In the Negev Desert

by

Arielle Prose

On the floor of a carpeted tent among Bedouin Arabs, I was sitting on cushions, nervous to be the only woman present among admiring men including the tribal sheik, whom I couldn’t help but admire in return, his Dr. Zhivago-like looks mesmerizing me. I wondered if something terrible was going to happen to me. I should have listened to those who advised me against this trip. God, if I ever come out of this alive, I promise never to do something like this again.

But I couldn’t resist the invitation extended to me from Yousef, the sheik’s son, who appeared one day at the archaeological site where I volunteered as part of my studies in anthropology. He arrived by motorcycle, dressed in western clothes. This was very unusual and everyone noticed him right away. I soon learned he was visiting home, on a break from the University of Genoa, where he was pursuing a medical degree, and that he spoke Italian, my native tongue. He stood above me on a sand dune, wearing a madras shirt and jeans, slight of build and in a casual stance but serious looking, observing what was going on, while I worked in my quadrant, tapping around an artifact—a square stone with a perfect round hole in the center.

Wanting to strike up a conversation, I said to him, “Mi scusi, ma lei parla Italiano?”

He gave a hint of a smile and answered, “Si, un poco.”

It was the summer of 1972 and it was not uncommon for young people, mostly college students, to backpack all over the world. I already had some traveling experience both on my own and in a group, and was not entirely naive to the risks one can take when dealing with strangers. I had landed in Tel Aviv, staying at a hotel the first two nights, then at the campus dorm of the University of Israel in Jerusalem, where I deemed the young Israeli women utterly sophisticated in their free and easy manner, a manner that I wanted to imitate. From there I shared a cab with three others to go to Arad, where the University had a dig on the outskirts of the town, in the Negev desert near the Dead Sea. Bethlehem is in between, and Ein Gedi is nearby, a beautiful and popular oasis, especially among young people. Arad is a modern town, mostly settled by Zionists from all over the world when after the war Israel was declared a state in 1949.

At the site there were—besides the Israeli university professors and students working at the dig—a few American and European volunteers, and perhaps two dozen or so Bedouins who did most of the heavy digging for payment. Communication between the Arabs and Israelis was in Hebrew, which I didn’t speak, so when Yousef showed up, it was a pleasure to be able to talk to him. We got acquainted in the ensuing days and I became very interested in learning more about him and how his people lived. I told him I planned to do my master’s thesis in cultural anthropology rather than archaeology. I said in Italian, “The present is more appealing to me than the past.” That’s when he invited me to see his village. I saw it as an opportunity, maybe something I could use in my dissertation when the time came. Any fear of harm coming to me was immediately displaced by my trust in Yousef that none would. After all, the people at the University knew who he was, so he and his people would be liable and I was sure they wouldn’t want that and risk their source of employment. We decided we could go to his village one day after finishing work at the dig and be back in Arad before supper.

The evening when Yousef invited me, my hosts were busy as usual sorting the day’s findings—shards from around 2000 B.C. from a Bronze Age Canaanite settlement. And just as usual, the topic of conversation among them was the age-old dispute of who were the first to settle Israel, that is, Palestine, in ancient times, a topic doomed to irresolution. I knew that the Six-Day War of 1967 between Israel and many of the surrounding Arab nations left simmering tensions, because Israel had emerged victorious with territory in Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights ceded to it. And Bedouins were no longer allowed to roam freely, and were restricted to live on certain areas of the land. Yet, even though the country seethed with resentments, I was still shocked to see armed soldiers commonly about.

 I thought it was proper of me to let the head of the excavation team know about Yousef’s invitation (technically the University had no legal authority over me since I was a volunteer), so I first approached Dr. Levi—or Ruth, as everybody called her—a middle-aged, matronly woman. As expected, she was wary and advised me against going on the trip. 

“Don’t you know that kidnappings are not unheard of,” she said, “to say nothing of what worse things could happen: rape, sexual bondage or even death.”

 I next talked to her assistant, a young woman who I thought would be more liberal, since she was carrying on an open affair with another female staff member.

