Beware of Camels
The road going through this sun-drenched moonscape is regularly punctuated by signs that say, in the Hebrew, Arabic, and English that are used on most official signs here, "Beware of Camels."
Now there's something you don't see back home in Ohio.
This is the Negev Desert, which comprises more than half of Israel's land mass yet contains less than 10% of its population.
The desert starts around Beer Sheva (a.k.a. Beersheba), perhaps a 90-minute drive south of Jerusalem, and stretches all the way to Eilat and the Red Sea down south. It's a craggy, rugged, rocky landscape with some dramatic craters, few roads, and lots of open sky.
Apart from thirst and sunstroke, the greatest hazards here are the livestock that dash in front of vehicles without warning: camels, donkeys, goats. Bedouin children and heavily veiled Bedouin women tend goat herds alongside the road, and camels graze on sparse vegetation in the distance. It's spring now, and Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the north are green and lush, but the desert is so barren even at this time of year, I wonder what these animals will find to graze on when the summer heat arrives. By early April, it's already hot in the desert, and the sun is so strong I have to wear a hat and keep my arms covered here.
The Bedouin are the traditional inhabits of the Negev. They've been here (and, indeed, all over the Middle East) for millennia. Their semi-nomadic way of life has largely ended in Israel, due to land enclosures and other effects of modern life. They're still a large part of the Negev's population, though, and now they inhabit towns, reserves, and encampments, particularly around Beer Sheva.
In addition to Bedouin encampments, some kibbutzim, army bases, and some modern development towns and immigration centers, the desert contains some ruins left by the ancient Nabateans (who built Petra, the "rose red city half as old as time" in Jordan), as well as the occasional mosque or building leftover from Ottoman Turkish rule. The Ottomans controlled the Holy Land for about four centuries, until the end of World War I when the British took over.
The desert also contains shooting and artillery ranges for army training. So keep your head down.
But, most of all, beware of camels. They're a lot bigger than deer (which is what I'm used to bewaring on the roads back home).
My first trip to the Negev Desert takes place on assignment in March.
On the road leading out of Beer Sheva, where I arrived by early morning bus from Jerusalem, I realize too late that the driver of the sherut I'm in didn't understand me when I explained, in a mixture of English, a few words of Hebrew, and some sign language, where I need to go. He laughed, nodded, repeated my words, and told me to get in. But now, hurtling across the dry, rocky landscape, I realize we may not even be going in the right direction. Oops.
A sherut is a group taxi. A minivan. Sheruts don't operate on any schedule, they just wait until enough people climb on board, all headed to the same general area, to make the drive fiscally worthwhile for the driver. I sat in this sherut in the bus station at Beer Sheva, a city of 160,000 people and jumping-off point (so to speak) for the Negev Desert, for about 45 minutes, waiting for it to fill up.
Now we're racing down a desert highway at the speed of sound, or thereabouts, and the driver only occasionally glances at the road. Most of his attention is on collecting our transit fees (apparently collecting our money and making change for us during the 45 minutes we were SITTING STILL wouldn't have been sporting; it's much more dashing to do it at top speed on the camel-infested roadways) and on screaming back and forth with us to find out where we're going (which apparently also would have been too much trouble to find out before he hit the gas).
Luckily for me, though, a local person in the sherut is headed to the same neighborhood I'm going to, so she gives directions in Hebrew to the driver.
I'm headed to the "kfar" ("village") at Dimona, where the so-called Black Hebrews live. This is a community of African-Americans originally from Chicago (though, after nearly 40 years in Israel, at least two generations have now been born here), who are polygamous vegans who believe they are the lost tribe of Judah sent home to Israel by the angel Gabriel.
You meet the most unexpected people in the desert.
I'm interviewing some of them for a feature story based on one of them being selected to represent Israel in this year's Eurovision contest, though they've been denied citizenship for decades and were only recently granted permanent-resident status here. (On the Dispatches main page, you can link to the article.)
After the interview, I don't feel brave enough to get into another sherut, so I readily accept when an Israeli colleague offers me a lift back to the bus station at Beer Sheva.
This is my first mistake.
Like many Israelis, he learned to drive at the Kamikaze School of Fearless Locomotion.
My second mistake is to remark that, after passing so many "beware of camel" signs, I'm disappointed not to have seen any camels today.
Determined to rectify this, so that I won't leave his beloved Negev disappointed, he stops the car, backs up on the highway, and turns into a Bedouin encampment in search of their camels. I've heard that the Bedouin don't like trespassers, so I'm very anxious. No... afraid.
The pack of rabid dogs that immediately attack our vehicle seem to confirm what I've heard about trespassing around here.
I mention that, strangely, no one seems to be around besides the small child we see.
My companion says casually, "No, they're here. They're watching us."
Somehow, this does not reassure me.
We find camels in an enclosure. My Israeli chum stops the car, grabs his door handle, and asks me, in all seriousness, if I want to get out and take some pictures.
Looking at the rabid dogs still attacking our car and the menacingly dark windows of the corrugated-tin shacks around us, I say, no, no thanks, I've seen the camels, I'm happy, I'm ready to leave, leave now.
Back in Beer Sheva, I sit down to wait for my bus back to Jerusalem. The chair I select is broken. I grab a nearby table to steady myself. It's broken, too, and I hit the ground with a thud.
Beer Sheva cemetary
All things considered, I decide I'm not coming back to the desert without a car of my own.
I go back to the desert two weeks later to cover (of all things) a Reggae Festival at a kibbutz.
This time, I have requested and gotten a comfortable rental car. I have also cleverly brought navigators (my English friends Hilary and Tim), without whom I definitely would have found myself bumping into Gaza and wondering where I had missed my turn-off.
We see many camels on this trip, and nearly hit a donkey. But, overall, the drive is pleasant and uneventful.
Kibbutz Zeelim, where the festival is, is a lovely and interesting place, a garden blooming in the desert. Today it's full of young Israelis sporting dreadlocks and bands singing Reggae with Hebrew lyrics.
You find the most unexpected people here in the desert.
Maybe that's why the Nabateans liked the place so much.
Until next time,
April 9, 2006