On many moments of the Negev trip, we found ourselves in the same set-up. The nearly fifty of us would sit on floor pillows, elbow-to-elbow, knee-to-knee and accept extra sugary black tea and bitter Bedouin coffee. We made the shape of a long rectangle with the points of our bodies and listened to different narratives about the Bedouin way of life.
When I found myself moving from the rocky terrain overlooking the recognized Bedouin village of Qasr al-Sir into another space with more tea and coffee, I felt comfortable, like the tea break was what I supposed to be doing. I asked Anwar, our guide in Qasr al-Sir, what he meant when he said earlier that being a Bedouin was a way of life, rather than a religion or nationality. Eagerly, I waited for an answer that would somehow address all of my nebulous questions. Are Bedouins Israeli, Palestinian or neither? Instead, he picked up the tiny white coffee cup and held it in the air.
“When a guest comes in, we fill their cup of coffee only a third of the way through. This is a Bedouin coffee cup. You will find ones that look like it in every village. If we filled the cup up all the way, it would be extremely rude because it would imply that we want them to finish the cup and then leave immediately. So, we serve three cups, which all have different meanings. The first cup of coffee is for the guest. It represents hospitality. The second cup is for fun, for laughter and enjoyment. The third cup is for protection, for now and in the future.”
This is how Anwar answered my question about the meaning of the Bedouin way of life. I was his guest, drinking coffee in dramatically smaller doses than I’m used to in America. Anwar relayed many concepts during his talk. He spoke about how the Bedouins have their own justice system, separate from the Israeli police and at some point, may be wiling to use the death penalty. He answered questions about paying taxes. He told us how a few weeks ago in Qasr al-Sir, 75 Israeli policeman came to remove take out three illegal date trees.
Anwar’s division of three meanings – guest, fun and protection – represent many of the moments we shared on our trip. It is impossible to capture everything, but by splitting the trip into three sips, it is possible to gain some semblance of clarity.
At a house in the development town of Mitzpei Ramon, I ate authentic Indian food on tin metal plates. I was served by Rosie, an Orthodox Jewish woman who grew up in Mumbai. Her walls were adorned with wedding photos and paintings of rabbis. She has seven grandchildren. I wondered what Shabbat would be like in her home.
On the first night, we sat in Salaman Al Azazme’s tent. Salaman lives in the unrecognized village of Wadi Ariqa. As he spoke, Salaman kneaded a pile of dough and told us that a life in the desert makes one’s spirit light. He threw the dough into a bed of hot coals, turning it over. As the bread cooked, it glittered in red and black. I had never seen a more beautiful way to break bread. When he lifted the charred bread from the coals, my fingers were singed. It didn’t matter.
Dr. Yaron Finzi, a geophysicist, led us through a hike of the Maktesh Ramon crater. We exercised our lungs on the climb and brains on the peak. Yaron gave us a science lesson and simulated the process of erosion by destroying a piece of bread. He stuck a carrot underneath it and pretended it was lava and poured water on the top to show that water erosion makes both rocks and sourdough soft.
Maryam Abu-Rakayek, a female businesswoman, inspired us with her story of being the first Bedouin woman to go to university abroad. She took her grandmother’s wisdom of plants and herbs in the area and became the owner of the cosmetics company, Desert Daughter. In a workshop she led, we crushed rosemary leaves with a mortar and pestle and strained them into cream. We walked around her store and smelled soap made from camel’s milk.
At Midreshet Sde Boker, a nature reserve and the resting place of David Ben Gurion and his wife, we heard from Assaf, the park ranger. Assaf spoke about the necessity of environmental protection in the Negev. Ibex grazed behind us as we spoke together. Assaf gave us the perspective of the Israeli government. He urged Bedouins to stay in one village rather than live as nomads. He discussed how the government is offering Bedouins money to move to the North. The message was: graze somewhere else or stay in one place. The preservation of nature is paramount.
The wind whipped our faces and hair on the last afternoon, surprisingly chilly. We huddled together and listened to one last complicated story, staring at the rubble of the demolished Bedouin Umm al-Hiran and looking at the new infrastructure for the Jewish town of Hiran.
Before the trip, we were reminded constantly to pack warm clothing for sleeping outside in tents. The desert, in its way, gets cold too.
Like a good afternoon cup of coffee, you drink and you feel refreshed but you are not satisfied. Your mind is awake but your belly is not full.
In those three meaningful, sandy days of the Negev trip, we heard so many different perspectives we could not simply wipe the dust away and see a clear truth lying underneath. Although we all at the Arava Institute sat together and slept under the same tent together, and blew on our cups until the steam finally evaporated, together, we did not think together.
I found Anwar’s talk and other moments of the trip difficult to distill. I was learning more about the problems, conflicts and big questions surrounding Bedouin society but nevertheless felt the weight of not knowing enough. However, I settled on the importance and truth of being a guest in the complicated, barren, endlessly interesting Negev, staying for just a bit longer than the time it takes to drink one cup of coffee.