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The Desert Speaks - Ali Baba visits Be’er Sheva

William Goldstein shares with JOL readers some of his experiences as a new immigrant in Israel, making a life for himself in Be’er Sheva.
Illustration Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

I learned the language of the desert on the sands of the Negev not so far south of the city of Be'er Sheva. This is all true, as it would have to be to reach you here.  By my life and honor and by the lives and honor of those who have gone before me , this is so! There are many secrets buried in the sands of the Negev.

Years ago, as you came in from the north to the city of Be'er Sheva, you drove past a gigantic rectangular building about four stories high and another two that scaled two additional empty stories underneath the building. It was off to the left of the road, back about a hundred yards or so. You could see across the road from the balconies back to Desert Inn (Naot HaMidbar).

Most tour buses pulled into the driveway and parking lot of the Desert Inn that sat off to the right side of the road, just before you arrived in the city. It was all inviting, modern and tastefully laid out.

You could see this "fortress" of Beit Ramet from there, not much further south than the hotel and located back from the road. It's still there but much has changed since I lived there. It was a dormitory then for students attending the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.My son was born at the hospital in Be'er Sheva and he lived with my wife and myself in the dormitory when he was an infant.

We would walk across the sand and the road sometimes and go for breakfast at the Inn. There's a huge shopping center now right where the Desert Inn stood. The food was good and it was a break for me to sit among a crowd of mostly tourists, hear English spoken, especially American accents, as well as show off in a way for my Israeli wife's benefit how well I got along in places designed for Westerners because usually, I was the hesitant newcomer in most Israeli settings. It's interesting to look at people away from their element.

There’s a rhythm and way about Americans, an innocence, a childish enthusiasm and awkwardness, which some people find silly but that I grew up in and which simply seemed a lot like home to me. I didn't realize then that I was mid-process in some generally large type of reorientation. The Middle East has a way too. It has a deep tradition of understanding of life and people. Most of this world is aware of it. To me, it was the “Old World,” after all, we had just put men on the Moon. The Middle East was primitive, like the Navajo in the American Southwest, quite similar in customs and traditions. Yes, I had a lot to learn.

There were pictures of Bedouin children on the walls, floor to ceiling photos of bright-eyed children, smiling in front of tents with camels and goats tethered. I think they were black and white photos but they were intense. They invited you right into the desert.

Not so long after our first visit to Naot Hamidbar, a friend studying biology asked me if I would help her along with a project and drive down to the desert to pick some flowers. It was spring and the sand was packed hard and easy to drive over. We had driven south on the road that exited Be'er Sheva and ran by Abraham's Well and over the bridge that spanned the valley that flooded each winter.

We traveled a mile or so south and then we cut off onto the sand and drove till we found a field that seemed appropriate. She came back with her handful of flowers and was followed after a minute or two by a young Bedouin who appeared over a small rise. He was smiling broadly with the bright white teeth that characterize young Bedouin.

He was exceedingly polite and invited us to join him and his tribe in a wedding ceremony. We accepted and it was not long until we were seated in the middle of a tent, men on the left and women on the right, the women all covered except for their eyes in their tradition dress and my friend Nomi in her short pants, which embarrassed the living heck out of me.

You had to be there - no other way! It was like being transported back a thousand years or more. The same desert, the same tents, camels kneeling on top of their folded legs, goats tethered, a man pounding on a cup full of coffee beans with a large thick stick and chanting with the same rhythm as the grinding process. They were old, ancient songs. The car disappeared from my mind, the road was worlds away. We were back in time. This was how the Hebrews lived in the desert, possibly my own ancestors. I was comfortable here sitting on these carpets in the middle of the Negev, away from everything I had experienced growing up. I had heard that the Bedouin were very hospitable but this was more than that. It was the chapel where I said Kaddish (mourner's prayer) for my parents. It was the same place. It was the deep understanding of a people who lived in the desert for thousands of years, so similar to the tribes of Israel described in the Bible. This understanding had spawned three of the most influential religions of this world. In a few moments of song and in a sip of very strong, dark, over sweet coffee, all this came across as the bride and groom kissed and all this became a memory.

I'm not sure of course but it's written that Sarah, Abraham's wife, banished Hagar, the Egyptian mother who bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, fearing that her own son Isaac would somehow lose the blessing of the covenant - and they were sent out alone to the desert:

 "Hagar entered in the wilderness of Beersheba where the two soon ran out of water and Hagar, not wanting to witness the death of her son, set the boy some distance away from herself, and wept. "And God heard the voice of the lad" and sent his angel to tell Hagar, "Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation." And God "opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water", from which she drew to save Ishmael's life and her own. "And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer." (Genesis 21:14–21)

In 1972, I had been making souvenirs that were selling very well in the stores of Be'er Sheva. I used my knowledge of chemistry to etch brass plates in acid baths and made little miniature coffee tables. People really liked them. I had extra strings of wooden beads I used to serve as parts of the table legs of the tables and brought them down to the Bedouin Market, just south of the town of Be'er Sheva to sell.

I went with my friend Arie, who was a fellow student and an immigrant from Argentina. His English was very poor, as was my Spanish, and so we spoke Hebrew.

We had set up a little table in the middle of the "Shuk" (market). Strings of wooden beads and ribbons were spread out on the table. Tourists were getting off the bus.

"Harry, look real Bedouins", this woman was speaking with a heavy American accent to her husband apparently. I told Arie as they approached, "She thinks we're Bedouin". He smiled. We were wearing what everybody wore - T- shirts and short pants and sandals. Also, we had been living in Israel for many years, and in Be'er Sheva for a while too. We were very dark and had longish hair. We looked very Bedouin. She came over to us. "Do you speak English?" - I smiled, and came back with my best Israeli Bedouin accent - "Of course - you very beautiful lady,” I said with the broadest Bedouin smile I could muster “You like - beautiful beads - you- very good price?" 

I don't know what came over me at that moment. I never confessed to her that I probably grew up a few miles from her. I don't know why I kept it a secret until now.

Sometimes I think it would have been better to laugh and tell her that I was an American too.

But, I wasn't. I had changed. I had become a desert wanderer and we are cloaked in mystery you know.


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JOL Blogger | William Goldstein

William Goldstein is a retired chemistry teacher from the School District of Philadelphia. He was also a chemical engineer and worked on the Apollo 11 Camera at RCA in Hightstown, New Jersey. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently lives in Derby, VT.


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