September journey part 12: The wasteland

Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian Territories through a month of trial. And today: both tents and prejudice come in different shapes and sizes.

September journey part 12: The wasteland

When Tine and I got arrested by the Palestinian Police, we were trying to find a way to leave the West Bank and reach the city of Beer Sheva. Today I head for that southern city on my own.

Hopefully, it will be a rich day. Ruthie will be returning from the States tomorrow and Friday is her birthday. While I am plotting documenting the birthday as a portion of the month’s adventure, there will be at least two days of rest to follow this one. My truly beloved readers deserve a double feature as long as the Ashdod post to make up for that.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Beer Sheva is only 80 minutes away from Tel-Aviv by train, and it's a lovely trip.

There’s a good chance of finding some substance here, since this region has come into the headlines this week. Beer Sheva appears on the map to be surrounded by empty desert, in reality in sits in an ocean of Bedouin shanty towns. The state refuses to treat these communities as legitimate and to grant them town status.

As a consequence, about 100,000 Israeli citizens live with no access to water or electricity infrastructures. Their roads are not paved and the law treats them as pariahs. Another 100,000 or so actually took the state’s offer and moved to artificially planned towns, but the transition from traditional lifestyle and general neglect of the new towns create mounting problems of crime and unemployment.

This week the government has voted to implement a highly controversial plan for the Bedouins of the Beer Sheva area. It involves uprooting no less than one third of the shanty town population by force if neccesary, moving 30,000 individuals into a restricted zone east of the city.

The plan is to visit the shanty towns today. i’ve never been, nor has anyone I know, though they are clearly visible from every major route in the region. First, however, there’s Beer Sheva to take in. The train stops by the university campus, which is a brutalistic concrete nightmare, but features at least one lovely attraction: Foucault’s pendulum, fixed to the cieling of the physics building atrium. It will stay in motion for as long as the earth keeps rotating.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Foucault's pendulum, not the philosopher, the other Foucault

Outside the university I discover to my surprise that the Beer Sheva tent city is alive and kicking. Its residents are just waking up to the new day.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
A miracle!

There’s one tent here that relates to the Bedouin struggle. Al-Arakib is a veteran Bedouin village located north of the city. It’s been demolished by the state last year and its residents were simply told to find accommodation with relatives. The JNF plans to plant a grove of trees on the site, thus rendering the ground useless for herding and securing a Bedouin-free zone in the vicinity of the finer suburbs. Bedouins and activists have rebuilt the village over a dozen times, and the state comes and demolishes it each time.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Vote for Al Arakib at the "Seven most miserable places of the world" pageant.

a few steps away, seated by a folding table, I meet Martine and Lilianne. Both are Jewish Israelis of Moroccan descent and residents of the tent city. I ask them how come it’s so bustling, now that the latest media spin seemed to finally strangle the struggle. “It’s because we’re not activists,” says Martine, “We’re homeless.”

“But the city of Holon demolished the tent city at the Jesse Cohen neighborhood,” I say, “and they were homeless.”

“Then they have a shitty mayor.”

“I see… guess that’s true, and how do non activists get along with the Al-Arakib solidarity people?”

“We get along fine,” Martine says, pauses, then adds: “Let me tell you something about the Bedouins. They don’t behave themselves. They come and settle without approval from the Israel Land Administration, without anyone’s approval. What do they think? that they can just put up tents wherever they want?”

I find this a puzzling statement coming from her, of all people. “But you put up a tent where you wanted,” I note, “without anyone’s approval.”

“We’re homeless.”

“And the bedouins were here before Zionism. To them it must seem like we are the ones who settle anywhere we want and build enormous cities where it suits us.”

“The Bedouins were here but not in power. The British were in power and now we are in power. Besides, this is our land. This land belongs to the Jews. It was given to us by God.”

There’s so much to say, but it would take up so much energy. Instead, I bid the two a polite farewell and move on, into a big city built by God’s favorite people, one which I never found to be very attractive.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
The only city known to man that's uglier than Beer Sheva is Ankara.

