Panther Trap



Panther in the Mountains
Novella

 



The two novellas in Tzur Shezaf's first book, Leopard in the Mountains, are among the few works in Hebrew fiction set in the world of the desert Bedouin. They illuminate the quandary of their lives struggling between Israeli modernity and the freedom of the desert. In the title novella, Moussa-Ali despises himself as a 'Jewish Bedouin.' He seeks to found a dynasty of 'real Bedouin,' men who know how to hunt a leopard despite the Israeli nature conservation laws. Both novellas are painful reminders of the price we pay for modernity and progress.

About the Book

Shezaf displays "masterly skill," wrote critic Amnon Jakont, who also noted the interweaving of the universal and the particular, the underlying ideas and the plot, "...which in some ways recalls a thriller." "An original work by a young writer," according to the Ha'aretz reviewer. "Shezaf escapes from the city to the empty desert, from culture into myth," wrote critic Elhanan Raz. Michal Ne'eman pointed out that Shezaf's stories employ materials that are used in the genre of "Bible stories."


A- Tweg Ramad

It was quiet. Spring is in the air. From afar, it is possible to see columns of dust from the factories. Beyond them, on a clear day, it is possible to see the mountains of Jordan. A bit closer, beneath the high waterfall, stands one small palm tree and next to it stretches a line of tamarisks. Some of them are quite large. You can leave your things among them and rest in the shade. No, it can’t be seen from here; it’s too high. Even though it is not far, a kilometer away, perhaps, maybe two. Soft white hills approach the spring. It is possible to see the paths that wind towards it and away from it. A clear, ancient path leads down from the north. The Jews call it Ma’aleh Sharav. We call it Naqab al Hayya al Sharqiya.[1] This is a very good path. I sometimes go up it with camels: when the summer is hot and we need to climb up into the mountains, to graze the camels. There’s a ruin up there that is almost tumbling into the deep valley of Wadi al Hawa. And in the wadi there is a deep hollow where cold water collects. Even in the hottest summers.

And further along the wadi there is another spring, which is named after the hollow, with the best and sweetest water I know. Ein al Bared.[2] There is no better water than this. Sometimes I go there in the summer. When I know that the Jews are not around. And I fall asleep next to it. In a crevice in the rocks. And then I build a small campfire and make tea. And maybe smoke a cigarette. I can’t bring the camels here. The path is difficult and not good. The Jews made the path. There used to be a different path. Moussa Ali told me. He took me there when I was a boy. He also showed me the panther trap up here, not too far away. Sometimes I go there and sit beside it. I look at the frozen waves of the desert. Early in the morning, or just before nightfall. Then the lines are clearest. An endless quiet comes from them. This trap was built by one of my ancestors, when they didn’t have weapons yet and people were heroes and they had tricks to protect the flocks and the camels from the panther. Because the panther is a cunning foe. A good foe, a real foe. It is a matter of pride to trap him, and there is no other way to hunt him. In the daytime he hides, gleaming like a passing ray of sun and at night he arrives, disappearing into the darkness.

The only way to trap him is here – on the path that goes down to the spring. Into the trap we, I and my ancestors, put a suckling kid that bleats and bleats until the sleep of the night is disturbed. It cries in despair, struggling to break out of the stone walls of the trap and I, together with one of my ancestors who are no longer in this country, lie facing the moon, under the cover of stone shelter, and wait. We are waiting for the dark and yellow patch, which is more seductive and beautiful than a thousand women. Who will not hesitate for a moment. Who alone will sail through the desert with a low growl, ruling all, moving through a realm that is his alone.

And then the growl, the leap. He bursts in and shakes the prey that cries out in the terror of kids, its blood spurting onto the rocks. The panther gets his teeth into it and then the trap stone falls and he is caught inside. Trapped. He growls in fury. He struggles and twists. Until I arrive with one of my ancestors and in my hands a spear shaft or a rifle butt. And we kill the panther, who fights to the last. The trap is very ancient, its stones fallen. The rocks here tumbled down long ago. There is no panther inside, or any remains of a kid, or blood. Everything is dry in this desert. Only the desert remains. And I. There are panthers here – one panther. I know this. I saw him. One day when I was going down the path from the cold hollow to the spring. I saw his droppings and his tracks. And since then I have not been sleeping at night. Down below, at Ein a-Tarfa,[3] in my tent in the culvert near the spring, I can hear the nocturnal growl during the long nights. I know it is he. I listen to him growling from the high cliffs, begging me to come after him. To repair the trap, to put a little goat into it. But I have other problems to torture my soul.

A mountain goat approaches the edge of the waterfall. Suddenly he sees me. He whistles a shrill warning. I lift my eyes and look at the top of the cliff. Four young Ibexes. I stand up. They move and disappear into the narrow tracks. Below there is a cloud of dust. I leave the place I had been sitting, the broad view over the landscape, and follow the mountain goat track that slides down the steep slope to the spring. I go down between the rocks. The path is narrow and perilous. It is tempting to look at the view. But I know that if I fall here – no one will come looking for me. My son will not leave his mothers. And his mothers have other small children and the camels. There are huge rockslides here. I love my camels. The rockslides lie here in disorder from the days when the giant strode here and took everything apart. In the plain of Wadi Fouqra the Jews mine phosphates. They don’t want me to be here. The track is narrow and perilous. Gradually it descends to the soft white hills. I learn everything from them: the names of the rocks, the minerals. When I was a foolish young boy, I was dazzled by the money and I went to work for them. I wanted to drive a jeep. I thought it was like a woman. Racing through Wadi Fouqra. Maybe when I was as old as my son is now. Maybe older.

