Photo: Studio Tomas
By Levana Moshon
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
This morning, as I made my way to the greenhouses, I was filled with a sudden joy.
I am the man who, here in the heart of the Negev Desert, has sown, nurtured, and raised with my own hands that which thousands of people all over the world put on their tables. I told myself this with no little pride.
My chest swelled in the purified air. As they do every day, the vanilla-hued dunes reared skyward in the same place, soft and crisp, and my hand lifted to wave hello to them. A light breeze toyed with their grains of sand.
Yesterday, I promised the children we would go out in the afternoon to enjoy some sand surfing. I love to hear their joyful cries echoing in the silence of the desert. To my ears, it is the sound of poetry. We returned to the house just before evening, out of breath and filled with the happiness of a day spent with loved ones. Yes, I envy my children’s youth, while, at the same time, I congratulate myself for having made some correct choices in my life.
Most of the time, this entire expanse, this desert, is ours alone. Hikers come here only during the holiday season, which is when the army removes the checkpoints from the border road and reinforces its patrols across it.
In this primordial landscape, I, Eytan Kahan – who, a mere nine years ago, was a city dweller working as a food products importer – have managed to grow, using hydroponics, a unique strain ofgourd, called bottle melon.
There are perhaps five growers like me in the world. But gourd is not the only thing I grow. My fingers are familiar with every seedling, every pomegranate tree, and every turmeric stalk in my greenhouses. I water them with brackish water, sparingly, in the tradition of the desert people, and they reward me with their thanks by thriving.
Up until two years ago, the buyers at the farmer’s market in Beersheba made fun of me. They thought I had brought into the market yet another tough, fibrous, slimy strain of okra. Today, chefs and culinary experts are in love with my “ladyfinger” – the long-fingered okra – and some of them are coming here from Tel Aviv and Italy to spend a few hours enjoying a “tasting” meal prepared for them by Susan in our yard. For the past two weeks, our house has been redolent with the heady aromas of spices emanating from the lady of the house’s culinary preparations and experiments. Rachel, Susan’s sister, is already making her way to us from Ashkelon to help with the setting of the table and the serving of the tasting menu. We are expecting a total of fifteen guests to be sitting at the table licking their fingers as the day unfolds.
Five minutes after leaving my home in Pithat Nitzana, driving along highway 110, all these thoughts seemed to gather behind my forehead, expanding in my mind until they threatened to burst through my skin. Behind me, in our warm bed, I had left the still-dreaming, ever-creative mother of my children. In her younger dreams she could never have conceived she would emigrate from the Westford District, in England, to come Israel and find herself living her life with a sun-tanned man and two children, just a few steps away from the Egyptian border. I have never heard her utter a single word of complaint.
The fence that marks the border near the settlements has been deliberately raised to the height of nine meters, effectively hindering, and even halting, desert infiltrators, and it has brought us peace and quiet. Only the drug smugglers have been able to carry on their cross-border trade. They know how to place long ladders on the ground at night, on the Egyptian side. They lean the ladders against the fence, climb up, and throw their sacks of contraband into Israeli territory. Bedouin merchants snatch these shipments up like nimble birds and fly away on their ATVs, dispersing with amazing speed in every direction. By the time the soldiers arrive, there is no one left to catch, and even if there was, procedure forbids them from shooting the smugglers — unless in self-defence.
Just before I entered the first greenhouse, I saw a black-bellied sandgrouse landing on the sand, its characteristic “kata-kata” cry escaping from its open beak. This bird must have come from the nearby oxygenation pool and dropped in for a visit. I have learned that these “flying chickens” love to rub against human beings. I leave them a small basin of water outside the greenhouse every day, despite the fact that water is a rare commodity in our area. The pterocles, who knows me well by now and considers me a regular part of the landscape, gave me a sideward glance with a beady eye, as if she was trying to hint at something. But the joy welling in me this morning made me ignore anything ominous that might, or might not be, in her eye.
Then, as I walked down the narrow path that leads inside the greenhouse, I fancied I heard my bottle melons growing, and the corn cobs elongating and growing fatter. The wide leaves rubbed against my arms, and the supporting strings dangling from the horizontal pipes vibrated as if someone was plucking them. As usual, the greenhouse and everything growing in it seemed to welcome me, but I felt slightly confused. I sensed an alien presence: someone, or something, unrelated to my greenhouse’s state of being. Was the storm of my excitement and joy making me delusional?
I heard a rustling of movement. I froze. When I lowered my eyes to the beds in front of me, I saw him. He was some distance away, lying behind some bushes, his leg visible – and bleeding. It was obvious to me that he had crawled in here through the rear entrance of the greenhouse.
“Don’t move,” he ordered in a thick accent. He was pointing a pistol at me. He looked very young, less than twenty. He was swarthy, cropped clean of hair, skinny, and scared out of his wits.
“You’re wounded,” I said, rubbing my head with my hand.
“Don’t move,” he repeated. “I’m not afraid to shoot you. I’ve already shot some soldiers.”
I had long known that they were not particularly fond of us. Now I realized that this young Bedouin’s attempt to smuggle drugs had gone awry, and he was angry. He had opened fire on the soldiers, the fool. They, in self-defence, had returned fire, and he had been forced to disappear under the cover of darkness. All this I reasoned to myself in a few seconds. The only thing I did not understand was why he had snuck into my greenhouse.
I suggested he let me go to the other greenhouse, where I had a small table and a first aid cabinet. “I’ll dress your wound,” I promised him.
