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a whale of a tale
By Margo Fallis 2007

One of the most famous whale stories of all time is ‘Jonah and the Whale’. We’ve all heard how Jonah, wanting to escape God, hired a ship. A storm came up and Jonah was thrown overboard. He was swallowed by a whale, only to be belched out a few days later on a beach far away. Joppa, the town where this story begins is where Jonah went to hire the boat. Now known as Jaffa, the town has been incorporated into Tel Aviv, Israel’s capital.

During a recent trip to the Holy Land, I visited Jaffa. It sits on a sandy promontory on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where blue-green waters wash against the rocky shore. Once a busy port city, Jaffa, which means beautiful, has been visited by Egyptian and Phoenician sailors and been under the rule of Richard the Lionhearted, Napoleon, and Turkish sultans. I was thrilled to be touring a place so rich in history.

Though I knew better than to leave the others in the tour group, I wandered off by myself, going up and down many steps. Some lead to narrow streets with the most unusual street signs. Local artists have used their imaginations and made bronze signs, decorated with small whales and other designs and set in the stones of the buildings. The aroma of delicious pastries did its best to lure me inside the bakeries. As I walked past them, I forced myself to resist the temptation and continued exploring Jaffa. After a few more turns I came upon a statue of a whale. Several giggling children climbed on top of it and hung by their fingers, swinging their legs back and forth from the tail. I snapped several shots and enjoyed the shade of a palm tree. The sea was at my back. I could hear the waves as they rushed in and crashed against the sea walls.

I left the children playing on the statue and climbed another flight of steep steps. At the top I discovered a museum. Though the sea air felt good as it caressed my face, I appreciated the air-conditioning inside. When I left the museum I walked down a narrow, winding road and was surprised to find myself once again standing in front of the whale statue. The children and their mothers had disappeared and I stood alone gazing at the Smiling Whale. It looked comical with that grin on its face, but sadly, it was rather weather-beaten. I took a few more pictures and sat on a wall wondering how I ended up back here. I must have gone in a big circle! Nearby, pansies nodded as the sea breeze blew between the stone buildings.

I backtracked up the winding road, starting to feel tired from climbing so many steep inclines. I saw gardens full of bougainvillea and roses. The further I walked, the more I noticed the air filled with a tangy, sweet scent. I turned a corner and discovered an orchard of fragrant orange trees. They smelled lovely! Not being able to resist, I took a few more photographs and headed down another narrow road. I couldn’t believe it when I ended up standing in front of the whale statue. What was going on here? “I’m lost,” I sighed. Not ready to give up, I went down one road and then another, searching for a way back to my tour bus. I climbed up so many flights of stone steps that my legs were shaking like they were made of jelly. No matter what way I went, the roads always lead back to the Smiling Whale.

I collapsed on a patch of grass and looked at the big, bronze fish. “Is that why you’re smiling? You’re getting quite a kick out of this, aren’t you? You probably think it’s funny that people get lost. Why do all roads lead to you?” Tired as I was, I found humor in the moment and laughed along with the whale.

I glanced at my watch and noticed the time had passed quicker than I thought. I had one hour until the bus left for our hotel in Tel Aviv. I’d gone several ways and always ended up back here, so I tried one more path, heading down towards the sea. And that’s exactly where it leads – to the sea. I stood on the crumbling wall, noticing several large rocks jutting out of the water. “That’s the rock Andromeda was chained to,” a voice said. I turned to see a boy about ten years old.

“Andromeda?” I had never heard this story before.

“It’s a Greek legend. Andromeda was going to be sacrificed to a monster and she was chained to that rock,” he said. I squinted and noticed there was something made of rusty iron sticking out of the rock. “Perseus rescued her just as the monster came to eat her.”

“Why, that’s a fascinating story,” I replied, making a mental note to look up more about it when I got back home to the U.S.A. “Thank you for sharing it with me. What is your name?”


I had an idea. “Say, Jacob, do you know the way back to Simon the Tanner’s house?” I knew this historical site was near the area where my bus was parked. He smiled at me and nodded yes. “Will you take me there? I seem to be lost.”

He started running up the hill, waving at me to follow. I chuckled to myself when we came back to the whale statue, as I knew we would. “Have you seen the Smiling Whale statue?” he asked.

“Yes! Several times,” I answered.

We walked past a row of artist studios. I wanted to take a closer look at the paintings, but was afraid to let Jacob out of my sight. He pointed ahead. “There’s Simon the Tanner’s house.”

I slipped some money into his hand. Politely, he refused it, but I insisted. I knew my way back to the bus and felt relief when I climbed on board with the others. They were chatting away about the history of Jaffa, the sea, and the artwork they’d purchased. I was envious. I’d spent so much time wandering around lost that I’d not had a chance to buy anything. “Oh, did anyone see the whale statue? I looked and looked but couldn’t find it,” Cindy, one of my fellow tourists asked.

I started to laugh out loud. “I did,” I said, raising my hand.

“We’ve got plenty of time. Would you take me to it?” Cindy pleaded.

I laughed so hard that I had tears rolling down my face. “Sorry!” I wiped my eyes. “Just pick a road and follow it. All roads lead to the Smiling Whale.” She gave me a strange look and disappeared. “Well, if she’s got enough time then so do I,” I said. I jumped off the bus and ran to the closest art studio, making careful note of the way I came.

Satisfied with my purchase, I walked toward the bus. When I reached the bottom of a flight of stairs, I was horrified to see I stood next to the whale statue again! I couldn’t believe it! How did I do that? I was about ready to cry, knowing I’d never find my way back to the bus in time, when Cindy called my name. “What are you doing back here? Oh well, since you’re here, will you take a picture of me with the whale?” she begged.

I took a few steps back and when I looked through the viewfinder, I could swear the whale winked at me. I snapped the shot and followed Cindy back to the bus. She knew exactly where to go and it took less than a minute to get there. “How did you find your way?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“It was no bother. I simply followed the road,” she answered, wondering what the big deal was.

To this day, whenever I hear the story of Jonah and the whale, I think of Jaffa and I can still see the Smiling Whale statue winking at me!

a whale of a tale - israel