The cloud of dust increases. I slide down to the line of tamarisks in the wadi. The camels gallop. I look at them. I love them. Each one of them has a secret name I made up for him. Even my son does not know what they are called. Now they are hurrying towards the tamarisks. The women are laying their few bundles in the shade. The veil on their faces, the khirga[4] properly arranged. Their black dresses are covered in dust. Their feet are tanned – this is how it ought to be. The boy is behind the camels, urging them on. I kneel on the burning earth. It is noon. The water will dwindle into the summer. I dig into the side of the wadi. The women go towards the spring up the watercourse, not far from me. Rushes and lichen grow there. They are washing the dishes, filling the waterskins and washing their faces. I do not look. Let them enjoy themselves. The boy brings the old brass vessel. The camels crowd around our trough. I begin to draw yellowish gray water from the t'mila.[5] The camels lick up the precious liquid. I work unflaggingly. The sun beats down on my head. The camels drink with endless thirst. Like camels. I smile to myself and immediately stop. So that the boy won’t see. It is necessary to water the camels. No time for play. The boy is mine. Maybe 10 years old. He does not have a long robe. He wears torn jeans and a T-shirt, like me. Which I have brought him from Moussa Ali, whom I visit at night. Moussa Ali also sells me cigarettes. He wanted to give them to me. I didn’t agree. I have a lot of money. I don’t need favors. The women are singing now. How I love this singing into the desert. Their thin, hoarse voices come into the silence, like the birds of the crazy professor from Ein Husoub. There is nothing beautiful about them. Everything is brown and black. But anyone who is born here has the entire space in his singing and all the silence that is necessary. Even without the accompaniment of the rababa.[6]

“Yabba”, Father, I hear the boy whisper.

I was so sunk in thought. I look among the meager branches of the tamarisk. There is a Jew standing there. Next to our things. Where did he come from? Why has he arrived here all of a sudden? He has not arrived. There is no one here. The Jew nods. I don’t see him. I continue to draw the water angrily. The camels sneeze and lift their heads. Water mixed with camel mucus sprays on me. I could have been enjoying the water if the Jew weren’t here.

“Shalom,” he says.

“Shalom.” What can I say? I keep pumping.

“Where are you from?”

“From here,” I say. They have to know everything.

“From Ein Husoub?” he tries.

“From here.”

He looks around in disbelief. And why should he believe me? What do I care if he believes me? He will go. He is alone. He is afraid of me. If there were several, it would be harder to get rid of them. Questions all the time.

“Do you want to drink?”

“I will wait a few minutes.”

“It will take more than a few minutes,” I promise him, filling the tin can with the water and dirt in the hollow and offering it to him.

He drinks. He is hot. He is thirsty. The camels sneeze on him. He doesn’t care. It could be that he is in fact enjoying himself. If he were a Bedouin I might have liked him. Offer him a cigarette. Maybe tea. But that’s what the Jews’ servants do. But I have a war with them. I will give him water – you don’t leave a person in the desert without water. But he should get up and leave.

“Shukran,” he says, shaking my hand, hitching up his knapsack and moving off in the direction of Naqab al Haya al Sharqiya. Good riddance.

The women who were watching us go back to washing the clothes.

We have finished watering the camels. I have thirty camels.

“Sell the camels,” Moussa Ali tells me. “What do you need thirty camels for?”

“I don’t need thirty camels. But I love them. And anyway, they’re here. Like the Jews build and excavate and mine. I collect camels.

“Are you looking for trouble with them?” asks Moussa Ali, who is like my father, if I had a father. “You know that the warden will find you in the end and tell you to leave. And then, when you don’t agree to go, he will come with his friends from the authority and they will surround your camels and take them to quarantine in Be’er Sheva.”

I know. They’ve already taken them once, when I was on the way to the market. I’ve already got them back.

“Isn’t it a shame about the money?” asks Moussa Ali.

“It’s only a shame about the freedom. There is plenty of time in the world And it isn’t this government that’s going to tell me what to do. And there’s money. The camels grow up, and they have young. I sell them one at a time. There is a great demand among the Jews’ Bedouin in the Be’er Sheva Valley. They have celebrations with the camels as if they were a desert. As if the races and the weddings and the rifles and the uniforms they get from the state are what make them men. I don’t like them. Also, they are Abu Rabi'a. I am Sayidin. But what do I care about raising camels for them, if by doing so I annoy the Jews and get money from the Bedouin to release the camels that the authorities confiscate from me.

“You’re crazy,” Abu Moussa says to me.

And I hear the pride in his voice. In the honey he spreads around me so I’ll stop. So I’ll be like everyone else. I hear the envy. Because Mussa Ali used to hunt panthers in these hills. Before the Jews came. Before the English were here. When only the Turks were in this country. And they never got as far as here.

We drink sweet tea in his large tent. The women and the children are on the other side. One of his sons works at the restaurant at the gas station. Two others work for the

Jews in Be’er Sheva.

“There is a panther in the hills,” I tell him.

“I know.” He pulls a small, serene smile out of the water pipe he is sucking. Sometimes I see a real Bedouin in him. Only when he goes out to shake the hands of the people from the Jews’ agricultural village I see that he is theirs. Not mine. I see that for the friendliness and the closeness he has sacrificed the freedom of the desert.

“There is a panther in the hills,” he says and smiles, “and you have seen it.”

“Yes. I have seen it. Near Ein al Barad.”

“He came to visit the trap.”

And I know that Moussa Ali is talking about the father of the father of the panther’s father. That his blood has brought him here. Alone. Without his wife and children. To ambush the Ibexes.

“He is an orphan,” Moussa Ali says to me. Reading my thoughts. “He has no father and mother.”