I didn’t ask to take a photo of the ladies, because the light and shadow conditions were not ideal. Now I regret that. Israel opresses the Bedouins and the Bedouins in turn oppress their women. Cases of genital mutilation are no longer common, but desert ladies are kept indoors and my chance of photographing one is close to zero. My post risks featuring only pictures of men. To avoid that, I step into Beer Sheva’s mall and take a photo of liberated Israeli women.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Beer Sheva's "Negev Mall" inspired one of my favorite Hebrew poems, "The Stone Owl" by Roy Chicky Arad.

The shanty towns begin a half an hour walk south of the mall. The poverty is intense.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Like something out of "Dune".

Some of the structures are made of tin, some are traditional tents, often a farm complex will feature both. The countryside is extremely quiet. I meet many more camels then people, and sometimes neither.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Forgive the cornyness. I'm a fool for goofy-looking animals.

A car climbs slowly up a gravel path and offers me a lift. In it is a couple with their infant child. The man is driving. The woman is in the back seat, her face covered but for a narrow slit around her eyes. “I’ve never seen a stranger walk around here,” says the man, “So I really had to stop.”

I was picked up by Uda, his wife Nuf and their son Mohamed, all of them belong to the Al-Azazme tribe. Uda is a metalsmith and built their house with his bare hands. He sends his wife to make us coffee

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Here she is after all.

Then shows me around. Mohamed is the youngest of seven children. The oldest is 15. All live in a structure thatis separated into two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
The living room: furniture-free.

When we go to the tent section of the property to have the coffee, Nuf is present, sitting a few meters behind her husband. Her face is uncovered.

I feel comfortable enough to approach the uprooting issue. It turns out that this family is among the ones set to be uprooted, and though Nuf is silent I learn from her husband that there’s a certain disagreement between them over how they should react. “I can live under a tree,” Uda says, “If you take my home, no problem. There’s a tree here in the yard. I’ll hang a few sheets of plastic from the branches, I can even survive winter like that. She can take the kids into the designated area. I’ll join them when I’m sick of living under the tree, maybe in twenty years.”

Nuf smiles.

“You know how it is,” Uda says, “You saw the people that were taken away from the Gaza strip, the settlers in the disengagement, I feel for them. They were crying. They were fighting. They were holding on to the windowframes. Of course they would. Many of them were born there, and the place where you were born, nothing can match it. Even if they offered you an apartment in Paris, you wouldn’t take it. Right?”

Well, depends in which arrondissement it is located. “To be honest, I think I would go for an apartment in Paris,” I say, “but of course I’d often reminisce to where I came from.”

“Of course you will. A man picks a tree, a point in the landscape, and that is who he is. You can’t move his heart from that.”

This is a very strange thing to hear from someone who’s supposed to be nomadic, but maybe I understand. “It’s like with my dad,” I say, “he really criticized me a fewdays ago for traveling the way I do. I understand why he’s worried, but he can’t change me. My way of traveling would be my tree.”

I go on to tell Uda the story of the arrest. He sides fully with my father.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Uda and Mohamed. Nuf is seated directly off-frame.

There really is no need to travel as far as Paris to find a place that gives hard competition to the Al-Ajajmes’ neighborhood. The tribe’s territory is surrounded by chemical plants, a chemical waste treatment and other industrial facilities. Cancer is common among children, and pollution is evident in everything. Uda says that the smell is strongest at night, when the air quality inspectors are asleep.

I bid the family farewell and go stroll about this little piece of heaven.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
No place like home: The Al-Azazme tribal land, ten kilometers south of Beer Sheva.

At its edge is one of the most peculiar works of public sculpture the world has ever known: a huge Easter Island type face sticking out of the desert. I use my camera’s timer and place myself in front for proportions.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Israel. Just when you think you've seen all of it.

The main road leading south to the Negev highlands runs near here. I head for it and quickly catch a lift with a bus driver named Yigal. He is on his way to pick up personnel form the Ktziot prison, where many asylum seekers and immigrants who enter Israel from Africa via Egypt are held for months without trial.

