Home » Middle East » JEAN SHEPHERD-Travel. Middle East. Negev Desert and Camels

JEAN SHEPHERD-Travel. Middle East. Negev Desert and Camels


negev desert map

Southern Israel=The Negev Desert

For the past two weeks I have been in the Middle East.  I have been as far removed from the world and the reality of New York and mid-twentieth century Americana urbanus as it is possible to be without perhaps being in the Sea of Tranquility on the dark side of the moon.

I am lying in my sack and there is a hot desert wind blowing in off the long gray, brown, gold reaches of the Negev.  It’s two o’clock in the morning and off in the darkness I can see the low outline of the Moab Mountains just across the border in Jordan.  I’ve got my transistor radio quietly weaving its way between night-flying insects and the sound of Middle Eastern music.  It’s just lying there like a heavy cloud all around me.

And you can smell the edge of the Red Sea slowly drifting in as it does at night when the cold air hits the surface of the warm water raising just the slightest edge of condensation.  It never gets far in the desert as the aroma does—the smell of the ancient Red Sea.  Ohhh! And hour after hour, those sounds through the dark night air:  Radio Jordan! Radio Iraq!  Radio Damascus!  Radio Tel Aviv!  Hour after hour.  And you can see in the moonlight—and I was there the night of the full moon just a few days ago—a Bedouin tent outlined against the black cloud that lays along the side of one of the low, sloping hills.

bedouin tent

A Bedouin tent.  And grazing in the unyielding sand just beside the tent itself are two tired camels, forty-five goats, two sheep, and what appears to be a small, one-legged man.

There I am in my sack in a cold sweat, with that strange desert wind playing over my forehead.  Yeah, and the moon hung high.  And the next morning I was in twelve fathoms of Red Sea.  Ah, Middle-Eastern music—they all sound the same—like salami.

It’s almost impossible to know where to start.  I’ve spent the last two weeks.  Once in a while I would look at my watch somewhere.   I remember sitting on an Arabian horse, going up the side of a hill in the Upper Galilee—and I glanced at my watch and I remember saying to myself, “You know, I will be on the air in New York in about ten minutes.”  A very strange feeling to be so removed and so completely cut out and hacked off.  I guess it’s almost impossible to realize the unbelievable gulf of difference—the ocean of difference—that exists between so much of the world that you read about in the paper all day long.  You read the news items about this country and that country and they’re just sort of like type on the page with the fantastic gulf that exists in reality between those countries and the country that all of us accept as so much part of our world.  It is our world.

I glanced at my watch, and this horse—you’ve got to understand too, that the Galilee district is practically made out of old rocks stuck out of these arid hillsides—and this horse was far more efficient than I was.  He’s climbing over the rocks and grunting and sweating and once in a while turns and yells at the horse behind him who is struggling up this hillside and the horse ahead of us finally kicks my horse in the mouth.  My horse shies and jumps over a rock fence and I just stay there.  I just stay in this strange world which is so completely removed from our world.  Not really strange.  Once you’re in context with it, it is our world that becomes strange.

I guess that’s really the keynote of the human animal—we are infinitely adjustable.  Infinitely and almost totally adjustable to almost anything that occurs to us.  Today we accept moon-travel.  I know people who don’t even look at the television any longer.  Pictures are coming back from the moon and they’re bugged because The Beverly Hillbillies are being preempted.  Wait, in a few years they’ll be a little Venus probe, landing on Venus and it’ll be sending back pictures of another planet and people will be complaining that it will be cutting into the news.

So I’m lying on my sack there remembering the first time I went to the Middle East, which was in the late fifties.  I went through Syria, Lebanon, and one of the things that I always remember—something that you never hear about is the smell, no matter where you go.  Whether you’re in Haifa, whether you’re in Tel Aviv, or even Jerusalem or Nazareth, or you get to a place like a small desert outpost.  One of the most exciting experiences to a modern man involved in today’s urban world, is to get into a real outpost.  I’m not talking about the romantic picture we have of the kibbutz, I’m talking about a genuine desert outpost.


The Negev Desert

There were two or three of them that I was able to be involved in briefly, going through the Negev Desert.  I remember one scene.  I doubt whether there is a more bleak, peculiarly beautiful desert anywhere in the world than the Negev.  Strange desert.  It lies in a trough, and off to your right there’s this mountain range that rises a couple of thousand feet, and they’re stark mountains, there’s no trees, no vegetation, no green, and way off to your left you see this other mountain range in Syria or Jordan, depending on where you are in the desert.

The Negev just lies there, and you can smell the sand that’s been baking now for forty-thousand years.  There has been one caravan after another going over it.  One invasion after the other—the Turks, the Romans—it just goes on and on and on and on.  And always the Negev is just there.  It doesn’t care who’s doing all the running and the yelling, the Negev desert remains the desert.  I think this is one of the things that gets you about the desert.

We are driving along, myself and this guy I’m with.  Driving into this rough, single-track road.  Off in the distance we see camels.  One thing about animals is that they’re non-denominational.  An animal does not know from being a Catholic or that he is an American French poodle, for example.  I see the camels slowly moving in a low growth of what looked like Western mesquite, but it was a local version, a low plant life that grows in this desert.  Very arid, very hard, rough plant life that looks twenty-thousand years old.  There are some trees there, they say, that have grown in that desert, that are over three-thousand years old.  Just fighting that weather all the time.


Clumsy kind of grace–and they spit.

These camels are moving in and out of the trees.  Totally wild, nobody with them.  If you’ve ever seen camels moving, you see a strange, clumsy kind of grace—which sounds like a contradiction—but it’s quite true of a camel.  And a camel always looks like he’s going to fall over.  When he moves, when he walks, his whole body is moving.   They’re very alert, they’re very vicious.  A camel that’s wild is a bad scene.  You don’t go over and pet the pretty camel and chuck him behind the ear.  And they spit—they tell me a camel can knock a fly off the trunk of a tree at forty yards and decide in which eye he’s going to hit him—ptaaaa!

The guy says, “The funny thing about camels, you know.  Those are Jordanian camels.”  From the other side—this is the enemy over in that particular area.  He says, “You see, they won’t breed over there—they come here to breed and then they go back.”  Strange interaction here in the middle of the desert.




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