Microsoft word - chapterthree
FIRST FRIDAY (afternoon)
CHAPTER 3: FIRST MEETINGS
"And it [the boundary of the Tribe of Benjamin] passed along to the side over against the Arava northward, and went down unto the Arava." (JOSHUA 18:18)
The Arava bus slowed to a halt beside the stark sun shelter. Behind, on the right, a strip
of tarmac cut into a nondescript wadi
—one of the myriad dry watercourses that are a defining
feature of the Negev. We had reached Qetura Junction. Several passengers looked over their
shoulders to see who would alight in such desolate isolation. The rear door groaned open and I
descended the steps. The heat engulfed me. My nasal passages seared. I squinted to shield my
eyes from the dust and the blinding sun.
Twice before I had come to the Negev during August. Both times I had taken the central
road, not the eastern road that follows the Arava. The central road winds through the heart of the
Negev—beginning in Be'er Sheva, twisting through the great crater of Makhtesh Ramon,
crossing the Wilderness of Paran, brushing the Egyptian border, and finally dropping almost due
south to the resort port of Eilat. In those previous years, the impact of the outside temperature
had at first felt overwhelming. Here, in the depths of the Arava, more than a thousand feet lower
and degrees hotter, it felt even more so.
No one was waiting. I pulled my duffle bag from the luggage compartment of the bus,
settled onto the dust-covered bench beneath the sun shelter, and began to contemplate my
missing pick-up. The bus lumbered back onto the empty road and receded into the distance. I
sucked the remaining drops of water from the second of my two canteens and cursed myself that
I had not refilled them at the Dead Sea rest stop an hour and a half before. While punctuality
generally matters little in the Middle East, a desert rendezvous is sacred. Dehydration quickly
I had little chance to contemplate further. A grime-covered white Land Cruiser, Toyota's
copy of the legendary British Land Rover, emerged from the wadi
. Within 20 seconds it
squealed to a stop in front of me. The driver, wearing only an undershirt above his waist, got
out, muscles rippling easily across his chest and shoulders. His dark red hair was pulled into a
ponytail, framing a strong, freckled face. Red hair several shades lighter spread over his sun-
He offered an embarrassed smile over the roof of the Land Cruiser. "I'm sorry I'm late. I
stopped to watch a herd of gazelles up the wadi
. They usually don't let people come so close."
His voice wavered, as if he were asking my permission to be present. He walked awkwardly
around the vehicle and hesitantly reached out his hand. "I'm Tomer. In Hebrew it means the
male date palm . It has no use. It can't produce fruit."
My jaw dropped at this strange and seemingly incongruous introduction. I felt a curious
but guarded confusion. I hesitated, groping for a reply. "That's not so," I sputtered. "For the
female to bear, she must have a male."
Tomer's smile broadened. The sadness behind it became palpable.
"Are you a Cohen?" I queried. In Jewish tradition, the Cohanim
—the Priests of the
ancient Temple and their descendants—have red hair.
"No," Tomer answered. "The Christians say that I look like Jesus. The Jews say I look
like David. I think I look like Esau."
Again, Tomer's response gave me pause. Esau, the grandson of Abraham and son of
Isaac, was the twin brother of Jacob and the first-born. As Genesis 25:24–34 relates the story,
Esau "emerged [from the womb] red, like a hairy mantle all over," while Jacob was born smooth-
skinned. "Esau became a skillful hunter," while "Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp."
The narrative tells that Jacob was preparing bread and lentil stew, when Esau returned
from the hunt famished. So great was Esau's hunger that he traded his birthright to Jacob for the
food. With that, he would lose his father's first blessing and receive instead his father's second,
I had no time to think further. Tomer nodded toward the Land Cruiser. I hoisted my
duffle bag, dropped it into the back, and climbed in. With a deft motion, Tomer cut the steering
wheel, arced the vehicle around, and turned into the wadi
. We drove for a minute in silence.
Then, unsolicited, Tomer began to unfold his story.