And I feel the happiness that fills me. Because I have a friend.

“He is not your friend.”

“Why?” I ask.

Because he is a panther who belongs to the Jews. For them, he is nature. It is forbidden to touch him. It’s not like you, who if you are not theirs – you can’t be here.”

But how is he theirs if he doesn’t do what they tell him?”

“He will do it,” says Moussa Ali. “They will hook him up to their equipment. They will lie in wait for him with the patience that we no longer have and they will hook him up And then they will call him by one of their names and they will tame him.”

“They can’t!” I cry.

“They can do anything and they do this. Don’t be a fool,” he says to me. “No one can oppose them. They will mark you too.”

“Me? Never!” I say to Moussa Ali and take leave of him to go back to my camels that I never saddle, so that they can roam freely and eat the ja’ada and the fruit of the sial and the ratama. Into my bag I put flour and sugar and tea that I bought at Moussa Ali’s. He gets money from the army. He was a tracker there for a while. He sold his Bedouin soul. He went to look for trash instead of finding water in the desert. Instead of snorting for the camels and laying his head on the stones in the direction of Mecca when God comes out greater than everything.

And then I began to track him. To see where he dug and scratched with his claws. His white droppings, the bones of hares and mountain goats he crushed. I followed the spots of sun and shadows he leaves among the rocks. And one day, when I was at the well, I heard the voices coming from up the wadi. I climbed up to the trap and hid in the shelter that my ancestors had built. Down the wadi came two people. They had the equipment Moussa Ali told me about. They had backpacks and sleeping bags. They were coming to sleep at the spring. To wait for the panther. I prayed that he wouldn’t come. That he would smell the scent of the rifles and go drink somewhere else. Or that he restrain himself. A panther too can restrain himself. I was prepared to water him myself from my Girba.[7] But the Jews cast a spell on him. They had a machine that made voices, that sent out wires that no one can see and called him. And he came. I knew he would come. That it is why I went there that night. To sit with him so he would tell me the story of his great hunt with my ancestors. I would give him tea and he would purr, and another time I would bring him a baby goat. I knew he would come. The Jews knew too. But I knew it in my heart. They just knew – from their machines, and for this there is no atonement. He came. The wind was with him. There was no chance he would smell them. They hid behind the big boulders down in the wadi. Their machines were silent. They pulled him in fine strands of spider silk to the spring water that tinkled innocently. He drummed with his tail to the right and the left and leapt, in a motion that only a panther knows, and onto the stone bench of the spring. And then they shot him. Not with something that would kill him, but only to put him to sleep and afterwards, as he lay on the ground, drunk as a dead man, they put an iron circle with a poison in it to tame him around his neck and with its help they could track him and tell him what to do.

They wait for him to wake up. Meanwhile darkness had already fallen. But I knew what would happen. He woke up, went to the spring and drank the water he wanted to drink. He was still a little drunk. From the spring he took the path that leads up to the trap. They could not see him any more and they did not turn on their machine so he would not be frightened by the strange sounds it made. Poison also needs to drip in a measured way. They could not see me either. Because I was hidden from them. And because it was already dark. And they cannot see well at night. The panther sat on the trap. He was still sleepy, and his movements were slow. I went up to him. I whispered songs to him that my ancestors used to whisper to panthers, and the song I had heard in Moussa Ali’s tent, about the beauty of the desert and the touch of the good night wind on the tent cloths. He closed his eyes and a stroked his head. His yellow eyes calmed. Like a small child. I felt so sorry for him. To tame a panther. What stupidity. I removed the iron collar and lay it gently at the bottom of the trap. And then I left the panther dozing and went off with the wind. In the meantime, the panther woke up, wobbled a bit, growled and disappeared into the night. Down below, at the spring, the people were making a campfire and I could see Yigal, the old warden fro Ein Husoub, and another man who was younger and whom I did not know very well. The crazy bird professor was not there. Probably someone who was panther crazy was there. As for me, what did I care about birds? But a panther, that was something else. Now they wanted to take the panther from me too. Now it was war. And it was impossible that the camel, the panther, the boy and I would not win. Because if we lost – then there is no justice in the world. And it was in the desert that they invented justice.

The sun disappeared over the line of cliffs. The camels finished drinking. The women finished washing the clothes. They had already gone back to the tent with some of the camels. I scoop up some water with the rusty tin and drink. The water is cold and it tastes good. It has a harsh taste. But it is mine. Even if I am somewhere else there won’t be water like this. The sticky dust is ground between my teeth and I bite it with pleasure. The boy also drinks. Both of us have large beads of sweat on our faces, and we wash them off with the yellow water. “Let’s go,” I say to him. He is serious. The way a boy should be. He is my continuation. Here, there is no place for laughter. There no place for women’s stories and jokes. He must help me fight. He must not lift up his eyes and dream. I stroke his head. I can feel him embarrassed. Here is the tent. Not very large. The shabbiest of Bedouin tents, of those who still live in a tent. I am so proud of it. The women spin and mend it with camel hair. They adorn it with decorations that no one sees, except for me and the camels. And the boy. No one. This is my tent. Next to it are two barrels of water. The camels are already lying down around it, ready to exchange the heat of the day that is stored up in them for the cool serenity of the night.

My son, who is the grandson of Moussa Ali. The old Bedouin who raised me. The women are younger than I am. Almost my sisters. They are sisters among themselves. There are a few years between them. Moussa Ali gave them to me. I didn’t even ask.

“Take them. You need wives,” he said to me.

“I can’t. They will get in my way.”

