By Rochelle F. Singer
On Sokka Hill, rising up from Ha Ela Valley, daisies and lupines make spectacles of themselves. Never has there been a brighter yellow, a more competitive purple. The wind whistles. It startles the blooms, makes them shiver and bow, and then whooshes them between waves of tough reedy grass.
From late morning until dusk, Jewish families ascend the hill. Children lead the way chasing and whooping; dogs follow, zigzagging off the path with noses to the ground; parents climb up last, a prideful watch. Young women stoop to love the flowers; men take their pictures. At the top, a group gathers to hear their guide read from the Bible about how, in this very same valley, David outsmarted Goliath.
Approvingly, the wind wafts the smell of spring around all these multifarious visitors. Tumbling down the hill, it lingers in gentle circles above two horses grazing not far from a Bedouin tent. And then it rushes deeper into the valley, leaping into a field of towering, silvery satellite dishes with no motive but pleasure.
It is Sajid's mares, Riyaaz and Kamil, whom the wind has paused to caress. For ten springtimes, Sajid has moved his wife Afya, his five-year old daughter Jamila, and his animals here from Rahat in the Negev to take advantage of the heavier rainfall. His lambs, kept close by his dog, romp now in late morning through sodden hills. They grow fat on tufts of fragrant baby shoots. Sajid inspects them with an owner's appraising eye. They will bring him good profit when he takes them to market. God has been gracious this year, sending rain in abundance. Sajid lets himself feel relief and offers a silent prayer of thanks.
His gaze shifts over the parkland and settles on his two horses, the splotchy white Riyaaz and the sleek brown Kamil. He looks at them with a lover's generous eye. Kamil is his favorite, but this is Sajid's secret. It goes against what he has been taught: all horses are equally blessed by God. Morning, noon and night, seven days a week, Sajid admires their coats, their supple power, their grace and elegance. They are as dear to him as his wife and daughter, as deserving of his care and protection. Once in Rahat, his neighbor insulted Riyaaz, making lewd gestures at her in full view of other neighbors when she strained on her tether to whinny at a stallion.
“Ha! Look how she lusts after him.”
“How dare you! Beg her forgiveness!” Sajid demanded.
The brute refused and instead laughed in Sajid's face. Sajid took him to Bedouin court for slander and won.
Every morning, just at sunrise when his family sleeps and the air is still except for the short trills of birds awakening, Sajid slips outside dressed in heavy, loosely woven pants and a sheepskin jacket. He sidles up to his horses, rubs their dewy noses, murmurs to them and reaches into his pocket for treats. Each day he mounts a different horse, wishing that he could ride both so as not to offend the one not chosen.
Today it is Kamil's turn. He gives Riyaaz an extra sugar lump to ease her disappointment before mounting the brown mare. Sajid lets Kamil take him wherever she pleases, at whatever pace she fancies, subjugating his will to hers. Barebacked, he feels her muscles working beneath him; melting into her stride, he loses track of time. When she has had her fill of grass and freedom, when she misses Riyaaz more than she craves food and space, she turns homeward. Only then does Sajid see where the sun hangs in the sky; only then does he smell the bittersweet Turkish coffee that Afya is brewing for him. He dismounts, pats both horses on their flanks, calls them “my loyal Arabians” and heads back to his tent.
Even if they are not pure bred Arabians, Sajid muses, even if he does not mount them as a warrior, they must never forget their kinship with this superior race. Theirs is the tale of creation that his father passed on to him when he was just a small boy, that all Bedouin fathers teach their sons:
And God took a handful of South wind and from it formed a horse, saying:
“I create thee, Oh Arabian. To thy forelock, I bind Victory in battle.
On thy back, I set a rich spoil and a Treasure in thy loins.
I establish thee as one of the Glories of the Earth...
I give thee flight without wings.”
Sajid thinks that it is good and right that they live, especially now, with this heritage tucked inside their hearts.
