Watering a desert

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January 31st 2011
Published: March 3rd 2011
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Highway 40 runs from central Israel all the way down to Eilat, cutting through the Negev desert, serving as one of the main connections of the area. The speed limit is 90 km/h, sometimes 100, but the cars zipping past me are going rather at 120-150.

It's mostly young couples in posh Lexus or Toyota SUVs that I see this Thursday morning. They are on their way to Eilat for a long weekend in one of the many upmarket Red Sea resorts. They're looking forward to their massages, jacuzzis, spa treatments and facials. Usually the men drive, shades on, looking straight ahead, ignoring my outstretched thumb. The girlfriends/young wives are busy doing their make-up; upon catching sight of me, they scowl, irritated that somebody would have the chutzpah to solicit them for a free ride, an unshaven, potentially smelly foreigner on top of that. I am a threat to their air-conditioned comfort zone. I'm not part of their group, I'm an outsider, probably one that would even lecture them on Palestinian rights or some other nonsense. The rules of common courtesy do not extend to me, so they stare at me as if they were on a safari, closely examining my appearances, 'from above the shoulder', as Spanish speakers would say, in the 2.3 seconds that we share. After about 25 minutes, luck is on my side, and a friendly Bedouin man in a beat-up old bomb takes me to Mitzpe Ramon, about half an hour away from Sde Boker.

Mitzpe means 'watchtower' in Hebrew, and only a few hundred metres down the road from where the man drops me off I find that the name is all too fitting: suddenly, a gigantic, dramatic crater extends in front of my eyes past the horizon in several directions. What I see is the Maktesh Ramon, technically not a crater, but an erosion cirque, a geological landform unique to the Negev desert and the Sinai Peninsula. It is 500m deep, 40km long, 10km at its widest. It takes a few minutes for my eyes to grow accustomed to the sheer size of the Maktesh. The stones and rocks are brown, beige, orange, deep red, black; all thrown together by a steady evolutionary process that has lasted hundreds of millions of years, and will be going on for millions more long after the beast Man will have disappeared. Consoled by that thought, I enjoy the grandiose view.


I spend the next few hours on the side of the road, unsuccessfully trying to hitch a ride. It feels like it's not supposed to be today, and I resign myself to taking the last of the three daily buses towards Eilat. It's still another two hours until the bus leaves. I buy a spread and some pita breads at a nearby supermarket and eat it at the bus stop. Cars have become sparse now, and every time I glimpse one making its way towards me through the nearby roundabout, I put the bread down, get up and stick my thumb out. After a while, a desperate weariness overcomes me, and I wave at the cars or try to hail them like a bus in Southeast Asia, as if random behaviour will help secure a ride. The psychology of hitchhiking is quite an interesting one, for one is constantly torn between hope and disappointment. Somebody should write a book or their thesis or dissertation on it. How much do I want to invest into each car? Will I manage to produce a complaisant smile to prove that I'm a harmless fella, or is it gonna be the blank stare of impending frustration?

In hindsight, it always feels like a car suddenly stops after you abandon all hope and curse your miserable fate. A small, stocky Israeli man winds down the window and asks me where I want to go. Kibbutz Samar, I say. He goes to Shizzafon Junction, he says, about 30 kilometres before the Kibbutz. He advises me to wait for a car that goes all the way to Eilat, to avoid getting stuck in the desert after sunset. After contemplating this for a while, I tell him I'm sure I'll find another ride at the Junction, and hop in.

He tells me he has been in the Israeli Army for 22 years. How old is he, I want to know. "Turned 41 years old last month." His army base is way down south near the Egyptian border. His job in the Army is to repair planes. I couldn't imagine him sticking a rifle into people's faces while shouting instructions, anyway. Having spent the biggest part of the day outside, I've grown tired by now, and doze off after a while. When I wake up, the sun is about to set. The brown of the desert has turned into a glowing red, and the sky is clustered with fairy floss-pink clouds. "I'll drive you to the next junction. It's only 15km away. It connects to Highway 90, you'll have better chances to find a lift there." I'm amazed at his concern for my safety and well-being, and thank him.