“They won’t get in your way,” said Moussa Ali. “They don’t know anyone. They have hardly ever really seen a strange man, apart from you, me and their brothers. And I want your blood really to mix with my blood.”

“But they’ll have a hard life with me. I’m going to be a real Bedouin. Not a Jews’ Bedouin.” I almost said “like you.” But Moussa Ali understood. And then I also understood. He wants his grandsons to be like me. My son is his dream, which he concealed together with the wildness in me that he raised. The girls were like good she-camels that he mates with the wildest camel in the desert. And then I was full of pride.

“But I have no money to give you.”

“Do you have a camel and a she-camel?”

I nodded.

“So raise camels and give me the money later.”

And then I started to raise the camels. After some time went by, I understood the camels better than any Bedouin in the world. And also Moussa Ali. He did not want me to save my money in the Jews’ banks. He did not want me to have to sell myself.

At night I go in to my wives. One after the other. So that they will not be jealous. Beneath their black khirga and above their ankles they are white. They stifle their groans and I gallop in them like a camel.

Only the last twilight remained on the cliffs. Hanging like crumbs of light that someone forgot, mixed with dust. Samira brings me the bowl of rice. I dip my hands in water and sit down to eat. The boy, Ziyad, sits with me. We eat together. Fatma brings fattirs. The waterskin is hanging near us and we suck from it and roll the rice into little balls and shoot them into our mouth. We are very hungry. Sometimes I hunt a bird and bring it to the tent. The women pluck the feathers and burn them so they won’t fly in the wind as far as Ein Husoub. So the warden won’t know. And then there are pieces of meat in the rice. And we take the small bones and gnaw them. We drink the juice of the meat. The meat has such a sweet taste with all the pungent spices I bring from Moussa Ali with the sugar and the tea and the coffee and the rice.

“Do you want a rifle?” Moussa Ali asked when I went to the spring.

“Where do you have a rifle from to give me?”

“There’s a rifle,” he said.

“My heart was beating like a madman, my eyes were afraid to meet his. It was a long time ago. First he had offered me the rifle. Before he had offered me the wives.

“No,” I said. I almost cried. My heart was beating like a madman and Moussa Ali smiled a small smile to himself under his mustache.

“A beautiful rifle,” he said to me. “I got it from the army. Do you want to see?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to see it. I have my dagger. What do I need a rifle for? Whom am I going to fight against?”

“But a woman is something you do need,” said Moussa Ali, sticking his secret weapon in me.

He needed the wild seed that was burning in my loins so much. For Fatma and Samira, at whose small feet I would not look. I looked at him with astonishment. I didn’t understand. And then he said what he said. And now I am raising Moussa Ali’s grandson, who is perhaps the last of my ancestors.

Now the real darkness arrives. There is no moon tonight. The cars are spread twinkling in the whole sky. I am not afraid of them. Samira lights the fire and I sit and breathe in the night, and then puff at my nargila and look at the fire that is eating the stubborn twigs of the broom that grows in the sand and of the tamarisks that love the water that hides in the large wadis. The tamarisk that burns has a special smell. Tarfa.[8]

One day I was walking in the wadi and a frightened flock of partridges separated from the bushes with a whirr and soared to the sky. And I, as fast as lightning, like a bird of prey that comes from the sky, leapt up and hit one of them. I don’t know how. It was large and fat, and fell on the ground of the wadi wondering and fluttering. I ran to it and wrung its neck, letting the blood flow from its body and get absorbed in the sand. I waited until it got cooler, I gathered some twigs and I lit a large fire with the flint lighter that Moussa Ali gave me. The dry wood ignited with small explosions and grew into a large flame that made beads of sweat come out on my neck. I plucked the feathers, and when the fire died down and only a few coals glowed, I scooped out the center of the ashes and put the bird there. I covered it with burning embers and I waited. Meanwhile the day waned. I took the hot fowl out of the coals. The meat was soft and succulent. I tore off small pieces of it and put them in my mouth. It was good to close my yes and taste the bird that came from the fire, with its sweet, white meat that had the softness of Samira and smell of the campfire that clings to her flesh. Or to Fatma, in the heat of her flesh. I close my eyes and draw on the nargila. From inside the tent I hear Samira singing a lullaby to Azizza, my new daughter. She isn’t three years old yet. She is singing her a sweet, sweet song like hot tea with the small plants of the desert that the women gather and use to spice the strong tea with sugar that I bring from Moussa Ali. I spread out the bed of blankets and sign to the boy that he can go to sleep. Tonight the women will sleep alone. The camels are around me. Like mountains that have come down to the wadi at night. And this way I fall asleep and dream about the gallop of the camel in the open expanse of my earliest ancestors who laid traps and led the spice caravans from the Arabian Sea to the port of Egypt and the shores of the great sea near Gaza.

 

Yonatan


Morning has broken. Slowly the shadows tear. Only a slight mist remains hanging over the grass. It is damp. As if the night has lifted and its fragments are scattering in bright seeds of dampness over the grass, over the tamarisks and the casuarinas. Among the branches of the huge plum tree a flock of babblers are already doing their morning dance. They are making such a racket. I go over to the Jeep. It is green, with a canvas roof and the emblem of a white Ibex head on the side, beneath which are written the words that define it: “The Nature Reserve Authority.” I am also wearing a green shirt with a similar emblem. I don’t like uniforms. But it is part of the job. You don’t get a Jeep without a shirt. And you don’t get the freedom and the expanse. I am responsible for this area. From the Small Crater to the edge of the Ramon Crater. All this large and beautiful territory, with the Ibexes and the gazelles and the babblers and the phosphates and the wadis that crisscross everything. And the few natural springs here and the few Bedouin who still roam here. The endless war against all the trespassers; against the phosphate works that always try to gnaw into new territory, and against the contractors who dump waste in all kinds of places, and against the groups of soldiers from the army who go along roads that aren’t theirs and destroy the baselines of Creation with their chains and tires.

