Chapter 1. A-Taweg Ramad
All is quiet. Spring is in the air. In the distance, you can see the columns of smoke rising from the factories. Beyond them, on a clear day, you can see the mountains of Jordan. A little closer, below the high waterfall, further along the wadi, stands a single, not-so-big palm tree, and beside it an avenue of tamarisk trees. Some of them are quite large. You can set your things down there and rest in the shade. No, you can’t see it from here, it’s too high up. Even though it’s not far, maybe one kilometer, maybe two. Soft white hills lead up to the spring. You can see the paths that wind toward it and stretch away from it.
A tidy, ancient path descends from the north. The Jews call it Ma’aleh Sharav. We call it A-Naqs al-Hayya al-Sharqiya. A very good path. I ascend it sometimes with the camels: When the summer becomes brutal and we have to climb up on the mountains to graze the animals. There’s this one hirbeh there that’s looks as if it’s about to tumble into the deep Wadi al-Hawa valley. And in the wadi there’s a natural pool that’s always filled with cold water, no matter how intense the summer heat. And further along the wadi there’s another spring that’s named after the pool. With the best, most refreshing water I’ve ever found. ‘Ein al-Bared. There’s no better water anywhere. Sometimes I go there in summer. When I know that the Jews aren’t going there. And I fall asleep next to it. In a hollow in the rock. Right by the trough into which the water trickles through the stringy vegetation. I nap next to this cold-fresh-green water. And then I build myself a small bonfire and boil tea. And maybe smoke a cigarette. I can’t bring the camels here. The path is hard and no good. The Jews made it. Before, there was another path here. Musa Ali told me about it. He took me here when I was a child. He also showed me the leopard trap that’s a little further up. Sometimes I go there and sit. And stare at the frozen waves of the desert. In the early morning, or before night comes. That’s when the lines are clearest. An endless quiet comes from them. One of my ancestors built this trap, back before there were guns, when men were brave and used clever tricks to protect their sheep and camels from the leopard. Because a leopard is a shrewd adversary. A good, true adversary whose capture brings pride, and there is no other way to hunt him. In the daytime, he hides, gleaming like a fleeting blade of sun, and in the nighttime, he comes, and vanishes into the darkness. The only way to capture him is here – on the path that goes down to the spring. In this trap, we – my ancestors and I – place a young goat whose soft bleating goes on and on until the night’s slumber is disturbed. It wails in desolation, desperate to break out of the trap’s walls, while I, together with one of my ancestors who is no longer in this land, lay facing the wind, behind the stone shelter, and wait.
We wait for the flash of dark yellow that is far more seductive and beautiful than a thousand women. For the solitary creature who never hesitates as he cruises the desert with a low purr, reigning over all, traversing the domain that is his alone.
And then the growl, the pounce, and he bursts in, latches on to and vigorously shakes the prey that shrieks as only a terrified goat can, its blood spraying on the stones. As the leopard sinks his teeth in, the big rock of the trap falls and he is caught inside. Trapped. Snarling in fury. Writhing and struggling. Until I come with one of my ancestors, a dagger or rifle in my hand. And we kill the leopard who fights until his last breaths. The trap is very ancient. Its stones are all listing. The big rock fell off long ago. There is no leopard inside. No trace of a goat, or blood, either. Everything is dry in this desert. Only the desert remains. And me. There are still leopards here – one leopard. I know, I saw him – one day, as I was making my way down from the cold natural pool to the spring. I saw his turds and his tracks too. Since then, I don’t sleep at night. Down below, in ‘Ein a-Tarfa, in my tent by the little stream near the spring, during the long summer nights, I hear his nocturnal growling. I know it’s him. I hear him on the tall cliffs, begging me to come after him. To come fix the trap and place a young goat inside. But my soul has enough torment as it is.
An ibex approaches the bank of the waterfall. Suddenly it spots me. It whistles a sharp warning. I look up towards the top of the cliff and see four young ibexes. As I get to my feet, they quickly flee along the slender channels. Below, there is a cloud of dust. I abandon my sitting place, and the panoramic vista, and follow an ibex path that slides down the steep slope to the spring. I carefully snake my way down between the boulders. The path is narrow and dangerous. It’s tempting to gaze at the view. But I know that if I fall here – no one will come looking for me. My boy won’t leave his mothers. And his mothers have other small children and the camels. There are massive fallen rocks here. The huge boulders are strewn about haphazardly from the days when the giant strode the earth here and smashed everything to bits. On the flats of Wadi Fuqara, the Jews mine phosphates. They don’t want me here. I learn many things from them: the names of the rocks, the minerals. When I was just a foolish young boy, I was dazzled by the money and went to work for them. I wanted to drive a jeep. It was like a woman, I thought. Zipping around Wadi Fuqara. I was young. Maybe about my son’s age now. Maybe a little older.