It takes me less than five minutes to find another ride; that time, a cheerful guy from Haifa takes me along. He tells me that after work this day, he spontaneously decided to spend the weekend in Eilat and meet some of his friends there. At the speed he's going it must have taken him quite a short time only to get down here from up north. Less than 20km later, we see the sign for Samar. My driver is so friendly as to not just dump me at the roadside, but actually drive me to the gate of the Kibbutz, which is only a short ride away, but would have taken me quite a while to walk.


I knock on the door of the first house I come across. A middle-aged lady walks towards me from behind the house.
-"Shalom! Sorry, I don't speak any Hebrew. Could you maybe tell me where Natalia and Laurent live?"
"Oh, you're staying with Natalia? Welcome to Samar! My name is Rita."
-"Hi Rita. I'm Jens."
-"No, it's Jennssss..."
"Well, nice to meet you, Jahns. Wait, I'll just give her a call." She takes out her mobile phone, dials a number, talks to Natalia. "She says she'll walk towards you. Just turn left here, then walk straight along the alley, then take the next one to the right and keep walking straight. You'll meet her there."
-"Saba'aba, thank you so much for that! Toda raba!"
"No problem. I hope you'll enjoy your stay here."

Three minutes later, I meet Natalia. It's already past sunset, but the first thing I see of her is her long, red hair that seems to glow in the dark. She's 37 years old, a big woman with a firm handshake, and she behaves in a more formal fashion with me than in the emails. At her house, I'm introduced to her husband Laurent. He's got long, brown hair that's half-covered by a colourful hippie beanie and he wears two earrings on his left lobe. His eyes betray a certain weariness that probably goes together with having to get up at 3am every morning to milk the Kibbutz's cows. He's wondering what to cook for dinner tonight. "Oh, right, you're a vegetable..." -"Vegetarian!" Natalia objects, rolling her eyes, while he doubles over with laughter. -"He always gets that wrong..." I just chuckle nervously.

Not all Israelis I've come across speak impeccable English. Most are pretty decent at it, some fluent, others on a level with native speakers. Spelling seems to be a big issue, though. Browsing through people's profiles online, I saw quite a few cringe-inducing errors, e.g.: "Please bring a mettres with you...i dont have a blenct so please bring a sleeping beg as well... but if you ask me Eilat is fucking worm all the time! i would say sleep with no blenct!"
The main problem appears to be finding the correct vowels. The reason for this could be that the Hebrew alphabet contains only consonants. Vowels are represented by niqqud, vowel pointers which are essentially small dots and dashes beneath, in between, or above the main letters. They are seldomly used in modern Hebrew orthography, though, except in texts for children or Hebrew learners' textbooks. So to me it seems they are just not used to vowels, hence the occasional confusion. But how can you excuse the multitudes of native speakers producing phrases like 'dood, last nite was halarious, definatley' on a regular basis on the internet?


I meet Keshet, Natalia and Laurent's middle kid and only son. His name means 'Rainbow', and I hope for his sake that he won't get teased for it once he leaves the Kibbutz (which, even worse, will probably be for the Army then). He's nine years old, has a shock of half-long, messy sandy-blond hair, bright blue eyes, and seems to walk around only barefoot. He has just come back from playing with his friends, and his feet are completely black. Natalia tells him to go say hello to me, and he shakes my hand faux-ceremoniously. I say "Shalom, nice to meet you!" and he just looks at his dad and says something to me in Hebrew, and I in turn look at his dad as well. "He wants to know where your tattoos are", Laurent says, so I take off my jacket and show him my arm. His eyes widen considerably as I do so, and he draws in his breath. Of course, he starts touching it with his grubby little fingers. Then he looks at my ears, but when his hand moves towards my right earlobe, I move back and tell him "Lo! No touch-ah!", so he just stares at it with open mouth.

Natalia takes me along to fetch her youngest daughter from the kindergarten, which is just around the corner. Everything seems to be just around the corner here. Shemesh is four years old. Her name means 'Sun'. When she sees whom his mommy brought with her, she looks away shyly and pretends I'm not there. Her hair is a bright blonde, like Keshet's, and just like her brother, she's got very white skin, which strikes me as unusual for somebody who lives in the desert, where there's sun all year-round. They look like Swedish or Norwegian kids.

