Day 5: The desert

2009-04-13 00:00

Day 5

Just when I reckon the Old City in Jerusalem couldn’t get busier, Friday happens. And not just any old Friday: Good Friday, which coincides with Muslim prayer day and the Jewish Passover.

Outside my hotel, I am swallowed up by a slow-moving human river. There’s a bottleneck where the heavily armed police – out in their numbers today – congregate and, ironically, seem to be trying to keep the crowds moving. Claustrophobia gets the better of me and I give up on the idea of trying to find the procession of the cross along the Via Dolorosa. I take a sharp right at the next alleyway and, with a bit of help from a solicitous shop owner in the Christian quarter, find my way out of the Old City.

I re-enter at the more upmarket Jewish Quarter where I spend a couple of blissful hours wandering around the Tower of David/Citadel Museum where I try to get a handle on the 5000-year-long comings and goings in the city of Jerusalem and take in the breathtaking views of the city from the fortress tower. On my exit, I note that Bridget and Harry Oppenheimer are on the list of museum patrons (I read everything in museums).

Later that day, we travel to the Negev or Naqab desert (nothing is very far away in Israel and the contrasts are striking). Around 8 pm, I am among a group of 20 or so Bedouin women seated on floor cushions along the walls of a simple room somewhere near the town of Hura in the northern Negev. Language differences make conversation near impossible and very soon it dries up completely. I’m very happy to entertain myself by eating the sweet, fleshy dates that are offered at short intervals, but when large platters carrying bony cuts of greasy mutton are placed before us, my heart sinks.

Anxious not to offend, and without the vocabulary to smooth things over, I fiddle with the flatbread on the platter’s edges, pretending to dip it in the animal juices and squash it all together in the hand as I see the others are doing. My neighbour on my left knows the word “eat” in English and uses it repeatedly, tearing off large pieces of the bread and forcing me to take them. My neighbour on my right picks out the soft pieces from the bones and pushes them to my side of the platter.

There is a bit of consternation over my meagre appetite, but it is not until everyone else has finished and a new platter arrives -- solely for me -- that I realise fully how much of a symbol of hospitality food is. I try to eat as much as I can of the fresh tray of bread, dips, potatoes, tomatoes and other things I can’t identify, but I don’t make much of a dent. Eventually, I simply have to stop and risk the social consequences.

The gathering of Bedouin is to mourn the death a couple of days ago of a 16-year-old girl who was hit by a car on the road which sits a short distance from the family’s loose collection of rough houses, animal shelters and shacks. The homestead sits immediately beneath the enormous electricity pylons which loop their way along the desert landscape, emitting their sinister clicking sounds. Apparently, it’s quite common for locals to be knocked down and killed by cars.

The grieving mother hands me a framed photograph of the girl. “She’s beautiful,” I say without much hope of being understood. Perhaps sympathy can be conveyed through tone?

After the meal, some of the women say their goodbyes. Others light up cigarettes and sit and smoke. Finally, my South African Muslim companion and I are summoned to rejoin the men. We say our thanks and set off for Hura where we are to spend the night on the floor in the garden cottage behind the flashy, modern home of a local engineer. (Again I’m struck by how the gardens of relatively upmarket homes are completely neglected, harbouring weeds, building rubble and general trash.) On arrival, we are again separated by gender. We chat with the engineer’s teenage daughters and his young new wife (his first wife died) who proudly shows us her wedding and engagement photographs from last year. The engineer’s three-year-old son is still running around at 11 pm and his new one-month old baby boy sleeps on the couch (Families are big here and children don’t seem to have a regular bed time). All of the girls have some grasp of English and we chat while watching a westernised song and dance extravaganza involving scantily-clad Arabic women on satellite TV. We are soon presented with a large communal platter of delicious couscous, chickpeas, chicken and vegetables…

It’s hard to believe, but we actually haven’t come to the desert to eat. We’ve come to check out the conditions facing the Bedouins who suffer hardships as a result of Israeli policies which have effectively stripped the Bedouin’s centuries-old claim to their lands.

Our guide is an affable but emphatic Israeli Arab called Mohammed Rabah Aghbarieh, director of the municipal environmental unit based in the northern town of Umm Al-Fahm, Israel’s largest Arab city.

Rabah Aghbarieh has a degree in horticulture, is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English and has recently completed formal training as a tour guide. He describes himself as a community activist, and says he’s motivated to share his knowledge of Israel and Palestine mainly out of love for his homeland. He addresses us as “brothers and sisters” and is generous with his broad smile.

With help from a local community worker, Rabah Aghbarieh takes us to a settlement in the area of Umm el-Hieran where the demolition of Bedouin metal sheet houses and animal shelters by the Israeli Land Administration is still evident in the piles of rubble and metal that lie around.

“I must repeat this, says Rabah Aghbarieh, and he does: “It’s not because they are poor that the people build shacks. They have money. Look at their cars. They simply want to continue to be on their own lands.” Indeed, it seems that alongside most houses there is a car – often a 4x4 or a mercedes – and a tractor, but how far this goes as an expression of wealth, I’m not sure.

The resident matriarch at the Umm el-Hieran settlement, a woman in her late 50s with flawless skin, dressed in a beautiful embroidered shift, says she has lived on that piece of land for over 52 years. She takes us into one of the tin houses which has been re-constructed despite the ban. It is swept clean and is largely empty, with mattresses for sleeping neatly stacked in a corner. At the other end is a large white melamine dressing table. Water is collected in tanks at Hura and there is no electricity supply. Rabah Aghbarieh says in the absence of any state services, the Bedouin have to be self-sufficient, providing their own services. Most have generators.

He says the Bedouin don’t want to give up their centuries-old, livestock rearing, semi-nomadic lifestyles in the land of their ancestors and move into the towns designated by the Israeli government – by all accounts I’ve read some of the poorest in the country. Thus their make-shift houses in the desert are regarded as illegal. They are subject to periodic demolition and their owners to periodic arrest. The number of sheep raised by a Bedouin is also restricted to 50, he says. When crops are planted, says Rabah Aghbarieh, the authorities spray them with pesticides.

Apparently, the same restrictions on building and livestock do not apply to Jewish farmers and settlers in the area.

As the sun dips and the temperature drops, we visit another Bedouin settlement where 600 olive tree saplings were recently uprooted by Israeli officials because of restrictions on trees and crops cultivated by Bedouins. Rabah then shows us the fledgling forests that have been planted by an Israeli organisation that is hoping to make the land more habitable for Jewish settlers.

That night, I fall again into an exhausted sleep.

* Sharon Dell's trip is being made possible by local Muslim sponsorship.


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