He spoke softly, as if trying to contain himself. Yet his words rushed in a torrent. They
poured out as we followed the tarmac west, driving up the wadi
onto the starkness of the Negev
Plateau. They flowed as we swung south into the emptiness of the Ovdah Valley. They
continued as we curved east onto a spur of narrow tarmac into Wadi Shacharut. As we climbed
upward, barren hills took form around us. Only then did Tomer's words ebb, as if restrained by
the confines of the converging wadi
We rounded a slight curve and a small, flat-topped ridge emerged a quarter of a mile
before us. A broad, level area, the head of Wadi Shacharut, formed at its foot. As in previous
years, a dozen or more 500-pound bales of hay lay piled in the middle. Around them, browsed a
half dozen camels, at first sight looking like evolutionary aberrations—giraffe necks, llama
heads, ostrich legs, and lion tails attached to the bodies of misshapen buffalos. As the Land
Cruiser approached, they lifted their heads to gaze at us quizzically. Another half dozen camels
penned in a rough wooden corral to the left turned their necks to stare. A crude pole shelter
covered with weathered palm fronds stood between the bales and the corral. Next to it lay a
decrepit shipping container, now serving as a shed. We had reached Camel Riders, our
The tarmac continued to the right, curving upward until it reached the top of the ridge.
There, perched on the precipice overlooking the Arava, a menage of two dozen trailers and
modest houses built of cement blocks huddled around a water tower. They formed an
incongruous island of green in the otherwise sun-scorched desert. A handful of stunted trees
grew bleakly among the dwellings, half smothered by the five to six months of dust that had
accumulated since the last rain. This was the settlement of Shacharut.
From my visits of previous years I knew that couples and children, or in several cases
The settlement constrained the physical and psychological space of its inhabitants. Only
those who shared a strong bond could endure such confines. Not infrequently couples would
split. When this happened, the women and children almost always departed, leaving the men to
their isolation. Eventually, the men might leave as well. New couples would come and
reoccupy the abandoned dwellings. And so, the population of Shacharut remained constant,
I wondered at what dreams brought people here and how, among those who left, those
dreams had failed. Perhaps the driving force was a search for community, a sense of belonging.
I knew the futility of such a search. To find comfort in others, one must first find comfort in
oneself. I recognized the disquiet of my own spirit and wondered whether I could live in this
A graded dirt road climbed to the top of the opposite ridge. Tomer turned toward it,
down-shifted, and pressed the accelerator. Within a minute, we reached the height, a cloud of
dust billowing behind us. We stepped from the Land Cruiser and stared at the expanse before us.
We stood atop the western wall of the Arava. A series of broken hills fell away from us,
ending 3 miles or more distant and 1,500 feet below. Twelve miles across stood the Mountains
of Edom, the highest rising almost 6,000 feet and forming the Arava's eastern wall. I could trace
the peaks 30 miles north and south, until their outlines faded into the late afternoon haze. Qetura
Junction lay obscured somewhere to the north.
The Arava is the northern continuation of Africa's Great Rift Valley, more formally
known as the Syrian-African fault. Formed by an ongoing separation of the earth's crust, the rift
extends from the heart of East Africa to the Anatolian Plateau of Turkey. Millions of years from
now, as the separation continues, the Arava will become a sea—a spur of what is today the Gulf
To an observer standing on its rim, the Arava looks like a mammoth trench, cut 1,000 to
2,000 feet deep and extending as far as the eye can see. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado,
which carves a tortuous twisted channel as much as 5,000 feet below the surrounding plains, is
many times deeper and incomparably more majestic. Yet, the straight line of the Arava conveys
its own sense of awe. One can imagine that it was gouged by the finger of God.
In the southern Arava, four playas have formed. These are shallow, undrained basins,
often saline, not uncommon in deserts. They become lakes when the runoff from the rare winter
storms collects. Three playas on the Israeli side of the border—Eilot, Avrona, and Yotvata—
have been reclaimed by kibbutzim
, Israeli communal farms, and now support date palm
plantations. The fourth in Jordan remains desolate.
With the exception of its high salt content, the soil of the Arava is well suited for
agriculture. In contrast to the bare rock of the Negev Plateau, much of the Arava is characterized
by loess, a tawny mixture of silt and sand deposited by the wind. Runoff seeps in slowly and,
more importantly, evaporates slowly. This characteristic enables desert flora to survive and
provided the basis for primitive desert agriculture.
The roots of desert plants may penetrate deep into the soil or spread widely just beneath
its surface. Either type of root system effectively captures the limited moisture. This enables the
Arava to support a relative abundance of plant life. Acacia trees—African thorn bushes—dot its
landscape. Bands of thick brush fill the paths of the runoff. These give the Arava an almost
savannah-like appearance, even in the heat of summer, belying its less than 2 inches of direct
rain a year. Herds of up to 40 gazelles still roam. Within living memory, these herds were the
prey of cheetahs, until the last were hunted down by the Bedu
in the mid-20th century.
Given its springs, and its location at the juncture of Arabia, Egypt, and the Levant, the
Arava was a crossroad of major trade routes from antiquity to beyond the Age of Steam. These
were the trails over which I would journey in the following weeks.
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