“Shut up and sit on the floor,” he cut off my wordswith anger.
The phone vibrated in my pocket. I had put it on vibrate mode the previous evening and had forgotten to put it back to ring mode. I deliberated whether I should answer it and upset the Bedouin. If I let it go on ringing without answering, Susan would start to worry. I was supposed to go back home and bring some of the harvest of my labors with me: white corn cobs, jagged cucumbers, small meaty eggplants, Gulliver spinach leaves, snow peas, and, of course, king zucchini and queen okra. This was how Susan was supposed to blow away the chefs and their palates. This was the Kahan family’s weapon.
The phone stopped vibrating.
Somehow I maintained my composure, but black spots started tracking across my field of vision. The phone vibrated. She was trying again. I sat on the ground as he had ordered. I looked at the injured young man.
“My name is Eytan. I’m a farmer. A brother. I have nothing against you,” I said. I have no idea what had come into my mind to make me call him “brother”. He shifted his position and moved his injured leg painfully. The puddle of blood under it grew larger. “Unless you let me help, you will die from loss of blood. I was a paramedic in the army, so I know what I’m talking about. This is no laughing matter.” I was trying to scare him. My words must have made an impression because he glanced down at his injured leg. The panic in his eyes told me he understood things were not looking good for him.
“Your friends didn’t care about you when they took off with the sacks and left you behind, injured.” I was trying to put pressure on him again. Some remote part of my brain was telling me that the dream of the gourmet meal for my guests was fading.
“Don’t treat me as if I’m stupid. Help me up. Take me to the bandages,” he said in broken language after he had thought some more. “And Allah help you if you try to deceive me. I will mow you down on the spot.”
As I got up to go to him, my phone started vibrating again. “It’s my wife,” I told him. “Look, we have guests coming soon. And I have to take home some fresh vegetables from the greenhouse. She’s waiting.”
“I don’t care about your guests. Why? What treasure do you have here?” he asked, indicating the space around us with his pistol.
“I’m growing a special strain of okra, in Negev Desert conditions,” I muttered. I was much closer to him. I took his arm in my hand and helped him to his feet with a single pull. His cry echoed in the space around us. “Sorry,” I said. I saw his face contorted with pain. With a body as large as mine, I knew I could crush this little sardine like a thin sheet of paper.
“I like it — okra,” he said when he had taken a long breath and recovered somewhat. I told him to lean on me and we started towards the exit. He managed to hop a few paces on his uninjured leg. Then he stopped. “Only my mother… only she knows how to cook okra,” he said, and brought the fingertips of his left-hand to his mouth and kissed them in a gesture of appreciation. “And me, too.”
I don’t know why, but I believed him.
As we walked past the nearby “incubator,” which was what I called the greenhouse where I conducted my extraordinary experiments with seeds, he told me his family lived in Houra, in a house built half of stone and half of tin, with a foul-smelling sheep pen in the yard.
“That is how we Bedouin are. But in the kitchen, my mother is the queen of queens,” he boasted. It was already after seven when the phone vibrated again.
“Don’t answer.” The child was back to ordering me about. In the office, I told him to sit in the chair and raise his leg onto a stool. I wiped away the congealed blood and the still flowing trickle with alcohol. I did not rule out the possibility that a small rubber cylinder was embedded in his flesh, and that his life wasn’t in any immediate danger. I poured Betadine over the wound and wrapped the leg in two rolls of bandages.
“What would you say if I suggested you let me pick my vegetables now?” I said. “Then you and I can go to my house together. You can show me how you cook your wonderful okra as your mother does. And if the dish is delicious, and the guests are pleased, I will give you a ride in my vehicle. I’ll take you wherever you want to go — the medical center, your village, or just somewhere in the middle of the desert. You can decide.”
He gave me a long look. “Are you trying to play a trick on me?” he asked suspiciously.
I said nothing. I had actually meant every word. “You could also stay if you like. I’m willing to hire you as a laborer in my greenhouses.”
He didn’t take his eyes off me for a second. “Swear to me,” he said eventually.
He thought again. “Walla,” he finally answered. “I don’t know why, but I like you. Mashi,” he said in his own language. In other words, he agreed.
As we emerged from the greenhouse and walked to my car, the large pterocles flew back and landed not far from us. She gave me another sideward glance with one eye, as if to say, I warned you, didn’t I?
The young man said, “My name is Asfur.” We shook hands.
Susan could hardly believe her eyes when she saw our limping guest. She and Rachel looked stunned, but there was no time for explanations. In only three hours we had to cook the meal that would prove to the world there was nothing more wonderful in it than the Kahan family’s original vegetable creations. I could see Susan wondering why I had brought her a young Bedouin to show her how to cook the ladyfinger according to a “traditional, local, and authentic” recipe. She never imagined that only an hour earlier, my life had been in danger.
“Susan,” I whispered to her behind the young man’s back as he stood by our kitchen sink, “do me a favour. If you care about me, even a little, then don’t argue. You will understand soon.”
That day, none of us was willing to give up on the delightful, delicious meal the chefs from Tel Aviv and Italy enjoyed in our house. Not even Asfur. His leg had swelled a little, and he asked me to drive him only as far as the Lehavim interchange. Kindhearted as always, Rachel rose to her feet and volunteered to drop him off at the medical center on her way home.
In the afternoon, I took the children sand surfing on the vanilla dunes. Oh, what a day we had!
Come evening, breathless, pleasantly weary, we went home.