Thursday, 5 May 2016

Wanderings in the Negev Desert.

    It was in 1997 when I took a year of sabbatical after having been the chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University  of Saskatchewan for two terms.  I spent half my sabbatical at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, working with the stroke prevention unit, with Dr. David Macher and his colleagues.   I had been involved with a similar unit at the University of  Saskatchewan and was focused on  stroke prevention as applied to primary care.
     The second half of my sabbatical was spent in Israel at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, the gateway to the Negev.  Historically an intriguing area, (you can read your bible if you want to know why) it was regarded as a bit of a backwoods then, apart from its outstanding university.  Extensive building was going on everywhere even then, and friends who  have visited since then tell me I wouldn't recognize it.  I was working as a visiting professor in the Department of Family Medicine and since the provision of health care in remote northern areas of Saskatchewan was provided under the umbrella of my department, one of my interests was in outreach care in the desert areas.    But more about all that later. 


     It was after a departmental meeting when we were discussing issues of providing medical care in remote areas, that I was approached by Dr. Mahmoud Maroud , a senior resident in the department of family medicine at  Ben Gurion University.   His resident project was a study of medical care to patients living in remote places in the Negev desert.  He had heard my presentation regarding the role the department of family medicine played in developing medical care to mainly native people in Northern Saskatchewan.   
    Saskatchewan's 651,036 square kilometres of land area, (population less than a million) is smaller than only two states: Alaska, which is almost three times the size, and Texas, with a population of less than 20,000,000 at that time.  The Negev, on the other hand, is an area of 13,000 km squared, with about half a million population, about 25% of which are Bedouin.  Dr. Maroud, a Bedouin, observed that many of the issues in delivering health care to the native population in remote parts of Saskatchewan were similar to the issues of delivering health care to the remote desert Bedouin, despite the great difference in area served.   Half of of the Negev Bedouin lived in unrecognized villages in traditional Bedouin nomadic tent communities and half of them  lived in towns built for them by the Israeli government between 1960 and 1980.  Dr. Maroud, invited me to  accompany him on  his tour to visit and comment on Bedouin communities and their health care issues.   I enthusiastically accepted his offer and he informed me that he would contact me for his next foray into the desert.   I informed him that my wife and companion was interested in coming along and he responded by pointing out that this would be fine in most but not all of the places that we were to visit, emphasizing the dress code and a number of  other issues with which my wife and I are well familiar, that will make an accompanying woman's presence tolerable  in the Arab culture.
   Here my journal notes start:

 3.10pm phone rings at the apt.  It's Dr. Maroud, the Bedouin physician who arranged to pick us up this afternoon and show us the Bedouin way of life.  He is a tall, dark, handsome man who looks about fortyish,  dressed in modern style and spoke accent-less English.  I first met him at a meeting discussing a research project into the health of the Bedouin.  At that meeting it seemed to me that many of the issues facing those tribes were similar to  those faced by our Indian population.  He was impressed by my interest and suggested a visit to some of the surrounding Negev Bedouin communities, which I eagerly accepted.  I introduced him to Irene, and we both climbed into his small car to begin what was to be a most eventful and unusual day.  As we drove out onto the road from Omer towards Shoket Junction, he gave us some background information on the Bedouin.  There are approximately one hundred and ten thousand in the Negev, and another hundred and ten thousand in the north of Israel.  There are approximately  two and a half million in total, mostly in the surrounding arab countries, but extending as far as Cuba.  We could not imagine how they came to migrate there, but as the story unfolded we were later able to advance a theory as to  why that happened. 
  When we reached S.Junction we turned left and head to Leguia, and pulled off the main road onto a dirt road.   We seemed to be driving across oceans of sand across which no identifying landmarks could be seen and the idea did cross my mind that we could perish in the desert if the car broke down or worse. (That was in the days before everyone had mobile phones.)   M. pointed out to us some of the galvanized iron huts and tents on the one side of the road, which we would never have spotted if they were not pointed out to us by someone who knew where to look.  On the other side of the road were some new houses built by the Israeli government.  He commented that though the new houses looked lovely from the outside that the inside was not correspondingly furnished, but usually contained the furnishings typical of interior of the tent.  The new houses, known as planned settlements, had electricity and running water, while the old shanties have no such provisions, although many of them have small generators.  On the top of a hill we were standing near Mahmoud pointed out a fine, affluent home, and  informed us that was being built by one of the wealthy members of the tribe who had three wives. In fact, he said, many of the young men were reverting to having two or three wives if they could afford it. 

       I asked why some of the Bedouin have new homes insettlements (the so-called planned settlements), while others stay on in tents the old settlements?  Apparently, the issue is one of giving up ones land in exchange for resettlement, and according to M. there is pressure on the Bedouin to resettle.  The reason for this is ascribed to be 'security reasons'.  We then headed east toward Ksifr and then turned south across land where no life could be seen, unless trained eyes were there to point them out.  M. pointed out Bedouin tents that were almost invisible against the background of the rolling hills of sand and green.  The green, I was later to find out is wheat, somehow shlept out of this sandy, stony terrain.  We continued up a meandering stony path, which I wondered if the car would ever negotiate, despite M's obvious familiarity with the land.  finally we arrived at the high point, overlooking several Bedouin tents.  Out of nowhere a white car appeared, a menacing Arab behind the wheel.  M indicated to me that I should lower the window, and started talking to the driver in Arabic.  Once he identified himself as a fellow Bedu, the animosity vanished instantly, and the man came around and shook his hand, ignoring me.  M. showed us some olive trees, explaining to us that the Bedouin don't usually grow trees but the land ownership act stipulates that if there are trees growing on the land it can't be appropriated.  He also explained to us the manner in which the permanent structures inside the tents, another safeguard against land appropriation.  We continued driving over this harsh terrain, pitted, rutted, uneven terrain, over mounds of rocky sandy earth that I was sure the car could not negotiate, picturing the undercarriage hung up on some huge knoll.  M. however seemed to have no such worries, seemed to know every inch of the terrain and traversed it with complete confidence, everywhere pointing out with obvious pleasure Bedouin tents invisible to the casual eye.  Back onto a road where we drove to another resettlement road, where beyond the new dwellings, some of which look very attractive was an impressive looking mosque.  We stopped to look at it, and I asked M. if I could take a photograph.  "Of course!" he answered.  I pulled out my camera and took a photograph.  I was just getting back into the car when a rather aggressive young Arab came over to ask what we we wanted.  Again M. responded in the Bedouin dialect, introducing himself.  The man asked in Arabic (I confirmed this with M. later) "Are you Bedouin?"  M answered in the affirmative, entering into a short discussion.  After which much shaking of hands (including mine!) and friendly farewells.  Again, I don't think I would have felt very comfortable stumbling into this by myself. I asked M. what would have happened if he wasn't there, he answered that we would have just been told to move on.

       " Where do you think the money came from for this mosque," he asked me.

       "Where?" I asked.
       "From fundamentalist countries, Iran, Iraq, they are trying to foster fundamentalism among young Bedouin.  The Bedouin are traditionally non political, but there is some fundamentalism arising among the young people, who feel their needs are not being met and they are in danger of losing their land."
       We pulled out towards the road again.
       "See how far the school is from the village?" he asked, "why do you think that is?"
       "I don't know," I answered.
       "It's because the teachers don't feel safe with the school being right in the village," he said, "in the case of any trouble the school could not become a fortress.  "There is the  Kupat Cholim clinic, also quite far from the village for the same reasons." He pointed out the medical clinic to me.   It looked looked nice and modern and clean, but there was nothing going on in it.

Watch here for episode two next week!

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