The tricky path slowly descends toward the soft white hills. The dust cloud thickens, I slither down toward the line of tamarisks in the wadi. The camels are thronging together. I watch them. I love them. Each one has a secret name that I invented just for it. Even my boy doesn’t know their names. Now the camels hurry toward the tamarisk trees. The women set down their few bundles in the shade. Veils on their faces and hirge properly fastened too. Their black dresses are covered in dust, the soles of their feet are a deep shade of brown. All is as it should be. The boy follows behind the camels, urging them on. I kneel on the burning hot ground. Noontime. The water will diminish as the summer progresses. I dig down at the side of the wadi. The women head toward the spring further up the channel, not far from me. There are rushes and lichen there. They rinse the utensils, fill the water-skins and wash their faces. I don’t look. Let them enjoy themselves. The boy holds out the old copper bowl. The camels crowd around our trough. I start to draw the yellowish-gray t’mila water. The camels lick up the precious liquid. I work relentlessly. The sun beats down on my head. The camels gulp the water with a bottomless thirst. As camels do.
I smile inwardly but immediately catch myself. So the boy won’t see. The camels must be watered. There’s no time for play. My boy. He’s ten years old, maybe. He has no jalabiya. He wears torn jeans and a T-shirt, like me. What I brought him from Musa Ali, whom I go see at night. Musa Ali sells me cigarettes too. He wanted to give them to me but I refused. I have plenty of money, I don’t need favors. The women are singing now. How I love this singing here in the desert. Their thin, hoarse voices sailing through the silence, like the birds of that crazy professor from ‘Ein Husub. There is nothing beautiful about them. All black and brown. But anyone born here – their singing holds all the space and peace you could need. Even without the accompaniment of the rababa.
“Yaba” – I hear the boy whisper.
I’d been so lost in thought. I gaze through the sparse tamarisk branches. A Jew is standing there. Next to our things. Where did he come from? How did he show up here all of a sudden? He didn’t come here. There’s nobody here. The Jew shakes his head. I didn’t see anything. I keep on drawing water, angrily now. The camels lift their heads and snort, spraying me with drops of water mixed with camel saliva. I could enjoy the water if the Jew wasn’t here. The Jew walks over to the pool and holds his hand out to me. “Shalom,” he says.
“Shalom.” What else can I do? I continue drawing water.
“Where are you from?”
“From here,” I say. They have to know everything.
“From ‘Ein Husub?” he tries.
He looks around him skeptically. Why should he believe me? What do I care if he believes me? He’ll leave. He’s alone. He’s frightened of me. If there were a few others with him, it would be harder to get rid of them.
Always questions and more questions.
“You want to drink?”
“I can wait a few minutes.”
“It will take more than a few minutes,” I assure him, as I fill the tin cup with gritty water from the pool and hand it to him.
He drinks. He’s hot. He’s thirsty. The camels snort and spray him. It doesn’t bother him. He might actually be enjoying it. If he were Bedouin I might even like him. Offer him a cigarette. Maybe tea. But that is what the servants of the Jews do. Me, I am at war with them. Water he’ll get – You don’t leave someone in the desert without water. But he should leave.
“Shukran,” he says. He shakes my hand, shoulders his knapsack and starts walking toward A-Naqs al-Hayya al-Sharqiya. Good, let him go.
The women who were watching us return to their laundering.
We’ve finished watering the camels. I have thirty camels. “Sell the camels,” Musa Ali said to me. “What do you need thirty camels for?”
I don’t need thirty camels. I have no use for thirty camels. But I love them. Besides, they’re here. The Jews build and excavate and mine. I collect camels.
“You’re asking for trouble with them,” says Musa Ali who is like my father if I had a father. “You know the inspector will eventually find you and tell you to leave. And then, when you refuse, he’ll come with his friends from the Parks Authority and they’ll round up your camels and take them and put them in quarantine in Be’er Sheva.” I know. They already took them once when I was on the way to the market. I got them back that time. “Why waste all that money?” Musa Ali asks.