In the afternoon, Sajid urges his dog to gather the lambs into the pen near his tent behind a small copse of terebinth trees that give this valley its Hebrew name. The wind has tired of cavorting with the lifeless satellite dishes and has returned to nudge the terebinth leaves out of their sun-drenched stupor. Sajid latches the gate securely. The commotion on the hill distracts him. Cupping his hand above his eyes, he gazes up at Sokka Hill. It has been the same every spring since he arrived here from Rahat. The Jews park their cars on the highway shoulders, stream into the parkland and climb the hill. Then they return to their cars. The adults remove baskets, coolers, gas burners and chairs. They cart everything a few meters into the park and set about their blanket-spreading, chair-unfolding, container-opening, meat-grilling and bottle-uncapping rituals. Finally everyone eats and drinks. Then they slog back to their cars, struggling with leftovers and clingy, cranky children. A steady influx of new arrivals replaces the early comers until the light fades.
Sajid grimaces and turns away. What right do these Jews have to invade his territory with such a show of plenty? But then, when he scans the valley in the opposite direction and recalls the memorial commemorating thirty-five of their soldiers killed during their independence war, he begins to feel like an ingrate. Sajid admits that ever since their God gave them victory, Bedouins have prospered alongside Jews.
Rahat has spread like water seeping into dry sand. His people are free to follow the traditions of their forefathers, even if many have turned their backs on them. New schools for girls, paid for by the Jews, teach computers. At first Sajid objected to this as invasive, too, but then he thought, why not? He's glad to help spread the wealth. When the time comes and if Jamila wants and if Afya can spare her, he may even permit Jamila to attend such a school. Sajid smiles, pleased with his generous thoughts.
In the market in Beersheba, Afya and her friends sell weaving and embroidery at enormous profit to Jews who love the idea of owning local crafts. Most amazing to Sajid is the fact that the Jews are needy enough to trust his people to serve as scouts in their army. He laughs at how their blindness to the land has made them this way, but then considers that maybe they know what he knows: sometimes just giving trust seals it. Like when he let Afya go to the Jewish movie theater with her girlfriends, despite his fear that she would fall under the spell of new ideas, but how, instead, she stayed up late that night to prepare his favorite dish seniya, rice smothered in tahini, rich with pine nuts.
And yet, Sajid cannot dismiss his disappointments. He rages at this government for luring his people to abandon their tents for apartments. Afya's baby sister was trapped by this golden cage. When Afya eyed her kitchen in Rahat with its shiny surfaces and appliances and then shared her hopes that one day she would enjoy the same, Sajid refused to look at her for days. He is sure that this drive to modernize will not end well. He sees some of his neighbors' children showing off loot stolen from Jewish neighborhoods. First it was televisions, cameras and bicycles, now it is cellphones and portable computers. Driven by greed, others traffic in the misery of African refugees. This Sajid cannot abide. It is one thing to cheat the Jews; it is quite another to take advantage of the poor and homeless.
It is their fault, Sajid concludes. The more the Jews try to mold us into being like them, the more we will lose ourselves.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sajid becomes aware of a drop of color that spills from Sokka Hill. Instead of fading on the return path toward the cars, it deepens on the one leading toward Riyaaz and Kamil. Soon it is obvious to Sajid that a group of four people is approaching his horses. The people grow bigger. Sajid stiffens. Jamila, who has been playing with the lambs, comes to her father's side and takes his hand. In her free hand she holds a grayish white ball, once perfectly round but now picked at. With a high forehead and dark almond eyes, she is exquisite; her dingy-and-dusty Western clothing is not. Her hair is dark, long and dulled by grit. She is barefoot. Her feet and legs, all the way up to her knees, wear a fine film of gray.
“Who are they? Don't let them hurt Riyaaz and Kamil!”
“They are Jews. They want to be our friends. We must be nice. Of course I won't let them hurt our beauties.”
Sajid squeezes her hand and lets it fall. The people have clothing and features now: two women, one with a big floppy hat, and two men. They stop in front of Riyaaz and Kamil. Sajid takes a step forward, a reflex, and stops himself.
“These horses must belong to the Bedouin over there,” Sajid hears the taller of the men say. He yanks up a clod of grass and holds it out to Riyaaz. When he reaches to pat the horse with his free hand, it strains, pulling the tether taut, head arched high. Sajid relaxes. His mares are loyal; they will not be tempted by strangers.
