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Saturday, July 7. 2007
Our Aliyah Diary author has been truant from Maggie's for too long. He has not yet completed the lengthy and arduous aliyah process required for becoming an Israeli citizen, but his Hebrew and his riflery are getting better and better, I understand. He files this report of his visit to a fellow physician in the Bedouin village of Rahat last week.
An afternoon and evening in Rahat, guest of a gentle Bedouin Professor A., who was my Virgil in a tour through the fringes of Hell. A Bedouin town, one of seven built by the Israelis in the early 70’s, Rahat, meaning water-hole, a place to gather for shepherds, so too to gather-in the wandering Bedouin. A town of several thousand, located geographically at the northern tip of the Negev desert, but in other ways, located someplace between here and the fringe of Bombay.
I begin with my leaving. Too late, too tired, I see what A., driving his VW diesel Passat, does not: a man, perhaps a father, red broomstick whipping over his head, full-armed whacks on three children to get into the yard. The youngest, a girl perhaps five, has arms upraised, futile, trying to fend off the next blow. He does not always swing; at moments he motions threateningly, stand at the steel corrugated gate. Then, he lets loose once more on the girl’s back and the gate is closed to the outside world.
A. says a few moments later that it is better to tour Rahat at night: the darkness hides what should not be seen.
I have spoken about courage among Israeli soldiers at Ben Gurion University, thinking at the back of my neck how there are Bedouin colleagues in the audience. Awad has invited me to his home afterwards. Dinner, early.
Awad studied medicine in Rumania during the era when the Israeli Communist Party gave scholarships to Arab students to learn in Soviet medical schools. He lived there some six years, got a degree and a Slavic wife, L. It is an evening all in Hebrew. L. is flaxen, angular-faced, has a large wart punctuating the end of her left eyebrow. Seems a Slavic trait – a punctuated face.
A. and I enter the house and I barely notice at my right, sitting beneath a tent suspended from the house, is an ancient woman, a white cotton shawl over her head, the left margin clamped at the left corner of her lips. She is there when I arrive; she remains there six hours later. We pass her once more, A. and I. He says nothing, nor does she. She is his mother.
Read the rest on continuation page below.
We enter through a hovel, on the right a bedroom with modern hospital bed, then a begrimed kitchen and arrive at the foot of a marble staircase, with molded marble banister, which leads to a small castle with marble-tiled floors and elegant Turkish rugs throughout. This is the first floor of some 350 square meters. I learn that this house, like most in the neighborhood is in a permanent state of becoming, being built. Above, that evening, sitting on the almost-rooftop patio to watch the sunset, have dessert of knapfe and bakalava and “Turkish” coffeee, I see that the roof above me is temporary; wires erupt from above; a clothesline is tethered to one corner, runs obliquely downwards to fetch the corner of the house next door. Earlier, as we finished tea in the garden, A. points out the unfinished basement – gaping holes for windows – which will be for the children when they grow up.
We sit on oversized pink leather sofas with intense coffee served on a brass platter. I have time with L. and the youngest daughter -- spoiled her mother says – who upends herself over the back of the couch, sucking a popsicle, head down next to me. WE begin dinner at 4, A. saying that the children have already eaten. Midway through, two boys sit-in, chow-down.
L. says this will be a hybrid of Slavic and Bedouin victuals. The table is laden with salads, grape-leaf wrapped rice and meat, salads, eventually baby chickens are unwrapped from plastic sacs. A. is round-faced, gold-rimmed spectacles, deep brown eyes. A quiet presence.
Ali joins us to eat. He attended grade school with A., now works at city hall; hopes to be mayor some day, but the Bedouin vote by family, and his does not match the 5,000-strong K. clan; has to find another route. It dawns on me gradually that Ali is here to first lecture me about Rahat, then give me a tour of select areas, culminating in a visit to his mosque. The mosques, I’m told, are new phenomena here, as is the Islam Movement, which Ali assures me is not as militant as the in northern Israel.
Eight percent of the population of Rahat is above 30 years old: this is a young community. A new grade school is built each year. The population doubles about every ten years, A. thinks; Ali corrects him – faster. As we drive about, they point out the massive mansions in Rahat. Inspissated among these castles, not so much at their feet, but even between their toes, are shacks of rags on skeletons, from which children emerge. We drive past one neighborhood all Black. I ask if these might be Ethiopian immigrants. No, Bedouin, of sorts, Ali says. They think of themselves as Bedouin, but likely came from elsewhere. They are looked down upon by the true Bedouin; much poorer. I notice that two children have casts on their arms. The others find make-shift “toys” to play with from the trash – hoops, sticks.
The dinner conversation is remarkably blunt. Both A. and Ali deplore how some Bedouin men have 3-4 wives with 10 or 12 children with each wife. But, Ali explains, a true Moslem man must treat each wife equally, and these men mostly do not. A. and L. have four children; do not understand how one can have so many. But Ali, chest broad with pride, announces that he has nine. Didn’t want nine, but after the first few boys, his wife insisted she wanted another daughter; when boys kept emerging, she kept insisting until number nine was the charm. He has a sly smile as he tells this, his forefinger occasionally punctuating the table. L. admits that she is fortunate to be treated so respectfully by her husband. Many Bedouin women would not be sitting at a table with a male guest, I gather.
