Sometimes trying to find Abu Isma‘il in the hills and wadis of Al-‘Auja is, well, like looking for a goat in a desert. The Rashaidi Bedouins of ‘Auja have names for every rocky hill and wadi, names that no one else knows, that appear on no map; and Abu Isma‘il usually has trouble telling me on the phone where he is with his flock. Finally, not long after dawn, we climb a few hills until we sight him, with his red keffiyeh, surrounded by sheep, sheep dogs, and one very young donkey.
Dawn. Several children still asleep in their blankets, on the ground outside the house. Good desert smells. The older girls are beginning their chores: water has to be brought from the tanker; milk is being churned, or perhaps pasteurized, in what could be a repurposed washing-machine. There is a new baby, two months old, sleeping in her crib. Ghazal, maybe a year and a half old, holds a glass of tea in her hand while her eyes, obsidian black, study Yigal and me with unwavering interest. Then a smile. Nadia asks if we’ve been well. Yigal answers with the blessing: “‘aishin min shafek,” “We come alive when we see you.”
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.
The worst thing was looking into his eyes. That was anyway about all I could see of him, since his face was masked with a filthy cloth, lest he be photographed and identified. Not that there was any likelihood the police would bother him in any way.
Abu Isma‘il calls at 7 in the morning, in a panic. Four or five settlers are lined up to block the shepherds’ path to their grazing grounds. What to do? Still half-asleep, I make some phone calls and learn that two of our activists are on their way. I let Abu Isma‘il know. I can hear the relief in his voice. In the end he and the other herds take a long, roundabout way into the hills, and the sheep get to eat their fill. Enough for one day.
Abu Isma‘il says: “How long can a person live? Sixty used to be old. [Abu Isma‘il is 62.] Let’s say that today people live till seventy or eighty. It’s not very long. Why would anyone waste his little lease on life by stealing from others, by inflicting pain? By giving in to greed? Filastin, this land, used to be paradise, jannah. Allah created it as the jannah. Even now—just look around—it would be paradise, fruitful, peaceful, gracious, if only the settlers and the soldiers…..”
Four months in quarantine; the virus now raging again in Israel-Palestine; and I’m back where I belong. The hardest part of the lock-down was not seeing our grandchildren face to face; second hardest, not coming to be with the shepherds.