Freedom is what matters. There’s only so much time in the world. And no government is going to tell me what to do with it. Money is no problem. The camels grow, they have calves. I sell one each time. They’re in high demand from the Jews’ Bedouin in the Be’er Sheva Valley. They do big celebrations with the camels, as if they truly lived in the desert. As if their camel races and weddings, and the rifles and uniforms they receive from the government, make them real men. I don’t like them. They are also Abu Rabi’a. I am Sa’idin. But I’m happy to breed camels for them, if that way I anger the Jews and also get money from the Bedouin to release the camels the authority confiscates from me. “You’re crazy,” Musa Ali tells me. But I hear the pride in his voice. Even as he tries to entice me to stop. To get me to live my life like everyone else. I hear the envy. Because once upon a time Musa Ali used to hunt leopards in these mountains. Before the Jews came. Long ago. Before the British. When only the Turks were in this land. And they never came here.
We drink sweet tea in his big tent. The women and children stay on the other side. One of his sons works in the restaurant at the gas station. Two other sons work for the Jews in Be’er Sheva. “There’s a leopard in the mountains,” I tell him. “I know,” he says, with a calm little smile as he continues sucking on his narghila. Sometimes I see a real Bedouin in him. Only when he goes to shake hands with the people from the moshav do I see that he is theirs. Not mine. That for the sake of friendly relations and convenience he sacrificed the freedom of the desert.
“There’s a leopard in the mountains,” he says, fully grinning now, “and you’ve seen him.”
“Yes, I’ve seen him. By ‘Ein al-Bared.”
“He’s coming to visit the trap.”
And I know that Musa Ali is talking about the father of the father of the father of the leopard.
That it was blood that led him there. All alone. No mate or cubs. To lie in wait for mountain goats.
“He’s an orphan,” Musa Ali says, reading my thoughts. “He has no father and mother.”
I feel a surge of happiness – I’ve found a friend.
“He’s not your friend.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because he’s a leopard of Jews. To them, it’s nature. Can’t be touched. Not like you – If you won’t be theirs, then you can’t be here.”
“But how can he be theirs if he doesn’t do what they tell him to do?”
“He will,” says Musa Ali. “They’ll attach their devices to him. They’ll ambush him with the kind of patience we no longer have and they’ll hook him up. And then they’ll give him one of their names and tame him.”
“They can’t!” I shout.
“They can do it all and they will. Don’t be stupid,” he says to me.
“No one can defy them. They’ll tag you too.”
“Me?! Never!” I tell Musa Ali, as I leave him to return to my camels. I never saddle them. Let them roam free and eat the ja’ada and the fruit of the sial and the retema. I put the flour and sugar and tea I bought from Musa Ali in my bag. He gets money from the army, he was a tracker there for a while. Sold his Bedouin-hood. Went to search for garbage, instead of searching for water in the desert. Instead of tending camels and pressing his head to the rocks in the direction of Mecca.
And then I started tracking him. Spotting where he had scraped out a hole with his claws. Finding his turds, whitened from the hyrax and ibex bones he had crushed. Following the patches of sun and shadow he left among the rocks. Then one day, when I was at the spring, I heard voices coming from above the wadi. I climbed up to the trap and took cover in the shelter my ancestors built. Two men came into the wadi. They had the machines Musa Ali had told me about. And rifles. They had knapsacks and sleeping bags. They had come to sleep at the spring. To wait for the leopard. I prayed that he wouldn’t come. They he would sniff the scent of the rifles and go somewhere else to drink. I concentrated my thoughts, urging him to go to my spring instead. To ‘Ein a-Tarfa. Anywhere but here. Or he could just wait to slake his thirst. A leopard can wait a bit. I would have gladly given him to drink right out of my jirbeh.
But the Jews bewitched him. They had a machine that makes sounds. That unspools threads no one can see. And it beckoned him. And he came. I knew he would come. It was why I had come here this very evening. To sit with him while he told me the story of my ancestors and the great hunt. I would give him tea and he would purr. And another time, I’d bring him a goat. I knew he would come. The Jews knew it too. But I knew it with my heart. Without their machines, they would have no idea, and that I cannot forgive. He came. The wind was with him. He had no chance of sniffing them out. They hid themselves behind the big boulders near the bottom of the wadi. The invisible spider-web strands of their noiseless machines drew him towards the spring, toward the innocent sound of its dripping water. His tail drummed left and right and then all at once he leapt, in the way that only leopards can, onto the flat rock by the side of the spring.
