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Bedouin Encounter

Submitted by Jene Hedden

On Wednesday, November 15, 2011, the Jerusalem travel group under the leadership of Jacob “Kovy” Kesul made a planned stop at a recreated Bedouin camp located outside the town of Arad Israel.

The town of Arad is a small oasis at the top of a steep climb that rises from more than 1300 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea to an altitude of 2600 feet in slightly more than 26 miles. The Bedouin village is located near the end of a twisting two- lane road that travels along a serpentine ridgeline of a rolling desert that is composed more of rock than sand. Our bus, under the driving skills of “David”, arrived at a pull-off in the sand near a herd of saddled dromedary camels.

The leader of this Bedouin group invited us into the camp.  He was young, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties, and dark skinned with short black close- cropped hair. He wore a long-sleeved gray tunic that was a single piece of cloth extending from neck to ankles and brown trousers with high-topped leather boots.

He smiled and invited us in to some kind of welcoming tent. The tent was large in area but not more than 10 to 12 feet tall and appeared to be made of some course woven material that we later were told was goat hair that is impervious to water. As this is desert with less than 5 inches of rain a year, that might not be a high concern. The floor was covered with colorful goat hair rugs…some new and some threadbare.

We were invited to recline on pallets, which were stuffed with an unknown substance while pillows were placed at random positions to allow us to recline with some comfort on the floor.

Our host told us that Bedouins were naturally friendly to strangers and that a stranger might remain in a Bedouin camp up to three months with no questions asked. We were told that the custom is to offer a stranger hot tea, so were offered a small glass of very warm tea that had been brewing in a pan filled with hot coals. The tea, which was strong but very sweet, was poured from a large tarnished pot with a curving spout.

Our host then shared another tradition that involves the serving of coffee to the guest. Poured again from a brass pot, the coffee was served in a small china cup that contained only about three sips. According to tradition, one sip was for good health, the second for prosperity and the third was for a safe journey. The host further informed us that a cup containing more than three sips was a sign that the host wished for the guest to depart. My cup contained only three sips but the taste was extremely bitter and strong. I wished I had not drunk all the sweet tea as I could have washed my palate with it.

Our guide, who spoke English, Hebrew and Arabian, served as interpreter for our host who told us that he had three wives and was engaged to be married to wife number four. He has 13 children and 2 more on the way. He shared that he hoped to have sons because daughters leave to get married and serve their husbands while sons look after their aged parents; and if he does not care for them, his own sons will not care for him. We saw no women in camp and were led to believe that women were expected only to cook, raise the children and love their husbands.

Our guide went on to tell us that marriages are arranged by the young man’s father who selects a bride and sets the time for marriage. The bride is not seen by the groom until after the wedding night. The bride wears a veil and meets the groom at the ceremony after which they are taken to the “honeymoon tent.” Only on the following morning is the groom allowed to see his bride’s face. The host says that is OK, as Bedouin men think all women are pretty. He says love between them comes later.

Some Bedouin children go to school and some do not. They are not full citizens of Israel but do have schooling available if they choose to take part in it. Only a few complete high school.

As Bedouin people are nomadic, they do not remain in one place more than a few months.  However, their culture is changing and some are building permanent dwellings, albeit without electricity or running water. I did, however, see our host pull out a cell phone at one point during our visit. They drive pickup trucks but also use camels for transportation. They plant gardens and fruit trees such as dates and figs and olives.

We stayed for a lunch of greens, tomatoes, a spicy tomato salsa and a large platter of rice with wiener shaped kabobs of meat, onions and roasted tomatoes. The meat we later learned was beef.  (I had suspected camel meat!).  The food was good and tasty.

After lunch, we were all invited on a short camel ride. The camel obliged us while allowing two persons to straddle its back…one on either side of the hump. We rode what seemed like miles but in fact was maybe 1000 feet. The mounting and dismounting are equally awkward, but my camel seemed well accustomed to such shenanigans. I observed a Bedouin stand on the foreleg of my camel as I dismounted to prevent the camel from arising too soon.

As soon as all were dismounted, all the camels suddenly raced for their pen, which I later figured out, is where they are later fed. For a moment, I was back home in Shelby County on my farm. The camels act just like our cows. They soon learn where to go if they want to be fed!