Arad: the city between two deserts

Ships of the desert at rest in Kfar Hanokdim. (photo credit: YONI GREENTSENER)
Ships of the desert at rest in Kfar Hanokdim.
(photo credit: YONI GREENTSENER)
A Jewish city stands on the border between the Judean desert and the Negev: Arad. Celebrating its 55th year in November, it is a city that has come a very long way.
Canaanite Arad stood in the migration path of the Israelites through the Negev desert to the Judean mountains, an obstacle to the footsore Jews because the Canaanite king forbade them passage (Judges 1:16). Arad was eventually destroyed, remaining in ruins until King Solomon recognized the area’s advantage of high ground overlooking trade and military routes and re-settled it.
The familiar story of conquest by Persians, Romans, Maccabeans, Muslims and Christians unrolled throughout antiquity, but at last, Arad lay in the dust, unvisited by all but the Beduin.
From a desolate, waterless spot in the Negev, modern Arad rose again in 1962 as a planned city, part of Israel’s development of the Negev. Residential areas and an industrial zone were built. A committee vetted prospective residents, choosing those already employed or most likely to find employment. (There is no vetting process in Arad today.) Arad’s old-timers nurse a nostalgia for the small-town atmosphere of the early days, when no one locked their doors and everyone knew each other.
Today, the city’s diverse population is estimated at 25,000, spread over 16 neighborhoods separated by the wadis that curve through the landscape. Aside from Israelis of Sephardic and Ashkenazic origin, townsfolk include immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia, Italy and France, as well as hassidim (whose relations with veteran residents are reportedly strained). It is estimated that people in academic professions comprise 40% of the population; a point of pride.
People are drawn to Arad for its relatively low housing costs as well as its pure air and unhurried rhythm, although the city has long struggled with economic setbacks. The 2014 closure of Arad Textile Industries and other factories resulted in unemployment for hundreds of local workers. Before then, the music festival tragedy of 1995, where three teenagers were killed by a falling gate, had already tarnished the city’s allure. It seemed that Arad was destined to settle back down into dust, but the spirit of Arad is feisty and optimistic. The municipality now focuses on desert tourism and is moving ahead with big plans.
You might wonder what there is to experience in the desert other than sand, but the desert has riches for the tourist to uncover. For those who enjoy hiking, the Israel Trail runs through the nearby Tel Arad National Park, and 20 hiking paths radiate outward.
The hikes range from family-friendly and easy, to tough ones that test every muscle. Many hikes pass through water – not something you expect when you think of a desert. There are bike tours, jeep tours, Segway tours and rappelling. On a clear day, you can see the Dead Sea shimmering in the distance between the hills. Camping sites and observation points bring the visitor closer to the thriving life of the desert. In the pure, dry air, under such vast, open skies and surrounded by majestic vistas, even a stroll around the neighborhood feels special.
“Arad is within easy traveling distance to the Dead Sea, the Masada National Park and the Ramon Crater,” says Anna Sandler, Arad Municipality’s tourism coordinator. “Not to mention archeological sites like Tel Arad and Sussia. Our dozens of boutique tzimmerim [guest houses] offer accommodation at more moderate prices than Dead Sea hotels. You can spend a day at a Dead Sea spa and return to a room with a private entrance in Arad later.”
You might want to opt out of strenuous activity and spend a day visiting artists in their galleries or even in Arad, the city between two deserts A feisty and optimistic spirit: From a desolate waterless spot in the Negev, modern Arad rose again in 1962 as a planned city.
Some places produce edibles, like Na’ama’s Sweet Kingdom, a pastry school that offers courses in cake decoration, and some produce drinkables; the Midbar winery hosts tastings for groups, and the Shita brewery offers beer tastings. A recent international graphics festival left the walls of the quarter decorated with social commentary in the form of colorful street art.