And then they shot him. Not to kill him, just to put him to sleep. And afterwards, when he lay on the ground dead drunk, they fit a steel collar round his neck, one that held a poison meant to tame him, so they could use it to track him and tell him what to do. They waited for him to wake up. It got dark meanwhile. But I knew what would happen. The leopard awoke and went to the spring and drank the water he’d wanted to drink. He was still a little woozy. From the spring, he turned onto the path that leads up to the trap. They couldn’t see him anymore and kept their machine turned off so he wouldn’t be startled by its strange sounds. The poison has to drip at a careful rate too. They couldn’t see me either. Because I was concealed from their view. And because it was dark now. And they can’t see well at night. The leopard sank down atop the trap. He was still sleepy and his movements were slow. His tail tiredly lashed the rocks. He was so beautiful. I crept over to him. I softly sang him the songs that my ancestors used to whisper to leopards, and the song I’d heard when I was with Musa Ali, about the splendor of the desert and the good night wind that caresses the flaps of the tent. He closed his eyes as I petted his head. His yellow eyes fluttered shut like those of a small child. I felt such pity for him. Tame a leopard — What foolishness.
I removed the steel collar and quietly placed it deep inside the trap. And then I left the dozing leopard, moving away with the wind. Soon the leopard came to his senses, wandered about a little, growled and vanished into the darkness. Down below, at the spring, the men had built a bonfire and I could see it was Yigal, the older inspector from ‘Ein Husub, and another younger fellow I didn’t know that well. The crazy professor of the birds wasn’t there. I bet they have some crazy leopard guy too. What do I care about birds? But a leopard, that’s a whole different story. Now they want to take the leopard from me too. Now it’s war. And there is no way that the camel, the leopard, the boy and I will not prevail. The camel, the leopard, the boy and I must surely prevail. For if we do not – then there is no justice in the world. And the desert is where justice was invented.
The sun is sinking below the line of the cliffs. The camels have stopped drinking. The women have finished laundering. They’ve already taken some of the camels and returned to the tent. I skim the rusty tin through the water and take a drink. It’s cold and refreshing. There’s a hardness to the taste. But this water is mine. If I ever end up somewhere else, I won’t have water like this. The grit sticks to my teeth and I chew it with pleasure. The boy drinks too. We both have large drops of perspiration on our faces, and we both rinse our faces with the brackish water. “Let’s go,” I say to him. He is serious. As a boy should be. He will carry on here after me. Here there is no place for laughter. No place for women’s tales or for joking. He must help me fight. He mustn’t look skyward and dream. When I pat his head I can sense his embarrassment. Here we are at the tent. It’s not big. A very tattered sort of Bedouin tent — for those Bedouin who still live in a tent, that is. I am quite proud of it. The women use camel hair to weave and mend it. They adorn it with decorations that no one sees, no one but the camels and me. And the boy. No one else. This is my tent. There are two water barrels next to it. The camels are already sprawled around the tent, ready to trade the heat of the day they have stored up inside them for the night’s peaceful coolness.
My boy, who is the grandson of Musa Ali. The old Bedouin who raised me.
The women are younger than me. Practically my sisters. They are sisters themselves. A few years apart. Musa Ali gave them to me. I hadn’t even asked.
“Take them, you need wives,” he told me.
“No, they’ll get in my way.”
“They won’t bother anything,” said Musa Ali. “They don’t know anyone. They’ve never really seen other men. Only me, you, and their brothers. And I want your blood to truly mix with my blood.”
“But I… With me they’ll have a hard life. I’m going to be a true Bedouin. Not a Bedouin of the Jews.” I almost said, “Like you.” But Musa Ali understood. And then I understood as well. He wants his grandchildren to be like me. My boy was his dream, a dream that he’d kept hidden, along with the wildness that he had bred in me. The girls were like good female camels that he was mating with the wildest male camel in the desert. Realizing this, I brimmed with pride.
“But I have no money to give you.”
“Do you have a male camel and a female camel?”
“So breed camels and pay me back later.”
And that’s how I got started breeding camels. After a while, I knew camels better than any Bedouin in the world. And I understood Musa Ali too. He didn’t want me to earn my money from the Jews, to have to sell myself.
At night I come to my wives. One after the other. So they won’t be jealous. Beneath their black hirges and above their bronzed ankles they are pale. They stifle their moans as I gallop inside them like a camel.
Only twilight remains on the cliffs. Suspended like crumbs of light that someone forgot to clear away, mixed with dust. Samira brings me the rice bowl. I dip my hands in water and sit down to eat. The boy, Ziyad, sits with me. We eat together. Fatma brings fatayer. The jirbeh is hanging next to us and we suck water from it and roll the rice into balls and toss them into our mouths. We are famished. Sometimes I hunt a bird and bring it to the tent. The women pluck and burn the feathers so they won’t be carried by the wind to ‘Ein Husub. So the inspector won’t know. And then there are bits of meat mixed in with the rice. We pick out the delicate bones and eat them. We drink the juice of the meat. The meat tastes so sweet with all the hot spices I get from Musa Ali along with the sugar and the tea and the coffee and the rice.
“Want a rifle?” Musa Ali asked me one day when I was going to the spring.
“Where would you get a rifle to give me?”
“I have one.”
My heart pounded like crazy and my eyes were afraid to meet his. This was a long time ago. First he offered me the rifle, before he offered me the women.
“No,” I said. I almost felt like crying. My heart was still pounding, and Musa Ali was smiling a little beneath his mustache.
“A nice rifle,” he said. “I got it from the army. Want to see it?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to see it. I have my shabariya. What do I need a rifle for? Whom am I going to fight?”
“But what you do need is a woman,” Musa Ali planted his secret weapon in me.
So desperate was he for the untamed seed that burned in my loins. He needed it for Fatma and Samira, whose little feet I wouldn’t have even looked at. I gaped at him in astonishment. I didn’t understand. And then he said what he said. And now I am raising the grandson of Musa Ali, who may be the last of my ancestors.
Now the real darkness arrives. There is no moon tonight. The stars are twinkling all across the sky. I do not fear them. Samira kindles the bonfire and I sit there and inhale the night, and afterwards puff my narghila and watch the fire as it consumes the stubborn twigs of the broom plant that grows in the sand, and of the tamarisks that love the water that hides in the big wadis. A burnt tamarisk has a special smell.
One day as I was walking in the wadi, a flock of startled partridges burst from the bushes with a loud clatter and lifted off toward the sky. And I, quick as lightning, like a bird of prey swooping in from on high, leapt and knocked one down, I’m not sure how. It was a big fat bird and it fell to the ground, dazed and twitching. I ran to it and cut off its head, let the blood flow out of the body and be soaked up in the sand. I waited for the heat to dissipate, then I gathered twigs and lit a big bonfire with the flint lighter that Musa Ali gave me. The dry branches ignited with a popping sound and grew into a large flame that caused beads of sweat to form on my neck. I plucked the feathers, and when the fire died down and just a few embers remained, I cleared a space in the center and placed the bird there. I covered it with the hot coals and waited. In the meantime, the day faded. I removed the hot bird from the coals. The meat was tender and delicious. I tore off small pieces and placed them in my mouth. It felt good to close my eyes and taste the bird that came from the fire, with the sweet white meat that reminded me of the softness of Samira and the smell of the bonfire that stuck to her flesh. Or of Fatma, and the heat of her flesh. I closed my eyes and took a drag from the narghila.
From inside the tent, I hear Samira singing a lullaby to Aziza, my newest daughter, not yet three years old. She sings her a song that is so sweet, like hot tea with the little desert plants that the women collect and use to season the strong tea together with the sugar that I bring from Musa Ali. I spread out the bed of blankets, signal to the boy that he can go to sleep. Tonight the women will sleep alone. The camels are all around me. Like mountains that have descended into the wadi for the night. I fall asleep and dream of camels galloping through the vast open landscape of my early ancestors; my ancestors who set traps and led spice caravans from the Arabian Sea to the ports of Egypt and the coast of the big sea by Gaza.
 “The Eastern Snake-Ascent”
 “The Cold Spring” – known as ‘Ein Hava in Hebrew
 Tarfa – “tamarisk” in Arabic
 Hirge – the upper part of Bedouin attire that covers a woman’s head
 T’mila – a shallow excavation down to the high groundwater in the wadi channel
 Rababa – Bedouin bowed string instrument
 Ja’ada – germanders; sial – acacia; retema – broom
 Jirbeh – a water-skin made of goatskin