Skip to main content

From This Wadi to That Mountain


ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

Near Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev Desert, 27 kilo-metres or 17 miles from Beer Sheba on the Road to Arad, lies the settlement of the Attawneh, a Bedouin tribe that originated near the Negev settlement of Rahameh. The Dead Sea is not far away: the hot air is salt-dry in the throat and parched in the nostrils, and you might even turn to straw like the broom plants along the road or to a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Sodom is only 50 miles away. The sandscape sits as in a kiln, and gravel spits up from under the wheels of your car.

Nothing matters but water. The ancient laws of the desert are reasserted: to withhold water from a desert traveler is to court dishonor and provoke vengeance.(As though there were no Delek Gas stations within a few miles or that Ezekiel’s dry bones were your own.)

The gauze scarf for head protection and cotton dress were dry before going inside the Delek station for water and directions to Attawneh, but after an instant over the threshold, every pore burst and ran with sweat. The Levantine-looking boy offered me a towel; he filled my water thermos from a trickling spigot attached to a pipe, and then he pointed across the road.”Attawneh.”

There were no telephones. The letter I had written might have gone astray in Beer Sheba, and there was no way to find out if the Sheikh was at home except to bump two miles over the barren dune to what I could see in the distance—a long barracks at the top of the hill.

It was ten in the morning, The Levantine-looking boy sold me a lukewarm Israeli Coca-Cola. He filled my gas tank. It was hard to believe that I was only two hours from Jerusalem by the West Bank route, the distance cut in half from the closed pre-1967 way to the Negev. Now the occupied territories opened the road, a heady way of winding stone-pocked hills and crystal light, where you could see Herodian from Bethlehem and where the mountain almond trees sloped down to the valley of tamarisks.

It was the land of Abraham, the Patriarch, and the Land of the tribe of Simon who had inherited the Negev with the promise of protection from Judah. In two hours it was as though the axis of the world had tripped from the cool heights of modern Jerusalem to this depression, where the Bedouins’ black tents were like ink-blots against the dunes. It was the world of 40,000 Bedouins in Israel living in the Negev and in the Sinai.

The long, low barracks were closer, but the road from which I turned off had disappeared. There was nothing but hills of sand and isolation and a strange fixation about camels sailing over the dunes like ships, faster than any horse. Oh, how elegant and sanguine they were even without water in their radiators or fuel in their tanks. A perfect beast to be lost with in the desert! Milk from the udders of the females. Dung for fuel. Their flesh could be eaten, and a tent could be made from their hides. No wonder they were lavished with embroidered rugs, bangles, bells, and fringes.

My Fiat sputtered for what seemed like hours of dust and gravel; inside, the air of the car turned to heat daze. Then, abruptly, I was there.

A young boy was coming toward me from what wasn’t a barracks but a house built in sections with low overhanging roofs connected by courtyards and fences of oasis vegetation. Behind the boy was a moustached elderly man in a flowing white kaffiyeh and a coarse, high-necked jalabiyah, sashed at his waist and falling just above his ankles, White shirt-sleeves barely came to his wrists from under the gown covering a wool suit jacket, which was supposed to be sensible garb in summer or winter, a way to keep the heat in or out, or so the fact is convoluted to Western non-believers.

The elderly man said he was the Sheikh, and he was smiling; it was clear that my coming was a surprise. The boy looked puzzled, tentative. What was a woman doing here alone? What could she want with the Sheikh? Of course, the explanation had been in my obviously lost letter, and I would need to explain that I was Simha Flapan’s friend, and that he had sent me to Sheikh Attawneh because I was an American writer and he thought that I should learn about Bedouins.

The Sheikh’s smile broadened to white teeth. Indeed, Simha Flapan was his blood brother; I was a blessed visitor. For an instant in the shattering sunlight, it seemed right that Simha, the Jew, and Sheikh Mousa el-Attawneh, the Moslem, should be blood brothers, both descended from Abraham, one from Isaac and the other from Ishmael, one selected, the other cast out, and both had survived to fulfill the Lord’s commandment that Isaac should fall heir to Abraham for the land of Canaan and that Ishmael’s seed should be made a great nation (Gen.:21—17—18).