 “What, are you crazy!” she exclaimed. “I wouldn’t trust an Arab if my life depended on it!”

            I thought of the risk I took when I was in Jerusalem. I had let a Palestinian shop-owner whom I met in a bazaar give me a tour of the city in exchange for answering questions about America. Nothing untoward happened as we followed the Stations of the Cross, and saw the Arab quarter from the top of Mt. Calgary, but when I had to catch the last bus to go back to my hotel, he insisted on coming along and absurdly asked me to marry him and take him to America! Even as I pointed out to him how ridiculous he sounded, he was still adamant about it. Hadn’t I learned anything from that lesson? Was I still so naive?

  It was entirely my decision, so I talked to some of the other people I had become acquainted with. There was Jeff, a thirty-something American surveyor who had been on the dig a number of years already, and who, judging from his interactions with the Bedouin, I felt knew them more than the Israelis did. Kathy, a student volunteer from Cincinnati who was younger than me and whose opinion probably didn’t count for much since she was already seen as being a little on the wild side. And Harry, a freelance writer in his twenties, a hippie, who played the guitar and taught me Bob Dylan’s song, “Ride Me High.” Jeff said I was taking a chance, Kathy said it depends if you trust him, and Harry said go for it. So I went with my gut instincts and decided to accept Yousef’s invitation.

The routine on the dig was to be up at four in the morning in order to beat the heat, eat a breakfast of tea and cold cereal, then ride on the back of an open truck for half an hour to be on the dig by daybreak. Lunch was at eight-thirty and consisted of bread, hard boiled eggs, and yogurt. We would work for another couple of hours and be back in Arad by eleven, to have the rest of the day free, a time most of us spent at the town’s enormous outdoor pool. On the day of the planned visit, Yousef met me after work with his Ducati. Everybody wished us a safe trip, though I saw on my hosts’ somber faces their misgivings. So there we were, me wearing his helmet and Yousef my straw hat, riding through the desert on a paved road, until halfway there we stopped where the road to his village veered off the main road, right by a gas station, where Yousef parked his motorcycle. Yousef had arranged with one of the villagers to meet us there with—lo, and behold—two donkeys! We hobbled along on the rocky path and I couldn’t help but picture a very pregnant Mary on a donkey with Joseph by her side going to Bethlehem all those years ago. The sky was brilliantly blue, the hot sun almost overhead, the air still and the only sound was Yousef’s whistling. It was peaceful, yet exciting at the same time. I couldn’t believe I was doing this and felt thrilled to be undertaking this adventure.

When we arrived at the village—a compound, really, of corrugated tin shacks and one large tent in the middle of it—children and women greeted us, but I was immediately led to the  tent, which was made of goat hides from what I could tell. I supposed that since it was already noon, it was better to be indoors and that I’d probably get to talk to the villagers later. Yousef told me to take off my shoes before stepping in. It was cool inside. The floor was carpeted in an intricate design and vividly colored cushions were strewn about. White gauze hung over the one window, letting in light. I saw two men dressed in the usual Arab garb, one with a white turban and robe, the other with a black turban and robe, sitting crossed-legged on cushions. I was introduced to Yousef’s father, the sheik of the village—the one in white. The one dressed in black was Yousef’s grandfather, a much older man. They didn’t bother to get up, and we merely nodded at each other.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Yousef said. I sat gingerly on a cushion, very straight and tall. We were joined by other men and boys who kept coming in and out, curious to see what was going on. Yousef interpreted for me and I began to tell them a little about myself and ask questions.

“Why are no women coming into the tent?” I asked, starting to get a little nervous.

    “Oh, women aren’t allowed,” Yousef answered. “But because you’re a foreigner, it’s okay,  you don’t have to follow our customs. The sheik’s tent is a sort of living room for men.”    

