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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!”

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.

This way for kusheri

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

Via Appia Moderna

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

Pronounced: ènx tajvan.

and here’s some mysterious language called Luwian

Pronounced: ?

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

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.

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.

Click here for more of the september journey

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

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    1. weinstein henry

      You did it!
      I hoped so much you would do your own investigation on the Neguev ground, Yuval… It’s like to win at the lotery, to read your post!!
      Too bad you’re the only one to do this on 972…
      But nobody’s perfect: Foucault, pas Faucault.
      Jean Bernard Léon Foucauld, non mais!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sylvia

      “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”
      I don’t think you have your maths straight, Yuval.
      The total Bedouin population of Israel is 160,000. Some 110,000 live in the Negev. Of these, some 60,000 live in the town of Rahat alone. So 50,000 are spread in 8 more towns, plus recognized and unrecognized villages.
      There can’t be more than 20,000-30,000 max in unrecognized villages.
      How did you get the figure of 100,000?

      Reply to Comment
    3. DANYA

      The northern Negev was conquered by Australia New Zealand Armed Corps in 1917? Really? Thanks for sharing your journey, Lisa.

      Reply to Comment
    4. You mean Yuval, right? 😉

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sol Salbe

      Actually ANZAC stands for AustraliaN AND New Zealand ARMY Corps. And they came on horseback, but that’s a different story.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ian Ramsey

      A really wonderful take on matters and the photos are so great. Left some dollars in your tin.

      Here in Britain the UN has just declared that the UK is effectively institutionally racist in its plans for bulldozering and evicting some of our traditional nomads who have had the temerity to settle in one place for too long just like those you mentioned. They are called Irish Travellers similar to Gypsies but not Romanys

      http://www.itv.com/news/council-abusing-law08923/ is the latest UN statement for those with time for syncronicity

      Shalom Peace Salaam and good heart vibes

      Reply to Comment
    7. Sol, the ANZAC cavalry is most famous, but they had infantry brigades as well. They participated in the Battle of Gaza. Some are buried in the Dir Al Balah military cemetery there.

      Reply to Comment
    8. reader in albuquerque

      you are my israeli joseph mitchell, i enjoy your stories.

      Reply to Comment
    9. AYLA

      perfect. Except you should keep going south!

      Reply to Comment
    10. Delphine Goldberg

      I’m surprised about the blatant racism shown towards the Boudain. Is racism like this common is Israel? The more I hear about Israel viewpoints on the Palestinians and Boudain the more disgusted I become.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Henry and Sol – thanks for the corrections. I usually post these late at night, at 2:00 or 3:00 AM, and my proofreading skills are not at their best. This is where you guys step in, my partners in crime. Thanks also to the rest of you for the encouragement.
      Sylvia, I got the numbers from a paper published by ACRI: The Association for Ciuvil Rights in Israel.
      As for your question, Delphine, I didn’t quite expect to emerge from this day of the trip with such a hard impression. I was rather disheartened at what I sensed of my society. It seems that the media, the education system and other influential factors strongly tolerate and even encourage disrespect for this specific group, even more than for others.
      I’m afraid it will take us a lot of effort to recover as a society from the degree of prejudice with which we are inflicted.

      Reply to Comment
    12. AYLA

      Oh–I want to leave this comment thread with your note, Yuval: it’s the perfect place to end. The attitudes down here are really hard. In Be’er Sheva, I’ve had a sales person tell me to watch my bag because “Bedouin are out shopping just before a holiday where they give gifts.” She was referring to Eid Fitr, a very holy day, and the Bedouin shoppers never, ever would have taken my bag or anything in it. I’ve spend Eid Fitr with Bedouin friends in Tel Sheva for many years now. The fact that this woman felt so free to say this to me blew my american mind, and I did tell her so. I’m sad to report that these things happen all the time in the Negev. It’s rural, and relatively poor, and, well, let’s just say not Jaffa. But the people here are really interesting, and not in a euphemistic way, and there’s tremendous diversity down here.

      The reason I’m disrupting your perfect ending is not to add to it, though; it’s to share a little trivia: As I was driving out of Midreshet Ben Gurion, where I live, near Sde Boqer, I picked up 4 students from the environmental boarding school here who were tramping to Be’er Sheva for the weekend. When we drove by that weird, mustached-face standing stone sculpture (which I’ve seen hundreds of times), I said: That’s weird, right? And this kid said, You don’t know the story? So I took extra good mental notes for you and your readers while he told me: Apparently, there’s some absolutely beautiful island off the coast of Australia that was full of sculptures just like these, and on that same island, the people who did the sculpting also cut down all of their trees for firewood and other supplies, using up all of their natural resources, more than mother nature had to offer. As a result, all the people had to leave the island, though the sculptures remain. The island serves now as a moral to a story. So some Israeli(s?) carved this sculpture directly across from Ramat Hovav (the cancer-producing chemical plant you mentioned) as a statement–a warning–about the ways in which we in Israel are taking more from the earth than she is so abundantly offering us. This student mentioned Shale Oil drilling, an important topic du jour (we’re drilling in emek ha ela). Maybe now I’ll smile differently when I pass the guy on my way to teach at BGU (where my students feel free to tell me, when I enter the classroom with road rage, that the aggressive drivers who risked my life that morning are most certainly Bedouin).

      Come further south, Yuval! It gets weirder! And much, much more beautiful.

      Reply to Comment
    13. AYLA

      thanks for the correction, Deir. That’s right.

      Reply to Comment
    14. AYLA

      it’s all coming together now. I talked to a friend who is studying Standing Stones in the desert who met the sculptor, and she told me that the mustached man is supposed to look a bit Bedouin, and that he’s meant to represent the Negev’s conscious, looking straight at Ramat Hovav. So now that I went to the website Deir posted (thank you, DY), I can see that the face is a lot like the Easter Island sculptures, only with some kind of an ethnic twist that maybe was meant to look Bedouin? I guess I do have one Bedouin friend with a mustache like that! 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    15. AYLA

      @Yuval and @Deir–how embarrassing: Yuval had made the Easter Island connection from the start!? Ah, well. I guess I had to circle back to it on my own, with the help of some tramping environmental teenagers, and from you, Deir, to get there, after having passed the thing more times than I wish to count. Such is the September Journey.

      Reply to Comment

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