Home » Middle East » JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. Middle East, Beersheba & The Desert Inn (2)

JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. Middle East, Beersheba & The Desert Inn (2)


beersheba coaster

I’m lying in my sack and it must have been about one o’clock in the morning.  I’ve got my little transistor radio on and I’m in this town not far from the Jordanian border, and it’s on the edge of the Negev Desert.

It’s hot and you can smell that peculiar smell of the Middle East.  Once you’ve smelled it you can never forget it.  It isn’t like any other smell.  I think that a large part of it is the Israeli cigarettes they smoke.  The Arabic type of tobacco, which has a strange aroma that is somehow closely related to burning mattresses.  Awful stuff.  That, combined with moldy camel dung, baking sand, five-thousand years of Roman sandals that have decayed into dust.  Put this whole thing together and you’ve got the smell of the Middle East.  It has no other counterpart anywhere.

I’m lying in my sack and that smell is coming in through the window.  The shades are sort of half-drawn.  There’s a big, heavy, full moon.  The moon is so bright in the desert that you have to pull your shades down or you can’t go to sleep.  They really have a moon here!  They really turn it on in the Middle East—and they do it, of course, at the peak of the tourist season—they’ve got a big master switch.  They turn this thing on—it’s got a dimmer on it, and when they turn it on really full blast, you can get a sunburn from the moon.  You’ve got to wear shades and everything.

So the moon is up there, blasting down, and I’ve got the shade half-drawn.  They have this Somerset Maugham-type of shade all over the Middle East and the tropics—these wooden slat-like things, and above my sack is this big, four-bladed fan.  You’ve seen these movies starring Rita Hayworth and Peter Lorrie and Humphrey Bogart.  They’re always someplace just a bit east of Suez.  That kind of scene.  The fan is going kachoo-kachoo-kachoo-kachoo-kachoo, just a steady thump as it goes around and you can hear it hitting the larger horseflies as it revolves.  This is a part of the Middle East you don’t hear much about—they have big bugs. The fan goes kachoo-kachoo-kachoo and I can hear things thump, bump, the bugs yelling and hollering, and the fan is whistling around and I can smell the Middle East.

I’ve got my little transistor turned on.  I would recommend to anybody who wants to travel, by all means take your transistor radio with you and take an extra set of batteries, too, because if you ever try to buy nine-volt batteries here, you will find out not only will it cost you an arm and a leg, but when you put the doggone thing in, it’s four years old and it’s been dead for two-and-a-half years.  I’m tuning around the dial and I’m listening to these various radio shows coming in—the wildest stuff coming at you.  There are a lot of programs that countries broadcast in English, which is the second language here, and the English programs are almost purely for propaganda.

I’m listening to this girl in Jordan talking about Arabic music.  Very serious program, not a laugh in six months of listening to these things.  She says, “Many Westerners do not understand the subtleties of the various forms of Middle-Eastern, Indian, and/or oriental music.  The forms follow very closely a variation of the fugue, a variation of the cantata movements, and a variation of the basic symphonic structure.  Now, the love song or the ordinary popular song of the Arabic nations…”  She goes on and on and on, explaining all this music and about how the West should understand this fantastic stuff and go along with it.

And I’m sitting here—yeah, yeah, that’s good, that’s right, ahuh.  Yes, very good, highly complex, ahuh, yes, I understand that I must attune my ear to new sounds, very good, must have open esthetic possibilities to see new avenues of beauty, ahuh, very good.  I’m listening to this half-hour show and I’m really interested in it.  I say to myself, “Well, now we’re going to get some of this stuff.”  She stops and says, “You are listening to Radio Jordan broadcasting twenty-four hours a day.  In one moment, our next program.”

On comes the same voice: “And now we present music as you like it.”  I expect Arabic music.  After all this talk about how we should listen to this great music, what do you think comes on?  Elvis Presley.  This is the ironic part: she starts giving all of these dedications and every last dedication is from an Arab!

It’s funny when you run into the reverse chauvinism that’s going on in every country.  For example, throughout America, all the hippies are digging, let’s’ say, Welsh folk songs and they’re digging Israeli folk songs.  You go to Israel and all the hippies are digging West Virginia folk songs.  They couldn’t care less about Israeli folk songs, and as a matter of fact it took me three days to get an Israeli to take me to a place where they are really singing Israeli folk songs.

 beersheba coaster

Here’s one of the most disillusioning things that happened to me in the Middle East.  I’m in Beersheba, a desert city that traditionally, throughout the ages, was a famous oasis, the crossroads of the great caravans that crisscrossed the Negev, went down into Arabia and up into Persia, and all the way up into India.

beedouin markey beersheba

They have a wild market there that starts at four A. M. every Thursday.  One of the weird sights is to see a group of Bedouins—these guys are living as they must have lived five-thousand years ago—leading their camels and riding their horses on the move across the Negev Desert, and outlined against them you see this fantastically modern, superbly designed hydroelectric plant.  They’re moving across as though they don’t even see it.  They go through Beersheba, and every Thursday at four A. M. they meet in this big open place—a chunk of the desert that they’ve got sort of pegged out.

