Inside the Whale

September 26, 2006

Israel 6

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 3:40 pm


The next couple of days were spent in the Negev desert, in the south of Israel. My good friend Charles Herman (the founder and director of The Nesiya Institute – also see description in last post) took me to spend a couple of days with Muhammad, a Bedouin friend of his.

We found Muhammad by the side of the road, not far from Beer Sheva, behind a set of abandoned chicken coops. He was squatting on this land, owned by the state, and letting his 50 camels graze. We sat under an Acacia tree and had some tea. In typical Bedouin fashion, he pulled out a carpet from his beat up jeep, rolled it out and invited us to sit. He then went looking for firewood and quickly prepared a “finjan” (pot) of sticky sweet tea.

We got to talking about boundaries in a few different senses. He seemed to talk about rules (of the desert and the state) and physical boundaries in a similar way. For instance, the Israeli government via the local regional council has been trying to get him to move to a parcel of land across the road from a toxic waste disposal unit and keep his camels in a fenced in area. He refused and has been in a tug of war with them ever since.

This goes back a long way. Before the state of Israel, under both British mandate and before that, the Ottoman Empire, Bedouin tribal claims to land were respected, or at least not overtly challenged. The Israeli government felt that the nomadic way of life of Bedouins was too much of a challenge for modern ideas like borders, environmental regulations, and land ownership. The government also wanted to protect restricted areas used for military training. For instance, we passed a tank training facility, used for target practice, just a few miles up the road.

When I asked him about where his home is he said, “let’s say that I call my home 30 meters in radius from this tree.” He continued to talk about home as a way of life – making tea, taking in visitors, caring for his camels. The hypothetical relationship to the specifics of physical space was not accidental. On the other hand, his tribe has been in the Negev for generations and it is in the Negev in general that he feels at home.


We went hiking for a while and he showed us plants that you could make soap with if you crushed them up and added water; plants that you could make tea with to soothe medical ailments; and the tracks of hyenas, wild donkeys and birds. For him, an essential relationship to the land in a sustainable way is what his life is about. He feels that western thinking has brought capitalism to his people and he struggles against the idea of work for a clear purpose of profit.

Muhammad keeps his camels as a way of life as opposed to a project that he referred to in the neighboring village of Lakia. There a woman named Roz Alsana runs a weaving factory for Bedouin women. The idea behind this project is to help Bedouin women become financially self sufficient – a rare thing in Bedouin society. But Muhammed’s problem with this project is the fact that the tradition of carpet weaving is being taken away from its roots which are linked to its direct function and instead their production on a mass scale is at the service of business.


There is an obvious tension between the rights of women in a patriarchal society and the preservation of tradition in an increasingly assimilated capitalist world. I’m not one to believe in a retrograde back to the land mythology, nor do I buy into some kind of shamanic transcendence that Bedouin culture could promise our alienated western existence. But when I saw Muhammad make tea and bread with such concentration, I felt that there was something to his grievances. He is not a purist either. He had a cell phone that rang through the whole conversation and wore a tee shirt advertising a new-age center of some kind. I left there thinking about the catch-22 that defines his life and implicitly all of our lives – the tension between the past and the future, between tradition and modernity and the search for meaning in a society that defines home in terms of ownership of personal and national land.

We had camped in the Ramon crater. On the way out of the crater, we saw some 1st century Nabataean ( structures for which no one quite knows their use other than as a kind of marking of space. We also saw a wild donkey which looks much more like a zebra without stripes.



1 Comment »

  1. your experiences must be enough for a book of essays. wild donkey photo great. miss you, NN

    Comment by Natalie — September 28, 2006 @ 3:27 pm

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