Metro visited the Glass Museum, where the works of local glass artists are displayed and sold. It was founded by the artist Gideon Fridman, a Polish-born veteran of the Yom Kippur War. Fridman struggled with dyslexia at a time when the disability wasn’t understood, but he was born with a photographic memory. He turned his talents to creating works out of recycled glass, and evolved a unique way to sculpt figures that seem to move as you walk around them. His impressive Holocaust memorial, an enormous glass candle whose drips are formed of faces seeming to ask “Why?” is as moving a piece of silent testimony as any this writer has ever seen.
Alternative healing comes in many flavors in Arad. Patients suffering from respiratory and skin ailments can choose a retreat at the Moav Integrated Clinic, where Western and Chinese medical practitioners work to bring disease into remission. There are also a number of yoga classes; the Roots Center, where you can find release in a drumming circle, meditation or weaving workshop; and laugh therapy at the gallery of Rachel Yanai. Many find days spent hiking, followed by nights gazing at the stars from a comfortable hammock therapy enough.
Until now, motor racing has been illegal in Israel, but motor rallies will be held as of next year on Arad’s new motor park. An airfield for light aircraft is also under construction.
Do ancient sites intrigue the archeologist in you? Visit the biblical archeology site at Tel Arad National Park, where Arad’s first residents left traces of their societies. You can wander through the remains of Bronze Age homes and temples, both pagan and Jewish; view the water reservoir and well; and explore the complex called “the palace” – a fortress that was a link in the chain of Judean fortresses, and the seat of the area’s government under the rules of King Solomon and King David. Ostraca (texts inscribed on clay) written in ancient Hebrew have been unearthed on the site. The sweeping desert views from Tel Arad are part of what makes the trip worthwhile. If you’d like to enjoy them longer, there is a camping facility on the site. Actually, there is all the camping you can wish for in the environs of Arad.
Between Arad and Masada lies a center of Beduin hospitality, Kfar Hanokdim. If you crave an extraordinary desert experience, it’s worth staying there. You can lodge in a goat-hair tent or a Western-style room with en-suite bathroom; go on a camel trek, pass the night next to a campfire with friends, experience Beduin hospitality or join one of the many eco-workshops and tours. Together with a tour group, I enjoyed a specially arranged kosher lunch in a hall whose walls are covered with hand-woven rugs and with views of the desert on all sides. Afterward, a young Beduin in the traditional robe and checked keffiyeh made us smoky herbal tea, boiling the water over coals.
The highlight of the visit to Kfar Hanokdim was a talk by Su’ad Abu Ajaj, a Beduin woman, mother of 10. She explained the Beduin coffee code, in which a visitor measures his welcome to the tent by the specific amount of coffee served in his cup. She toasted coffee beans in a skillet over the coals, then crushed them in a tall wooden mortar placed on the ground. When the pestle moves up and down, it hits ridges in the mortar’s interior and makes a hollow, rhythmic sound like horse’s hooves on a stone road. The coffee mortar is sometimes used as a percussion instrument in traditional music.
But Abu Ajaj’s message transcended Beduin tradition. She is courageously making changes in Beduin women’s lives, showing them that they, too, can obtain an education.
Even more, that they can work and make their own money independently, either by selling their handicrafts or working outside the home.
“According to Beduin tradition, a woman’s life after age 16 should be in the tent, baking pitot, drawing water from well, and taking care of the children,” she said.
“That’s it, that’s all. We are supposed to stay inside, never learn to drive, remain ignorant and obedient. I teach the women that education is available. It’s not a dream. And that they can earn money of their own. For this, I’ve received death threats. My husband took a second wife and left me, but I won’t leave. What good would that do, to live with my pain by myself? I have a degree in health management now, and am considering getting another one in social work, for the good of Beduin women. It’s a long, careful process, but I see changes already.”
There was much to think about on the bus ride home, when suddenly I was distracted by a herd of camels making their indolent way back to camp, patient and slow, noses in the air – except for one longlegged calf who frisked and bucked ahead like any eager young thing. It struck me as a metaphor for Arad, rooted in antiquity yet fresh and ready to venture in new directions.
All the places cited in this article, with contact numbers, addresses and much more information about Arad, can be viewed in English at images/Tourism/tourist_information.pdf