Beduin life in the Negev Mountains

On the black limestone rocks, you can see images of animals and symbols connected with tribal life etched into the stone.

A woman hand-weaves a rug on a traditional loom. (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
A woman hand-weaves a rug on a traditional loom.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
When we leave the fastpaced city and travel down south, we realize that a completely different, parallel universe exists just a few minutes from where we live.
As we drive, we see clusters of tents and metal shacks adorning the side of the road, young boys and old men leading camels and herds of sheep, and children running around what looks to us like a desert wasteland.
Many of us don’t know much about the Beduin, who make their home in Israel’s deserts, so the Negev Mountains Tourism Association has decided to invite Israeli hikers to a weekend in which they can get a taste of the Beduin lifestyle and culture.
In this program, called The Way of the Tents and taking place on the weekend of January 23-24, the Beduin families of the Negev Mountains will open their homes to the public, and will tell stories about their culture. Guests will be welcomed and invited to sit on cushions in large Beduin tents, where they will be served strong coffee and sweet tea and hear about what it is like to live a Beduin lifestyle in the 21st century.
Guests will learn about the traditional weavings still being produced by some Beduin women, the special cheese Beduin make that can last for up to a year without being refrigerated, and, of course, their famous hospitality. There will also be workshops and guided walking tours.
One of the most interesting communities I’ve encountered is the Bani Azazmeh tribe, considered by some to be the last of the true Beduin; they number close to 200 families, and Salam el-Waj is one of their elders. There is an amazing panoramic view of the Nabatean city of Avdat from Waj’s tent, which sits on top of a tall hill just west of the Ein Avdat parking area.
Inside, there is a cozy sitting area where guests can sit and listen to Waj talk about the history of his family and his tribe. His clan wandered through the desert for decades, since they believed it was integral to their faith to always be moving from place to place. But when the State of Israel was created, the land on which there were free to move was restricted – and they thus remained in the Negev Mountains area, building a permanent residence there.
As he sits drinking sweet tea with his guests, Waj tells how in days gone by, Beduin boys who reached the age of 14 or 15 would take off into the desert on their own, with just a camel. They had to show they could survive the night sleeping alone out in the desert, thereby proving their manhood. Waj says that when he was a teenager, he dreamed about moving to the city – and as an adult, he did just that.
While in Tel Aviv, though, he never stopped feeling like a foreigner, missing the Beduin way of life and his community, and one day he just picked up and went back home. But things at home had changed as well, when the Israeli authorities tried to force his tribe to live in a permanent Beduin town. Only the more educated families and those with economic problems agreed to move there.
Although Waj decided to raise his family out in the desert in the traditional method, he is not opposed to sending his children to school. Currently, he operates a Beduin bed and breakfast for tourists and takes groups on guided tours to see ancient paintings on rock.
Most of the Beduin-style guest houses are run by Jewish Israelis, so in this respect, Waj’s place is more authentic.
He offers small tents that fit up to five people, serving delicious dinners in the evening and healthy breakfasts in the morning. After dinner, he plays authentic Beduin music and guests are invited to participate in his Wisdom of the Desert workshops, which discuss how to survive in the desert and how trackers locate clues.
If you don’t want to participate in Waj’s guided tour to the nearby rock paintings, but you still want to see them (and you should, they’re incredible), Waj will explain how to get there on your own; he will even tell you what you should look for when you get there.
The trail snakes up the mountain through clusters of rocks and terraced land, and you can see from the ruins that the community which once lived there was probably very rich, and this was a huge city. The nearby water source (the wadi, or dry riverbed) was one of the main reasons the city prospered, and it remained inhabited even after the Nabataean period ended.
On the black limestone rocks, you can see images of animals and symbols connected with tribal life etched into the stone.
There is also an amazing view from the top of the hill. When you’ve had your fill of the spectacular scenery, retrace your steps to the beginning of the trail.
Another authentic Beduin tourist site I recommend is that of the al-Kashkhar family in Kafr Avda, where guests can participate in wool-making workshops and learn about the importance of the material in Beduin culture. On weekends, the family leads visitors on twoday Back to the Desert trips, in which you sleep out in the open and learn how to survive in the desert.
These trips are led by two female tour guides, Jamiya Kashkhar and Yael Beit- Av, a Jewish Israeli who grew up in the South and fell in love with Beduin culture. Beit-Av decided to travel among various Beduin tribes in the Negev Mountains region and revive the traditional Beduin women’s weavings used to adorn tents.
Kashkhar and Beit-Av work together as a team: While one explains how to make the weaving, the other demonstrates this on an ancient loom. They also show guests how to grind wheat with a millstone, and how to make traditional Beduin cheese using goatskin. Afterwards the two guides treat their guests to a tour of the hills, as they bring the flock of sheep to pasture. Along the way, they point out the various herbs growing in the region (mostly in the spring), explain how they guide the animals, prepare traditional culinary dishes, teach a few words in the Beduin dialect and sing a few traditional Beduin songs.
A third place I recommend visiting to experience authentic Beduin culture is Kafr Arika, or the Hidden Village. This is a relatively clean and clutter-free village (compared with others I’ve visited), so it’s pleasant to walk through.
My host there was a guest-house owner named Farhan, who loves to talk about how local residents are making a great effort to improve village life and create an atmosphere in which everyone respects one another. It’s important to him that they value their traditional past, while at the same time live in the modern reality.
He says most Beduin villages are strewn with garbage because residents have had a hard time transitioning from living in the desert to modern city life.
In the olden days, everything they ate was organic and their leftover food was used to feed the animals. Today, their garbage is no longer biodegradable and they have not yet adapted to modern forms of waste removal.
Farhan leads tours through the village, showing off their local agriculture and areas where medicinal herbs are grown, and talks about efforts to bring the two communities closer to each other.
Another family in Kafr Arika that offers overnight accommodations is the Hraineks. The matriarch, Halala, weaves stunning fabrics using ancient Beduin methods and also prepares the wool herself, using wool they trim from the family’s flock of sheep. Her artwork adorns the sides of the tent and she also sells traditional bags and jewelry, which she makes from local raw materials.
On weekends, Halala leads workshops on how to make pom-poms and tassels.
If you have a little energy left for a hike, I recommend taking a walk along the Arika River, after which the village is named, or a visit to the ecological tent.
But make sure not to miss sunset at nearby Mitzpe Ramon – definitely one of the highlights of the region.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.