The three of us go to the dining hall to fetch Anan, 'Cloud', at 10 the oldest of the three children. The dining hall is where the people of the Kibbutz eat lunch and dinner. It's free, like everything in Samar. There's no money. When you're hungry, you go to the dining hall or you grab your own groceries at the food storage. There are always fresh fruits and veggies, there's meat, fish, noodles, rice, cheese, eggs, bread, spreads and leftovers from lunch and dinner. There's wine. And lots of other stuff. When you need something fixed, you call Laurent and he fixes it. If you want to go to Eilat for the weekend, you can write your name down to reserve one of the kibbutz cars.

So where does the money come from to pay for all of this? "We have a date palm plantation nearby. We grow our own organic dates, and export them worldwide. These are some of the best dates you can get. That's how we make money to support the whole Kibbutz." Natalia explains to me.

Natalia used to work as one of the cooks in the Kibbutz kitchen, preparing food for 250 people every day. Now she works in the administration office. "People were very surprised when I switched jobs. They said "Why did you do this? You can't sit in a chair in front of a computer screen the whole day. That's just not you. You need to be busy moving around, doing things." I guess in a way they're right. But I enjoy working in the office. People know me, they know I'm a good cook, they always loved my food. So they trust me. That makes it a lot easier to work a job like that."

When I meet Anan, she's busy eating with her girlfriends, and she seems to be a bit embarrassed that her mum comes over to hug and kiss her. I check out the food that's on offer. They have a buffet with various different dishes. There's quiche, lasagne, slabs of meat, rice, steamed vegetables, different sauces. The salads are even better. There are around a dozen enormous bowls full of every salad you can imagine, plus bowls with hummus, tahina, yoghurt. There's a dessert section as well. And drinks, of course, including coffee and tea.

That night, though, Laurent cooks a welcome dinner for me. We have rice-and-veggie burgers with the ubiquitous, indispensable Israeli salad, bread, goat cheese and labaneh, a delicious sour yoghurt.

Afterwards, Laurent goes to bed, as he has do get up very early. Natalia tucks in the kids, and we go sit outside in their backyard to have a drink and chat. I find out she was born in Argentina, but that her family moved to Israel when she was only two years old. "It's funny, Laurent was born in France, and his family moved here when he was three years old, so in a way we are very similar." It's true, he does look like a Frenchman. They pronounce his name differently, though, the Israeli way. Being a linguistic purist, I snobbishly insist on the correct French pronunciation when I address him.


When I wake up the next morning, I have the house to myself. Just as I'm about to eat breakfast, Laurent bursts in. "Hey, you know, there's a mountain out there, it's very nice for a hike. Look, you can see it from here. Just follow the road and turn left at the little hut." He seems to be really worried that I'll be stuck in the house, not knowing what to do, using the internet all day. It's only 8:30, but he's been up already for more than five hours, so I can understand where he's coming from.

I take the cue and walk towards the mountain. When I come closer, I see that its surface consists almost entirely of rubble. I don't feel like going around the mountain to hike up the path, so I climb straight up the steep slope in front of me. The debris makes it quite hard, even a bit dangerous, to do that, but I'm confident enough and I enjoy the challenge. A couple of times my feet lose their grip on the sliding rocks, and I have to quickly grab a rock that's steady. Sometimes that fails as well, and I slide down a couple of centimetres until my feet find new grip.

After 20 minutes, I reach the top. It may not be the highest mountain out there, but the views I get are superb; it gives me a great perspective on the size of the kibbutz and its location in the middle of the rough, unforgiving Arava desert. On the other side, not too far away, there's an imposing flat-top mountain range that serves as the natural border with Jordan. In front of that, I see a small, entirely different mountain ridge that looks like it's been topped with icing sugar, ready to eat.

