Just after dawn, the air still cold; Umm Rashid tells us on the phone that she plans to take the herd deeper into the hills, closer to the big settlement, where there’s more edible green on the ground. Good, we say, we’re with you. But it takes some time before we find each other in the open spaces of the desert. A second herd, Nawal’s, is just visible on the top of the ridge.
Meanwhile, trouble arrives. The settler Moshe, the constant harasser of the Bedouins, has turned up in his white car. He gets out of his car, and an eloquent conversation, in total silence, takes place. Actually, what is there to say? You, he says to us without words, are “anarchists” who have sold out to the enemy, who are trying to block the Jewish settlement project at ‘Auja and elsewhere. And you, we say with our eyes, are a common thief, eager to cause pain, backed up by the army and the state. More deeply, our silence says: Why not become a human being? Why waste the gift of life on hatred? It’s not too late. Soon it will be too late. His silence says, unmistakeably: I hate you. My god hates you too.
The shepherds fear him. They have suffered plenty. Umm Rashid, seeing the car from across the wadi, stops in her tracks on the hill across from us and waits.
Moshe whips out his phone and starts photographing us, Yigal and me, up close, for long minutes, while we photograph him back. There is a mini-war of the cameras; he thrusts his in our faces, we manage to maneuver around it. As if it mattered. He gets back in his car and drives to another spot where he can keep watch on the shepherds and on us. If they cross the invisible line in the sand….
But already he has spooked them—the mere ominous presence is enough. And soon he is joined by his comrade in crime, perhaps the security officer of the settlement close to Umm Rashid’s home. Far more than enough. Umm Rashid will not reach the greener pasture today.
For a while we position ourselves between her and the two enemies. I suppose there is some measure of deterrence in that. It’s a waiting game that could go on for hours. Eventually we climb down into the wadi and up the hill to join her. She’s pregnant with her seventh child and it’s not so easy for her to navigate over the rocks and steep slopes. She’s happy to see us, frustrated at being blockaded by the settlers; afraid.
What would happen, we ask her, if you go farther east, out of their sight, and make your way to the better grazing ground? No good, she says. They will find her, they will drive their cars through the herd and scatter it over the hills, they may well run over one or more of the sheep and kill them, they may beat her up as has already happened several times, traumatizing their children who saw it happen.
All this in the vast expanse of the desert. It’s as if the Jews had already taken over a huge chunk, nearly all, and, still unsatisfied, were intent on taking all the rest. Umm Rashid is hemmed in to an ever-narrowing space, and we’re not able to break the siege.
There’s not been much rain yet; today is sunny and hot in the Valley; I can’t see a single blade of grass or bramble that a sheep could eat. They seem to be chewing on the myriad pebbles. If the rain comes, there will be a bit more food, maybe in a week or two. Today the sheep will be fed mashed almonds and barley, which the shepherds have to buy at an exorbitant price. They are living on the edge, in more senses than one.
We follow the herds home. Samir, Nawal’s husband, serves us pita with olive oil and zaatar, and tea. A washing machine stands in splendid isolation a few meters from the house, connected by a cord to an outlet. But actually they have very little electric power, barely enough for the machine, and that little is anyway borrowed from their neighbors. I ask if we could bring them a heater—it’s freezing cold there in the winter, and they have no heat, nothing but blankets in the dark. No, says Samir, the current can’t take it, and electricity costs money. Two young daughters are hanging up clothes to dry in the sun.
Some of the soldiers, says Samir, are not so bad, not like the settlers, like the one who tried to run him over and kill him a few years ago. But things are getting worse. Yigal says we are moving into a dark age, darker than anything we’ve ever known.
We didn’t do much good today. We were with them, guests in their home, their grazing grounds, their language. I tell myself: That, too, has meaning. For some hours they were less alone.
Text: David Shulman © 2022; photographs, if not otherwise credited: Margaret Olin © 2022