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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Travels with Abe, an Israeli's perspective: Yaman

Welcome back with another article from an Israeli friend, Abe. Abe is a guest contributor with history to tell. Perhaps you will begin to see an Israeli’s perspective of this world that we live in and what we are up against. Respectfully, Bosun


I first met Yaman when we were both in Basic Training. Yaman is a nickname that is automatically bestowed on all Yemenite Jews in Israel. He was slightly built, wiry and a fast runner, no matter how much weight you piled on him. He was dark skinned and black haired. He looked like the archetypical Yemenite. We immediately dubbed him “Yaman.” He kept the name, even after he explained, to anyone who would listen, that he wasn’t Yemenite. He was ethnically Indian. We didn’t care. To us he was Yaman.

Our basic training was that of Armoured Infantry. Back in 1967, the Armoured Infantry was transported mainly by half-tracks. We didn’t have APCs yet. After basic training, we tankers went on to tank training while the infantry guys went to their advanced training. Throughout basic, Yaman was my buddy. He could out-march and out-run anyone on base, and that included the corporals and sergeants who were training (abusing) us. On one march, when we were traversing a freshly plowed field during a rainstorm, my leg muscles cramped up badly. Every step we took, we raised these heavy clods of mud that stuck to our boots. The farmer sat in his tractor and laughed as we trudged through the mud. Keeping pace with us, he sipped lemonade and told us how tough his service had been, and how spoiled we were. I was barely able to walk; Yaman took my pack and rifle, and supported me for the next 5 km to the end of that day’s march. Back in our tent, he helped me lay down and brought a medic who wrapped up the legs and assured me that they’d be as good as new by morning.

When we finished Basic, I went to Tank Driver’s school and Yaman went to Advanced Infantry Training. We didn’t see each other for months. When, as a newly trained tank driver, I arrived in the Central Canal Sector, the first person I saw was Yaman. The Suez Canal Zone was divided into three sectors. The total length of the Canal was 160 km (100 miles). The Northern Sector started way up at the northern tip of the Canal and reached a point just south of Al Kantara. The city of Al Kantara was empty. The inhabitants had fled when our forces reached the city in the Six Day War. Driving a tank through a ghost city was eerie. You drove through streets that were empty. Houses were empty.

The Central Sector extended from just south of Kantara (where the Northern Sector ended), to just south of Doer Suwair. At its center, the outposts faced the City of Ismailiya, on the other side.   The Southern Sector went from there all the way to the Gulf of Suez. We would be stationed at the Canal itself for about three months. Another unit would relieve us. We would then move to a base in the center of the Sinai for three months. After three months of non-stop training, we would, once again, return to the Canal for a three-month stint. Each such stint was called a “line.” You did “lines” and “rears” your whole service.

This was my first “line,” and I was excited. A history buff, I had read a lot about the Suez Canal. I was excited to actually be there. This excitement, of course, faded somewhat after I had dodged some shells. Yaman and I lived in the same bunker. There were six of us living in this bunker. The bunker consisted of a dugout in the earth, covered by a steel arch with sandbags on it. The IDF Corp of Engineers was planning to upgrade the bunkers, but that was it in the meantime.

This first “line” was in the Central Sector, opposite the ghost-city of Ismailiya. The Egyptians had artillery aimed at us. We used tanks. This meant that they could fire from a greater range. We had to get closer (to, at least, a range of 4000 meters, or less). Israel didn’t have an Artillery Corp the size of the Egyptian one. Besides, we were trained to be mobile, and we were with the tanks.

Yaman and his infantry guarded the outpost and the tanks. He became a Squad Leader, and his men loved the “little Yemenite.” His protestations of being Indian and not Yemenite were to no avail. As far as we were concerned, he was “Yaman,” a Yemenite.

We cooked our own meals at the outpost, and every day, there would be a different tank crew in charge of the kitchen. Yaman had brought spices from home, and they were hidden in plastic bags among his “stuff.” Once in a while, he would shoulder us aside as we were cooking, and take over, with his spices. We would then be rewarded with an incredible curry or other Indian dish. We would laughingly call it “Yemenite Curry.”

Back then, we would get to go home about once in six weeks. At one of our Backgammon games, (Called Shesh-Besh in the ME, it’s a very popular game), I mentioned to Yaman that I’d be going home on leave the next week. He asked me to pick up some sunflower seeds for him. Eating sunflower seeds is an Israeli passion, and I also confess to the act. I went home. On the radio, (Israel didn’t yet have TV), the morning news would include the names of those killed the day before at the front (Egypt or Syria). I was sipping coffee, when I heard the announcer say, “Yitshaq Tzadiq!”

I couldn’t believe it. Yaman was dead. I hadn’t even been there. I had been relaxing at home while he was dying. I picked up some sunflower seeds, and headed back to the Canal. My holiday was over. Once back at the outpost, they told me how Yaman got caught up in a direct hit on the bunker. One of the steel beams comprising the arch of the bunker had been sent flying and skewered him. It happened very fast. He didn’t feel a thing. I laid the bag of sunflower seeds at the base of the arch, and went aside to mourn my friend.

Yaman was the first friend I lost in the Canal. I only wish he had been the last.


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