In the desert there is space, there is expanse and infinity that stretches beyond the present into whatever past we connect ourselves to or future we push towards. It is a feeling of expanding and contracting at the same time that I release a deep sigh of relief while staring out the passenger car window. We are heading south through occupied territory with some stretches where you see the “walls” that separate West Bank from Israel. “There isn’t one wall,” Aviva reminds me. “There are many walls.” And I’m not allowed to take pictures.
We are driving down via Dimona, southeast of Tel Aviv, still a bit of distance from the Dead Sea but we’re in the desert without a doubt. Aviva is driving and she tells me there are two deserts, the Negev and the Arava. We drive through the Negev and the toll road, the 6, starts almost immediately where we get on as cars and trailers whirl by us. The Kibbutz we are staying at is on the northern tip of the Judaean Desert, in the hills which we leave behind quicker than I imagined. It’s not Texas, it’s not California, it’s not like anything I’ve experienced in my life.
It’s getting hotter and dryer and the the hills get flatter and more barren. When there are road signs they are in Hebrew and English. I recognize some names, but not much, so I am grateful for my tour guide who shows me the hidden layer as she expertly navigates using Waze. She tells me of horrible accidents along the road and slows down when a voice from Waze comes out of nowhere in Hebrew from her Iphone. “There is something up ahead,” she tells me some 100 feet before we reach these incidents. It’s accurate, surprisingly so. For most of the drive it is desolate and the light from the sun keeps getting more direct as we go into a valley. I nod off, the jetlag knocking me out around one in the afternoon (5 AM back home) just as we make a pit stop for espresso. It’s necessary, I tell Aviva, it’s human fuel on these treks. She smiles as she talks on the phone the entire time and I negotiate paying for a cappuccino. I clean the windshields of dead insects. Back in the car, we keep pushing south.
Out her window, Aviva points to the makeshift villages the Bedouins, indigenous inhabitants of the Negev desert in the south of the country, have set up. There are anywhere between 180,000-190,000 of the Bedouins living in some of the poorest parts in the country, with the National Insurance Institute (NII) citing rates as high as 79 percent of the population in some of the unrecognized villages, and 61 percent in recognized villages. Water, I think, how do they get their water out here? The Sea of Galilee, Aviva tells me, “We all get it from there, that’s why the Dead Sea is dying.” It’s receding and, ultimately, it too will die an untimely death. It doesn’t register until I’m on top of Masada, later on in the journey, overlooking the sea from Herod’s once lavish temple.
We pass through small towns with trash piled up outside buildings and dilapidated houses. At times there are mounds of trash right next to empty trash cans. As we make our way through these small town’s traffic circles, Aviva suddenly stops in front of a white and green building with the most immaculately maintained entrance. I look at her, interrupted once again from my jet-lagged car siesta. I don’t want to get out, but the waves of heat have already entered the car now that she’s turned off the AC. I think of the door closing on an oven.
“We’re making a pit stop,” she tell me. “At this Bedouin women’s cooperative.”
I drag myself out and snap a picture of the storefront sign, Lakiya Negev Weaving. Lakiya ia a nonprofit organization established in 1998 to improve the socio-economic conditions of Bedouin women in Negev through education, jobs and media awareness. Inside, it is quiet and clean, with colorful textiles and rugs carefully placed throughout the front open rooms. In the back the women weave quietly at various stages of the process, while one woman crunches numbers in front of a computer. There is only the most peaceful silence of familiarity. A young woman approaches us with a warm and welcoming smile to offer us a tour of the cooperative. She shows us the various woven textiles, the colorful balls of wool in their drawers, the dangling thick threads of wool where bits of hay still cling, the vats for the dying process, the open sitting area where the looms rest on the ground, the room where the media classes are taught. I am speechless. The only thing I can think of is my grandmother and how she’s always asking me to bring back wool and beads. For once I can be a good granddaughter. I buy three balls of pink and turquoise-colored wool. I thank the young woman and ask her if she minds me taking pictures of her while she tells the story of the organization. No, she tells me, it’s fine, she tells me sweetly, “This is why we do these tours, so you tell others.”
Back in the car, we continue the descent, into a deep valley. “We’re going below sea level,” Aviva tells me. She sees me desperately trying to take pictures as we descend, so she pulls over to a lookout. In front of us the Dead Sea stretches before us, unmoving, with an penetrable blue. Surrounding it is a thick crust of white.
Snow, I whisper to myself, but it’s hardened salt, centuries old.