Within the cluster of connected buildings, the Sheikh Mousa el-Attawneh led me into what might have been the tribal conference room, bare except for straight-backed chairs lined against four walls, The boy seemed to have disappeared, and an older boy came in his place, a young man of university age dressed in blue jeans and a white cotton shirt open at the neck. The younger boy had worn shorts and a light T-shirt— the Sheikh and his sons seemed to have their own styles of keeping cool.

When I mentioned their difference in dress to Sheikh Mousa, he smiled, The Attawnehs were always like that where it came to independence and change from generation to generation.

He seated me in a chair against the wall and took a seat himself four chairs away from me. The young man seated himself even farther away on the other side, and we all faced out to the great empty room, not to speak face to face, but, in a sense, obliquely, with head turning, glancing, imagining.

He began talking right away about his great-grandfather, Sheikh Ali, who was head of the tribe and mayor of Beer Sheba, the first nomad to send his sons to school and to define the Attawneh destiny—that they should be distinguished by two things: “skill with the sword and talent with the pen.”

It wasn’t likely now that the sons of Attawneh would gain skill with the sword, for it was known that their family were not the kind of Bedouins who would be accused of smuggling or banditry; the Attawnehs were the privileged who went to school now as they had in the past. Anyway, there were no tribal battles left to lead or raids to make for bounty.

The younger boy brought mint tea and coffee and disappeared again, Sheikh Mousa urged me to drink while neither he nor his son drank anything. I noticed that his shoes had no laces and that he wore no socks. And suddenly he reminded me of my grandfather in his prayer shawl that was full of yellowed streaks and frazzled fringes, almost slovenly, but inexplicably grand; and also, like my grandfather, the Sheikh had dropped everything just to welcome a stranger who had come with greetings from loved ones. But what had the Sheikh been doing within this labyrinth-like establishment? He had shown me directly to this public room without lingering outdoors even though I had stopped to admire the hedge and the plants. I had been aware of him watching while my eyes shifted to follow a young Bedouin woman in a most beautifully embroidered dress and headgear appearing as though from nowhere and sailing toward the front of the house with her veil fluttering behind. We went in the opposite direction. His daughter? Perhaps. And how many sons did he have, I asked. It was bad luck to count one’s precious possessions. That was the first lesson.

He wanted to begin about Bedouins in a Lawrencian way, from the beginning, from the time the Patriarch Abraham had come to the Negev to buy sheep and camels from Hebron and all the Bedouins had recognized Abraham as a holy man. How could he have been anything else with such a beard, and lift of forehead, and sweep of tangled locks? Abraham had slept in the desert with the Bedouins until he found that there was not enough rain for his flocks and, then, alas, he had moved on. The way Sheikh Mousa told the sing-song story, it was as though time had stopped since Abraham lived in the desert and had sired Ishmael through Hagar. Whatever transient histories had gone by as in a film, the true reality was the desert of the Patriarch.

The way we were sitting and the romanticism of Sheikh Mousa made it awkward to ask about poverty and squalor, or why the Bedouins persisted in carrying contraband across borders, or why the black tents of the simple Bedouins imprisoned women as though they were chattel.

The way he described the glory of the past made it like the glory of a film set thousands of years ago, with many clans within two related tribes and in which warriors and poets were interchangeable. Finally, in the time of his great-grandfather, the tribes were united to compete in acquisition of fertile land against the arrogant tribes of Saudi-Arabia, and Transjordan, Syria, and Iraq, all of whom were determined to outpace the Attawneh tribes. But on the advice of this same great-grandfather, Ali, the Attawneh tribes knew when to raid, on what day it was best to set forth, how many fighters, camels, and horses should go along, and how the battle should be played. Afterwards, if there was bounty, it was divided in shares for the clans. The Bedouins trusted Sheikh Ali like a Torah or a Koran.

