Country in Israel: What happened with Akhzivland? (Tribute to Rina)
<< Do you regret coming here? >>
<< No, of course not >>, I reply. << Travelling to a place you’ve read about doesn’t make sense if you expect to have the same experience as the author. That’s tourism, not exploring. >>
As tiny and off-the-route as it was, Akhzivland was too tempting to consider any second-thoughts. Usually described as the most peaceful nation of the Middle East and an anarchic-hippy retreat, Akhzivland sounded like a paradise to unconventional travellers like ourselves. The only thing I was concerned about was whether we were going to meet the President himself—after all, I couldn’t find any reliable source confirming that Eli Avivi was still alive. What’s more, arriving at the very spot didn’t resolve our doubts until the very last moment.
Our first attempt to enter the legendary paradise—an independent micro-territory in Israel—was dismissed rather abruptly. An older lady with strong Aryan features, a large dog and an oversized cat by her feet told us the lights had been turned off already, and she was too tired to switch them on herself. << We’re having a lot of problems now, there is too much work, and we don’t have enough employees. Come tomorrow. >> Our would-be host went back to her paperwork. She looked exhausted indeed. And so were we, after a full-day wandering with the backpacks, exposed to 40 degrees Celsius, at least. After a brief weighing of possible gains and losses (article-wise) resulting from any form of objection, persuasion or begging, we decided to wave a warm goodbye and smiley see-you-tomorrow-then.
That wasn’t that flower-power heartily welcome we expected… It felt both dispiriting and intriguing at the same time. From what I’d read, I imagined myself immersing in the heart-warming hippy spirit of the place while sipping a refreshing glass of lemonade to the gripping stories of Eli and his boldly realised dream of freedom: It was 1970 when Israeli bulldozers wiped off Az-Zeeb, a fishing village where he’d been living since 1952. His own country, the ground with a hostel and a museum of eccentricities, collected from all over the world during Eli’s life as a sailor, became his non-violent rebellion against the government. Although initially arrested and charged with a crime of ‘Creation of a Country Without Permission’, the founder was granted a 99 years’ lease of the area, after the judge had to admit that such a charge did not exist.
We shuffled past Akzhivland’s shredded flag with a barely recognisable mermaid on it and headed towards the beach to spend one more gross night, surrounded by litter, unbeatable insects and people who unlike us had legit tents with all due sides, but that’s another story. The next morning, chased away by the joint attack of countless flies and mosquitos, we turned up at the blue iron gate at 8:30 AM, half an hour before the official opening time. Rina, sitting at the same table in the same company, waved at us to go away. A spark of (unfair) frustration rippled through my worn body. But, after all, she was the First Lady, and with the open-door life they were living, she deserved some undisturbed morning privacy.
At 9:00 sharp, Rina welcomes us with a faint smile and 2€ entrance fee. She seems revitalised, with the aura of fresh energy and friendliness. Her somewhat bipolar ways win my heart: they are only a proof she acts naturally, the way she feels at a given moment. She gets up and shows us to the museum located in their first house. Switching on the lights in different rooms, she explains to us that one of their guides has broken his leg and the new one doesn’t know anything yet, so we’ll have to enjoy it on our own. She seems slightly irritated/insulted at our refusal to leave our bags outside at the yard: << Nobody has ever stolen anything from me, I leave my house open, I trust everyone. >> A pang of guilt comes over, yet having totally opposite experience and laptops in our backpacks, we decide to keep our luggage close. The fact she lets us take them inside and wander among her husband’s collection on our own is just another proof of her sincere nature: she does mean it when she says <<I trust everyone>>.
After examining the first two rooms, the word ‘eccentricities’ in the museum’s name seems a slight exaggeration. A random build-up of souvenirs, I would say. However, as we proceed to other rooms, the objects become more and more peculiar: grotesque harlequins, ship anchors, garments, bird cages and other swashbuckler props are all murmuring the head-spinning stories we can’t hear because the guide has broken his leg or, more importantly, there is no trace of Eli himself. Following him around these magical rooms evoking his memories would be almost like sailing with him. Asking Rina about her husband seems too tactless—maybe he’s passed away, and the loss is too painful? Although she mentions him a few times, it is all about the past, not a single present-tense clue, not even a slit to cut in with an unintrusive follow-up question.
One of the rooms is filled with photographs from different periods of Akhzivland, capturing different moods from Rina and Eli’s life. A couple of pictures feature some of their famous visitors. What captivates me for a bit longer, though, is a black-and-white sketch with Rina holding a gun and a man standing behind her. Later, in the couple’s living room, I ask Rina if the drawing is hers and she nods a humble <<Yes>>:
<< Once, a group of terrorists landed at our beach. I was scared but brave. Fortunately, they left. If you asked me if I did it again… I don’t think so. Terrorists… they’re not what they used to be. Before they talked to you at least, and then they shot or not. Now they just shoot. >> Though the subject itself couldn’t be less amusing, the way she fits terrorism into the nostalgic expression makes me crack a half-smile.
The next room is particularly atmospheric. There are almost no exhibits. Instead, the space is filled up with a sillage of bygone dailiness: a vintage wardrobe with a tarnished mirror in a dark corner, a simple sink by the window overlooking the Akhziv Beach and a massive wooden table with simple benches in the middle offer the long-awaited pause. The air is chiming, relaxing and makes me dreamy. How was it to be a hippy sailor’s wife? Were they an unconventional couple?
<< We liked it that way, living our simple life, kerosene lamps, no electricity. We kept struggling with the Israeli government for our independence >>, Rina recalls the days with a sentimental smile, and then adds with a flare of pragmatism: << But it’s over now, we’re not fighting anymore. We just pay the taxes and the bills. I need two phones to keep it all working, the cameras, a TV. It’s not possible to live the same life and run Akhzivland these days. Now it’s more of a story to tell our visitors; we run guided tours when I show the people around and explain everything in detail. >>
Done with the museum, Rina takes us to a little house where we can talk for a bit. There’s a pile of papers on a low, old-fashioned table, a wireless phone and CCTV on the wall. While she’s taking her umpteenth call to the ring of “Your mommas calling back” and leafing through her day planner, I notice she has her very own collection of souvenirs, mostly colourful figurines. A cosy home office, I must say. When the call ends, Rina takes out an old photo of their first house and starts drawing on the back. In the meantime, it comes out Rina’s family fled from Germany when she was five years old. She understands German but never speaks it. << I don’t like to talk about it >>, she cuts it short and hands me over the sketch.
The caption reads: ACHZIB. Achzib was a Phoenician city transformed and renamed by its subsequent invaders. The Arab village of Az-Zeeb was established on the site in the Middle Ages, following the gory end of the Crusader era. You can still see its ruins over the fence. I point out that the sketch looks surprisingly deft as for a piece produced during hectic phone calls, but Rina dismisses my sincere compliment with natural modesty << It’s not good, I don’t like drawing with a ball pen.>> Then she asks for our passports. << Travellers always want to have our stamp in their passports >>, she remarks with a wink. (The stamp will cause some confusion later keeping us a bit longer at several checkpoints.)
Eli and Rina have been living and sharing their utopian life intensely, now Akhzivland seems to have taken on the aura of a resort – though with a worth-a-pause backup story. Rina, an astounding fusion of romance and pragmatism, keeps alive the spirit of their bygone anarchy. She created Akhzivland by Eli’s side, without shouting for attention or acknowledgement, just making sure it continues as long as they’re there. However, the lease for the land is about to terminate. << And after that? >>, I ask concerned, but Rina replies with a smile and an I-don’t-care shrug with a smile. The country consisted of the two of them, and it seems to be passing along.
Lingering around outside, we spot a Philippine girl pushing an old man in a wheelchair in front of her. They stop by the table and the man, looking ahead fixedly, opens his mouth to take the pills offered to him. The girl leaves, and we come closer, from the side. << Good morning… >> Squinting from the sun, Eli turns his head slightly towards us and mouths a reply. Then his eyes travel back to the fixed point ahead.