Israel, that ancient and mysterious land, a name, a word so evocative, a place like no other, with the vast waters of the Mediterranean on one side, and a whole host of powerful Arab nations surrounding on all other sides, has been a strong and fascinating country for me to explore… and another key destination on my Global Pilgrimage.
Behold this new world, a land you always dreamed to explore but never imagined would so soon
become such a magnificent reality…
A melting pot for the world’s most influential faiths, a land of believers, the setting for some of history’s greatest and most terrible stories, legends, wars, and of course holy books like the Quran, Torah and the Bible. Israel is considered the Holy Land by all three of the major Abrahamic religions, being the place where God was said to have given life to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the land Moses promised to his exiled people, where Muhammad is said to have started his Night Journey to heaven, and of course the place where Jesus Christ taught, was crucified …and rose again as a being of light.
Billions of people around the world direct pray toward this, most holy of holies. There is an energy here you cannot mistake. I felt it very strongly, through emotion and spirit. Like a song, or humming vibration, constant and permeating all. Omnipresent. Unseen, yet undeniable.
In Israel I visited all three of Jerusalem’s holy sites, prayed at the Western Wall with Jews, fasted with Muslims during Ramadan and climbed the Temple Mount at first light, cried and prayed in the tomb of Jesus’ resurrection with Orthodox Christians at midnight, crossed the monster dividing wall into the occupied West Bank, spent the night in an illegal house in one of the country’s infamous Unrecognised Villages, floated on my back in the Dead Sea, explored the Judaean Wilderness and Negev Desert using only public transport and local Bedouin guides.
How there can be so much in such a little corner of the earth, is simply beyond me…
I travelled alone to Israel, stayed for just under a month… against everyone’s advice. Seems that the mention of the name Israel doesn’t exactly inspire nice holiday scenes in people’s minds, rather one of danger – of unfriendly Jews, military-occupation, riots and wars, hotly-contested lands, angry Muslims and the threat of ISIS… well, naturally, I had to prove everyone wrong. I’ve experienced this kind of discouragement in the past; travelling alone anywhere in Africa for example seems to prompt this kind of eyebrow-raising… which somehow makes me only more determined to go.
I spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, and I can honestly tell you I have never been to a greater city, or one so unique. A city at the centre of the world. I made a true family there, whom I miss dearly now that I am gone; I made a home, and connected deeply to the city’s most ancient places and to her inspiring people. There is so much faith inside those great stone walls… so much emotion.
But before I tell you about all that, first I want to tell you about my journey among the ancient People of the Negev…
By this point in my Global Pilgrimage I have spent quite some time exploring Muslim countries, learning to share food, drink tea and eat the Arab way, journeying deep into vast desert landscapes and immersing into a way of life almost unchanged for millennia… and I can tell you, it has been nothing short of totally inspiring, enlightening and peace-making.
All those things you may hear in the news about Muslims, bombings and terrorism, and all the other fear-mongering carefully engineered to make you trust no-one but your governments, religious leaders or anyone with the same accent, dress sense and skin colour, I can tell you now for a fact that has nothing to do with these people, with my people. Oh yes, these are my people. I have made many friends now… no, families, who have all given me open invitations to return and stay whenever I want. You realise, quite quickly, nobody understands family and hospitality quite like the people of the desert – and whether it has been at the very western end of the Sahara in countries like Morocco or the north of Senegal, or all the way across the other side of the African continent, here, in Israel, I have never experienced anything quite like Bedouin Hospitality…
I contacted Suliman from Bedouin Hospitality – an organisation set up in 2013 to encourage and facilitate authentic tours of the Negev which directly support and benefit the Bedouin peoples who have lived there long before the state of Israel even existed. Suliman is a modern Bedouin and therefore able to use his deep connections within the Negev Bedouin communities to organise bespoke tours of the desert landscape by camel and jeep, along with traditional tented accommodation, cuisine, and of course that famed hospitality, but also visits to some of the last remaining Bedouin villages untouched by modernity (no roads, no electricity), meetings with local witch doctors, healers, traditional weavers and crafts people.
Over the years Suliman told me he’s hosted large groups of tourists of up to many hundreds, yet I was very fortunate as he agreed to give me a solo tour, just me and the man himself. I was very excited to step into his world… and begin a journey, deep into the desert…
The Negev is quite unlike any desert I’ve ever travelled through before. It is a world between worlds, a land stuck somewhere between progress and tradition. Israel of course has had many problems in the recent past, much evidence of which still remains to be seen. Many Unrecognised Villages scattered throughout the land, with no electricity or connection to national water grid; power-plants, secret military bases and ‘no go’ areas; ancient monuments, huge mountains and jaw-dropping craters, interspersed with more traditionally pastoral scenes of goat herders and camel farmers, clinging on to a way of life that has existed in this part of the world for some 7000 years… the place is mind-blowing to say the least.