I have gas and water in the jeep. The oil is fine. The tires need air. But it’s alright, because in any case I don’t drive on the road much. Pretty quickly I’ll get off it onto the terrain, and there – it’s better to have tires without air, to grasp the terrain better.

Moussa Ali, the Bedouin, told me that there’s a spring that no one knows about. Except for the Bedouins. Moussa Ali and his family are the last Bedouins here. Sometimes he astonishes me. He is illiterate.

“Where is your spring?” I asked him.

“It’s not mine. It’s God’s,” laughed Moussa Ali.

He laughs all the time. Not the laugh of the submissive. The happy laugh of a person who has seen a lot and has a good life.

“There, in the hills, near Naqab al Haya al Sharqiya,”

He means near the Snake Ascent.

“I don’t know of any spring there.”

“And why should you know? It is not marked on your maps. Bring a map – I’ll show you where it is.”

I brought the map and he pushed it away.

“No, no. I’ll tell you and you follow your finger on the map until you get there. Do you see Wadi Fuqra?’

“Yes.”

“Take Wadi Fuqra until you reach the line of electricity poles. Do you see on the map where they begin to climb up to the cliffs?”

I nodded.

“Go on from the pole that is sitting right on the cliff and go along the length of the cliffs until you come to another wadi. From this wadi there is an offshoot that goes forward like the prow of a boat, in the direction of Wadi Fuqra but afterwards turns around and comes to a large dry waterfall. Around the waterfall there are huge cliffs. The wadi that continues westward from the rockslide gets to the spice road.'

This is what he called the oil road, which links Nahal Zinn to the Ramon Crater and was paved along the route of the Nabatean road.

Of course I knew it. “And where’s the spring?”

'Look there,” said Moussa Ali.

“But where exactly?”

“If I tell you exactly, how will you be able to enjoy the search? I don’t need to prove to you that I know.” Moussa Ali sucks on the nargila and sips the sweet tea he had made for both of us.

I start the Jeep. I turn north and drive to the entrance to Nahal Zinn, galloping with the awakening morning. The Jeep leaves stripes in the dew. This hour of the morning. The huge phosphate trucks spin wheels taller than a man as they hurtle back and forth along the network of dirt roads. You need expertise to find your way along them. The Jeep climbs to the Negev hight. Up there I turn southwards, to the oil road. I stop for a moment and have a look at the marked wadi. The truth is that is not easy to drive and navigate at the same time. Every few hundred meters I have to stop if there is no clear landmark that I can identify. Now at least there is a point that I know that if I pass it, I have to stop. I am very proud of my navigation. I have never got lost. Not in the army and not afterwards. Not on any hike or patrol. I love to figure out the codes of the map, to construct in my imagination the real shapes of the landscape from the mapped lines, to know exactly how it is going to look. Here is the place. I check again. The Jeep goes off the road. I drive carefully up to the top of the hill, where I turn off the Jeep and take the backpack in which there is everything I need. Even a pistol. I leave the hunting rifle – against the stray dogs and the sick animals – in the Jeep. I locate myself on the map, decisively orienting it to the landscape. The Jeep can’t be seen from the road. A small, godforsaken wadi. And how could anyone know that there is a natural spring here?

There is no promise here of a spring. There is nothing here. Just a rocky wadi with walls of rock. I go down into the wadi. The vegetation crowds onto the shelves of the rocks. It enjoys the wetness that is hidden in the rocks. The day is getting hotter. The sun is high now. It is already 10:00 in the morning. There are no signs of a spring. And suddenly the whole landscape is before me. Wide open. The Zinn Valley. The Mountains of Edom beyond the horizon. A loud whistle from my right. I turn, checked. A young male Ibex is calling out a warning. They have become very sensitive, the Ibexes, ever since the panther appeared here. That same panther whose diggings and droppings we found near Ein Hava. We packed up the transmitter and went to ambush him. In one of those lucky breaks, and maybe because of the bleating of the young goat we recorded, he appeared that same night at the spring. Sometimes you get lucky. Yigal shot him with a soporific bullet and I fitted the transmitter collar on him. He was so beautiful. A large cat with gorgeous yellow spots and eyes. So lithe. He appeared suddenly out of the night, descending from the rocks with the grace of an athletic prince. He looked in the direction of the spring, as if in disbelief, and then he leapt and sat down by the trough. Yigal shot him and he collapsed in disbelief. After I put the collar on him we moved away with the wind to the shelter of the rock. We looked at him. He recovered and went over to lick a little water. Perhaps he was muzzy from the anesthetic. And then he disappeared with a wobbly, sleepy gait up the path that goes around the rockslide. Yigal turned on the transmitter. The beeps were perfectly clear, very close. Apparently he was resting nearby. We took turns sleeping.

“Something here doesn’t look right to me,” said Yigal in the morning. The beeps were regular and near. “I hope that we didn’t kill him with an overdose of the drug.”

We climbed the path near the rockslide. We tried to find the source of the sounds. Above the rockslide wound an ancient path. The panther’s tracks were on it. Further along the path, on a small, natural saddle, there was a structure.

“A panther trap,” said Yigal.

I looked into it cautiously, lest the panther was dozing inside. There was no panther, but before my astonished eyes lay the collar. I pulled it out.

“A smart panther,” said Yigal. “How did he get the collar off, and in the trap, as if he knew it was a panther trap?”