There is some conversation with the women that Sajid strains unsuccessfully to hear. He hopes that they are deciding to turn back to Sokka Hill. Instead, they take the fork in the path that leads to his tent. Jamila squeezes up against his legs.
“Don't worry. You are safe,” Sajid whispers.
“Shalom!” he calls, waving widely when they get close enough to hear.
“Shalom!” they answer exuberantly.
The wind is on the alert. It abandons its efforts to rouse the terebinth leaves and begins blowing a calming, sweet-scented breeze around the people.
“What beautiful weather we're having!” the woman in the hat says.
Sajid smiles as if the weather is his doing.
“Are those horses yours?” the taller man asks, and then continues in a tone whose animation rings false to Sajid. “My name is Dani. Glad to meet you! And this is Ariel. My wife Shoshi, she's the one with the hat," Dani adds, motioning toward her. "And next to her, that's Maya, Ariel's wife.”
Sajid nods without introducing himself or Jamila. The wind whispers “Saaajiiiid” to him; he ignores it. But Dani, refusing to be dissuaded, presses on. “Fine specimens. I didn’t notice, are they stallions or mares?”
Sajid lies protectively.
“And these lambs? Are they yours, too?”
Sajid nods again.
“Will you sell them?” Dani asks.
“Yes, of course, why else would I fatten them up? As soon as there is enough meat on their bones.”
“How much do you get for one?”
Both because he is increasingly annoyed with Dani's prying and, although he hates to admit it, because he wants to make these Jews respect him, Sajid doubles the price. He wonders why he cares; he wishes he did not.
“Twenty-two hundred shekels.”
Sajid observes the men's creased foreheads as they make quick calculations of his worth. They look at each other, raising their eyebrows in a wow, then nod and smile.
“A good business. You must be a good businessman. I didn't know that there are Bedouins in this area. Do you live here all year round?” Ariel asks.
All these questions, Sajid thinks. Always all these same questions from the Jews who wander beyond Sokka Hill. Why don't they stay in their cities? But he plays the part, even though he is tired to death of the role. He tells them about his ten-year springtime home, about how he pays the Jewish National Fund for the right to graze his animals here. This goes against his beliefs, but if he has no choice, he wants it to be clear: he is no freeloader.
“Yes, I read about that. It's good for everyone. Your animals feast and the undergrowth gets trimmed,” Ariel observes.
Sajid looks blankly at Ariel and then off into the distance, willing the trespassers to be on their way. But they stand firmly. They act as if they have every right to plant themselves here, to interrogate him from the height of their curiosity. Sometimes this curiosity is real and he can bear it; other times, like now, he reads from their eyes that it is a cover for their contempt. Sajid can almost hear them thinking what to ask next. But instead the Jews become silent. He has overdone it. He has made them uncomfortable. He is not sorry.
Jamila peeks out from behind his leg to see if they have gone. Shoshi latches onto the opportunity.
“What a pretty little girl you are! What is your name?” she asks in a tone that Sajid immediately despises.
When Jamila does not answer, Shoshi turns to Sajid. “Is she your daughter?”
“Does she understand Hebrew?”
He shakes his head no. He translates the question for Jamila, telling her not to be afraid to answer, that the sooner she does, the sooner the Jews will go. He extracts her from behind his leg, shoving her gently forward. Jamila looks down, fidgeting.
“Jamila,” Sajid finally answers.
“Jamila,” Shoshi repeats. “Did I say it right? Such a pretty name for such a pretty girl!”
The condescension Sajid hears makes him shift his weight from one leg to the other. But Shoshi pays him no heed; she is just getting started. The wind gusts, blowing off her hat and forcing her to stoop to retrieve it. She sets it back on her head, fighting with the wind to keep it there.
“How old are you?” she asks, slightly breathless but loudly and slowly. As if Jamila is retarded, Sajid thinks.
“She doesn't understand Hebrew,” Maya reminds her.
“Five. She's five,” Sajid answers for her.
“She's big for her age! What do you have in your hand, Jamila? May I see?”
