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Israel: A taste of Bedouin hospitality

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Negev Desert, Israel — It was night in the Negev Desert, and our bus driver Mich'ael had just turned onto a narrow dirt road. I was on Day 6 of a 10-day culinary Birthright trip and was exhausted.

My 29 colleagues and I had spent the earlier part of the day exploring the old city streets of Jaffa, making our way down cobblestone walkways, through hidden alleys and into small shops. I had tried to stretch my weary legs as much as possible before boarding our bus for the 90-minute drive south to the next stop on our journey, an overnight stay with a Bedouin tribe.

Birthright is a free educational trip to Israel for Jewish youth ages 18 to 26, provided by a group called Taglit Birthright. My sister had gone on a Birthright trip a couple of years earlier and had told me how wonderful it was, but I never felt inclined to go until recently. I'd read that a culinary-themed trip was being offered in mid-February, and at 26, I was quickly going to age out of eligibility.

After sleeping in warm, comfortable hotels, I was less than excited about having to move on to a tent in the desert, but opting out wasn't an option. Everyone must participate in every activity on the itinerary. That's how I found myself on the trip to Chan Hashayarot, a Bedouin camp in the middle of the Negev off Route 40.

The Bedouins are an Arab nomadic people who live in the deserts of Israel, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They once traveled with their camels and other animals in search of food and water, but now most live in settlements.

The 60,000 or so Bedouins in Israel had been living here peacefully for thousands of years, our tour guide Erad told us. For many, poverty continues to be a pressing issue. Some Bedouin tribes, like the one we were about to visit, had created camps, open to the public, as hospitality businesses.

When the bus finally crawled to a stop, we got off and made our way through the small camp to the sleeping and dining tents. They were not as tall as I had expected, but they were still large enough to hold about 100 people. Cold air nipped at my cheeks, forcing me to pull my hood over my face and tuck my fingers into my jacket sleeves. "If we have to spend the night in a giant tent in this weather, we'll surely freeze," I thought to myself.

The tent was divided by a tarp. (Another Birthright group was staying on the other side.) In one corner a large pile of thin sleeping bags lay next to a heap of what looked like yoga mats. Grab a mat and a sleeping bag, we were told, and choose a place on the floor to sleep. I claimed a space near a small heater. (I left my valuables in the locked bus, unsure of our new neighbors.)

The dinner tent had two rows of small stumps around which we sat, waiting for our evening meal. From a tent corner, Bedouin men emerged, carrying huge trays of food that they placed on each stump and then hurried away. It was a feast: whole roast chicken (matfuna), roasted eggplant with creamy tahini, hummus (an Israeli staple), a tomato-cucumber salad, vegetables with rice (magluba) and Bedouin pita, which is denser and chewier than traditional pita bread. We ate with our hands, devouring the moist chicken, whose skin was flavorful and salty. Instead of dining with us, the Bedouins rushed in and out of the tent, bringing more food but never speaking.

After a short post-dinner stroll in the desert we turned in for the night. I slept under multiple layers of clothing (and made a mental note to bring my own blanket and pillow next time). This was a little like summer camp for adults, Everyone chatted well past midnight, and no one told us to turn out the lights. The soft hum of the space heater and the flapping of the wind against the tent eventually lulled me to sleep.

We awoke before 7, ate a quick breakfast of tomato, cucumber and lettuce salads, porridge and more Bedouin pita, then headed out to ride camels, something I'd wanted to do since watching "Aladdin" as a child.

There are two things to remember before climbing aboard a camel, our instructor explained: Don't make loud noises, and don't rush at the camel or make other sudden movements. She assured us that the animals were peaceful creatures and that we'd be safe.

We stood a good 100 feet from where the camels, roped together in a long line, were waiting for us. A Bedouin at the head of the line instructed us to come forward in pairs, approaching the animals quietly.

My friend Erica and I slowly approached a sitting camel. "Lean back, lean back," the man said as he helped me onto a saddle atop the camel. (You lean back because when camels stand, they do so back end first.) When our camel stood up, we were about 6 feet off the ground. It gave a little shake. My knuckles turned white from gripping the saddle.

Once our camel got going, I found its long strides relaxing as it rhythmically shifted its weight from side to side. I tried to imagine how the Bedouin people traveled atop these creatures and realized that such a pace — slow but steady — meant a long day for the traveler. Our ride was far briefer, lasting a mere 15 minutes.

We returned to the camp in time for a hospitality demonstration. A storyteller named Salem, in a red turban and loose white pants and a tunic, sat cross-legged and told us about his family and the Bedouin people in his tribe. Bedouins often have multiple wives, he said, but one was more than enough for him, the corners of his mouth curling up in a smile under his thick black mustache.

He sang and played the sumsumia, a small hand-held instrument that resembles a harp, but with harsher sounding notes. Salem's old Bedouin folk song rang in my ears, and his stories of the Bedouins' travels with their camels came to life in my imagination.

Salem also told us about revenge killings among the Bedouins, fueled by the emphasis its culture places on pride. If someone from another tribe kills someone in your tribe, you must retaliate to maintain your pride, he explained. The revenge killings can go on for half a century.

We sipped strong coffee and sweet tea as we sat and listened to his stories. Bedouin tradition is to treat guests to coffee or tea, or sometimes both. If you are welcome, your Bedouin host will pour you only half a cup in the hopes that you will stay and converse before you set off on your travels. If you are not welcome, he or she will pour you a full cup.

Salem's stories sounded as though they were from another time and another world, far, far away. His customs were different from mine, but as I looked down at my cup of tea I noticed it was half full. We may not have agreed on religion, traditions or marriage, but I appreciated the Bedouins opening their hearts and homes, allowing me a glimpse of their special world.

jenn.harris@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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