Sheikh Mousa scratched his ear under the kaffiyeh; he hesitated for a long time. Were there questions in his head about his authority now? If he should decide to tell me about changes, which ones should he tell, the good or the bad, and how could he strike a balance between romanticism and reality? He must have been wondering, too, about how far an American could be swept away with romanticism, especially while on the actual set, and maybe he had decided to select that first reel as a reward for my effort of seeking him out.

The Turks, for example, why, they looked upon his great-grandfather as a King! Though the Turks had invaded the desert, God forbid that they should oppress the Bedouin tribes. The tribes would bring woe to them and become enemies to them in the Negev and in the Sinai. Wouldn’t it be better to make friends of the Bedouins with offerings of love and peace and with presents of money and trinkets and land?

(The hypothesis was not only believable, but my own lonely sojourn in the desert had taught me how exceedingly better it would be to have the Bedouins as friends. What if there had been no Delek gas station?)

To be sure, he went on, the tale becoming more like a folk song each moment, the Turkish government had no wish to pass through the Negev or the Sinai, and instead they sent a governor to Gaza whose master was in Jerusalem and who would connect to Istanbul and to the Turkish Sultan. But who cared for the Turkish Sultan? The Bedouins knew nothing about him—such things were left to their Sheikh who would go to Istanbul with a sack of money as a present to the Sultan, but only to honor him and not as a tax, or a command: the Bedouins were their own law who knew nothing of tax or foreign governments. Just as on holy days when the Bedouins came to honor their Sheikh with presents of horses, camels, and grain, the Sheikh in turn would pay in gestures of friendship to the Sultan.

The images were like the magic of Scheherazade, but they distorted what I had seen too often. A Bedouin child by the roadside, his eyes running with sores. Another band of children running out to the road to beg for “lechem,” bread, and cigarettes. A young woman covered from head to foot with layers of embroidered clothing, bangles, and necklaces, dressed not unlike the camels except that the woman wore a veil that marked her as married; no strange man dare look upon her. As for the woman’s protection from her husband, the laws of the Koran guaranteed that her dowry, her trousseau, and her bed were her own forever even if her husband divorced her by announcing that intention to the holy assemblies three times. A woman’s husband could take her children but not her gold.

Sheikh Mousa was telling about how his great-grandfather had united the tribes and had decided to form a council to divide up the land for plowing. The time had come to put the seed to green. That was his way of saying it.

From what I could see of his profile behind the great kaffiyeh, his expression matched the calm of his voice while he chronicled the struggle to change, and told of how each year there were fewer and fewer tracts in the desert suitable for grazing, a universal dilemma for desert people everywhere in this 20th century—oil derricks were in the way, desert sea resorts had sprung up with campers and snorklers, and in the Sinai of the Attawnehs, dead boots and bodies lay strewn from Suez to Eilat.

Even Sheikh Mousa admitted that the Bedouins had been repelled by the idea of change. To settle on the land with their flocks and horses and camels? Why was it necessary to grow one’s own food when there were markets in Gaza and Hebron? And could there be a village large enough to gather in all the clans as though there were no rifts or grudges or unsettled scores between them?

But the Bedouin Council under the Great Sheikh Ali decreed that an agreement by friendship would be made within the tribes to portion out the land for settling. From this wadi to that mountain. From that valley up to 13 kilometres to the sea. Each clan would know the boundaries of its land, what water there was for its own use, and what water for the use of all.

The Turks did not disturb that plan, and, later, when the English won the First World War and the Turks went back into their own country, the English carried on in friendship with the Bedouin tribes. True, the Turks had governed the Middle East and the English had governed after them, but neither of them needed the land. What did it matter that the Turks or the English did nothing to help the Bedouins in health or in education or even in social planning for the younger generation? They did not take the land. And who could deny that the English loved the Bedouins when some of their leaders and scholars even dressed in Bedouin robes, ate at Bedouin campfires, and then went home to write books about the histories and traditions of the desert tribes? The Turks and the English left the Bedouins as they always were, They did not take the land.

Clearly, it was not a story that could end well for the Israelis. Huxley was probably right to notice that those who mean well behave in the same way as those who mean badly. Did the Turks mean well to make Mousa’s great-grandfather, All, the mayor of Beer Sheba? Ali was invited to bring his wives along, where he could live in splendor as a shining knight; his influence would echo throughout the desert. The English after the Turks built a school in Beer Sheba, a boarding school for the sons of sheikhs who would be educated as at Eton and would then go forth to become great leaders. Had they meant well? Mousa thought they had; he himself had gone to that boarding school in Beer Sheba until his father called him back to work on the land and caused the deepest sorrow of his life—to be disqualified from acquiring talent with the pen, which was the second part of his great-grandfather’s mandate. As for the first part, skill with the sword, what good was there in that? Only to kill the Israelis?

What business was it of the Bedouins if nationalist Arab governments made war on the Jews? The Jews were no worse than the Turks or the English or even the Saudis or the Syrians or the Egyptians. The Bedouins knew their rivals well from having met them in battle over the centuries. What did the Grand Mufti’s jihad in 1948 have to do with the Bedouins? Why should they lift their swords against the Jews, the sons of Isaac, kin to the sons of Ishmael, wealthy kin, who had learned wonders in the countries of their exile and had come back with promises of friendship, gifts, offerings of medicine and schools?

When his great-grandfather, Ali, and, after him, his grandfather, then his father, and finally he himself, sold land to the Zionists, they believed that it would do the Bedouins good.

Mousa put up his hand. “Al Hamdu’lillah, Praise be to Allah.” Good should not be demeaned. Girls began to go to school, And modernization began despite resistance. Bedouin boys appeared in Beer Sheba in blue jeans with schoolbooks strapped over their backs, women dared to be seen in public with their veils carelessly pinned. Something new was evolving. Coca-Cola. Hair creams. Shoes. Even that was good.

He glanced past me at his son who had been sitting there several chairs away from me, silent and immobile so that his presence had virtually vanished, until Mousa mentioned Coca-Cola, hair cream, shoes. I was aware of him as though for the first time.

Until the War of Independence in 1948, the Bedouins sold a few thousand more dunams of land to the Zionists every year. Afterwards, when they became the Israelis, although some good had been done, two patterns began to emerge, one that should have foreshadowed everything from the beginning and another that no one could have possibly imagined.

For example, every 50 kilometres to the north the rain comes more. From the Negev to the Sinai every 20 kilometres south the rain comes less and less. From the east, if the rain is 20 inches per year, every 20 or 30 kilometres to the west, the rain will increase and reach maybe 30 inches. And it would be there, in the places of greatest rain that the Jews insisted on building their settlements. If the land had been fairly purchased by the Zionists from shortsighted Bedouin sheikhs long ago, well, only regret was left, but when the Israelis pushed the Bedouins to lands without water without explanation or payment, what could be said about the Zionists doing good?

And how could the Bedouins prove that the land was theirs? Title was a matter of agreement, of honor! Even the Zionists had been happy to recognize that tradition when they bought the land. Why not now? Why must Bedouins appear in the Claims Office in Beer Sheba to give proof of ownership?

His profile had grown stern, and there was a silence between us while I imagined the great clan leaders setting forth on their camels to the Claims Office in Beer Sheba, trying to prove that the land from this wadi to that mountain was indeed their own land.

Yet, what if the Israeli government were to return the thousands of dunams to the land holders, would it be the same as returning the land to the Bedouin people, and would the wretched children still beg for bread and cigarettes?

When I asked, he could not say, but he was convinced that it could be so. But if the land were not returned, money compensation had to be given to all the displaced Bedouins. How else could they live? Some compensation had already been given, but better and faster ways had to be found to relieve the Bedouin predicament or they would become merely Arabs of Israel, hiring themselves out as laborers. Already Bedouins had left their families to work in Beer Sheba, Arad, and Gaza. Laborers. People of the land transformed to a commuter proletariat. He said that word, proletariat, as though it was new in his vocabulary and that he had learned it from his Socialist blood brother, Simha Flapan. For the first time, he had turned his chair to speak to me directly; his eyes were incredibly black. The Bedouins must be moved into houses; there had to be a plan to make many small villages, one for every clan so as not to impinge on tribal rivalries. The small Bedouin villages could cover the desert as a kind of Bedouin country. The desert was their inheritance from God.