With the establishment of the Israeli State and modernisation of the new country, for various reasons a lot of the Bedouin communities have been displaced. One of the ways the government has tried to tackled the problem is by building new townships for Bedouin communities. This new way of life has been hardest on Bedouin women, who, because of ancient societal rules of gender segregation and a lack of purpose in modern town life (the traditional domain of women being at home in the camps, cooking, cleaning, tending fires and livestock etc.) have found themselves seriously handicapped in a quickly-changing world.
Organisations like Desert Embroidery and Lakiya have been set up to change this. At these women-only centres the Bedouin practice traditional crafts like weaving and embroidery, and also have the opportunity to study written Arabic and Hebrew. Not only does this revive and preserve traditional desert crafts, but also encourages much-needed social camaraderie among the women. It was a pleasure to meet and photograph them. Some of the women, chiefly non-married ones, only allowed me to photograph their hands. I was more than happy to oblige…
Was this a glimpse into an Israel where the new Zionist vision and the traditional Arab view could work, harmoniously, together?
Next we stopped off at Drejat, a peaceful town at the foot of Mount Amasa, where we sheltered from the midday sun in an ancient stone cave where the family of our host Jaber Abu Hammad lived until recent times.
The Abu Hammad family have opened their family cave to passing visitors, where they offer traditional refreshments, story-telling, bread-making and tours of the local landscape. As I had decided to fast with Suliman for Ramadan I didn’t eat during the day, but it was fascinating to explore the caves, the different rooms where the family would sleep, prepare meals, host guests and keep their live stock. A way of life very common in Biblical times. The place was full of artefacts and crafts from bygone eras.
Gosh, if only walls could talk…
No questions asked for three days and a third… That is how long you would be hosted if you were lucky enough to stumble upon a Bedouin encampment whilst traversing the desert. I can tell you the amount of offers I had from various people to stay were innumerable… to come back for Bedouin weddings, go and stay with cousins in various Palestinian towns… and I won’t even get started on the food yet! My advice for anyone staying with a Bedouin family is to never finish your food. More and more dishes will come until you finally admit defeat and leave your plate half full.
A hungry guest would be a great dishonour in these households.
I can tell you this is no place to expect five star accommodation, hot showers or wifi. Please, this is the real deal people! A chance to live like a true Bedouin among one of the most enchanting and fascinating landscapes in the world. To experience Bedouin Hospitality is a chance to experience the raw soul of the desert. No amount of dust, language barriers or fear of the unknown would ever stop me coming to places like these. Travelling with a soul-mate/partner/companion can be a wonderful experience, but going solo and living with local people in the most diverse and controversial country in the Middle-East – I dare you! I loved my time spent wandering the camps and towns alone, talking to locals and capturing little snapshots of this fascinating world within and world…
To me, the Negev is what I call a ‘Cowboy’ desert – rocky canyons and deep valleys you can imagine being chased through by a group of bandits while you gallop sidesaddle on a black stallion, shooting back at your pursuers with heavy brass-barrelled pistols…
But in reality, the real danger for locals in these desert lands is far less exciting.
As Suliman and I moved along the dusty roads I noticed random clusters of housing dotted throughout the landscape. Suliman explained these were the infamous Unrecognised Villages not acknowledged as legal by the Israeli Government. It seems a lot of the Bedouins have not relocated to the new purpose-built towns, and many of the Unrecognised towns are being demolished, the people forced to take refuge elsewhere. It was crazy to see these places where people lived, like slums or shanty towns, with no power or running water, when overhead run perfectly good power-lines leading from huge plants nearby directly to big Israeli cities.
Man’s pride has always been his biggest downfall. Makes me sad to see that so often in this world Man does not work together, but rather builds walls, divides, creates war and dispute when cooperation would always be a better solution for all… we have one world. We have to share it. Things cannot always remain the same, and yet negotiation is paramount. Why do we get so much wrong?
As we drove to the edge of the villages (so I could get some shots) it appeared my presence caused a bit of a stir. People began calling over and pulling up in their cars to see what I was doing there. Funny, really, seemed I was just as intriguing to them as they were to me.
It’s really crazy to think of all the things this land has bore witness to over the years. Really crazy.
I spent the night in one such village, in an ‘illegal’ house. I sat with a lot of young men from the village that evening, shared shisha pipe and talked deeply about politics, religion and the view of Islam in the wider world. It saddened me when the young Bedouin men asked me why the world has such a negative view of Islam, why when they normally encountered foreigners they noticed that people were quite afraid of them (unlike me, which they really seemed to be enjoying). Of course we talked a lot about terrorism, ISIS and other Islamic Extremist groups, things that were happening across the border in Syria. As we sat and talked it became very apparent to me that these happenings were just as much ‘foreign’ and troubling to these young men as they were to me. They seemed to have no relation to them. They talked only of peace, of how important it is to welcome strangers within their culture, respect fellow Man…
I find it very easy to connect with all people, as I travel the world, no matter the skin colour, race or creed. There is a common language that permeates all – that is within all and understood by all – the language of the heart. It is a language far deeper than simple words or roll of tongue. It is present, something we all know from birth, yet somehow lose nearly altogether as we mature and step out into the ‘real world’… I gave up on the ‘real world’ and all its hollow possessions, ideals and expectations a while back. Never regretted it. Trusting my heart has brought me on a journey I never thought could happen to someone like me… and yet it has.
Moments and connections like these you will never forget, looking back on the journey of your life…
During my time with Suliman as my personal guide I was bestowed a great privilege. We rode off into the rocky landscape which looked entirely the same to me in all directions and yet Suliman seemed to know exactly where he was going… yet in fact he didn’t! I always seem to get lost finding this place, he said… I was both relieved and anxious at the same time.
But we eventually found it – a place he called the ‘Hidden Village’… for obvious reasons I guess.
The ‘Hidden Village’ is one of the last surviving truly authentic Bedouin encampments in the Negev. A place where the way of life has hardly changed in 7000 years. It was an absolute honour for me to meet and sit with these true nomadic people in their humble tents, and furthermore be given permission to photograph them in their homes.
We sat together for quite some time. They didn’t speak my language and I didn’t speak theirs. But that didn’t matter an iota.
It may sound strange but I had the same feeling sitting there in those tents as I do in an extremely holy or sacred place. I just sat, in The Presence, taking in a way of life and a people that very soon may not exist altogether.
I felt so grateful to all the people who had crossed my path, welcomed me into their homes, who without hesitation had taken in this complete stranger, this wandering man, and showed me their way of life, their families and the places they held dear. In what was really such a very short space of time I’d seen so much… felt so much. Given something to remember, to hold onto and cherish, and take with me on my onward Journey…
But before I left, Suliman said there was one last place he wanted to show me.
He said he’d left the best till last. Now after my time with the families of the Hidden Village I hardly believed him… yet, what a trip through the valley and up over the canyon revealed I could never have expected…
Behold, Makhtesh Ramon ~
A Makhtesh is a geological feature unique to the Negev Desert and greater Sinai Peninsula. The Makhtesh Ramon is the largest in the world.
I was left speechless by the sheer size of the place. It is absolutely vast, stretching out in all directions, this huge plateau of an orangey-red rock more akin to Mars. The nature of this landscape truly overwhelmed me. I was humbled. Silenced.
The soft wind blew through this otherworldly valley up through my hair, caressing my body and whispering in my ears “this is freedom” and I knew it to be true.
Never have I felt more awe-inspired or blessed by a single landscape. The nature of this world is stunning, all-consuming and deeply-moving. It too speaks that special language of the world, this unique and wordless language of the heart that the more I travel and explore I see is present at the core of all things, in all races, religions, places and beliefs.
This ‘language of love’ has been my real pursuits these many years of travel, the thing that fascinates me most and fuels my onward obsession with the world and its great and diverse host of Creation.
Nature has no keeper other than that which created it. Nature creates no walls, no divides, no barriers or prejudice. Nature knows that to simply be is to simply live, and to simply live freely in this world is the greatest richness anyone or anything can possess, be apart of and share in.
Nature will outlive us all.
I leave you with that thought.
For me it was now time to leave the Negev, and return to the heart of the world,
to that king of cities, Jerusalem… but I wouldn’t be forgetting the lessons of this wilderness in such a hurry…
I would like to take a chance to give a very special thank you to Suliman of Bedouin Hospitality, who graciously hosted and guided me during my extraordinary journey through the Negev. If you would like to organise a bespoke excursion into the world’s most fascinating desert, meet its people and experience the humble Bedouin way of life, then contact Suliman directly through his website – www.bedouinhospitality.com