The best about being there is the silence. Not a single tourist, let alone tour group, in sight. No locals, nobody. No roadworks, noisy construction sites or IDF Jet fighters overhead. The sun is out, but it's not burning my skin. There's a warm, gentle breeze. And all of a sudden, I realize that this is one of those rare moments I'm constantly looking for. This is precisely where I want to be, it's all that matters. Nothing's affecting me. I close my eyes and rid myself of all thought. It feels like my mind detaches itself from the body, although I can still sense the breeze and the sun. When they brush my skin, it's electric. The whole air is laden with electricity, with pure energy. I can hear it buzzing in my inner ear.

I must have been standing there for close to half an hour. When I open my eyes, I'm slightly disoriented, and I realize I'm standing close to the edge of the steep slope. I gasp, but remain where I am. The mountains are still there, gazing at me in wonder, puzzled. I'm still trying to grasp what just happened. Deep inside, it feels like something has been released.


That night, I join the whole family (minus Keshet, he's grounded for saying nasty stuff to his mother) for the Shabbat dinner at the dining hall. The whole kibbutz appears to be there, and they all curiously inspect the newcomer. We sit with a middle-aged hippie couple from Brazil, who have been living in Samar for almost 20 years. I stack a plate full of veggies and baked potatoes and salads and tahina. Laurent brings a bottle of wine and fills our glasses. I get a real sense of community, although I'm sure this is not quite the ideal utopia it appears to be on the surface. After dinner, I join Natalia and the other smokers outside, and drink some more wine.

A friend of Natalia's invites us to her house for tea and cake. Her husband, upon learning I'm from Germany, seems to observe me carefully. He wants to talk politics, but I don't feel comfortable with his defensiveness of everything Israeli, so I only comment vaguely on the things he says. He's worried about the budding Egyptian revolution, as Mubarak is a good friend of Israel's. The possibility of Islamists being the beneficiaries of a regime change greatly troubles him, understandably. I'm more relieved when he goes to bed and I can sip my tea in peace and quiet.

Natalia tells me there's a party I could go to, if I wanted to, but she'd go to sleep. When I get there, the 'party' is five guys and one chick sitting around and staring at a bonfire, smoking weed, their eyes already very small and red. Israeli reggae is playing from an ancient cassette deck. They've run out of beer, but Siggi, the leader of the gang, offers me some arak. I take a sip and excuse myself afterwards before I get depressed.


After breakfast, we take one of the kibbutz cars and drive to the Hai-Bar Nature Reserve. Natalia drives with Laurent in the front passenger seat while I'm squeezed in the back with Shemesh and Keshet. The Hai-Bar is a breeding ground for endangered and locally extinct animals mentioned in the Bible. We start at the predator centre, which is more like a zoo, with the animals confined to enclosures and displayed to the public. There are common foxes, sand foxes, fennecs, jackals, caracals, leopards, wolves and striped hyenas. In a smaller indoor section, we see several types of highly venomous horned vipers as well as smaller mammals, birds and rodents, including tortoises, spring mice, porcupines, parakeets, owls, falcons, sand cats, Syrian hyrax, griffons and Egyptian vultures.

The more interesting part is when we get back in the car to drive through the vast, penned-in area where the wild animals are kept for possible reintroduction to the Negev desert. There are Arabian and Sahara Oryx, the first with straight and the latter with slightly curved horns; the critically endangered Addax, characterized by its twisted horns; the Somali Wild Ass, whose legs are horizontally striped, resembling those of a zebra; the strange Onager, which looks like a horse with short legs and an oversized head; and finally some angry ostriches, which come up to the car and peck against the windows, much to the delight of the kids.

After that, we drive on to nearby Timna Park, set in a stunning desert valley full of strange rock formations and multicoloured sand. The largest formation are King Solomon's Pillars, two massive granite columns formed by centuries of water erosion 540 million years ago. We take a little hike around the Pillars, marvelling at their sheer size. If the sand was a little redder, it would feel like the centre of Australia.

We drive down to Eilat for lunch. I already had an idea that Eilat was a posh resort town, but when we arrive there, it's still a bit of a shock. There are rows upon rows of glitzy hotels lining the promenade of North Beach near the town centre. The upmarket restaurants, cafés and bars are teeming with show-off couples wearing designer clothes and oversized sunglasses. The neocolonial aspect is complete with the black lackeys in white shirts serving drinks to the beach tourists. There's a lagoon filled with yachts and glass-bottomed boats.

