176 people found this feature helpful
been rummaging around in the attic, looking for newspaper cuttings, photographs
and other memorabilia in connection with a memoir I am writing (84,000 words
into the past takes a lot of time, as you probably know from your own experiences.
Old letters and articles demand to be read, photograph albums soak up hours
like a sponge. Occasionally, however, something triggers memories you thought
were gone forever.
barely stirred from the house for over a year, and with foreign travel not back
on the agenda, the torn and faded carbon copy of an old article took me to a
place and time I recall with joy.
thought you, too, might enjoy a brief break from our current situation, not to
mention the bitter weather, as you read what I wrote almost 60 years ago.
they say, enables one to meet interesting people. It is a cliché but, as it
happens, I have met interesting people. This is the story of one of them.
met in a hole in the ground, on the fringe of the Negev Desert. It was a hole
called 'The End of the World Club' and a wedding reception was being held in
extremely pregnant cook at the hotel had finally got round to saying yes (clearly
not for the first time) to the man who either tended the gardens or ran the motorboat, depending on the time of day and the state of his hangover. The
hotel was called The Queen of Sheba, the place was Eilat and, then, it was as
far south as you could go in Israel without crossing a border and being shot
the gloom of the hole, which had apparently begun as a simple cellar and
spiralled out of control, I saw a burly, bearded man who looked not unlike
Ernest Hemingway. He was talking to the only person I knew, and both of them
waved me over for a drink and some conversation.
bearded man turned out to be called Oscar, something-or-other, and I was told
that he was quite a character.
anyone tells you that someone is quite a character it pays to be cautious, so I
was wary of Oscar something-or-other. This was my mistake, for I should have
saved my caution for the group of young hearties who led the late-evening
conversation round to the subject of deserts and Lawrence of Arabia, leading me
to admit an enthusiasm for such wide open spaces.
details of the conversation are blurred (now there’s a surprise), but I must
have said something impressive, for they turned up at the door of my hotel room
just after dawn, to take me out on a border patrol.
was I to know they were an Army lieutenant and four of his men? Nobody wears uniforms to a wedding reception
in a hole in the ground. Not in Eilat,
I must get back to Oscar. In fact, I did get back to him after that early
morning trip into the Negev.
sun had climbed almost halfway across the washed-out blue of the sky, and the
surface of the Red Sea shimmered and glittered through the heat haze above the
searing hot wind was sweeping from the Sinai foothills to send dust dancing in
swift circles round the stubby legs of the water pump, its nodding head dipping
and rising in a slow, hypnotic tempo.
told me his story as we sat in the hotel bar, drinking cold beers that didn’t
touch the sides on their way down.
name was Oscar Friedman. Grey of hair and beard, and gruff of voice, his stubby
fingers constantly rubbed up and down his faded khaki shorts, or plucked at the
rough blue shirt he wore.
first appeared in Eilat, then a jumble of fishermen’s shacks, in 1954,
informing anyone who cared to listen that he was going to be a beachcomber.
Nobody knew how he arrived. He could have come by boat from Akaba, but that is most unlikely. I think he got a lift down from Beersheba, or even further north, with a friendly lorry driver.
was a beachcomber with a difference. Not only did he speak fluent Hebrew,
French, German, Italian and English, but he arrived with a score of boxes, bags
and suitcases containing, among other things, nearly 200 white shirts, half a
dozen sets of evening clothes, and several gallons of French wine. (It must
have been a large lorry.)
He explained that at one time he had been a croupier in the casinos of France and Italy and the white shirts and evening suits were his working clothes. As for the wine, beachcombing can be thirsty work.
building a hut on the shore, Friedman spent a lot of time wandering around the
nearby hills and exploring the beaches of the Gulf. He went out with local
fishermen and took to scuba diving among the coral reefs.
then he began talking about what was going to happen to this tiny town when the
tourists came – in particular the big-spending Americans.
thought him mad, of course, because people still carried guns and lived with
the constant tension of the border – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan all being
on the doorstep. The Jordan border was marked by a high wire-mesh fence which
ran into the sea, just a couple of hundred yards along the beach from the
knew what he was talking about, for the tourists started coming to Eilat, and
had been doing so for a little while when I turned up to look at this brand-new
spot on the holiday map. I suspect my visit was someone’s idea of a joke, for
officials of foreign Tourism Ministries are forever trying to prove that they,
too, share the English love of irony.
there was Oscar, sitting pretty. When the tourist flights arrived from Tel
Aviv, it was Oscar who waited at the airstrip to greet them. It was in one of
Oscar’s buses, often with Oscar sitting up front, that they drove out to the
breathtaking King Solomon’s Mines, where he would explain to overawed folk from
Middle America that on this very spot King Solomon met the Queen of Sheba.
He didn’t mention that the visit was probably to negotiate an arms deal, so they thought it all 'wunnerful', even more so when he told them about the navy King Solomon built nearby (it’s all in the Book of Kings).
Oscar the beachcomber had become Oscar the travel entrepreneur, with his tour buses and a couple of glass bottomed boats. It had all worked out as he had predicted, and life was treating him very well.
But one thing did bother
him. He knew that, as time passed, his many shirts were worn out, or
borrowed and never returned. He knew the evening suits fell into
shreds and that all the wine was drunk.
However, one hot afternoon
he returned to his hut on the beach to find he had been robbed. He
told me of this and then, passing out more cold beers and shrugging his
wide shoulders, posed the one question to which he does not have the
Who, in Eilat, could
possibly have wanted twenty empty suitcases?
176 people found this feature helpful