August 26, 2020 Al-‘Auja

Photograph: Margaret Olin, 2017

The count is stark and simple. Last week the ‘Auja shepherds went out to graze their flocks six times. Five of those times our activists were there to accompany them and protect them, and the grazing went well, more or less. On Monday we couldn’t be there, so they didn’t go out at all. It’s a scary business. Settlers and soldiers lie in wait. On Saturday, they took the sheep out, and soldiers drove them away.

 Ahmad says that yesterday Omer came over to him to say, smugly, “We’re neighbors.” Which is true. One neighbor has guns, soldiers, violent toughs, and all the cruelty, though he thinks he’s a decent man. The other has nothing. Ahmad waves his arms and cries out to sky and sun, “Jiran— Neighbors!”

 Omer apparently said that things would be just fine if the Ta‘ayush “anarchists” didn’t come and make trouble.[1] Which in a way is also true. Before the shepherds invited us to help them, they had no access at all to their grazing lands. Omer forbade them, at gunpoint, to go there. So things were, indeed, rather quiet.


Photograph Margaret Olin, 2017.

We reach ‘Auja before sunrise. The desert is cool, almost blue, the shepherds already out with the sheep and goats. We join Isma‘il, who has brought his two herds to the richer pastures north of the road. That means danger, at any moment. Legally, the lands belong to the Waqf Endowment and no one else, and the shepherds have traditional grazing rights. As if that matters. Isma‘il calls my name when he sees me. He’s happy we’ve come; he asks us to stay close to him.

Photograph Margaret Olin, 2017

We wave to the shepherdess of the second herd. To the east, the sky is glowing orange. A few minutes later Isma‘il calls me: soldiers approaching. There are two of them, on foot, in the usual carnival costume, with their black metal toys. An army jeep, with a woman soldier I recognize, is not far behind. Isma‘il doesn’t intend to wait for the coming humiliation, the threats and growls, the waving of weapons. You’d be surprised to see how fast sheep can run. With superhuman, superovine swiftness, they disappear southward into the desert.

Photograph: David Shulman

The soldiers keep walking in their footsteps, the jeep following them, and we’re just a little ways ahead of the soldiers. No words pass between us. Actually, what is there to say? I feel like quoting to them from Montaigne’s highly relevant essay on cruelty: 

Photograph: David Shulman

“What I have in me of good, I have by the chance of my birth; and hold it not either by law, precept, or any other instruction: the innocence that is in me is a simple one; little vigor and no art. Amongst other vices, I mortally hate cruelty, both by nature and by judgment, as the very extreme of all vices…I cannot, without impatience, endure the cry of a hare in my dog’s teeth, though the chase be a violent pleasure.”

What if I were to say to them that they’re the dog and Isma‘il  the hare, and that this morning’s chase gives them a violent pleasure? Montaigne who? they would say. Instead, bitterly, finally, I ask them, “Are you finished harassing the shepherds for today?” One of them answers: “I haven’t harassed anyone.”

Photograph: David Shulman

We wait until they go away and the jeep turns back onto the main road, hesitates, waits, drives up and down, eventually seems to lose interest in this morning’s prey. When we’re sure Isma‘il is safe,  we join Ahmad, almost invisible in a dip between two golden hills. The sheep are chewing furiously. But it’s getting hotter, and they’re getting thirsty. Born optimists, they come to investigate the dry water-troughs that the settlers have left in the field. Disappointed, desperate, they lick the waterless aluminum.

Ahmad makes us tea. Unfortunately, he has only one old, precarious, discolored cup. I leave you to imagine how we—all three of us– drink down his offering in these corona days. A little sweet tea is left over, poured on the baked soil. The sheep, connoisseurs of Bedouin tea, race to slurp it up.


By 9:00 it’s too hot for sheep and men and women. I ask Ahmad if he’ll come out with them again in the evening, when the day cools off. No, he says. He’ll get them home—it’s a long, burning walk—feed them and water them and put them to sleep. “And you’ll sleep too, I hope.” Yes. He laughs, a long time, eyes crinkling.

He has the sturdy vigor of the ‘Auja shepherds. I know it well. No sign of fear today. A certain insouciant dignity. As for me—suddenly, infinitely happy in this infinity of light and space—if there is good in me, it’s by chance. And you can’t fool the glaring sunlight when it comes to cruelty, the everyday, routine variety that seeks out its nearest, most helpless victims.

Unknown artist, Portrait of Michel Montaigne, 1570s. Public domain, from Wikipedia.


Before I reach home, baked, roasted, burnt, I stop for an espresso at the bread store. Ahmad’s tea wasn’t enough. The man ahead of me in line tells me my backpack, which I threw on a chair outside, is wide open, unzipped. It’s OK, I say to him, there is nothing of value in it except a copy of Montaigne; if anyone steals it, it’s probably because they need to read it.

[1] Thanks to Shai Goren, who was present at the neighborly conversation.

text David Shulman © 2020.

Photograph: David Shulman

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