been concluded.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs


D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers – that is to say, Simon, Chris, Tom and I – worked on the chicken farm. You could smell it a hundred metres off, but when you got over the smell, it was actually quite a nice place to work. There were 24,000 chickens housed in three large sheds, not battery – for these chickens could walk about inside – but hardly free-range either. Along with us volunteers, there were four other workers: two Thai guest workers who smiled a lot, toiled like slaves and spoke neither Hebrew nor English; Paolo, a burly Brazilian with an impressive beard and Vladimir, the boss, an immigrant from Siberia.

Vladimir was a good boss. He worked us but was friendly and when we left, provided us with a bottle of vodka. His English however, was minimal. “Take small piece of tree [scrap wood] and take to dirty place [the rubbish heap] tak, tak [here and here in Russian].” Over coffee he would lament over past volunteers; “Denmark girls very good, very good look. In summer many Denmark girls,” or, “Holland people, very good people; Switzerland people, also good people; England people, sometimes good, sometimes problem… with drinking.” He would also reminisce about his life before emigrating to Israel. He came from a small town in the middle of Siberia and he had been in charge of a kolkhoz with 100,000 chickens so Revivim’s farm was small fry for him. He hadn’t really wanted to move to Israel; he was a Christian and had only emigrated for the benefit of his Jewish wife and their children for whom Siberia held no future. He himself though missed the cold, pine-covered expanses with their endless skies and six-hour drives to the nearest town. Several years later, Tom and I learnt that he had passed away from cancer. We drank a bottle of vodka that night in honour of a good man who died in a stranger’s land.

clip_image002Vladimir, the Chicken King

When I started working, the chickens were fully-grown. We collected their eggs from the trays under the hen houses, (and occasionally chucked them at one another). Then, one night, they all disappeared, 24,000 gone in a couple of hours and we were left with an empty chicken farm. Vladimir explained that they had been sold to the Bedouin who came in the night and took them all away to the slaughterhouse. Then our work changed; we had to take the hen houses out of the sheds, load them onto a trailer and then drive them to the yard where they were jet washed with the power hose, (another task that ended in larking about), and then there were several centimetres of compacted shit to be cleared from the floors of the sheds before they too were jet washed. After that we were sent to the hatchery where 8,000 young chicks were vaccinated in a single day, and then finally the clean hen houses were put back into the clean sheds ready for the now-immune new occupants to take up residence. And then, when all was clean and easy and there were only eggs to collect again, I was moved to the plastics factory.

clip_image004Working on the chickens. Left to right: Chris, Simon and Tom

Perhaps the highlight of our time on the chickens however, was the staging of the inaugural – and so far as I am aware, only – Beru Games. The Beru, according to Chris who talked about little else, are a race of farmers and shepherds who live high up in the Jura Mountains. They are apparently all bulky and bearded with booming voices that they need to shout at each other across the valleys. They are uncouth and hardy and addicted to their Helly Hansen jackets that they never ever fasten as that would imply weakness. There are tales, according to Chris, of Berus being found dead in the winter, sat on their tractors frozen to death yet still with their Helly Hansens unfastened. They are real men and they play real men’s games and that is what we tried to imitate. There was a tractor tyre rolling competition and chicken juggling; longest belch (won by Simon who managed a hitherto unprecedented “Yabadabadoo aga misou malaka!”[1]); tree trunk tossing and cross-valley, (well, cross-desert), yelling of the traditional Beru cry of “Fuuuuuccck iiiiiit!” before Chris (who else) crowned as Revivim’s honorary Beru.[2]

clip_image0061909522_154338390304_6543050_nThe Beru Games, Revivim, 1997

One evening Yankalei took the Spouse and I to visit his friend Yakov, another elderly kibbutznik who had one abiding passion in life: collecting. Opening the door to his apartment was like entering a backroom of the Ashmoleum. Pipes of all shapes and sizes lined the walls and desks, a plethora of clocks, a cabinet full of hookahs, drawers full of old coins and – to my delight – another drawer full of banknotes. With Yakov happy to deposit his doubles, (including some of the specimens discussed earlier in this travelogue), into my hands. I was amazed at the place, the result of a lifetime’s dedication to collecting and I wondered what would happen to it all after Yakov’s death. The Spouse however, was somewhat less impressed. As we left she resolutely declared, “No!”

“No what?”

“No, you cannot turn our house into a museum like that!”

1928273_147053460304_4605132_nYankalei with Yakov and his collection

The highlight of the kibbutz social life was the Shabbat disco every Friday night.[3] It was held in a purpose-built room attached to the Golda Meir Cultural Centre. It was here, after several preliminary beers or vodkas that the volunteers, Ulpan students and youngsters of the kibbutz met, partied, and found mates. It was arguably one of the best discos that I have ever been to.

I found it so good for the same reasons that most people found it so bad. So many folk – and particularly those in their early twenties – have a tendency to take music far too seriously and to automatically detest any tune that does not fit into their narrow remit of what constitutes ‘cool’. What was served up at the Revivim Shabbat Disco did not fit into anybody’s category of cool; it fitted firmly into the category of cheese. What’s more, the playlist was so limited that you knew what you’d be hearing before it came on – Night Train, It’s Raining Men, Son of a Preacher Man, Virtual Insanity, Govinda, Don’t Look Back in Anger and the perennial classic Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden, (both the dance and single versions). There it was, in an atmosphere of ultimate cheese, miserable Simon, (“I don’t fucking dance, mate, the last time I danced was in Amsterdam; I picked up a gorgeous bird there and when I put me hand up her skirt, found a bloody dick there!”), and Carol propping up the bar, drunk on Tuborg, Oranjeboom, Macabee and Vodka Troika, surrounded by a bevy of Middle Eastern and East European beauties, (with a pretty Dane or two thrown in as well), we danced into the dark desert night before stumbling back to our beds in that egalitarian, wedding disco-esque, socialist paradise.

Final part: Two Tombs

[1]Aga misou’: an impolite way of telling someone to ‘Go away!’ in Greek.

[2] Despite extensive research on the subject, I have never heard nor come across any mention of the fabled Beru save from Chris. He tells me that is because they are reclusive.

[3] The Jewish Sabbath or ‘Shabbat’ is generally thought to be on a Saturday but that is not exactly true; it actually starts at sundown on Friday and finishes at sundown on Saturday.

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