Jouma’s hands were like solid earth, the Great Rift Valley running down his palm. Ran watched him as he heedlessly reached down to the center of the hearth and pushed a piece of blazing ember on its side. Not the slightest hint of pain could be spotted on his solemn, ancient face: the eyes impenetrably black, his stubbled jaw firm and serene. He was the desert’s high priest, inseparable from the landscape. He felt no pain because he was made of the elements. Ran stared at him with envy, then looked down at his own palms: soft and marble-white.
Two men came into the tent, carrying two large metal plates. They placed them on both sides of the fire, then stood behind Jouma, waiting. Slowly, the five sitting strangers dragged themselves closer to the plates and, following their guide, tore through the enormous Laffas covering the plates and began scooping with pieces of Laffa the fat-soaked rice and lamb meat cached inside. It was the tenderest meat Ran had ever tasted, all the more pleasurable after a day’s fast in the barren desert. With the Laffa consumed, Ran burrowed into the rice with his own dirty hands, doing so with a joyful sense of abandon; his hands soon accrued a thin coating of oil.
Ran looked around at the other members of this strange expedition as he munched. To his left were Yohanan, a gray-haired amateur archaeologist, and Livna, a braless, brown-skinned, middle-aged basket weaver. To his right were Tamir, a thick-bearded though delicate-mannered ex-combat soldier, and next to him Efrat, a bashful young student at whose dazzling blues eyes Ran tried not to stare too much. Their guide and intermediary, Ariel, sat equidistant between Efrat and Jouma. He was thirtyish and bald, with a worn, complacent smile eternally mounted on his round face. It was Ariel who arranged the visit with Jouma, the purpose of which was to allow educated, mostly urbanite Israelis to learn from the Negev Bedouins the ancient art of tracking.
When the plates were finally devoured, Ariel thanked Jouma for their meal, to which everyone else joined, some enthusiastically, others simply nodding and murmuring. Their interactions with their hosts were all timidly polite, wary of unwitting offence, and condescendingly respectful. Jouma nodded calmly, then got to his feet, excused himself and left the tent, his sons and entourage following in his steps. Today was the wedding of one of his sons, and the festivities could be heard from afar.
They had spent that entire day tracking with Jouma. His youngest son had ridden one of their donkeys for two hours, then left him at an unknown location. They started by trying to distinguish its spoors from those of the goat herd, near ubiquitous around the encampment. Jouma waited patiently while they failed to do so. When Ariel had finally asked him for help, Jouma simply pointed to his right at a line of tracks, invisible up to that point. They took turns trying to follow it. Whoever had the lead was given Ariel’s long wooden stick, which was meant to be held slightly forward, to help envision the animal’s forward motion, weaving the tracks into a single line of intent. Tamir volunteered to go first, and was frustratingly good, only losing it in the most unreadable of terrains. Then, when patches of hard, barely-scarred earth were reached, Ariel had to intervene; and when he did, he spoke at length and often in abstraction, connecting each conundrum to the general tracking philosophy he had nurtured for the past decade. And when he too was incapable of tracing the spoors, everyone’s eyes rested on Jouma’s withdrawn expression, unreadable for signs of interest or involvement, perhaps with them, perhaps not. Jouma noticed their attentive faces, then simply pointed. There were no impromptu treatises on the art of tracking with him. Ariel could barely squeeze an explanation out of him on how he knew what he did. Just that one finger always pointing at the right track, the lightest, most indistinguishable disturbance over the terrain, which often seemed to Ran more the effect of a dung beetle’s shuffle than a donkey’s heavy hoof.
After Tamir was Yohanan, who did moderately well but clearly disappointed himself; then Livnat, diffident and unsure but later surprising everyone with her apparent good instincts. Then, since Efrat was too timid to take any place but last, it was Ran’s turn to take the stick and try his luck.
