On a small beach along the Dead Sea lies the last paradise of Israel’s hippies. The colony of tents at Metzukei Dragot, near the northwestern bank of the sea, is a haven for those who can’t stand the brutishness of modern society. Tucked away between the reeds and the gurgling of the springs, they somehow manage to survive, some for months, without working or paying rent. Wanting to experience it myself, armed with a tent, a sleeping bag, dates and a six-pack of mineral water in tow, I went there with friends for three weekends that stretched into weekdays.
“You feel as if you’ve crossed the boundary between the land and the sea, and the cliffs also create an at-the-edge experience,” said one of my companions on the trip, Benny Yonin, 31, a tour guide who’s a frequent visitor here. “I met a German tourist on the beach there who told me he felt as though Metzukei Dragot beach was the end of the civilized world. You see Jordan opposite you the whole time, and behind and above an army checkpoint. The sinkholes create the sensation that the place is going to disappear. People who live there feel that it’s all temporary. The topography changes by the month. That adds to the sense of bewilderment.”
Midweek, only hippies – a general, imprecise term, used in the absence of any more apt social classification – populate the beach. On weekends, though, the population is more diverse. I saw a motley group of Palestinians from East Jerusalem with an all-terrain vehicle; female tourists from Bulgaria; an armed settler couple; a newly religious family with sweet children; and a few completely nude hippies. Everyone mingles.
Some regular local denizens are contemptuous of those who come and go. I prefer the weekend pluralism, even when jeeps partly block the view or people play loud electronic music. By my cautious estimate, about 150 people are at the site on weekends, compared to the 30 or so long-term occupants during the week. Two people, Allan and Haim, have lived at Metzukei Dragot beach steadily for more than a decade, including in the brutal summers. (Most of the names have been changed to avoid infringing on people’s privacy.)
I made my first visit to the site almost a year ago, with female friends. A naked man of about 20 sat down next to us, helped himself to our food and told one friend he would like to sleep with her. When she refused, he continued to stare at us, like a child.
Here, people who are societal outsiders aren’t a problem to be thrust into a closed room: they are the charm of the place. If you’re leery of people whose behavior is driven by a different logic, whose mental operating system seems alien, there are other beaches for you. On Shabbat, the young man’s parents came to visit and brought a cake. They were regular all-Israeli folks, a little like my parents. Their son took drugs while in India and returned in a bad way, but it seems they didn’t want to forcibly hospitalize him.
On our first trip we also met one of the colony’s most colorful characters, who calls himself Benny Rambo. He barrels around here in one of his two jeeps – usually a Sufa (the locally made “AIL Storm” vehicle) that flies an Israeli flag and houses an irritable dog that never stops barking. Rambo helped pad the spring with the sandbags that turned it into a comfortable pool. He added a pipe that created a natural Jacuzzi and he also assists in keeping the site clean.
Rambo lives south of here, at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, part of the week. He used to be part of the management at Super Drink, a maker of carbonated beverages. He’s no hippy, but a boisterous, cheerful figure – an exception among the regulars, who are more in tune with the pervasive quiet. Rambo is in no doubt about what made Metzukei Dragot what it is. “The driving spirit here is me,” he says. “Everyone comes here thanks to the spring I dug five-six years ago.”
Skinny-dipping under the stars
Recently, I visited the site with a group that included Yonin, Tamar Eisenberg – who’s been coming here for years for a photography project – and a friend of theirs, a violinist whom we picked up at a Qigong gathering in a nearby settlement. After we set up our campsite, Tamar suggested we visit the Ein Kedem springs, a 10-minute drive south. There, we parked next to about 10 other cars and Benny led us to the pool, where we were alone. Beneath the star-strewn sky, my friends made coffee while I entered the water first. I usually prefer to go in clothed, but this time it was a pleasure to enter naked (except for a flashlight) and bathe in the hot springs on a chilly night.
Back at our campsite, Yonin prepared supper. We looked for Natasha and her lover Salim, an Arab musician a few years younger than she. We couldn’t find them, but the moment the meal was ready they appeared, hand in hand. Natasha, an immigrant from Moscow in her mid-20s, became ultra-Orthodox and then an extreme right-winger, dated a well-known right-wing activist and moved to a settlement. A few months ago, she fell in love with the good-looking Salim and moved in with him in an Arab city, but his family and friends were unimpressed. Natasha heard about Metzukei Dragot beach from Rambo, whom she had met by chance. She and Salim decided to forsake the world and live at the Dead Sea site.
That’s the advantage of Metzukei Dragot: It’s a haven for people who have been broken by the world, who don’t have a cent, whose possessions consist of a tent and sleeping bag. The option they get here is the sea in the morning and the stars at night, the possibility of sex and freedom, and the ability to create and to talk.