The Bedouin sheiks are still there, and they do not look like Rudolph Valentino sitting in a Hollywood plastic tent.  You see them huddled up in their dark tents and five or six camels moving around and a herd of goats tended by two or three tiny kids.  You can tell the girls because they always have what looks like a scarf wrapped all the way around so that you can just see their eyes.  And there’s that low, flat, black and brown and earth-colored tent that’s the Bedouin’s house—his castle, and you see one little hole in it that’s the doorway.  Sometimes, looking in you can see this white figure looking out at you—that’s the Arab sheik.  The women are almost impossible to see.  They’re always kept away, hidden in the back of the tent.

The whole area is filled with camels at dawn, it’s like a parking lot at the A and P.  The stars are still out and you hear this cacophony—this uproar of Arab talk in about six-thousand different dialects.  And the overpowering smell of sheep and goats, because this is what they’re dealing in.


S h e p – h e r d

In the middle of this insane market place in Beersheba, I saw a fantastic sight—an Arab had this typical, Chevrolet, Country Squire station wagon, baby blue with a fin.  The whole interior had been gutted, the doors hanging loose, the windows cracked, and it was filled with goats, all looking out.  Obviously it was the pride of his life.

And always, when any of these people get together, especially the Yemenites, you instantly hear their music break out.  I saw a group of Yemenites—they look sort of gypsy and Spanish, kind of a wild, fascinating look, and they are all dancing in a circle, their music is going, the drums are going, and suddenly they rush into their bus.  How they manage to dance and yell and holler in a bus I don’t know, but the whole bus is rocking.  Off it went down into the desert.  It was a group of Yemenites going around the country on a tourist trip.

Beersheba at that hour is a cacophony in that one spot.  Westerners come down and look at the market that has been here for hundreds and hundreds of years.  As far back as recorded history goes, this marketplace has been in operation.  And it continues to trade in the same thing it traded in—camel hides, the things that a Bedouin needs.  He’s constantly trading back and forth—his weapons—because, after all, he does live in the desert and it contains rattlesnakes and cougars.  All the Bedouins go armed.  They usually carry a dagger.  They have a working dagger—when you meet an ordinary enemy.  Then they have ceremonial daggers—silver with inlaid handles.  That’s if you want to kill somebody close to you like your mother-in-law.  So when you go to the bazaar, all this stuff is being traded and it was at this bazaar that I picked up my tarboosh.  I look fantastic in it, I’ll tell you!



Here is Beersheba at the crossroads.  And in the middle of Beersheba is this hotel—which is lying right on the edge of the desert.  I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and I took a look at this really exciting-looking place—except for one thing.  The hotel looks like a little bit of Las Vegas.  And they’re very proud of that.  They believe Las Vegas is one of the more civilized spots in the world.  You have the feeling they’re replacing one kind of barbarism for another.  One is plaster and the other happens to be made out of copper.  So here’s a little bit of Las Vegas—The Desert Inn and it’s all plastic, with a plastic swimming pool in the back and plastic deck chairs.  And it’s right on the desert, right in the middle of this waste and about six-and-a-half minutes away from it is the genuine Arab Bedouin crossroads of the world, the meeting place and marketplace.  Here is The Desert Inn with ceremonial Bedouins painted on the outside of it.  Phony Bedouins who look like they were done by Walt Disney.  Cute Bedouins.


“The Bedouin Dancer”

(Cute Bedouins, not by Disney.)

And right in the middle of this U-shaped building, in the center, is a genuine Bedouin tent!  It’s a very eerie sight.  It’s as though you have arrived in front of the Waldorf and somebody has pitched there, a roving band of Genghis Khan.

There’s a little sign inside the lobby that says: “Be Sure to Attend the Show in the Bedouin’s Tent.”  So I made my reservation and I’m ready to go.  I say, “By George, here’s where I’m going to see the real thing!  The real thing!”

So, now it’s eight o’clock at night.  The elevators are going and all the people are heading for the Bedouin’s Tent, and I walk out through this hot desert air.  You feel that baked sand in the night and you can see the stars above you and here’s the Bedouin’s Tent lying there in the moonlight.  These tents are very low and dark so I duck my head down and go in.  It’s a big tent.  Must be seventy-five feet long and maybe forty feet across.  That’s the way the tents are out in the desert—about that size.  Long, low, flat, hut-like tents with many poles, the roof looking scalloped.  You can smell the smell of camel—the camel hair it’s made out of, and goat hides, camel hides, sheep hides, all sewn together.  That’s why it has a kind of mottled, camouflaged look.

It takes about a minute-and-a-half for your eyes to get used to the darkness and you see all around you on the sides these low, big leather cushions, and this is the way the Arabs live.  It’s all low and the people sort of lounge.  The Arab knows how to live in his world.  They lounge.  You see these low blue lanterns hanging, the flickering light, lit with kerosene.  Blue and yellow lenses.  Wow!  The people are all lounging around the walls.  It’s the international set that has gathered to sip of the insanely erotic delights of the Middle East.  And I’m ready to go.

The show has not yet begun as I am led through the tent by this hooded Arab.  I lounge down against a big camel pelt behind me.  Shep has come all the way.  I light one of my sinister, Middle-Eastern cigarettes, which, of course, shrivels your lungs right down to your feet.  I’ve got my shades on now.  I want to look kind of like Humphrey Bogart on his day off.  He’s come down here to meet Peter Lorie.  And they’re going to exchange a few little bits of information because they‘re both going to go out and get Sydney Greenstreet in half an hour.  And Lauren Bacall will show up.

shep closeup

Bogy on his day off with shades.

So I’m lounging, and I see all these other guys with the white coats, oh yeah, and there’s about five-hundred nubile chicks who all look a little like Bridget Bardot’s kid sister.  Oh boy!  I’m ready, see!

I see the stage over there.  Oh boy!  In just a few moments I am going to see the delights that will make this Mid-Western mind reel!  Ahhhh!  This is what I’ve come for.  I see strange instruments lined up against that goatskin background.  Little flickering blue lights on it and I can hear it in my mind already.  I can hear those finger cymbals kachingkachingkaching, I can see that writhing figure, that comely figure picking up those flickering purple lights.  Oh, I can see those muscles that human beings rarely ever have shown to the roaring public.  Kaching!  The flashing eyes.  I can smell the hashish rising, and the opium.  Aha, bring it on!  Stronger women!  Ahhhhh!  More subtle wives.  I’m ready for it, see.

There is a slight stir among the assemblage and I am aware—you can sense it in the air, like any time you go to a show you can sense it in the air that something is about to begin.  My Arab waiter puts down before me a bowl of figs and a long string of grapes.  I say, “By George, grapes!” Aha, this is the beginning, just the beginning.  I sip my drink, which turns out to be a watered Scotch of an obscene variety.  “Well, it’s the way they drink it here in the Middle East.  No doubt it contains some strange elixir that I do not yet know of.”  I take one of those plastic grapes—ah, I’m ready!  And I sense the stir in the audience.  It’s about to happen.

And then the curtain parts and out step three guys, right out of the Catskills, wearing sequined jackets.

sequin jacket

“Wanta welcome ya

to the Bedouin’s Tent.”

Three guys—Manny, Moe, and Jack.  They are a rock and roll swinging trio.  One steps up to the microphone and says, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we wanta welcome ya to The Desert Inn.  Wanta welcome ya to the Bedouin’s Tent.  Now let’s get under way.  Let’s go, It’s time to swing, it’s time to groove, it’s time to rock and roll.”

The next thing I know I’m listening to the worst rock and roll I’ve heard this side of the “Action Station.”  These guys are wearing these sequined jackets and I’m waiting for the show to begin and then it hits me like a bomb on top of the head.  THIS IS THE SHOW!  Oh no!  This is the show!

I sit there eating that plastic grape, sipping that obscene Scotch, watching those three rock and roll guys.  Holy smokes!  They finish.  “All right, folks, let’s give them a big hand!”  Two or three languid-looking Arab chefs are applauding, and to add to the fantastic irony of it, sitting next to them on the stage is a prop-Arab.  A real Arab.  He’s the sheik. He’s sitting there and he’s watching with glazed eyes, these rock and roll musicians.  His glazed eyes.  He just sits there.  And he keeps smoking Luckies. Watching this scene, I wonder when they’re going to start playing those strange instruments that I see behind them.  And then I recognize them for what they are.  They’re also props.  They’re just props.



I could smell the scent of the desert wafting in—the real desert, and somewhere off in the distance you can just feel the padded feet of camels moving toward the Mojave Mountains.  A few Bedouins riding easy in the saddle look over that long, black plain and they see the neon glow in the sky of the Bedouin’s Tent and they wonder what strange things go on in the minds of Western man.  The stars shine and the moon hangs like a great silver mirror over the changeless desert.

And old Shep lounges there on his foam rubber Arab seat waiting for the next chapter to begin of Man’s upward climb.  (Ah, come into my tent, come!)

beersheba coaster



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