At first, the terrain was bearable and the tracks were rather easy to make out. Ran followed them with growing confidence and speed, until Ariel put his hand on Ran’s shoulder. Ran turned around to find everyone looking at Jouma, a little far back. He said something they couldn’t hear. Ariel moved closer. Jouma spoke again, louder: “From yesterday.”
Ran looked down at the tracks. The shape seemed right: a single, slightly sharp dent, with a hint of bifurcation, reproducing in neatly equal distances.
“Is he sure?” Ran asked Ariel. “How does he know?”
“Not sure,” he said. “Maybe the color of the sand. Let’s go.”
They went back along the track, until Jouma told them to stop. Then again, that finger, bony and rough-skinned, pointing at an invisible presence.
Ran started anew. The tracks were less distinguishable, and the terrain was becoming more inscrutable. Soon Ran began to feel like a blind man lost in a foreign city, as he was constantly corrected and showed the way by delicate calls to his right and left, by nudges and pulls. After too long a time, his turn was over. He handed the stick, defeated, to Naama, incapable of meeting her unyieldingly blue eyes.
Now Ran was sitting by himself in the tent, solemnly digging a long stick into the fire and turning over the embers, just as Jouma did with his bare fingers. On the other side of the fire, Yohanan and Livna were arguing whether the best coffee was Yemeni or Ethiopian, and Efrat— Ran disappointedly noted—was deep into a hushed, furtive conversation with Tamir. Ran sneaked yet another look at her eyes, all the more bewitching by fire’s glow. He then pulled out the stick and looked at its slowly burning tip, its brightness undulating like a silent heartbeat. The sound of a passing vehicle rose and fell and faded. Ran got to his feet.
Outside the tent was a sea of darkness, the horizon barely traceable ahead. An unfamiliar abundance floated above Ran, innumerable in its splendor. The sky of the ancients, Ran thought dimly, and waved his firefly-crowned stick at the stars like an ecstatic shaman. Slowly, his expanding pupils delineated the sporadic heaps of junk that greeted them as they drove into the camp that morning. Rusted barrels, mounds of plastic containers, and a whole fleet of dismembered cars. It made for a generally dystopian feeling around the camp, though by degrees Ran got used to it. He went past an overturned and denuded washing machine with complete indifference.
How did he find himself in such queer company? It wasn’t the Bedouins he thought of (they weren’t queer—they were different), but his fellow expeditionists. Earlier that day, as they made their way towards the Bedouin campsite, they all tacitly competed over who knew more species of edible plants, chewing and sniffing at every opportunity, then shoving leaves and berries at each other’s noses while pronouncing their obscure Hebrew names. They had new-age temperaments and what seemed to Ran a very lax and naive view of nature. Ran was not of that crowd. He was an aspiring academic and a programmer. He knew that the trees did not grow to give shade, and that the old way was all fine and well until someone broke his leg or got pneumonia. He knew it was all a futile exercise at imagining a past that never existed. Still, he sensed the added vitality of a world stripped of techno-artifacts, the raw joy of smelling the earth and hand-picking aromatic herbs. Something in him yearned for a stronger bond with living things, with environments untethered to the human will and whim. Until two months ago, it was a dormant impulse. Then, at a conference in Utrecht, he met an anthropologist who had some bold comments on his presentation. He deemed Ran’s computer models of Neanderthal migration to be overly abstract and sent him a well-known paper on the Hadza. Some emails later, the newly enchanted Ran was introduced to Ariel, a level two tracker organizing outdoor workshops. Ran chose the one with the Bedouins; he wanted the closest thing to indigenous, traditional knowledge. He was beginning to doubt his decision.
There was no escaping it: he was ground-illiterate.
Ran pointed his glowing stick at the ground, trying to spot tracks by the faint light of its tip. He thought about the ideal shape of a donkey’s track, an imprint rarely seen but so amply reminiscent of its hooves. He crouched down to get a closer look. Nothing on the ground seemed anything like that ideal shape. They didn’t look like anything: just random etchings, dumb and meaningless. There was no escaping it; he was ground-illiterate. He had spent too much time in air-conditioned rooms, slouched over a screen, tapping his keyboard. He was a fast reader of books, and a doubly fast reader of academic papers. He typed at the speed of light. He coded with ease and occasional ingenuity. But he couldn’t read the earth.
He noticed ahead of him a distant and pale presence. It grew more coherent as he moved closer, until at about twenty paces away, he could clearly make it out. It was the donkey they had searched for that entire day, and which Jouma finally led them to, after it became clear that at their current pace, they would not make it back to camp before dark. On the way back, he asked Jouma the donkey’s name. “H’mar,” he said. It meant donkey in Arabic—similar to hamor in Hebrew—and Ran wondered if that meant the donkey had no name at all.
“H’mar,” Ran whispered now as he approached the donkey. His light grey hide seemed to almost shine in the dark. Ran gently reached out his hand. He petted him affectionately, to the donkey’s utter indifference.
He heard a distant howl: jackals. Did he stray too far? The donkey was there, so that was unlikely. But maybe the donkey had strayed too far too? They were equally clueless. He heard steps, then saw a shadow forming against the distant camp lights. Ran drew closer to the donkey. The shadow split in two. And it waved at him.
It was two of Jouma’s teenage sons: Musa and Hamed. Musa had a bulkier shape, a shaved head, and childishly full cheeks. Hamed was erratic and constantly blurted out a word or a joke in Arabic that Ran could not understand. They gathered around the donkey smiling.
“Cute donkey,” Ran said, not knowing what to say.
Musa laughed. “Yes. H’mar,” he said, and slapped him fondly near his tail.
“H’mar, H’mar,” said Hamed, biting his lower lip comically and rubbing the donkey’s hindleg. He then grabbed the donkey by the waist with both hands, doing humping motions. Musa laughed and pushed him away.
“Come, come see,” Musa said, walking away. Ran followed them in the dark, till they reached a chicken coop. Musa opened its door, grabbed a tiny chick, and presented it to Ran.
“Sweet,” Ran said. Musa petted his beak and Ran tried to do the same.
“Come, come,” Musa said, and they were going again. This time Musa had led them to the family’s goat compound. He got in, looked around for a while, then, with a predator’s swiftness, grabbed a shrieking baby goat and presented it to Ran. Ran petted it too. “Beautiful,” he said, not sure where this was going.
A harsh white light swept suddenly over them. Ran looked around with squinting eyes and barely made out the old car behind the headlights. It turned and stopped alongside them. Two young men were in the front seats. One of them spoke to Musa.
“Come,” said Musa, pointing at the back seat.
Ran got in hesitantly, followed by Musa and Hamed. They were driven away, the young men in the front seat volubly chatting. Ran didn’t know what to say or how to behave; he was in a world whose rules he knew nothing about, desperately out of his element.
Some minutes later they stopped, and Ran followed the others to a large tent, open entirely on one side. About a dozen men gathered there, smoking hookah and eating. One of Jouma’s older sons approached Ran and invited him to sit with them. A seat was quickly cleared for him, and despite his protestations, Ran was made to take it. He bowed incessantly, for no apparent reason.
Ran looked around. They were all men, with darker skins and unreadable expressions. He felt singularly odd, intractably different. There was no escaping the boundary that stood between him and everyone else. He sat there like a conjured ghost or a hologram, unnatural and transitory.
A man next to him reached down to a hole in the ground, retrieved what seemed like a round rock, and handed it to Ran.
“It’s good,” said Jouma’s older son on his left. “Eat it.”
Looking closer, it seemed like a small pita badly burned. Ran tried to take a bite; it was hard and tasted like coal. He nodded profusely at Jouma’s son, and chewed on it again.
Someone pulled at his shirt. He looked behind him and saw one of Jouma’s younger kids—perhaps eight years old—asking him to come over. He followed him to his small fire at the other side of the tent, where the younger kids were sitting. One of them looked at Ran, laughed, and took a piece of coal from the fire. He showed it to Ran, then passed it to another child who held it in his hands for a long time, looking enthusiastically at Ran. They were trying to impress him. The piece of coal moved from palm to palm, followed by unhinged fits of laughter and excited eyes darting at Ran. These kids showing off—he didn’t know if it made them superior or inferior. Ran put his hands forward, palms upturned. The kid holding the coal glanced hesitantly at his brothers. One of them screamed at him, and the kid moved over to Ran and slipped the coal into his hand.
A millisecond of scorching pain, then Ran threw the coal away and started shaking his hands, hissing with pain. Someone yelled at the kids, who all ran quickly away from the tent. Ran turned around and saw Jouma. He took Ran back to his seat and sat next to him. He told him they were stupid kids and were always acting foolish. They sat next to one another. Ran looked down at his hands: two pinkish orbs grew in the middle of his palms. He could feel his blood pulsing underneath. He looked at the men around him and felt clearly that it was wrong of him to be there. He was an intruder, a shameless voyeur. His motives were innocent, which in some ways made it worse. He would never know how Jouma sees things. He was a citizen of a different world: mechanical, transactional, individualistic, and massive. At some point, he rose and left the tent. Nobody noticed.
That entire night the eastern winds blew ferociously, hissing through the tent’s cracks and slapping deafeningly its canvas. There was talk of it coming from Syria: the ruined cities and desolated streets somehow reinforcing surface turbulence. The air was freezing, as sharp as a whip. Ran tried to cover himself entirely but still felt vulnerable to it. At some point, he accepted the fact that he was very unlikely to get any sleep—the noise and the cold were too tenacious, and they were only getting worse.
Near dawn, he fell into the dreamless sleep of the exhausted, the roosters’ yelps queerly penetrating his unconsciousness. When he awoke, there was daylight, movement, and mumbling all around him. He zipped down his sleeping bag and sat upright. His fingers were frozen, and his neck creaked. Ran folded his sleeping bag and put it away. He was in the same clothes as yesterday.
He had to wait for an agonizingly long time before they served breakfast. It was a much humbler affair than the previous night’s: a bowl of salad, labneh with za’atar, some aluminum-can olives, and store-bought pitas. Jouma’s wife came in with a plain metal teapot, with dozens of tea bag strings hanging from its side. She turned over the lid, poured a plateful of sugar into it, and put it back. Everyone took a cup and drank silently. It tasted ferociously sweet.
It was high noon when they gathered to leave. Somehow a semi-circle was formed, with Jouma and his wife diffidently accepting the overly expressive thanks of their guests. An awkward silence followed, with slightly strained, benevolent smiles on the faces of everyone. “Okay,” Ariel finally said, and the circle broke. Each in turn went and shook Jouma’s hand. Then Ran approached and held out his hand. Jouma took it in his. It was a strong shake and Ran tried to match it. “Toda”, he said, and Jouma nodded, smiling.
Two hours later, Ran was on the train. He saw the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv looming ahead, otherworldly. Ran thought of the metal trash heaps surrounding Jouma’s campsite: all just windswept debris from this city of steel. It was the last train on Friday, and he was alone in the train car. He still smelled like smoke (and he still liked it), but he began to sense its undesirability in this more sterile environment. His skin no longer seemed white: it had acquired a patina of sand, smoke, and grime, a gradient of orange-brown hues spreading up his arm and over his neck. His pinkish burn marks were beginning to peel. Below them the same whiteness, incorrigible. He passed his fingers through his dry hair—it made them grey. He liked it, but he knew the first thing he would do once he reached his apartment was shower. Shower, and forget.
Dor Shilton is a writer and researcher from Tel Aviv. He has written for Haaretz about the democracy in Rojava, and published research on the evolution of music and language. For more of his writing, visit dorshilton.com.