A Memorable Place Lessons in life from a desert nomad...


August 04, 2002|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Lessons in life from a desert nomad

By Elizabeth Atalay


Life lessons can come from the most surprising people and places. I learned this with my mother, who was perched atop a camel like the Queen of Sheba. She bobbed and wobbled with each of the camels' lurching steps, letting out squeals of delight and fear as we progressed deeper into the Negev desert in Israel. Our camel-trek leader, a local Bedouin named Razi, told me that my mother reminded him of his own mother.

My knowledge of the Bedouins and their life was limited to what I had seen from my narrow tourist perspective. What looked to me like meager tent camps dotted the dusty stretches of land along the Israeli roads. When we stopped anywhere near these communities, we were instantly swarmed by smudged Bedouin children with outstretched hands. I felt terrible for their situation. From what I could tell, they had no homes, received no education and lived in poverty.

As our camels plodded along, Razi spoke about life in the desert and life as a Bedouin. It was clear that he could easily navigate the desolate terrain, and he described the desert as full of life if you knew where to look.

He explained that the Bedouin are expert trackers, able to distinguish a man's footprints from a woman's, and whether the woman was pregnant. He spoke of following the stars and planets like a map in the night sky. He told us about Bedouin poetry and the tradition of oral history. Much of this knowledge, he said, had been traditionally passed on to him, as it was to all Bedouin children.

My idea of the Bedouins being uneducated seemed increasingly inane. It dawned on me that being well-educated is subject to individual cultures. Even with my self-satisfied feeling of being a knowledgeable Westerner, I was aware that I would perish quickly if left on my own in this environment.

When we stopped for our midday meal, Razi baked us flatbread with ingredients from his camel pack. He brewed some sweet tea on the fire, and as we drank together, he told us how he pitied us with our burdens and responsibilities.

Razi loved his life of freedom, and, to him, possessions only meant entrapment. He had a point. He said that it would be a nightmare for him to own more than he could fit on the back of his camel, thus inhibiting him from the nomadic life that he loved.

I did not return home and sell all my worldly goods; I did, however, bring back a new understanding: that the world is seen through a lens unique to each person within his or her own culture.

Elizabeth Atalay lives in Baltimore.

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