People who lead conventional lives will perhaps look with condescension at the residents of Metzukei Dragot as weirdoes. But if you do the math on the advantages and disadvantages, and the comparative quality of life, it’s these mud-spattered beach dwellers who look like the lucid one, and makes those who work from morning to night to pay for a few cinderblocks the crazy ones.
Natasha and Salim, however, may not be the most suited for life outdoors. She has a pampered breed of Siamese cat that is fed via a syringe, though at the same time, she ridicules her partner for carrying three types of perfume. “One perfume whose scent I love and you [Natasha] can’t stand; another one that you love and I can’t bear; and also a third perfume,” Salim explained.
The dumb cat poses a bigger problem than the perfumes. He can’t be let loose into nature for fear he will be set upon by the jackals that are heard clearly at night. So Salim goes everywhere with a huge plastic cage containing the spoiled fat cat. He also carries a bag holding two laptops. One evening, he announced that he’d decided to write a musical work inspired by the place and the human encounters. The couple seemed to be in love and when Salim noted that his lucky number is 28, Natasha said she wants to have 28 children.
Our tent was next to a Russian tourist named Vova, an introverted man with dreadlocks who told us he was born in the Urals and now lives in St. Petersburg, where his job is to install ropes in playgrounds.
He took a cheap flight to Sharm el-Sheikh, in Sinai, two months ago and thought he would stay in Egypt. But after many people recommended Metzukei Dragot, he decided to check it out – and was hooked.
Vova made us tasty tea from Egypt and quickly became part of the group. He always walked around with a chair cushion tied to his bottom with string, so every place he sat became a chair. He said it’s a popular device in Russia.
There are a number of gurus (male and female) on the beach, but the most revered are the elders of the tribe, Allan and Haim. According to Yonin, Allan has been here for 10 years, nourished only by canola oil, dates and bread that hikers give him. In the impossibly hot summer, when no one visits, he eats algae from the pools, which he was once told are spirulina. He wears long pants below short pants and has a supermarket cart that he drags speedily from place to place, as though hurrying to the office. He safeguards the site, tends to the birds and springs, and has become at one with nature.
Haim can be seen at sunrise and sunset as he traverses the beach, back and forth, playing a one-stringed instrument and announcing the start and end of the day. Yonin, who is also a student of the Bible, sees the permanent residents here – especially Allan, who carries a Bible everywhere – as successors to the Judean Desert hermits.
“Throughout the history of Jerusalem, there were people who couldn’t cope with the city – monks, criminals, rebels – and fled to the desert, where no one could find them,” said Yonin. “The people here left the most stressed city in the country, Jerusalem – where there are so many groups that hate one another – and came to a place that is the very opposite of Jerusalem: Metzukei Dragot.”
The amazing thing is that there are people who manage to survive in this day and age without spending money and without working. Some of the long-term residents have adopted the dumpster-diver method of pouncing on products whose expiry date has passed and been thrown in the garbage of the grocery store in the Mitzpeh Salem settlement, about an hour’s walk southward. Tap water, which is more essential than food, can be had at the checkpoint above.
Evening descended. Tamar went for a nap in her tent and let the wretched cat, which had been cooped up all day in its plastic box, roam about in it. I went over to a hut where polite Polish women tourists were singing folksongs to the sounds of a darbuka (Middle-Eastern drum).
I returned around 9 P.M. to a major crisis. Although Natasha was in Jerusalem, she was furious with us. She was trying to call Salim, having heard from Yonin that it was he who allowed Tamar to release the cat in her tent. But Salim wasn’t answering, so she called Yonin seven times until he also stopped answering. She sent him death threats. The fragile Salim didn’t know what to do with his overwrought partner, so decided to chill for a few hours in Tamar’s now-empty tent. But when he entered, the cat escaped. Disaster.
And so, despite the late hour, we began looking for the cat with flashlights, making idiotic meowing noises in the hope of recovering it before the jackals beat us to it. It took 10 scary minutes before we found the dumb creature. Salim burst into tears. The dramatic crisis generated a split in the group because of the falling out between Natasha and Yonin, who feared for his life.
The next afternoon, as we were bathing in the spring, someone invited us to a tent sauna that had been installed by a Bedouin hippie. The steam was created by a rusty tin panel behind which branches were burning; the tent was sealed with plastic wrap to keep the vapors inside. Water was spilled on the rusty, boiling-hot tin every few minutes until a decent, quite pleasant sauna was created. Relative to its meager scale, Metzukei Dragot beach probably has the country’s highest concentration of saunas per capita. There’s another sauna in the northern area, in a tent with a chimney, and there are rumors of another mini-sauna.