    Because Yousef, who was sitting next to me, and the other men were lounging on their cushions, I thought this was expected of me also, but I was still uneasy to do so, feeling that this would invite them to be bolder with me. However, with the arrival of food—brought in by some young boys—the angst of deciding to sprawl out or not was replaced with a new one when I saw that we had to eat out of a common bowl. It was some kind of stew with potatoes and carrots and what I was told was goat meat, to be eaten with flatbread. Of course, I didn’t want to appear ungracious, so I dipped my bread in the stew and ate. It wasn’t unpleasant but what I remember as being particularly delicious was the tea. It had an aromatic scent of oranges, cinnamon, cloves, maybe hyssop, and tasted sweet and spicy. I have never since had a tea so delicious, though I’ve searched high and low for it and tried to replicate it.

By now, with food in my stomach, I was a bit more relaxed. I thanked my hosts for the meal and leaned into the comfortable pillows by way of showing my appreciation. I was beginning to enjoy myself and couldn’t take my eyes off the handsome sheik and wondered how many wives he had, though I didn’t ask, remembering the Palestinian in Jerusalem and thinking that this might be a provocative question. Yousef’s grandfather pulled out a hookah pipe he had near him and began to light it. What was in that pipe? Hashish? I must have looked alarmed because Yousef said, “Don’t worry, it’s tobacco mixed with dried fruit.”

At that point it hit me. I had no business being among them, smoking among men. I said, “Yousef, if you don’t mind, I’d like to look around and talk to some of the women.” He hesitated an instant, and said, “Sure, if that’s what you want.”

            Outside, the sun was brutal, the reason why there was hardly anybody about. We began to walk toward one of the shacks when two women came out, one of them with huge tied-up sacks of what looked to be like laundry, which they placed on their heads. They appeared to be young though only their eyes were showing, and they were dressed from head to toe in aqua and purple robes trimmed with passementerie. I wondered if the reason they were dressed so beautifully was for my benefit since they were only doing laundry. Yousef greeted them and introduced me.  Through his interpreting, I commented on their clothes. They seemed pleased about that, giggling all the while, and were curious about the flower design on my jeans, which I had embroidered myself. 

While we were talking, a Jeep with an empty horse trailer pulled up. Out stepped a man of ruddy complexion, with salt and pepper hair under an outback hat, wearing khaki jodhpurs and jacket. He was an Englishman, there on business to buy a racehorse. The sheik came out and we all went to a corral that held two beautiful stallions, a gray one and a black one. The sheik got on the gray one and trotted around the corral while the Englishman appraised them and I took pictures. When the Englishman concluded his trade and loaded the horse into the trailer, he offered to take me back to Arad. It would be convenient for everybody and save Yousef a trip. Besides, I really didn’t want to ride the donkey again, so with Yousef’s assurance, I accepted, thanked him and his father for their hospitality and promised to write and send them the pictures I took.

            On the ride back, the Englishman—his name was Harold—commented on my brazenness. “I must say, an attractive young woman like yourself is a rarity to see out among Arabs. Aren’t you concerned for your safety?”

            “Oh, you’re saying I shouldn’t trust an Arab?”

            “Or an Englishman, for that matter,” he chuckled. “Why are you traveling by yourself?”

            “I didn’t want to impose on Yousef’s hospitality by bringing another person, and anyway, there wasn’t anybody interested in going with me. Besides, I trust him—and you,” I remembered to add. “As an anthropology student, I was really curious to learn about the Bedouin culture.”

            “Well, you’re lucky I’m a bloody proper gentleman. But you shouldn’t take chances like that, young lady. You know what they say, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’” 

            “Yes, but ‘satisfaction brought it back,’” I quickly replied. “And I suppose you’re my bloody white knight rescuing me from bloody misfortune.” We both laughed.

            I look back on that experience after all these years, thankful that divine providence saved me. Yet, I haven’t always kept my promise to be safe rather than sorry. Safety concerns go out the window whenever the call to adventure or discovery presents itself, and I invariably take that leap of faith.

THE END

Arielle Prose is a member of a writer’s group called the Penheads. They self-published on amazom.com three anthologies so far: Hunger: Stories of Desire, Discovery and Dissatisfaction; Smoke: Tales Between Light and Dark; Elements: Tales from the Substratum. After working in the publishing field for many years she is now retired.

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