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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2010 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 2nd Place Winner

A Land About Stories

South, within sight of the closed boarder to Egypt, I join in with a small family to farm the desert. My idea is not original and was overdone years ago by the socialist, Jewish halutzim, or “pioneers,” who arrived in waves on the beaches of Palestine and then Israel throughout the early twentieth century. I am reenacting a slogan from history, now terribly cliché and outdated, not out of Zionist commitment but because this family wants to grow an orchard and I am very interested in learning how to prune trees. They describe themselves as a family of six committed to living off the land they love in a small peaceful community called Azuz. 

Later I learn there is conflict in Azuz. Only eighteen families live here, but it is, unfortunately, regionally recognized for its camel milk ice cream. The camel ice cream family attracts tourists to the isolated desert community, disrupting the normal silence and darkness and displeasing the Israelis rooted here to capture peace and quiet. Each year the camel ice cream family ask forgiveness by throwing an elaborate party for their neighbors with food, music, and dancing. This year Avi’s eldest son is very eager for the party. He is just turning thirteen and loves dancing.

Avi is the father, director, and dreamer of the family I join. He and his wife lived in Azuz for some time. They farm a large patch of desert ceded to him by the government for 99 years. The government does not let one person buy land forever, only for a period. And while 99 years is more than most lifetimes and certainly longer than the life of the state, it is but a second in the eyes of G-d.

Ari won the land through persistence. Every day he went to sit in the office, waiting for the land rights. Not for weeks or months, but years. Now that he has the paper, he started cultivating the land. The orchard, it turns out, is still in the visioning stage.

Why did he need a paper to start farming? Many of his neighbors ask him this question. They farm where they want when they want because, frankly, the only government presence seen here are the jets soaring in formation above the village on their way to Gaza for morning patrols. The road to Azuz is winding, boring. No one comes here except for the cuisine tourists who are crazy enough to want camel ice cream.

“They ask me why,” Avi explains one morning, “and I say to them: 'It is because I want proof.' People are expanding all the time on the land. You never know when a new man will come and take the land that you have protected for twenty, thirty years. Without this paper, what can you say to him? Nothing. You will have nothing.”

Mostly, he uses foreign travelers as farm hands, but like he said, he has not been doing this for long. His neighbors tease him, saying, "Avi, how many are in your Roman prison camp this week?” because the labor is too similar to the ancient Romans’ punishment.

He wants to create a working orchard using the methods of the ancient Nabateans. The Nabateans, he says, used to live in this area and survived through farming. Unfortunately, although they left some stone walls as remnants, a trace of how they saved enough water in the desert to make orange trees grow, no one knows exactly how they designed their orchards in the Negev to make them functional. Avi has read many books, many books, but since he has gained as much as there is to know from these books, he has moved into experimentation.

“Last summer, a girl from Holland helped us build this flood wall,” he explains, pointing at our task for the day. “But then the floods came and the wall fell. We did not use cement, only rocks and dirt. This year, we use a paste between the layers. You will make a mixture of hay and mud. When the floods come, we will see.”

Ari has no orchard but he does have a vision, pasted together from book diagrams and his own imagination. In the end, Ari’s orchard will have seven floodwalls for seven layers of plants. Like the Nabateans, his land is in the wadi, a section of the desert that sees flash floods during the winter season. In the past, the Nabateans’ floodwalls captured the floodwaters into shallow pools around the tree roots, so that the trees could drink leisurely. The challenge, Avi explained, to making an orchard in a wadi, is that the water comes and goes like a phantom and fruit trees need consistency.

In the winter, floods strike without warning, changing this white desert into a land of little yellow blossoms. The waters will either destroy or not destroy all our toil. Now, in summer, we work the land, more a mixture of white rocks and dust than anything else, with wheelbarrows and sticks. Large rocks we put aside to use in walls.

Does Avi mind the waiting or the destruction of months of labor? No, he says, “it only costs time, and I have my whole life.” He explains this under the only tree on his farm at the moment, a lone carob tree grows by accident. We sit under her during our two morning tea breaks.