Yigal is displeased by the fact I visited Bedouins. “If the people of Israel have an enemy,” he says, “It’s the Israeli-Arabs, Bedouins included.” He goes on to quote relevant wisdom he has picked up at a Kabbala course in Beer Sheva.

The more Yigal talks, the more hateful his comments become. Interestingly, only a handful of them are directed at Arabs. The people Yigal really hates are me and my likes.

“Yariv Openheimer, the head of Peace Now, right? His mother is a whore. Did you know that?”

“I know this guy,” I say, “He’s a friend of mine. Please don’t talk about him like that.”

“He’s a friend of yours? You should be ashamed to say that. I’m sure his mother sucked Arafat’s dick back in the day. That’s what all you people are good for. Traitors!”

September journey part 12: The wasteland
They used to have notices posted in Israeli busses: "Do not speak with driver."

I lose my cool and start yelling. Yigal yells back. I yell athim to stop yelling at me. He won’t. I focus on the austere wasteland outside and begin to take photos of it.

Yigal stops yelling. “You like the desert?” he asks.

“I do.”

“Me too, for a long time now I’ve been looking for somewhere to dump my mother in law, somewhere where she won’t be able to find her way back. I think we’ve reached it.”

This crude joke is a peacemaking effort. I allow for it to work and we separate on more or less good terms in the heart of Yigal’s mother in law’s land of exile.

This spot is pretty close to the border with Egypt, which has also been in the news recently. I mentioned briefly on post #9 the mob attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo, but the crisis with Egypt is deeper. It dates back to last month, when a number of Egyptian policemen were shot by the IDF in the midst of a shootout with terrorists acting out of the Sinai.

Boaz and Rina, who pick me up now, immigrated decades ago from South Africa and came to live in this desolate region. They certainly feel heightened tension on the frontier. For one, the road that runs along the border has been closed for three weeks. “I usually have to drive forty kilometers to see my grandchildren,” says Boaz, “They live in a moshav outside the Gaza strip. Now it’s 120 kilometers away.

The 15:00 news edition comes on the cars radio. Danny Ayalon, deputy foreign minister, says that If the Palestinians declare statehood unilaterally, Israel reserves the right to “change the status of the territories” and do “whatever is needed to handle the situation”. Ayalon and his boss, foreign minister Avigdor lieberman, did nothing to chill the tension with Egypt. they also just spurred on a collapse of Israel’s precious relations with Turkey. Their views on the Middle East resemble far more closely Martine’s or Yigal’s views than my own.

We reach the border. The soldier let me come very close and take a photo of the gateway to Egypt.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
This way for kusheri

Turning back, I follow a long row of concrete columns placed here by Israeli artist Danny Karavan.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Via Appia Moderna

Each one bears the word “Peace” in another alphabet. Here’s Mongolian.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Pronounced: ènx tajvan.

and here’s some mysterious language called Luwian

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Pronounced: ?

The peace columns seem to extend forever. Halfway through runs a road where military vehicles travel.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
Pronounced: Jeep.

I go the whole way, through some green brush and into the sheer desert, through every alphabet imaginable. The row ends on top of a hill from which the memory of a war is visible. On top of the adjacent hill, once the acropolis of the ancient city of Nitzana, stand the remains of a hospital build during WWI to treat Turkish soldiers. From what I know, It was bombed mid war, along with the patients and mostly German staff.

September journey part 12: The wasteland
The northern Negev was conquered by the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps in 1917.

That disaster is a thing of the past, but something about this day tells me that we should really be very careful. Faucault’s pendulum is still in motion.

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Thanks for reading and taking part in the adventure. If any of you would like to pitch in for my travel and food, please do so using the “donate” button at the top of this page. Please be sure and specify that you are contributing to Yuval’s September Journey. I’m deeply grateful to those who already donated. Thank you so much! This trip would have been impossible if not for you