Tuesday, January 17, 2006

An evening with the Azazma

One of the more amazing moments on my recent trip to Israel was a visit on January 8 to the tribal settlement of the Azazma Bedouin tribe in the central Negev. I have my friend and colleague Clinton Bailey to thank for this remarkable evening. Clinton, one of the world's foremost experts on the Negev Bedouin (see his book A Culture of Desert Survival : Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev), invited me and my cousin Fred to accompany him to a feast on the eve of `Id al-Adha, a feast called `Id al-amwat, devoted to marking the end of a day's fasting to commemorate the death of persons who have died over the past year, in this case the matriarch of our host family.

When Fred and I first got word of the invitation, we were sitting in a wi-fi equipped Aroma cafe at a gas station just outside Kafr Qara' in the lower Gallilee. As I was checking e-mail on my laptop, I found Clinton's invitation issued the night before. After a few phone calls, we agreed to meet up at Latrun, and then proceed together to the Negev in Clinton's SUV. We had very little time to meet up with Clinton - he was leaving Jerusalem and we were in the lower Gallilee. Were it not for the new number 6 toll-road, we never would have made it, but we actually beat Clinton to Latrun, making the trip from Kafr Qara' to Latrun in just under 40 minutes. Two and a half hours later, we turned off the main north-south 40 highway south of Sde Boqer and began the slow and treacherous approach to the Azazma encampment.

The Azazma are a widely dispersed tribe of Bedouin, and this particular clan of the Azazma are currently under government order to move into one of 7 new towns being contemplated by the Israeli government to relocate and "modernize" the Bedouin. Naturally, the clan is opposed to this forced hijra, and their case is being handled by human rights lawyers. The encampment is off the national electrical grid and has absolutely no sanitary services of any kind. Most of the shanty homes have electric generators, and many of the visitors came by pick-up truck of 4-wheel drive. Not a camel to be seen. Nor for that matter, a woman.

We were going to attend the feast in a winter "tent" which is what the Bedouin use to avoid the little rain which falls in the winter. The tent in this case was an open corrugated aluminum shack over a concrete floor, able to hold the more than 50 Bedouin men who had come to honor the clan. Clinton told us the proper Arab greeting for this event: "Kul am, wa-intum be-khayr" and we then entered the tent and slowly made our way through the room, shaking each person's hand from right to left with the appropriate greeting. Lots of ahlan wa-sahlan were spoken. Then we were seated between pillows on rugs on the outer edge of the concrete floor, while too pungent bush fires were lit in the center to keep the celebrants warm in the cool desert night.

My passive knowledge of literary Arabic was unusable in this situation, though I could tell from Clinton's boisterous conversations with clan dignitaries that this was one of the purest forms of Arabic I had ever heard spoken. We sat and were served sweet tea and freshly roasted Turkish coffee (at least three times for each drink), and twice during the late afternoon and night most - but not all - of the men exited the tent to perform their salat. When finally the platters of food came out, we were treated to freshly slaughtered lamb on-the-bone on a bed of soft, chewy flatbread. With our right hand, we digged into the flesh and bread, making little balls of suculent Bedouin meatballs. To my surprise (and please, the advertising folks in Atlanta should take note), 1.5 liter bottles of Coca-Cola suddenly appeared.

The older men sat quietly, some smoking cigarettes, some simply staring into the fire. The younger men played with their cell phones. When I offered a cigarette to a young man next to me, he answered in Hebrew "No, I quit." Makes me wonder...if a Bedouin can quit, then surely so can I.

My cousin and I sat transfixed, while Clinton held court. Eventually, the feast broke up, and we were on our way back out of the desert. One of the truly memorable experiences of my visit.

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