Yonin’s cooking was admired across the beach. On the third day, we were joined for a meal by Michael. He introduced himself as a doctor of orthopedic medicine and an expert on medicinal herbs who had studied at Shaolin in China. Speaking in a heavy and precise German accent, he told us he was from a family of high Austrian nobility (although he looked Arab). He was lodging in a nearby tent and had been here a month. At first he was solid, but his stories gradually became more dubious. He claimed he had succeeded in distilling Dead Sea water, removing the toxins and adding vitamin E, and that taking four drops of the mix a week cured many illnesses. This, he said, was the real cure for psoriasis, not mud baths – they are a conspiracy. He said he heard from an authoritative source that Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi are Jewish. When I told Michael that Egypt’s current president is Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, he insisted that he too is Jewish. Furthermore, he claimed to possess a medicine, made from a flower, that was so strong that if your hand was amputated, drinking essence from the flower would make the hand grow back.
Some believed him, others were skeptical. Yonin said that among the hippies, “there’s a genre that tells tall tales to be the center of the conversation. They’ll say unbelievable things to win your esteem.” Afterward, Tamar sought Michael’s phone number on Facebook and discovered that his page shows the genealogy of an impressive Austrian noble family. So maybe he was telling the truth.
Yonin has never allowed himself to remain at Metzukei Dragot for longer than two weeks at a time. “I was afraid that if I stayed longer, I would become one of these people,” he said. “For me, the beach symbolizes a desire to leave reality. It’s interesting to see how people who come here from a structured life gradually peel off layers. Even on the first day, they change completely, experience an absence of boundaries. Being without clothes is just one example.
“The mystery is how people live there for a long period,” he continued. “The permanent residents eat once a day, but it’s unclear what they eat and it’s unclear how the time passes. You’re also not so hungry. A friend of mine lived here and lost himself completely. A visit is delightful; it shows you there’s a world without boundaries – but living without boundaries ultimately breaks you. My friend survived there for three months and became a pupil of Avner’s, but then quarreled with him.”
Avner is one of the local gurus. I didn’t find him particularly impressive or cruel when I spent a few minutes with him, but another of his pupils told me he’d rebelled and decided to become a spiritual teacher himself because of Avner's abuse.
“The lost people go to Avner. He teaches them and explains how to live,” related Yonin. “I met Avner three years ago. Mostly he explains how everyone else is stupid. But he did do one good thing for me: I’d always been ashamed of my body, and he taught me how to be nude. Nudity gave me strength. But at some stage, the connection with him is always severed. He demands loyalty, adoration. But like he does with everyone, he quarreled with me and cut me off dead. I don’t know why he’s angry with me.”
No energy to work
My final visit to Metzukei Dragot was shorter than the first two. This time, we set up camp about a kilometer north of the spring, in an area known as the “forest” or the “jungle” – an oasis of reeds and tamarisk trees.
At night a helicopter suddenly appeared, illuminated the area and landed about 90 feet (30 meters) from us, while at the same time an ambulance sped by on the narrow trail. We thought it was a terrorist attack, but it transpired that a girl staying at the nearby forest had reported being bitten by a snake. Some people ridiculed her and said she was hysterical and had made it up. But apparently it was true. The helicopter rescued her and the members of the ambulance crew, having lost a client, were disappointed. I understood that she was in good condition.
Though I’m usually an efficient and dedicated journalist, I didn’t have the energy to work in Metzukei Dragot. All I wanted to do was stare at the sea. Still, Yonin said there was an opportunity to talk to the elder of the tribe, Allan, and insisted it would be worth my while. The problem was that Allan was currently lodging in the tent camp run by Sergei, a standoffish, patronizing hippie whose behavior made Tamar decide that she hated hippies. Nevertheless, Tamar, Benny Yonin and I made the trek to Sergei’s place, which was located high up and had a spectacular view.
It was a failure from the word go. Allan, unnerved at the number of people, muttered “I have to work,” and left us with Sergei. He had already begun to heat up coffee, so we couldn’t just leave.
“That’s Allan for you. He’s capable of identifying inauthentic people from 5 kilometers away. You’re apparently not stable,” Sergei said, looking at Yonin. “I have a question for you. If I tell you to die now, would you agree?”
The truth is that Yonin is the last person to be condescending to in this regard. His whole life consists of long and spontaneous journeys, and he leaves the door of his home in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood unlocked for homeless people and passersby.
Nonplussed, Yonin couldn’t offer a quick response about whether he was ready to die. My sense was that he wasn’t particularly keen on the idea. Instead, he tried to say that he’s had many conversations with Allan, especially about practical matters related to the condition of the local birds. “Allan never says the type of thing you just said,” noted Yonin, trying to stick it to Sergei.
“He just said that type of thing to me,” Sergei retorted, crushing Yonin. “Before you got here.”
To deliver the final blow, Sergei displayed the calloused soles of his feet. “You will never have feet like these,” he said. “Ten years I haven’t worn shoes.”