“Maybe he’s making fun of us,” I suggested.

Yigal smiled. He has a great sense of humor.

“We’ll have to come here again, now that we know that he comes here; we’ll put the collar on again and we’ll tag him.”

The Ibexex vanish down the path. I continue on and suddenly I’m standing on a huge limestone rockslide. Below, among the soft, chalky hills, I can see a lone palm tree and next to it a grove of tamarisks. I hear a child singing. What is a child doing there? Yes, it’s definitely a child. There are Bedouins down there. Maybe it’s Moussa Ali waiting for me down there. The old fox. A rock tumbles down. I look north. The Ibexes are leaping along a hidden path on the other side of the rockslide. It’s worth checking whether there is a way down there.

For one moment I wonder whether it’s worth going back to the Jeep, to take it around and get to the spring from below. But then I decide that if I want the immediacy of it –

I will get there alone, without help, on foot. I follow the goats. The path is very narrow. To my surprise, on the track that winds a head of me I see the prints of a Bedouin’s sandal. Moussa Ali? There aren’t any other Bedouins here. Higher up there is a military area and below there is land that belongs to the phosphate mines. I didn’t know that the old man walked here. He looks so old and tired. But you can never tell with Bedouins. There are always surprises. I descend carefully. The path is steep and narrow. I go past paths that split. There is no well-trodden path. And why should there be?

There are two good ascents to the south and to the north of here. I know, because I have been up and down them. I slide down to the spring. The scene stuns me for a moment: masses of camels. I stand in wonderment and look. Where did so many camels appear from? Moussa Ali has three, which he keeps for giving rides to tourists. He makes a bit of money from them. But these are unbranded camels, and probably not inoculated. They bare their teeth at me. Slowly I descend from the hill to the palm tree and go along the green Juncus Path that indicates water very near to the surface. It is very hot now. Noon. The sun is in the south. A dazzling white light rises from the white earth. Suddenly I see the boy. I stand in the shade, among the low tamarisks that the camels have munched. There is also a donkey. Surprisingly, there are no dogs. A camel sneezes hotly on me. They are wild, these camels. I can see that.

“Ahlan. Greetings,” I say to the boy. The boy nods his head but he does not approach and does not ask for candy. What kind of Bedouin child is this? The camels suck up water thirstily. Suddenly I see a young, very dark Bedouin. He is about my age perhaps. He is wearing a white shirt, which has seen better days, and a pair of torn jeans that have been patched more than once. Never in my life have I seen such a rag-tag Bedouin in this country. On his feet he wears crumbling rubber sandals. Even without seeing the soles I know that I had seen his footprints up there, on the descent that went around the rockslide. I go up to him. His eyes are fixed on me. On my green shirt with the Ibex symbol. As if he knew I would come.

“Ahlan,” I say.

He nods his head. He is not a nice fellow.

“What is this place called?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

Now he is not looking at me and continues to draw murky water for the camels.

“Where are you from? From Hazeva?” I ask.

'no'

“From where?”

“From here.”

“Whereabouts here?”

“From here.” The Bedouin looks at me angrily.

“And whose camels are those?”

“Mine.”

“All of them?’

“All of them.”

The answer doesn’t ring true to me. Such a scrawny, filthy Bedouin, who feels as though he invented the desert. I happen to know how much a camel is worth. With so many camels he could build himself a villa in Rahat. Or in Omer. Or at least open a roadside café on the Arava road.

“Who gave you the camels?” I insist.

“They are mine. All of them.”

“And do you know that they are not allowed to be here?

“Who says?” he breathes angrily.

“I say so. This land belongs to the phosphate plant, and this spring is part of a nature reserve.”

“Who told you about this spring?”

“It doesn’t matter who told me. You know that we know everything. Tomorrow I’m bringing you an eviction order, and you better watch out if I catch you here.”

“I was here first,” I hear him whisper behind my back.

I didn’t even drink any of the water. The boy stands there and watches us. I don’t think he even understands Hebrew. Two shitty Bedouin. As if all the world belonged to them. When will they realize that there’s a state here and you can’t break laws whenever you want, even if no one sees. Razing camels. And a lot of them.

I climbed back up the cliff. It was hot. I drank all my water. Above, there was a wind. From the wadi rose clouds of dust and the shouts of a boy with the sounds of camels. Beyond that were clouds of dust from the phosphate plant and beyond them, the mountains of Edom. I got to the Jeep that was waiting for me faithfully. I took out the jerry can and drank some of the hot water and rinsed my head and face. The water has a semi-saline taste here. With the straw flavor of water pumped sparingly from the obdurate earth. I started the Jeep and drove back to the path. There will be no probem in getting there with a truck and loading on the camels. There is a vehicular road that gets almost to Ma’aleh Sharav – not more than 300 meters from the spring. We’ll be there tomorrow. I drove the Jeep into the yard of the field school and stopped. It is already afternoon. I went in to tell Yigal, to make the phone call and invite everyone necessary to this little party.

I find him sunk in a book about animals. He’s an animal-lover, that Yigal. He studied zoology at the university. Every free moment he has, he reads. Or writes. I also read. But only when I have time. And even then, not philosophical stuff. Books you can read. And anyway, like every warden, I have a bird book in my Jeep. Plants I leave to the girl soldier-teachers at the field school, who can tell me what they are. They take special pleasure in telling me. I’m mostly a field man, not a book man. Smells, signs of water, tracks of animals and people. Hikers have a tendency to get lost and the Bedouin always appear in place where they’re not allowed. Like that idiot. They should leave nature to the people who are responsible for it, and then it can be preserved in peace. Even so, there’s enough work, against the army and against the phosphate plant and all kinds of thieving contractors and illegal hunters. I knock on Yigal’s door.

