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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. Middle East, Beersheba & The Desert Inn (1)

I had an experience in the middle of the Negev Desert which has given me a peculiar and sickening insight.  Not really sickening.  Put it this way—it is as though somebody has pulled aside a veil of something you suspected all the time and never quite wanted to put into words.


The moment that I am about to describe takes place in the desert city of Beersheba.  It’s a great name—Beersheba.  It does not sound like Pittsburgh.  Even the name excites you.  When I say Beersheba or Dar es Salaam or Ramada al Ashid–these are all great little towns that I visited.

I am about to approach Beersheba and I’m sitting in this car.  Beersheba lies like some kind of artist’s creation, right in the middle of this plain of the desert.  You can look out from Beersheba and almost see Canton, Ohio, it is that flat—nothing.  Mile after mile, and way off in the distance you see outlined on the horizon, a camel standing, and a Bedouin and a couple of little people.

It looks so romantic—we come up over a hill and there on the hillside is a Bedouin tent.  These are true nomads.  They move in the night—they disappear—nobody knows where they went.  The next morning they may be seventy-five miles away on another long, hot, dusty hill.  They take up their place there for a couple of days and they move on endlessly, endlessly they move in the desert.

We come down this long, winding grade and right there on the left is a Bedouin tent.  How does a Bedouin tent look?  It’s a long, low, flat tent that blends right in with the surroundings.  There is no color.  They don’t paint them red or yellow, they are sort of brown, earth-colored, black, flat tents and they look like they’re made with about ten poles in them.

bedouin tent

They look like waves, strange, flat, irregularly-shaped mushroom—like growths.  And they’re very low—I doubt whether anybody can really stand up in a Bedouin’s tent.  This dark tent lying up against a sheer cliff.  And there it is.

There are about twenty-five goats wandering around being goats, and you see two or three little, miniature figures, all of them swathed in Bedouin dress, ragged-looking dress, their faces covered, you see these two little eyes.  They’re kids.  The children take care of the stuff that is walking livestock.

You see a little boy—it’s hard to tell how old a Bedouin is, but let’s say seven or nine, maybe.  And there is a little girl.  The moment a girl stops being in that age group, she is whisked into the tent and you never see these Bedouin girls except under very special circumstances.  There are innumerable taboos that a Bedouin has about his women and one of them is that, to begin with, a Bedouin never works—this is women’s work.  The Bedouin sheik knows what life is about and he sits all day in the tent, presumably, and there you see this tent lying up against the side of this hill, and standing in front of the tent, tethered there, is this magnificent, white Arab stallion.  You couldn’t believe it—it’s like out of some fantastic, corny, rotten movie.  A white stallion standing there, and a couple of camels grazing behind the tent.

ancient beersheba

Ancient Beersheba

We drive on past.  Ahead of me down this long, curving road, I see Beersheba, a traditional meeting ground for all the great caravans that moved across Palestine and the Middle East hundreds of years ago and even to this day.  They crisscrossed Beersheba.  Beersheba was like the Times Square of the Negev at one point.  And the Arabs, every Thursday morning at four, have their market and they come in from wherever they are in that darkness out there, that great, howling wilderness of the Negev.  They trade camels, they trade goats, or they trade cheese, or they trade girls.  Whatever it is they’re trading.

I see Beersheba.  I feel inside me coming up this fantastic excitement.  I am the man of the urban world, the Western man, approaching one of the ancient cities of mystery.  One of the ancient cities of desire and intrigue.  I am approaching the great crossroads.  You see this city lying there all by itself in the middle of the desert.  Nothing but the big sun hanging over.  Beersheba.  The crossroads of the camel caravans.  Thousands of years old, and thousands of camels have crossed these plains, have stopped briefly, near the oasis, right outside of Beersheba, and then moved on to Arabia, to Persia, to China, to the great ports of India, and back down to Spain and to the edges of that vast subcontinent—the Middle East.  Beersheba!  Oh! Wow!

So we come down this long road, and I say, “Beersheba!  Where are we going to stay?”

And the Rumanian guide sitting next to me says, “You won’t believe it.  Unbelievable!”

I say, “Really?”

He says, “Yes.  Unbelievable!”

Ten minutes later we pull up on the edge of Beersheba, in the middle of this plain where you can see nothing for mile after mile after mile—we pull up in the middle of this plain in front of a little bit of—oohhhh—I couldn’t believe it, a little bit of Las Vegas—The Desert Inn of Beersheba.  It is made out of plastic.  Plastic palm trees.

desert Inn, Beersheba

“The Desert Inn” of Beersheba

Here are plastic palm trees and clean glass, standing on the dark, howling plain of Beersheba.  Where the camels had crossed for centuries before, the Bedouins had rested, and intrigue was a way of life.  The Desert Inn.  I walk into this unbelievable place and it’s all air-conditioned and there are a thousand ladies running around wearing blue hair.  And they’ve got sequins.   The Desert Inn in Beersheba—doesn’t that sound exciting?  As exciting as the Howard Johnsons Motel outside of Wooster, Mass., ‘cause they’re blood sisters.

I walk up to the registrar’s desk, and standing there is a man who is obviously a man of the Middle East.  With these narrow eyes he watches me.  He’s got high cheekbones and he’s got dark hair and he’s got this impenetrable, difficult-to-pin-down accent:  “Vere is your papers, please.”

I reach down for it.  Beersheba, The Desert Inn.  This is where Peter Lorre was at his best in all those movies of the French Foreign Legion.  I’m standing in front of a sinister desk clerk at The Desert Inn.  “Vere is your papers, please.”  I take out my passport and hand it to him and I try to look mysterious, as though I’m an enemy agent.

“Aha.  You don’t mind if we keep it here for a moment.  It’s the police, you know, have to see it.”

“Of course.”

And he puts it away under the desk.  Then he says, “Would you care to make reservations for The Bedouin’s Tent.  The reservations are going fast.”

I see this placard with little sequins, done in the best Las Vegas style.  It says, “See Harry Wadanobby and His Swinging Four in The Bedouin’s Tent tonight.”

I look at it and say, “By George, I’m going to have the real thing.  I’m in the Middle East now.”  For years I’ve been hearing, “When you get to the Middle East, you’ll see these real belly dancers, not these cheap, imitation belly dancers we’ve got here down on 14th Street.”  This is the real thing.  This is Beersheba.

I stand on my tiptoes and look over that potted palm over there and I can see a real camel outside.  He’s looking in the window at me right now.  Then I realize it’s a plastic camel.  But tonight, in Beersheba, I am going to be in the Bedouin’s tent.  I make my reservation.  I enter the automatic elevator with the air-conditioning blowing down my back and the sound of Musac playing “Tea For Two” in my ears, and I am ready for a night of Middle-Eastern adventure.

beersheba coaster

“…a night of Middle-Eastern adventure.”

Maybe in Part 2.