Complaints, heat fill lives of West Bank shepherds

June 02, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- When he wasn't chasing the animals, hissing at them, shrieking at them or ordering the donkey into a chase, Awad Saleh Njum complained about them. When he didn't curse the sheep and goats, he cursed his life as a shepherd.

This year the problem was the lack of rain. Mr. Njum quickly added it was also a problem last year. Maybe then it was even worse. "Dry ground," he said at every step, "dry ground, dry ground," until he half-led, half-followed his flock into a field recently harvested of eggplants and squash.

It was a long, hot walk. While shepherding in the southern reaches of the Jordan River valley technically fulfills every stereotype of the job, it falls woefully short of meeting the imagined ideal of the pastoral life.

The valley, for instance, gets high marks for scenery but a failing grade for what a shepherd wants. There are tourist sites -- the ancient city of Jericho, the Dead Sea -- but more important to the shepherds is what is lacking: unfenced fields, potable water, shade.

Instead of lush pastures, there is a blindingly white desert and only a few patches of green, as if dribbled from a palette. Mr. Njum has the freedom to wander, but only as long as he doesn't cross paths with landowners or Israeli soldiers.

As for the freedom to wander in one's mind, the shepherds are not philosophers. Few can read or write. Most are fully occupied keeping their animals alive or trying to barter this year's beasts for enough sacks of barley to feed next year's.

The scenery is the local equivalent of a curbside view of Central Park: impressive to look at, but the traffic is awful. Here the problem is the paralyzing heat. At 8 a.m. in midspring, the temperature was over 90 degrees and climbing.

Mr. Njum works in the earth's basement, a few miles from where the floor of the valley meets the Dead Sea. At 1,300 feet below sea level, it is the lowest area on the surface of the planet.

On the west are the Judean Hills, barren cliffs of weathered chalk. On the eastern horizon is a gray-blue smudge that marks the hills of Moab, in Jordan. In between is the pebbly desert and the dabs of green that mark oases, including Jericho, and intense sunlight.

The shepherds are unimpressed.

"It's very hot, and not only is it very hot, but at night the mosquitoes will eat you up," said a herder called Abu Od, bringing his flock to share the leftovers of the vegetable patch. "Write down that the situation is garbage -- garbage. I don't remember one single year of my life that was good."

While Mr. Njum and his fellow herder mean what they say, they are not necessarily to be believed. A shepherd has ample time to cultivate his complaints, though the chances are small that someone will appear to hear them.

Most of the time, a shepherd's only company is the flock, or a soldier ordering him off a hillside, an enraged landowner or a second herder wanting to use the same small area. A shepherd '' has plenty of time to contemplate his backbreaking part in a subsistence economy.

Mr. Njum quickly cashed in on having visitors. When a farmer loudly objected to the animals nibbling on the edge of his banana grove, Mr. Njum shouted a warning that he was accompanied by U.N. officials studying the plight of shepherds.

That was the refrain wherever he went. "They were sent by the U.N. so they will tell us where can we herd and where we can't," he would say. Since no landowner questioned the claim, the goats and sheep feasted.

Mr. Njum gradually convinced himself that the story he invented was true. Despite being reassured, he began to fret that he really was with people from the United Nations, and in serious trouble.

Shepherds are among the first independent businessmen -- with the emphasis on "independent." They make their own rules and, when no one is looking, have been known to ignore the rules of others. Mr. Njum had violated at least a few.

He worried that officials had come to find out if he was still living in a refugee camp. Even though he and his extended family left the camp 10 years ago, they continued showing up to take the regular handouts of food given to refugees.

Mr. Njum's clan moved into the Judean foothills to build mud-brick homes. He waved his refugee identification card, neatly protected in plastic, but was clearly nervous admitting he had a house.

It is best reached by a four-wheel-drive vehicle on a road that could have been laid out by the goats. Perched on a tiny summit, the family compound overlooks one bright rectangle of green -- an extravagantly irrigated banana grove -- and a numbing expanse of desert.

There are a half-dozen flat-roofed houses, each with a deep front porch, and a half-dozen sheds for the animals. The sheds are in noticeably better condition.

Mr. Njum has 15 children and two wives. As wives No. 1 and 2 listened from a respectful distance on the porch, he said he would like a third. Eventually, he said, he would have a child happy to take over the flocks.

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