“It’s open,” he says loudly.

I go in. He is sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. I knew it. That lazybones. Every free moment he has – he reads books.

“What’s new?” he asks.

“I found Moussa Ali’s spring.”

“Good,” he says. “It took me longer.”

“What are you saying? Do you mean to say you knew about it?”

He smiles a small smile, as if he had all the time and all the secrets in the world.

“Do you want something to drink?”

“Don’t change the subject. Couldn’t you have told me that you know it and saved me this whole mess?”

“What are you making such a fuss about? America was also discovered before Columbus. Even the Indians knew about it before him, but his name went down in history anyway. Now your name will go down in the history of the new Israel as the discoverer of Ein al Tarfa. You can give it a name of your own – Ein Sharav, The hot spring, for example.'

I admit that I like the idea. A spring that I will invent a name for. But a moment before the joy and the pride, I have to ask him another question: “Did you also know about the Bedouin who lives at the spring?”

“He’s probably Moussa Ali’s son.”

“He’s not Moussa Ali’s son. He’s a Bedouin with a child who has a lot of camels.”

“Nevertheless, he’s probably Moussa Ali’s son. He had a Bedouin boy. I was once told that he wasn’t his. That he had found him. This Bedouin told me that Moussa Ali committed adultery with a married woman. No one knew about it. She had his son and then they found out about the story. Some woman who was jealous of her told the story. Maybe one of her husband’s other wives. And then she ran away. They chased her. They did to her what Bedouin do to women like that, and they brought her to him with the child. Both of them were in a bundle. The child – alive, and she – in small pieces. Since then, Moussa Ali has loved him more than his other children. No one knows whether he is really his child. But that’s how it is – people especially love what they have taken illegally.”

“Where did you hear that story?”

“When I came here after the army, Moussa Ali was still a Bedouin who moved around, and that boy, who was already quite big, went everywhere with him. A silent, serious kid. He didn’t know how to laugh and chat like Moussa Ali. He knows me, but he’s never spoken to me. You might have thought that Moussa Ali was hiding him from the world. He used to work at the phosphate plant. He drove a Jeep. But after a month, he quit the job. In fact they liked him there, he was an excellent driver. Since then he’s disappeared. I thought he had crossed the border into Jordan to look for a Sayadin girl to be with him.”

“Then he came back. He’s at the spring. And apparently he has a wife. I didn’t see his tent. But if he has a kid – then he has a wife.”


“That’s if he doesn’t have his father’s habits. It could be that he’s keeping his woman in a bundle.”

“But how can you be so certain that he’s Moussa Ali’s son?”

”Because no one knows about that spring except for Moussa Ali, his son, you and I.”

“What about other Bedouins?”

“There aren’t any other Sayadin here. When the state was established they packed up and crossed the border. And what do the Sayadin there care about that salty spring here?”

“And why didn’t you ever tell me about Moussa Ali’s son before I discovered him?”

”Because I didn’t know the son had come to the spring. I thought he had crossed into Jordan. I was only at that spring once. And even then, pretty much by chance. Moussa Ali asked me not to tell.

“And you didn’t tell?”

Yigal looks at me. He does not answer. Sometimes I think that he and Moussa Ali have secrets they will never tell me.

“Should I make you some cold instant coffee with ice cream?”

I nod.

“But we have to get him out of there.”

“Could be,” says Yigal.

“What do you mean, could be? He’s living illegally on land that isn’t his.”

“Apparently you’re right.”

“What do you mean, apparently? Aren’t these things clear?”

Yigal comes back with the instant coffee. The ice cream floating in it is cold and promising.

“Here, drink it. You’re still hot and dry from the field.”

I drink. Yigal does not seem to want to answer.

“So in your opinion, what should I do?”

“You’re the regional warden, not I. I’m just sitting here in the capacity of official panther-tagger and Ibex-watcher.”

“But you’ve been living here all these years.”

“For that very reason.”

I finish drinking the instant coffee, and I know that from now on the decision is mine. If I make one phone call – a system begins to roll that is unstoppable.

“So what are you going to do?” asks Yigal.

“What I need to do,” I say.

“Ah,” says Yigal.

I look at him, but his face remains inexpressive. There was no sadness or happiness in it. As if he didn’t care about anything.

“Should I go speak to Moussa Ali?”

“As you like. I really don’t know. Why? Do you think you’ll have problems clearing him out?”

“The Bedouin looks hot headed. He looks angry and he made a dangerous face. Maybe Moussa Ali – if he’s really his son – can convince to leave quietly.”

“Could be. But somehow, I don’t think so. Because if he wanted to convince him, why did he send you to him?”

“What do mean, send me to him?”

“Then why did he tell you about the location of the spring?”

“Maybe he didn’t know he was there? You yourself said he had disappeared some years ago.’

“Maybe,” says Yigal.

And again I’m not sure whether or not he means what he says. In any case, I think I’ll go see Moussa Ali.

“Good luck,” he says to me, and sinks back into one of the chimpanzee and gorilla books that are strewn over the table. He thinks that if he understands animals, maybe he’ll also be able to understand why people do things. He told me they call this ethology. I don’t pretend to understand animals or people according to their hereditary development. What’s important to me is what I see them doing.


[1] The Eastern Snake Ascent

[2] The Cold Spring – Ein Hawa

[3] Tarfa – Arabic for tamarisk

[4] Khirga – the upper part of the Bedouin garment that covers a woman’s head

[5] T'mila – a shallow trench that goes down to the high groundwater in the wadi

[6] Rababa – Bedouin violin

[7] Girba – water skin

[8] See note 3

 

Musa Ali


I was a complete man, I had my wives, and my tent stood where Ramad’s tent stands today in Ein a-Tarfa. In those days there were still Sai’dins living all over the desert. The Azazmeh and the Ahiwat lived on the Negev mountain. There was no love lost between them and us. The Jews had not yet settled in the desert and didn’t know what was in it. It was a few years before they took over and began to make order – to chase off everyone who didn’t want to settle down. They get no pleasure from a draught which passes over their faces and wakes them up.


In those days I roamed between the shores of the Persian Gulf and the port of Gaza, Crossing the desert on long journeys, moving hashish and perfumes, and bribing the greedy boarder guards. Then I would come back with presents for my small children. I went by myself. I had friends, but I liked to roam alone. To seek my fortune in the hidden Wadies. With the village women whose plump flesh quivers at a sight of a passing Beduine. My wives, in the tent, were guarded by the low of the desert. The law which obliges the stranger to keep his distance from the tents of a solitary women, lest he bring down the curse of the desert and its laws on his head. But the laws, however ancient, were made by people, and people were made by god. And god, when he made man, knew that the law was a wall. And sometimes the wall is a hiding place or a barrier or a shield. Every man and his law. But me, Beduin that I am , have no walls. No barriers no shields and no hiding-place. Naked and alone I wandered the desert. A breaker of laws, a wanted man. I didn’t know that that’s what I was. Because the laws were made for companies of man. And I, walking alone in the dusty roads, and over the cliffs on crooked paths, I knew no laws except my heartbeat.


Towards evening I reached an isolated tent. It was not yet night but no longer day. There were no camels outside the tent, only a solitary donkey and a couple of dogs who greeted me with barks. I dismounted from the camel and approached the tent. Before I could touch the tent flap, a young woman emerged. The Khirgah was drawn over her face. I stood amazed. Her eyes flashed with a fire I had never seen in my life. Spark touched spark. She looked at me fearlessly, boldly pulling the Khirgah tighter under her eyes. And her eyes were wild. Her other hand was clenched angrily on a fold of her dress and her feet were brown and bare. We stood facing each other. All the laws of the desert screamed at me : a women alone! Turn around and go away! . Go, go! Her husband is not here, for there is no camel here. They’ll cut her to pieces, and the dogs will eat your face and throat. But I just stood there thirstily drinking in the sight of her. Feeling her seep into my bones.


I looked at her body. I could see the circle dance that only men can dance in public. The storm that no women ever gave me, that every man yearns for in his dreams. I tore my eyes from her strong hips and looked at her eyes again. And then, from the mountain looming over me, my whole body rigid as if cast in iron, my heart twisting in pain, almost in tears, I turned around and walked to my camel. I heard her breathing behind me. I could see before my eyes her trembling lips behind the Khirgah. Her nipples and her belly longing for me. I knew in all my body that if I didn’t leave right away I would break one of the strictest laws of the desert. “Hey!” I shouted to the camel and raced off at a gallop. And every toss of the camel’s back shook my heart and thrilled it with new love.


I returned to my tent. The women awaited me. Eager to welcome me after weeks of wandering, presenting the children to be kissed, asking for my gifts. The older children ran up to me. I handed out the presents and the sweets. I removed the saddle from the camel’s back and released him to graze at his heart’s content, then I sat down at the entrance to the tent. The women brought me water to wash my face and hands. And then they brought the food. I ate. But my appetite was not as usual. My mind was distracted. I sat and looked to the east – towards the mountains which I had come. And I still had to go west – to Gaza , to get the merchandise. It would be another week before I passed her tent again. My wives looked at me. They kept the children away, They thought I was tired and ill. They waited impatiently for the darkness to gather the mountains into the pockets of its robe, to kindle the cool chill stars which evaporate the heat stored up in the stones. I was still sitting and waiting when the night came down. I rose to my feet, sighed and entered the tent. The children were already asleep. Dusk is brief in the desert. The camels, the donkey and the dogs were already asleep too. The tent was quiet. I went to my wives who awaited me, parting their legs and gathering their moans into their abandoned Khirgas, their broad bodies swaying in a desert storm, their hands kneading my shoulders. I did my duty. It was the first time in my life that I was not the one who demanded his due, but paid the wives for their loneliness. In the darkness of the tent and the sweat, the broken murmurs and movements on the spread beddings, I could see her flashing eyes through my closed lids. I undressed her, and thus I held my wives, almost weeping with grief and longing desire. When it was all done, I went out of the tent, leaving the women dozing and turned to the dark of the starry sky. The mountains were high and it was a quite desert night. I took the Rabababh which I used to play on in my youth, in the company of my fiends, lit a cigarette, and the rasping smoke burning wreathed my heart in melancholy. I went to the edge of the brook and gradually approached the Tamarisks. Suddenly I froze were I stood. In the darkness of the night I could clearly hear sighs and groans of lust such as I have never heard before. I circled the spring, facing the wind. A moon began to rise beyond the mountains of Edom. And there, on a big rock, in the white moonlight, I saw two leopards. A male and a female were at it. The leopardess moaned like a woman, and the male mounting her roared in reply. The sight was so beautiful, so splendid and awesome. I sat hidden behind a rock, the wind wafting to me the smell of their love and their voices, and I envied them. I knew that they had sent to me so that I would know what to do. So that I would see. I knew what their end would be. I knew what my end would be. All night the leopards made love and growled without stopping. From time to time they quieted down, went to the water and drank with big gulps, and again returned to their wild love-making with great roars and growls. And I strummed on the Rababah and sang all my longings in a low voice.

The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature