Not a spelling error. Today was pretty much a day of just deserts. The first was Gaza. Not a desert in the conventional sense perhaps, but a barren and desolate-looking place nonetheless, where living conditions are needlessly harsh and inhospitable. We stood on a hill and trained our binoculars at the closed-off city not an hour from the bustling and prosperous streets of Tel Aviv, Jaffa and the port of Ashdod. Good work, Hamas.
The second desert of the day was a real one, the Negev. All afternoon the last lines of Ozymandias have run through my mind like a tune I can’t forget: “…boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Not so level, maybe, but it is stark and huge and eternal, and like the stars in a bottomless heaven it dwarfs the problems of such small beings as we are.
It is truly humbling. BUT — that’s not to say that some human concerns aren’t pretty important. Like lunch.
Amir, our terrific guide, took us to a Bedouin family who lives way out in the desert and with whom he does business (they do camel tours, although I couldn’t talk Jerry into thinking we needed to take one.). We sat on colorful woven mats in a wide open tent — the family living room — within earshot of the occasional camel snort, but cool and fresh and breezy despite the hot day. It was lovely in a wholly unexpected way.
Our hostess brought us a tray with glasses of minty sweet tea, loaves of flat, chewy fatir (unleavened bread), and bowls of pickles, mashed potato with za’atar, goat yogurt with za’atar, pickles and chopped vegetables. The desert produces food grudgingly, and it wasn’t rich or bounteous, but it was good. We lay back on our cushions, ripping off hunks of bread and scooping up the herby spreads and it was a fine, fine lunch.
Man, I really fell for that bread! So good and chewy and flavorful. An embarrassed request for the recipe earned me a full scale cooking lesson. Invited into the kitchen, we sat on more mats on a dirt floor by a domed, wood burning oven and I was tutored by two kind women bemused by my ignorance, through the steps of mixing the dough (flour, salt, and water), turning and kneading it in the bowl until the gluten was developed and it was supple and stretchy, though still wet. They showed me how to twist off knots of dough, flatten them out and throw them from hand to hand until they were, in theory, anyway, paper thin, before draping them on the hot griddle. In seconds they were ready to be flipped, by hand (ouch!), and flipped again. It was totally, totally fun. Goofy, adorable little kids ran around and pushed the buttons on Jerry’s camera and pretended to call him on an old, broken cell phone while I had an absolute blast, up to my elbows in sticky dough. As soon as I get home I am taking the wooden handle off my wok, flipping it upside down on our ceramic grill, and getting to work.
In the afternoon we had a long drive through more beautiful desert, climbed down into an ancient cistern, drove through more Bedouin towns, and ended up in a tiny village consisting of one clan — not Bedouins this time but Arab farmers — the children, grandchildren and great and great great grandchildren of one man who moved to the area on the strength of a vision over a hundred years ago. The families all used to live in caves in the hills, in the winter with their animals wedged in with them for mutual warmth. Now most of the families have homes, some have mansions, and one has made the old caves a stop for travelers in search of a good home cooked Arabic meal.
That, of course, would be us. We sat on the ground again. Stone this time, covered with mats. On a table the family arranged bowls of food — a rice dish filled with spice and studded with chunks of vegetables and chick peas. Bowls of hummus, and cuminy carrot salad, savory eggplant salad, spicy tomato jam, cabbage slaw, corn with dill, olives and pickled vegetables and an enormous flat loaf of bread, leavened this time. I kid you not, as my dad liked to say, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
It’s almost as if the taste of middle eastern food is embedded in my DNA. It fills parts of me that have nothing to do with my stomach, and it makes me very happy indeed.
Another perfect day, thanks to Amir. I asked him and the guy who owns the company he works with if I could mention their names and they said sure. So, if you are planning a trip to Israel (or Jordan or Turkey or any number of places in the region) find Amir Gadnaor or Zel Lederman, owner of the Israeli Travel Company, and they will set you right up! http://www.israeltravelcompany.com/
Tomorrow we leave this idiot hotel with whom I still have not settled my differences, and we go to Jerusalem for two nights. Sooo excited!! For all the obvious reasons, of course, but also … markets!!! My favorite thing!