Under this tree, Avi also explains the Bedouins, his non-neighbor neighbors. While the Bedouins do not live in Azuz, they are the original people of the Negev, occasionally drifting along the outskirts of the village for one reason or another. The farmhands, as city-dwelling Europeans and Americans, are curious about semi-nomadic lifestyles and ask Avi if Bedouins join in the camel ice cream party.

Instead of answering, he tells us, “They are rich.” Coming from Avi, this is not a complement.

“Why?” Ari, a farmhand, asks.

And Avi explains how Bedouins stopped being poor and started being rich.

“The government had to do something with them, because they were always moving. The government needed them in one place but they did not want to be there, so the government paid them money to stop moving around the land. When they moved around they took from towns, they stole. To stop this, they government paid all of them, each one, a lot of money to stay still, to stay in one place. But you know? The government paid them all this money, and they still complain."

“Then, even as they have this money, they are still very cheap. Do you know how they make money?”

“No,” we say, “we do not know.”

“They sneak onto army bases at night.”

Army bases in the desert use broken tanks for target practice, so each army base might have several dozen immobile tanks littering its sandy hills.

Ari continues, “They see the tanks left behind and begin to cut away at them, a little by a little. Bedouins only come at night, so they will not be caught. They know they steal the tanks.”

“Who knows?” we ask.

“The Army knows the Bedouins steal the metal and the Bedouins know they are stealing. But the Bedouins do not care. They come every night, so quietly, and take the metal little by little until all that is left of a tank is the plastic scraps. It makes the Army very angry, but they can’t catch the Bedouins because they are so quiet."

“And do you know what the Bedouins do with the metal scraps?  They sell it as scrap metal back to the Army, who buys it generously. So now, the Bedouins don’t herd camels no more, they herd caravans of SUVs.”

Avi is clearly a bit resentful. “How can they be rich while I am here poor? Why should the government pay them and not me while I work the land?”—he asks us.

***

I left the family earlier than planned. The farm tasks were too similar to a Roman prison camp and I disliked the fighter jets cruising towards Gaza at five in the morning. The desert was silent enough that I started hearing whispers. I lost a fingernail and crushed a foot lifting and chucking rocks. I left and returned by bus to Jerusalem, a louder place and angrier place, where resentment is acted upon not just spoken about.

In the times I lived in Jerusalem, I learned that everyone resents each other. There is no avoiding it. There has been too much displacement, history, and violence. There have been too many crushed hopes, distant resolutions, and photojournalist essays to avoid anger. There are many memorials of sacrifice, markers of suffering, and generally people enjoy the national pastimes of prophecy and storytelling. These activities seem to provide some kind of creative release from the pressure of living in failed peace. Usually, the stories are pretty strange, even weirder than Avi’s description of modern Bedouin life. The stories involve divine intervention, curses, and secret treaties. They explain the problems and histories of societies caught in constant war creatively.

Later, after my stay in the south, in a taxi to Hebron, the driver teaches my companions and me about words. “Did you know,” he begins “that in Arabic Bethlehem is called Beit-Lehem, which means house of meat? In Hebrew,” He continues, “It is called Beit-Lehem, which means House of bread. So close, so close.”

He was right. Words matter and stories matter. Israeli Jews and Palestinians live in the same land with different names for every place. Jerusalem and Al-Quds. Shehem and Nablus. House of Bread and House of Meat.

And the conflict radiates beyond the boundary of the region, into my home. When I went back to school in Seattle, it was already there, being acted out between students who had never set foot in any of the twice-named cities. As Americans, especially American students, we had our own stories about the conflict, although they were generally much less magical. But one privilege we had as American students was space, both in distance from violence itself and space to speak with different ideas. Coming back from over-pressurized Jerusalem, I came to treasure this about my home.

I became a conservationist. I wanted to preserve this space for the next crop, so they could continue to say in their stories that somewhere, in some places, they had heard that community still spoke of an end to war.

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