As we drive, I see unfinished sidewalks, or none, and curbs that disappear abruptly and feel potholes. Mini-tornadoes of trash and the inevitable plastic sacs surround us.
The school buildings are fresh, look good, but L. and A. and Ali all confess that only one school is worth attending. We drive down one narrow alley with walled fortress-like homes: Ali explains that in an hour this street will be parked-up with tractor-trailers, when the drivers return home; they are the nouveau riche. The Bedouin knowledge of backways serves them as truck drivers, including for contraband.
The mosque is Ali’s dessert for me. Later, A. confesses to me his disappointment in Ali’s membership in the Islamic Movement and this particular mosque. He says how Ali was always so broad-minded, well-educated; how could he join such a radical group? We park at the now-inevitable marble steps. While the mosque is new, as we ascend, I notice shoddiness; cracked steps, misplaced stones, weeds emerging. Ali knows people. While the mosque is closed, someone appears from the right with a key; opens the doors, disappears. This is a religious emporium, perhaps costing millions. Clad in marble, it is a copy of a famous Turkish mosque known as the mosque of cupolas; has nine cupolas in a circle and central massive cupola from which is suspended an oversized candelabra from Egypt. T shey had wanted the candelabra from Turkey, but too costly; this is a copy, whose price he tells me – in the tens of thousands. All the windows and ceiling and its brow is painted by a local artist, almost no centimeter uncovered in kitsch. Ninety-nine ovals circle the crown molding with the ninety-nine names of god. Ali says that if one can recal and recite all ninety-nine names, one can ascend to Paradise: A. asks him if he knows them all yet.
Ali wants me to notice the wall-to-wall rug from Turkey, each kneeling place is designed for one worshiper. He points up and behind: a small, screened area where the women are: men can not see in, but women can see through.
Ali goes through a Gematrya-like mathematical explanation about the five times of daily prayer. While on Fridays, everyone gathers here for noon prayer, the five daily pray times are set to the minute, gauged by Mecca time. Rahat is one minute different than Bethlehem. He explains with enthusiasm that as one moves around the circumference of the Earth, every minute of every day, some Moslem is praying to Mecca. This is somehow connected, he tries to teach me, with Mohammed’s horse-voyage circumscribing the earth before he ascended to heaven.
The money for this place comes from the city treasury in large part. Yes, he says almost apologetically, those funds are supposed to be for civic projects – sewers, roads, trash pick-up – but there are only two youth centers built by the city and the mosques are now being used for youth centers; there is a daycare built into the back of this mosque. During the day, sometimes, they put playground equipment on the plaza of the mosque, the very plaza we found empty on both entrance and exit. He wants to show me a prized Quran. I ask him to read to me aloud. He shows me the names of god printed in red in this volume, one that could have been illuminated in the Medieval period.
As we drive away, he shows me the daycare, truly tucked into the buttocks of the mosque. We return to A’s house and Ali leaves. A.’s extended family owns the neighborhood. All his brothers and sisters have built houses next door, across the street – houses that are in this permanent state of being built. Nephews and nieces are up and down the road, in and out of yards. Outside the walls there is trash. Inside, L. asks if I admired her garden. She explains that this is her refuge, her only connection with Rumania. I had seen the rectangles of lawn, struggling to knit together, yellowing at the edges. The roses, gangly like teenagers. A hillock in the back behind the pergola where flower pots wait. We had zatar tea under the pergola, where earlier, Ali reveals that he had a mild stroke last year. Doctor put him on anti-hypertensives. Says his cholesterol was in the 400’s, but he doesn’t want to exercise, and how can he give up sheep kebab. I ask about using a statin: his doctor said nothing about this. I ask several times during the evening that he mention this to his doctor. Ali has a light manner about such things. What Allah will bring, he will bring.
A and L. ask what I would like to do. I, having lecture and been up since very early, mention wanting to return to my hotel. They suggest I lie down on a mattress at their house until dessert. It is now almost nine and instead offer to have dessert on the rooftop. As A. is anwering a call, I point out the first “star” tonight, a planet. L. says she has seen it before, but has seen it travel across the sky during the night when she sleeps on the roof; thinks it is a spy satellite taking pictures of her. I am more inclined to think of this as Mars or Venus, but have a sense of being in a twilight zone.
A takes me home after nine thirty. I see the broom man, hear A’s remark about Rahat looking better in the night and feel as if I am returning from a different universe.
What is to be done?
Copyright N. Szajnberg 2007
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Absolutely. I think our friend Nathan nailed it - by showing it, not by talking about it.
Thank you, BD. Spell-binding descriptions of life in Rahat.
Excellent, though you might want to go through and proof that initials were used in lieu of names in all cases intended.
Poor editing job on my part, but I wasn't exactly sure what Nathan intended, and he is out of email contact at the moment. So I mainly left it as I got it from him.