Jamila, picking at her ball, knows without understanding the words what the woman is asking. She smiles nervously and brings her fingers repeatedly to her mouth with bits of crumbs from the ball. She looks at her father, begging to be saved. He senses her plea.
“Labane,” he answers. “Dried and salted. Made from the milk of my lambs. It lasts for months without refrigeration. I will bring you some to taste,” Sajid says before he can stop himself. He curses the hospitality that flows through his ancient veins.
The Jews look uncomfortable. Dani gives Shoshi an impatient, annoyed look.
“We must be going,” he says, turning toward the sky. But it is bright. The wind has gone hopefully still.
“Don't trouble yourself,” she says.
“It is no trouble. You are my guests. It is not fitting that my daughter eats and I do not offer you to eat,” Sajid counters firmly, quietly.
“Please, don't bother. We have our own food,” Dani says, grabbing his wife by the arm. “We hope you make lots of profit from your lambs.”
“One moment,” Sajid insists, holding up a finger. His voice has deepened. “Please do not insult my hospitality.”
Sajid feels magnanimous now that he is in control. Let the Jews stay as long as they want. He will show them what it means to be a Bedouin guest. He will parade his traditions before them.
The Jews have no choice but to wait. Sajid tells Jamila to go back to the tent and ask her mother for a labane ball. He is sure that Afya is listening to every word, that she will be waiting at the tent entrance to give Jamila the gift offering. But then, just as Jamila turns to go, he sees Maya, who has hardly spoken until now, looking with pity at Jamila's clothing. When she notices him watching her, she quickly desists and smiles brightly. The wind whips up, slapping her hair into her face. Maya brushes it aside.
Sajid changes his mind; he takes his daughter's hand and goes with her. When they return, they come from the direction of the terebinth trees behind which Sajid's lambs are penned. The wind blows dirt into Sajid's eyes, but he is so intent on delivering his gift that he hardly notices it. He signals to Jamila, who drops the ball into the hands of Shoshi.
“For you,” Sajid says, touching his daughter's head affectionately. Jamila eyes the ground.
The ball is perfectly round and smooth, slightly damp, a grayish yellow.
“Thank you! It wasn't necessary, but I'm very grateful.”
“Taste it,” Sajid urges. “It is very good. You will be surprised how delicious it is.”
Shoshi follows Jamila's example and chips off a few pieces. She brings one to her own mouth and hands the second to Maya. She tries to offer pieces to the men, but Dani is intent on kicking the ground and Ariel has bent to tighten his shoe laces. The women look at each other. They smile, chew, swallow and praise. Sajid watches them with amusement. It is obvious that they are disgusted by his food. These Jews, he smirks. They will learn who is boss on this piece of land.
Shoshi digs into her backpack and takes out a plastic container. Opening it, she produces two health bars made of honey, sesame seeds, halvah and rice puffs, topped with fluffy white chocolate.
“And this is for you,” she says, extending the bars to Sajid and Jamila. “They're homemade.”
Jamila grasps the bar in her right fist, looking at the woman for just a scratch of time. Sajid holds it in his open palm.
“Thank you, thank you. You are too kind,” he says, bowing.
Now that the gift-giving is over, the Jews turn to go. Sajid sends them on their way with a big smile and instructs Jamila to say goodbye. She opens her right hand to wave and drops the health bar on the ground. Sajid stops her when she bends to pick it up.
“Leave it for the worms,” he says, throwing his bar next to hers.
He watches the group of Jews retrace their steps to Sokka Hill. The sun has disappeared behind dark gray clouds that have suddenly taken over; the wind has no strength to drive them away. The group walks in twos, the women linked arm in arm, the men striding a few steps behind them. Sajid pats Jamila on the head when they disappear behind Sokka Hill.
Copyright © Rochelle F. Singer 2012
Rochelle F. Singer is a writer both by professional and personal choice. For years, she has been marketing science and technology through slogans, scripts, articles and papers. More recently, she began writing about her own lifecycle experiences in pieces published in The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and The Times of Israel. Today, she has turned to the genre of short stories to express the yearnings that make people more alike than different. Ms. Singer received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College, an MFA from Brooklyn College, and her inspiration for this story from The Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan.