(This post was written in March of 2012 when I was visiting the West Bank).
Last Saturday, I joined a local tour guide named Hijazi for a guided exploration of the Jerusalem desert, followed by dinner with a Bedouin family in their tent. (See Hijazi’s web page for more information. http://hijazih.wordpress.com/). I am so glad I did; this “Lovely Evening with Bedouins” was one of the highlights of my trip so far.
Our group was small—just two other women (one from Germany, one from Switzerland) and me, in addition to Hijazi. I am not a big fan of the large group tour, where the tourist sheep are herded from one historical site to another and forced to bleat on cue, so I was happy about the size. Hijazi picked us up in Bethlehem and drove us east to the desert region. Israel and the West call this the Judean Desert, but Palestinians call it the Jerusalem desert. Politics!
I was surprised to learn how varied the geography of Israel and the West Bank is, despite the small size. (From Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea is only about a 60 mile drive.) The climate from west to east ranges from Mediterranean to steppe to desert, and the changes occur abruptly. There is a tunnel on the eastern side of Jerusalem, and one of my tour guides said that on the other side of the tunnel, the climate will be completely different. He was right! The further east we drove, the drier and more mountainous the area became.
After driving for about a half an hour or so, we stopped to take pictures of this breath-taking view. These lumbering rocky mountains, crisscrossed with horizontal striations, declined steeply to a grassy wadi below. It was springtime after a particularly rainy season, so the landscape was dotted with abundant tufts of greenery. These mountains are noted for their anticline structure. (OK, so I learned that word on Wikipedia.)
What, you ask, is an anticline structure? Well, according to my friend Wikipedia,
“In structural geology, an anticline is a fold that is convex up and has its oldest beds at its core. The term is not to be confused with antiform, which is a purely descriptive term for any fold that is convex up. Therefore if age relationships between various strata are unknown, the term antiform must be used. On a geologic map, anticlines are usually recognized by a sequence of rocklayers that are progressively older toward the center of the fold because the uplifted core of the fold is preferentially eroded to a deeper stratigraphic level relative to the topographically lower flanks. The strata dip away from the center, or crest, of the fold.”
If you happen to win money on a game show because I taught you this word, I do expect to receive a percentage of the winnings.
(Dear reader, here I feel the need to share with you my own personal drama. At this point in the trip, I realized that my camera batteries were dying and we had already passed all of the towns where I could have bought batteries. Kick self hard! Because of my dying battery, I was measly with my picture taking for the rest of the evening. The batteries eventually died completely when we arrived at to the Bedouin camp for dinner. Kick self hard again!)
After our photo op stop, we got back in the car and continued driving east. The landscape changed again. Now the greenery was almost completely gone and the landscape was dominated by great expanses of nude limestone rock of the desert. I have to admit that I have never been a huge fan of the desert and this initial entry into it was a little shocking to my green Midwestern sensibilities. So when we first pulled up at one of the encampments of the Bedouin family who was to host us that evening, my initial reaction was one of pity. It looked so desolate and poverty-stricken.
Hijazi introduced us to the family patriarch, Hajj Ali, and his son (whose name unfortunately escapes me.) Hajj Ali was warm and friendly, and despite our language barrier, he managed to make us feel welcome. We went inside his tent, made of black goat-hair. Although the interior was simple in, with no furniture, only cushions to sit on, it was quite inviting and cool compared to the heat outside. We sat down on cushions while he served us tea. Hijazi and Hajj Ali talked animatedly in Arabic. It is at times like these when my lack of Arabic really bothers me. Even though Hijazi translated for us, our exchanges consisted of not much more than bare-boned pleasantries.
After tea, Hajj Ali gave us all pieces of bread he had made. It was too much to eat, but I didn’t want to give it back or throw it away, so I held on to it during our ride. For the next part of the tour, we all got into Hajj Ali’s four-wheeled drive vehicle.
Hajj Ali with our tour bus in the background
They gave us the choice of riding inside or in the outdoor bed. We all chose to ride in the bed, standing up and holding on to the rails for dear life. (Just for the record, none of us were spring chickens, and the German woman said she had great-grandchildren.) Then we were off on a jolty, windy ride through the rugged desert. There were no roads to speak of, but our driver knew exactly where to go.
The ride was fabulous–so much better than a traditional tour on a big bus. The more we rode, the more I started to appreciate the desert, including its variety. We saw a number of female camels with their month-old calves. Apparently, they only need one male camel for a herd of dozens (or maybe hundreds?) of female camel. That is one busy camel! There are some animals in the desert (ibex, foxes, etc., but we were making too much noise for them come near us.) We saw a beautiful pistachio tree, and lots of delicate wildflowers. Mostly, we saw lots of undulating rocks glowing in the sunset. I wasn’t yet ready to move to the desert, but I was starting to see the appeal.
The peak experience for me was when we arrived at the cliffs overhanging the dead sea at sunset—one of the most beautiful view I have ever seen. My photos really don’t do it justice, and my words even less so. I wish I could convey its beauty. I am somewhat afraid of heights, so getting close to the edge of the cliff was exhilarating, yet a bit frightening (especially since the rocks are loose). However, the young Bedouin guide was absolutely home in these cliffs, climbing up and down them with as much ease as a suburbanite in a shopping mall.
I was fast becoming a desert convert with one part of my mind, while the other reminded me that this was sunset overlooking a sea in the best possible season of the year after a particularly rainy season. I suspect that if I came in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer, my reaction would be quite different.
After we were done lingering by the cliffs, our guides drove us back to have dinner with the Bedouin family. The Bedouins are nomadic desert Arabs who rely on their herds of sheep, goats and camel for a living. They have lived in this area for thousands of years. Life has always been hard for them, but it has become much harder since the Israelis took control of the land. The Israelis have been forcing them off of their traditional grazing land and now they are confined to small areas with impoverished villages. Hijazi says they are not really nomadic anymore (because they are not allowed to be), but they are not really villagers either, since that goes so deeply against their grain. They are sort of in between the two, eking out an existence in small patches of the desert near Jerusalem. We Americans are familiar with this narrative, since it sounds very similar to what we did to the American Indians over the past few hundred years.
Our guides took us to a different encampment than the one we originally visited, even though it was the same family. Hijazi said that they use one in the summer and one in the winter. They also use one for visitors, or perhaps when they just need space from each other. The second one was tucked away into a naturally protected area underneath a cliff. It was not quite a cave, but the area was protected from the wind. (By this time it was dark out, so nothing was clear to me.) When we drove into the encampment, we were greeted by a few camels and several small children. I felt like I had time travelled back to Biblical times. Eventually the women came out to greet us as well. Everyone was gracious and welcoming. Hijazi said that normally, the women would not show themselves to strange men. However, Hijazi knows the family very well, and so they do come out to socialize with them. He says the customs vary from family to family. This family is not as conservative as some.
The black goat-hair tent is divided into two parts. One is for men and guests, and the other is for women. Both were open this evening. There was also another tent that I was told is used as a kitchen. They do have electricity, and I saw what looked like a refrigerator and a washing machine in the women’s tent. Like the other tent, this one had no furniture, but a lot of cushions. The part that surprised me the most was their color tv! Because of their satellite, they got excellent reception, and everyone was sitting around watching a Turkish tv show dubbed in Arabic. So much for going back to Biblical times.
We settled in on the cushions, and our hosts brought us dinner on one large platter (no plates.) They made a rice and lentil dish served with chicken on top of it. It was quite good. Normally, they don’t use silverware, but they gave us some, knowing our strange manners. After dinner and tea, everyone hung out on the cushions. I couldn’t tell how many children there were—maybe six or eight? Some were Hajj Ali’s children and some were his grandchildren. Even though he is around 70, he has a little girl who looks to be about 2 years old. I was told the child was from his second wife. (She is absolutely adorable!) Hijazi told us ahead of time that it might be nice to bring some small gifts for the children, so I did. I distributed the gifts, which were well-received. The small cars were just as popular with these children as with American children, and Hajj Ali’s little girl clutched the coloring book and coloring pencils I gave her all night long.
(We were introduced to everyone, but my mind is too feeble to remember names. I need to work on that!)
The family members asked us questions (translated by Hijazi.) They seemed fascinated by us. When I told them I didn’t have children, they seemed puzzled and full of pity. Hajj Ali told me that they believed that children were the whole point of a woman’s existence. I felt like saying, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before, but I kept my mouth shut. I told Hijazi to tell them I had a boyfriend, but he told me I can’t say that here. It would be like saying “Hi, I’m Debra and I’m a slut.” (Sort of like Rush Limbaugh.) He advised me to say I had a fiance or husband. So now I have a fiance.
Looking at the whole family snuggled up together on the cushions, I was struck by how cozy the whole scene was. I was tempted to curl up with them, but I figured that might be frowned upon. After the end of the tour, I wasn’t quite ready to move to the desert and reproduce rapidly. But at least I could understand its charms. Sort of.