The desert night was freezing and only the woolen canvas of his tent separated Ali from the barks and woofs outside, but nothing seemed unusual, and only when he woke up in the heavy darkness that precedes dawn to rekindle the fire for his morning brew did he feel that something was awry. He noted the anxiety with which his camels pushed against each other in the fenced kennel, and minded the lack of headlights he normally saw twinkling as they curve on the distant county road, but perhaps it was the wild spirit of the desert itself playing tricks on him, he couldn’t tell, but he knew that he would soon find out. By the time the sun had arisen a smidgeon over the Eastern horizon, coloring the limestone hills to the West a deep ocher, Ali was not surprised to see the flashing blue pulses from the border-patrol jeep that was gliding down the path towards his camp. A boy had died in a terrible accident, the officer said, the rest of his family are all in the ICU. Did Ali know anything about it? Why should he? Because the family flew 500 meters off the road when they hit a camel, surely Ali knows something about camels in this area, yes? and how there are no run-away camels anymore, and no, the police couldn’t use the biometric chip planted in every domesticated camel’s ear for finding the owner, the beast’s ear was cut off with a knife a few minutes before the police got there, and the only eyewitness didn’t see the crash, and only reported a faint noise of an ATV speeding away. Does Ali own an ATV? Does he mind if the officer takes a look around? How many camels did he say he owned? And children?
Ali tells us nothing of this at first, as he welcomes us and we settle in his tent, shoes off, slouching over colorful rugs and pillows while he kneels by the fire, using an old munitions box as a bolster. Stories of run-ins with the police are bad for business when what you do for a living is host groups of tourists for an authentic Bedouin experience. But the deep wrinkles in his forehead and his bloodshot eyes betray him. These are the furrows of a man who is troubled by more than the day’s woes, the eyes of someone who sleeps too lightly, the bent shoulders of a man who carries more weight than his forty years would suggest. Our guide told us not to bring up the accident in conversation, it was less than a week ago, and it was toxic. But a few minutes into his monologue about the Bedouin way of life Ali switches from English to a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. He veers his gaze from the European guests to the Israeli hosts, and particularly to the tour-guide, whom he knows is a local, and might convey this conversation further.
A minute earlier Ali was just running through his script, explaining in elementary-school English how the operating principle in the desert is simplicity. We were all going to eat off of one very large plate and use the flatbread he cooked in embers to scoop up our food. Why have many plates? It would only mean you had plates to wash, where water is scarce and a minute spent on unnecessary labor was a minute wasted on not taking on the openness of the surroundings which keeps your soul happy. When he was a boy Ali once saw a neighbor shatter one glass plate after another on a stone behind his tent sending shards as far as his curses reached. He was committed to keeping his wife happy, his neighbor panted, and the fools who got him this 36-piece set for their wedding be damned. He wasn’t going to move into a government subsidized apartment, and he wasn’t going to make his wife wash any dishes. This encounter was thirty years ago, but Ali kept that conversation within himself every day since. He could now see his youngest daughter kneeling on the cushion beside him, her natural beauty seeping through the fine dust on her face. Was he senseless for not giving his children a better future by moving to one of the nearby villages, where there was running water, electricity and a local school? Or was he saving for them the only gift he had to give, the display of a free spirit, imbued with the resilience of his ancestors, who would never give in, never be walled in, never trade the law of the desert for some ephemeral rule of the land? After all, in these same dunes the remnants of several civilizations are buried, visible only when the dunes shift with the wind, ruined palaces and trading posts, from the tales his grandfather would tell in the long summer nights around the campfire, when the kids were allowed to stay late, archeology that strengthen Ali’s conviction that the desert is stronger than the mightiest of kings and that in its sand even the sharpest sword soon dulls.
But this time it’s different, he is afraid. The car was going 180 kilometers per hour. Nobody woke up because there was no screeching, the driver didn’t even break, he must have been drunk, and the camel wasn’t local — everybody knows that some camels still cross the border from Egypt and Jordan, besides, the local camels are tightly guarded, less for their risk as traffic hazards and more for their economic value. Camel’s meat is considered a delicacy in Hebron, and even in the hardest times there are Palestinian families who would pay a fortune for it, and always a willing smuggler to get it past the IDF checkpoints, and a camel’s milk has healing power, as it consumes all the medicinal herbs when roaming the endless sea of gravel and sand. But the police are ignoring the evidence, Ali now shoots a hundred words a minute. They were just waiting for an accident like this to happen for a final crackdown. They don’t care about Ali’s children or their education. Free housing and fast Internet… those are just excuses to lure them out. The government just cares about the land. His land. His father’s land. His grandfather’s land. The land that had always belonged to them, or better said, never did, as one cannot own the land more than they can own the flashfloods that sweep through it every winter.
He would never give up his rights to roam this land, his freedom to wake up before sunrise and decide that he wants to follow his camels twenty kilometers to the North or the South, and be on his way, and set his tent anew, all in time for late morning coffee, grounded with the clinking of his elongated pestle on the sides of his metal plated mortar, telling his new neighbors, miles away, that coffee is served and with it the news of the day, gossip, camaraderie, perhaps some goods to trade. No, he would never give this up, he rhythmically demonstrates how coffee is grounded, and never mind the fact that he actually didn’t move his tent for ten years, and that fifteen minutes before we came, he confides, he changed his jeans and t-shirt, and his Nike baseball cap into his traditional galabia garb, just for us, to make our desert tour more authentic. For what, for what? Isn’t coffee with friends better than any cell phone? What will they do with this land anyway, it’s not that any Jews want to live here, in the middle of nowhere. They tried that before. The whole area is full of army bases. But the officers know better. They keep their families in Tel-Aviv. They prefer cappuccino over bitter desert coffee. The family that crashed was one of only a few hundred who survived in the nearby Jewish town. So yes, they will just turn this land, like the rest of the terrain, into a firing zone. Or maybe they’ll build cell towers. But Isn’t technology the root of all evil? The other day Ali saw a neighbor’s kid ignore his mother when she called him because he was in the middle of playing a game on his iPhone. It hurts Ali in the gut, he motions, seeing such kids, remembering his own mother, whose word was more sacred than God’s. First too many plates, then dishwashers, then cell phones. All this talking, the chicken must be over-done, Ali now fears. With two long iron hooks he lifts a red-hot metal cage from within a pit that he dug in the ground and filled with cinders that morning. He skillfully unwraps the chicken from its aluminum foil wrapping, and catches his breath. The chicken is tender and smoky on the tongue, a perfect match for the lemonade served from a big jug, flavored with wild desert mint. Now back on script Ali is back to English, his tone is down, and he breathes more easily. Burying the fire in the ground is a way to preserve scarce wood in the desert, he explains, this is how the Bedouins outlasted everyone in the region, keeping things simple and hidden. Seconds anyone? there is another chicken in the pit and it would be a pity to leave any to border patrol, they’ll surely be back soon…
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Photos provided by author