We eat lunch in a Japanese-Western fusion restaurant. Surprisingly, the sushi is very decent, and the udon-veggie stir fry pretty good, but the portion is too small. Natalia is surprised and a little proud that her kids would eat sushi, and like it on top of that. "Usually they're so picky, and now they eat sushi? I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself."

The kids go and take a dip in the Red Sea. Easy for them; Keshet just swims in his undies, and Shemesh goes in the nudie. I'm a bit envious, not having anticipated the possibility of a swim today, and not having brought my bathers. Sitting on this beach, looking at the Red Sea, is a surreal experience: to the left, within spitting distance, one can see a gigantic Jordanian flag that marks the border and the town of Aqaba. Straight ahead, a bit further away, Laurent points out the Saudi-Arabian border on the Eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. To our right, less than six kilometres away, there's Egypt. I get a headache just thinking about how Israelis must feel standing here. Or how they used to feel 40-50 years ago. What I feel is that I've come a long way since standing on that mountain in the Golan Heights, where I took a first glimpse at Syria.


It's my last night in Kibbutz Samar, and Natalia and Laurent want to make sure it's a memorable one. Natalia prepares the dough for pita, while Laurent starts a fire inside a fireplace made of mud in the backyard. He then puts an enormous wok upside-down over the fire and roasts the pita on it. Keshet and Shemesh are lying on an old mattress in front of the fire, fighting for every cm of space, shouting "Ima, Iiimaaaaaaa!!!!", which means 'Mum', whenever they feel they are on the losing edge, with Natalia replying "Bevakasha, yeladim...daaaai!", translating to 'Please, children...stop it!'. Anan is sitting on a separate mattress, ignoring her childish younger siblings.

We eat the huge pita breads with salads, cut-up veggies, cheese, cream cheese, yoghurt and labaneh. The open fire has given the pita an extra special flamy and smoky taste, which makes it even more delicious than regular fresh pita. I eat until my guts are about to burst, and then a bit more, just for good measure. I get a bit sad thinking that it's my last dinner with Natalia and Laurent, but at the same time I'm happy and grateful for having been treated like family.


When I wake up in the morning, everybody's gone. The kids are in school and kindergarten, Natalia and Laurent are at work. I eat breakfast, pack my bags and walk to Natalia's office to bid my farewells. Coincidentally, Laurent passes by, so I get a chance to say bye to him as well.

I take the bus back to Tel Aviv. Karen lets me use her place as a storage for my bag, as my flight goes only at 05:40 the following morning. I take a last stroll around town, hang around in a café for a while, eat a bite, fetch my bag fom Karen's, and take the last train to the airport.

When check-in opens, the airport security people start swarming to the passengers-to-be, inspecting their passports, asking many a question about dubious stamps, trying to expose potential connections to people in Muslim countries, and showing great concern about the quality of facilities for tourists in Israel. Then they check everybody's bags, in detail, with the passengers standing there like naughty kids or drug peddlers who got caught. I take it with a pinch of salt, chatting and joking with the guy who sifts through my bag. I'm still quite relieved when I've finally passed all security checks and sit down, waiting for boarding.


Looking back, I feel I've seen quite a bit of Israel. I ate some great local food, saw some of their most precious cultural goods and beautiful nature, even had a cathartic experience on top of a mountain; but most importantly, I feel like I've connected with the people. Well, not so much with Palestinians, but maybe next time.

Three weeks were just enough to get a decent overview of the country, to see what's on offer. But for deeper explorations, more time is necessary. I still can't claim that I fully understand the Middle Eastern conflict, unfortunately, although I tried very hard. I talked to people from all kinds of backgrounds, listened to what they had to say, but the thing is: they don't really understand it themselves, for it is rather complex; and if you think you do, you're probably lying or delusional or Robert Fisk. At least I've got a better idea than before, and I feel highly enriched by the stunning experience that was Israel.

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