The tour bus slowed and pulled to the side of the highway as the driver searched for an unmarked road.
"There's no road sign," our guide explained. "Unrecognized Beduin villages are not on the map, so there are no signs."
The actual landmark is an outsized warning that reads "Beware of Camels in the Road." Shortly thereafter, the driver turned off and struck out into the barren Negev.
The bus crawled along - a short segment of road was semi-paved, but soon we were on rutted hard-pack still deeply clawed by winter runoff. Few signs of human habitation were apparent - here and there, a corrugated tin lean-to, ramshackle structures with shredded awnings blowing in the wind.
Another kilometer and we were in the heart of the Beduin village of Kasr Alsir. Only seven kilometers northwest of Dimona, it seemed like another world entirely.
The full history of the Beduin settlements, their recognition or lack thereof, is a complex story with two very different slants - your choice of words reveals your politics.
Simply stated, about 10,000 Beduin remained in the Negev after the 1948 War of Independence. Beginning in the 1960s, the government began an urbanization program, attempting to move the semi-nomadic Beduin into "recognized" villages, where they would be supplied with the public services available to any other community, a move that the Beduin have consistently resisted.
Today, about half the Negev's estimated 160,000 Beduin reside in the recognized villages, while the other half remain outside the pale in unrecognized communities. This means that their access to public services - water, electricity, roads, sewage systems, mail delivery, etc. - is extremely limited.
Casual visitors to unrecognized Beduin villages are rare. Visiting one of the seven recognized villages, such as Rahat or Laqiyya, is somewhat more common but finding a way to tour any of the 45 unrecognized communities is not easy. When a local human rights organization recently offered a day tour of the villages, more than 40 people signed up immediately for the chance to satisfy their curiosity about Beduin life.
A mixed group piled into the tour bus. Many were affiliated with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev either as medical students or employees; others had professional interests like a British documentary filmmaker; several were community activists; and others were simply interested.
By any standard, the experience was an eye-opener.
When you turn off any main road and head into the Negev, the sense of isolation is immediate. The Negev is not empty, but it is dramatically stark and bare. The incessant wind deposits a fine layer of sand on your face, in your hair and clothes.
As we wound our way through the rock-strewn knolls and entered the village of Kasr Alsir, the first thing that struck this writer was the lack of color. Everything is more or less the same tone - a gray, beige, nondescript dun that repeats itself in the sandy ground, the corrugated tin of the structures and the desiccated wooden animal pens. Even the occasional camel, donkey or cow blended into the landscape. One medium-sized tree looked healthy enough, but its leaves were tinged with a coat of sand. The only color came from a bit of red trim on a black dress pinned to a clothesline.
Kasr Alsir, home to some 2,500 Beduin, qualifies as a recently recognized Beduin village.
We arrived in late afternoon and the village streets - not "streets" so much as passageways between homes - were deserted. Not one person was visible. There were no children's bikes, no toys, no sign of habitation. Interestingly enough, there was also no litter - nothing of the detritus of human habitation that seems to cover every Jewish street and walkway. There were piles of debris - construction materials, old pipeline and plumbing, stacks of wooden pallets. But that seemed purposeful, items saved for firewood or reuse. The only sign of industry was one home with a dozen seedling fruit trees planted in neat rows.
As we pulled up in front of a large community meeting room, a group of tribal elders came out to welcome us. They encouraged us into the hall and urged us to sit on the floor. The perimeter of the room was fitted with gloriously colored weavings to sit on, with lots of plump pillows.
Our hosts seated themselves across the front of the room, just behind a shallow fire pit dug into the concrete floor. Pots of hot sweet tea brewed in the embers. The main spokesman was Ibraham, a movie-star handsome man of perhaps 35 who wore a huge smile, a cell phone and sports watch, topped with a pure white keffiyeh. But for the keffiyeh, with Ibraham's jeans, T-shirt and clean-shaven face, he'd pass for a local anywhere in the US.
The program began, and Ibraham spoke of many things - history, tribal structure, the Beduin desire to retain their agrarian lifestyle and not be forced into urban dwellings. He told of the problems caused by an open sewage drain that bisects the village, carrying raw waste from Dimona.
As a recently recognized village, he said, Kasr Alsir is now entitled to all the government services available to any other community in Israel. Yet few of these services are actually in place.
Mekerot, the national water company, runs one big pipeline into the village. Individuals pipe their water from that and pay water bills just like everyone else. Electricity is another matter - a major frustration. Although electrical power lines run directly overhead, supplying light for the nearby Jewish cemetery, the Beduin homes have no electricity.
"They can supply electricity to dead Jews but not to live Beduin?" he asks with a wry smile.
The village itself runs four expensive generators for public structures but no family has electricity, which requires considerable adaptations.
"The day is very short when there's no electricity," Ibraham explained. "It changes your life. When children come home from school - several kilometers away because there is no local school - they'd like to have a snack and rest and then do their homework. But when your light comes from the sun, you have to do the homework right away."
Storing medication is a problem. Many prescriptions have to be kept cool; but without refrigeration, they frequently go bad. No refrigeration means that all meals must be cooked and eaten immediately. Leftovers cannot be saved, nor can women cook in quantity, making food for several meals at once.
The lack of electricity also explains the lack of litter. With no fast-food outlets and no way to cool drinks, the flotsam of modern life simply doesn't exist here. No TV, refrigerator and microwave means no TV dinners and package wrapping.
There is also no mail delivery. About a year ago, Ibraham says, the familiar bright red mail box was erected.
"It's a monument," he says. "No one has ever had the keys."
Mail delivery is a constant problem, and being assessed late-payment penalties is frustrating. It's also an impediment for people trying to apply for jobs or studies. "Right now, we have 15 young women from this village attending Ben-Gurion University," he says. "Can you imagine how difficult it was for them to apply, with no mail delivery, computers or fax machine?"
Two things were surprising about Kasr Alsir: The genuine warmth of the welcome and the overall sense of optimism Ibraham and his fellow villagers expressed.
"We're very hopeful," he said. "As Beduin, our problems are not with Jews but the power structure. And even there we're pleased with our progress so far - our village is now recognized! It takes a long time to get things done, but we're making progress. We're learning how to deal with the government and be effective in making our needs known. Many good friends around the world are helping us, and overall we're very optimistic."
After many mutual expressions of respect and goodwill, our tour group piled back on the bus, encouraged. There was no tension in that tent-flapped structure with the wind whistling through, rather optimism and warm regard. They seemed delighted that a few of us wanted to come, to see for ourselves and to listen.
Our next stop was Khashim Zanna, a completely unrecognized village and very different from Kasr Alsir. When our bus rolled up, a large part of the male contingent of the village waited to greet us. Dozens of children - boys of all ages and girls up to maybe 10 years - crowded around us, giggling, laughing and greatly enjoying the novelty. The children (many wearing T-shirts with some English-language motif) were impishly friendly and not at all shy. They pounced on those with cameras, nagging for more and more pictures.
The village elders were all there, and their warmth was contagious. They led us on a walk through the village, a welcome opportunity for most of us.
Khashim Zanna has a little more color - about a half dozen huge bright yellow backhoes are parked among the structures. The homes also show many more solar panels and water heaters, and more people were out and about. Except for women, of course.
In neither village did we see a woman outside. Our walking tour came upon a group of women working on a covered patio, weaving a magnificent meter-wide rug at least eight meters long. The colors - bright red, yellow, green and purple - were stunning and the pattern bold and beautiful. As one of the visitors raised a camera to take a picture, they immediately protested. An elegant lady in full burka came over to explain that women cannot be photographed. The women smiled apologetically but were firm. No photos anywhere near them.
Eventually we were ushered into a relatively small and dark room, but this structure had actual walls as compared to fabric coverings. After we were seated and served hot tea, the elders, in turn, addressed many topics.
One sore spot in Khashim Zanna is the lack of a kindergarten. For eight years, they say, they pleaded for a permit to build a kindergarten and finally it was approved. But, for a number of reasons including lack of money, it was never built. Instead, a "private" kindergarten operates in the very room we were sitting in. It would be hard to imagine a more dismal or unattractive kindergarten - no color, no toys, no blackboard and no trained teachers.
Two posters grace the dirty, badly-in-need-of-paint walls. One is an Arabic alphabet; the other hangs so close to the ceiling, it's impossible to see what it is but it looks like old, curled photographs. An inside wall has a rough makeshift window punched through, raw edges showing. Two outside windows are blocked by strips of tattered fabric nailed to the wall. No place to teach small children.
Khashim Zanna also has a water supply and no electricity. Several generators can be heard, and there's even a TV antenna near one.
The hospitality was warm and gracious. We were immediately served glasses of tea, but an elderly gentleman who walked with a cane took it upon himself to serve us more tea. It was obvious that moving was painful, but he still brought fresh glasses and moved around, pouring over and over, as much as we could drink. After that, he produced packets of biscuits and urged them on everyone. His kindness and concern for our comfort was touching.
As we left, there were smiles and laughter, genuine warm feelings running in both directions. We were encouraged to return, any time we wish.
The State of Israel has decisions to make regarding the Negev: How best to settle the land, protect resources, provide all residents with utilities, schools and health care, and preserve the lifestyles of everyone involved.
As one tribal elder said, "The Negev is large. There's plenty of room for us both. We can live together in harmony and respect."
By the time our bus drove away, night had fallen. From three or four places, the faint blue of a florescent bulb broke through the darkness. When you live without electricity - or roads, sewers, mail delivery or kindergartens - the day is very short.