The Maiden and the Beast, or, How I Crossed the Egyptian Border in a Bikini
I've talked about Fortitude before on this blog, but it's one of those cards that keeps coming up this summer. I wanted to focus on this card specifically, rather than just on its connection to the Devil.
Fortitude: where did it come from?
Fortitude is the eleventh trump card in the tarot, today commonly known as "Strength" (in the A.E. Waite deck, Strength shows a young woman and a tamed lion genuflecting at her feet, and older decks, dating back to the 16th century, usually depict a person either subduing a lion or breaking a stone pillar). In my card, the central characters of "the maiden and the beast" remain, but the maiden is a naked, winged woman, blindfolded as though she fancied herself the statue of blind Justice on the steps of our Supreme Courthouse, and the beast is a headless, charging horse.
Weridly, a headless horse with open, seeing eyes.
Although I created this image in 2004, my understanding of the beast in Fortitude didn't really crystallize till the summer of 2012, when I was in Israel/Palestine, working as a researcher and urban planner on the pilot project of an NGO think tank based in Tel Aviv. To inexcusably collapse what is a very long and involved story, I consistently had a difficult time with border guards and other IDF staff while I was there. I don't know precisely why it happened, but my luggage was always given a special search, I was always taken aside for meticulous questioning, and I usually had to provide contacts from work for them to call to confirm that I really worked there. Sometimes there were more profound intrusions into my private affairs and possessions. I obviously wasn't an ordinary Jewish tourist, and I didn't have any family to vouch for me there. The fact that I was there to work for several months baffled and alarmed the guards, and I quickly learned that my naïve explanations about working for human rights and social justice only made me suspicious and strange.
About a month before my contract was up, I planned to take a trip down to the Red Sea to do some diving. I hopped on a bus after work, rode with a pile of sullen young people dressed for a European discothèque and a scattering of shrieking tourists and their comatose, sunburned children, and was deposited at the door of a tiny diver's hostel at 11 pm. The temperature had dropped (it was late July) to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and the labored breathing of the four walruslike men sleeping on the bunks in the dorm room mingled with the waves breaking on the beach just outside to create a peaceful white noise. I fell asleep in my bathing suit, which, as daytime temperatures regularly reach 125 degrees in the Negev desert, became my only outfit for the three days I was there.
After two days of good diving, someone at the dive shop suggested I go to their partner dive shop, just over the border in Taba, Egypt. Egypt's relationship with Israel no longer had any pretense of friendliness at that time, and the Israeli dive instructors and divers couldn't go, but I could. They told me to grab my passport and dive log and get in a car, as one of the staff was heading that way anyway. It was a small miracle that I decided, at the last minute, to bring my sandals. I had (and I should certainly have known better) thought we would simply drive over the border and I would be left at the Egyptian dive site for the day, but to my astonishment, the young driver cheerfully indicated that I had to get out and walk over the border. "Taba dive shop just over there," he said. "Walk on left side of road through border patrol and turn left after donut shop." Of course I was still in my usual round-the-clock outfit: a faded, flimsy, purple bikini.
I was nearly alone, standing in line. Desert insects droned, and the border terminal was quiet. A German family outfitted in tropical print clothing stared humorlessly at me. The immaculately dressed Egyptian border guards continued to gaze straight ahead, impenetrably grave. The resort town of Taba, in the middle of the day, was mercifully somewhat deserted, but occasionally a traditionally dressed couple would stroll by, carefully training their eyes at the pavement, away from me. Both religious Muslims and Jews have a culture of modesty in dress, especially for women, and I was sure that I seemed like an affront, an alien and an outsider without the humility or common decency to respect local traditions as I intruded myself into their home. I had always been careful to dress plainly when I was in traditional communities, with my arms, neck, and legs covered and my hair tied back, and here I was in a string bikini. I was at this point heavily encrusted with the salty residue of evaporated sea water, my bruise-colored bikini was frayed in several places, and I found out later that there was a ribbon of seaweed tangled in my hair. I took some comfort, at least, in the fact that I didn't look like I was trying to be sexy.
The young guard at the border had the good grace to giggle a little when he asked me if I was carrying any concealed weapons.
After one of the best days of diving I had ever experienced, I had to walk over the border again, this time through the Israeli terminal. My scantily dressed swamp monster appearance did not seem to dampen the usual suspicion I created, and I wound up in the private office of a soldier, perspiring into a leather chair while she regarded me dubiously from behind her desk. For the first time, I was asked if I was Jewish (I had always offered this information before). I said that I was, and, visibly relaxing, she began explaining why they had to ask me so many questions, excusing herself as though to a troublesome relative at a family reunion. I mumbled something I can't recall anymore, and dragged off towards a bus shelter, where I waited glumly for the Eilat dive shop to remember to pick me up again. Somehow, the apologies were even worse than the suspicion: I felt even less understood than I had before. It was, in fact, a somewhat risky thing I had done by going to Taba for the day. At that point in my trip, I had gone into the West Bank to stay at the headquarters of a Palestinian resistance movement in a small farming community. I had attended a protest against the acquisition of Palestinian land by local settlers. If the soldier had learned about any of this, I certainly would have been kept much longer for questioning, and I may have had more difficulty leaving the country as well. I doubt I would have had to spend time in jail, but it was not out of the question that I might have been held for 9 or 10 hours for questioning, or even had my electronic devices temporarily confiscated and forcibly inspected on my way out of the country. I was grateful to have gotten through relatively easily, but it was so strange to feel so naked and also so invisible. From where she was sitting, she really couldn't see me at all.
The headless beast in my card represents things that behave like people. The impetus that drives a person's life, work, or desires is bigger than interpersonal relationships, and includes abstract concepts and imaginative ideals: a cultural narrative, the dream of a better life, a union with the beliefs of a religious community, a story of a higher calling and heroism, the promises of a powerful corporation, the mythology of a whole nation. These entities (a nation, a corporation, a religion, a cultural norm, a philosophy) sometimes influence us as though they had feelings and thoughts of their own. As though they had desires. As though they understood us, and whispered the truth into our ears.
The State has eyes, but it has no mind. It may wander aimlessly, be guided by those who care for its power, or even race blindly towards its own destruction. The maiden's leap from the back of the beast is, like all leaps, a leap of faith. Despite being less powerful than the beast of a human institution such as culture, or religion, or country, she has come to trust herself more than she can trust authority. Even if she is leaping to her own death, she has a need to decide for herself. This courage, which is stronger than death, is Fortitude. And when I sat, shamed, nearly naked, confused and misunderstood by the agent of a mindless limb of the State of Israel, in the leather chair of the IDF soldier who thought she recognized me as one of her own, I realized I had not only taken that leap many years ago, but that the leap does not happen just once. It happens again and again and again, as new situations arise, and the beast attempts to fit us onto its back once again.
Is she foolish in her decision to leave the beast, and all its norms and known quantities behind?
The answer seems to be no: she has wings.
This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.