Then he was frowning, his voice stretched thin, and the hand that had lain quietly in his lap was lifted up while he spoke; he was reminding me of that other pattern that no one could have imagined happening during the period of 1948 to 1966 when the Israeli military government had ruled.

Humiliation from the way they were treated was worse than the taking of the land. The settled Bedouins of Israel had been forbidden to leave their places without permission, a restriction that had applied to all Israeli Arabs without distinction, no matter whether they had been neutral in war or not and without reward for loyalty or even with consideration that the Bedouins were a people unto themselves, not like other Arabs, Would the Israelis have won the entire Negev in 1948 without the complicity of the Bedouins? And then to be subjected to security laws like all the others? It was insulting, unjust, to force a Bedouin to get permission to leave his tent only to go to Beer Sheba or to Hebron, where they had always gone since the time of Abraham. Permission to go to the doctor? Or to get water from some other place? That meant two permissions, one to get permission and another to complete the errand. Who could have foreseen such an outrage when his great-grandfather Ali sold the land to the Zionists?

Then, abruptly, his flash of anger burned out before I could realize the depth of his indignation. By now, I understood that Sheikh Mousa el-Attawneh would not let himself show vulnerable feelings, Anger was not supposed to be expressed under the roof of any Bedouin host, let alone in the house of a sheikh. Still, it occurred to me that a more compelling reason for Sheikh Mousa’s control might have been his distrust of strangers, even though they were his blood brother’s friends. What if I went back to Jerusalem and misinterpreted what he had told me as hostility to the Israeli government?

It was finished, he said. The military government ended ten years ago; now it was more important to find a way to live. He averted his eyes from me and adjusted the edges of his kaffiyeh to become a barely visible profile once again. Hand covered hand on his lap, and his voice relaxed into serenity, as when he was chanting the story of Abraham, the Patriarch.

All the black days of the military government had dissolved in 1966 because he and other holy men had helped bring them to an end. Martin Buber, Nahum Goldman. His blood brother, Simha Flapan. They were the ones who had fought to mend the torn pages of those days, for they were Jews who knew the sting of injustice; it was Martin Buber himself who had sat at Mousa’s campfire brokenhearted with tales of Jewish suffering, The drops had fallen from Buber’s eyes, and he had reached out for Mousa’s hands,

“Honor followed those holy ones everywhere,” Sheikh Mousa murmured, “Blessed be the name of Martin Buber for all eternity.”

In his own way, Sheikh Mousa had been trying to tell me that if justice was impractical, then survival was empty, for the time would never come when there would be perfect safety and security or when justice was without risk.

For a moment when he swept away the edges of his kaffiyeh, I could see sweat on his face. Maybe he was considering that same lesson about justice, and he was remembering the Bedouin children with running sores on their eyes and scurvy-spindled legs, and how his blood brother, Simha Flapan, deplored the societies of sheikhs and peasants everywhere. The Zionism of Simha and Buber and Nahum Goldman was synonymous with egalitarianism.

He looked over at his son, nodding permission for him to have the last words, which were actually the young man’s first words.”My father means,” the son said in excellent English, “that those men did not follow their brothers’ course just because they were brothers.”

The young man’s eyes seemed diffident to his father’s stories; he might have been sitting at the banks of a babbling stream. Respect for his father, it seemed, had not been his only reason for silence.

“And you?” I found myself asking.

He was silent for a moment, long enough for me to feel the tension between himself and the old Sheikh, a deep gulf between the old honor and the new necessity, idealism versus pragmatism, the same gap as between the Socialist and egalitarian Zionism of Buber, Goldman, and Flapan, and the Zionism of contemporary reality.

He answered finally in a tone that precluded further discussion or argument.”I’m not like my father,” he said.”My brothers are all the Arabs, and I will go with them.”

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading