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Letting the Desert Get Under Our Skin

This morning’s pre-sunrise wake-up was not jet lag related, but by design as we planned a morning hike through the Machtesh (the crater) to enjoy the sunrise and beat the mid morning heat. Besides the early wake-up (all our Denver body clocks are still a bit out of whack, anyways) among the group were some musings and mumblings about spending time on hikes and focusing on geological or ecological issues … we are here to dialogue. Ziv, our host at the Desert Shade eco lodge, seemed very intentional about his program and its course and on we went. The hike, the machtesh is striking and one of five in Israel and one of five in the world. Its formations, geology are unique in the world. It is the heart of desert, so as Ziv explained; any creature or life that has managed to survive here is of the evolutionary elite. It seems that the urgency of the desert – how it forces its inhabitants to radically remove any excess or extreme in working toward survival – is just what Ziv would want for out group. Dialogue, whatever that means, would come and only could come once we as individuals and as groups when we could cut away the excess from our hearts and minds and then face one another. If you ever walked in थे D desert for any period of time … you understand its power as such an instrument.

This is not to say that the groups and individuals have not been talking to one another and that they have not been talking about ‘ultimate’ issues. It has gone on, but more informally or one-on-one … the group has not sat down together to talk about ‘it’ – the reason that we are here. That perceived need and desire to do so would be an undercurrent for the rest of the day …

Time after breakfast provided a chance for a couple of workshops. Half the group took sometime to sit with some students from the Arava Institute, an international environmental studies program here in the Negev and then the other half took to designing houses for the desert. Split in to small mixed groups of Americans and Arabs, each was given the task of designing a desert dwelling fit for a family of four that would be suited to the desert and reflective of both Arab and American culture. The activity of sitting down and actually trying to complete a task, needing to express oneself was some of the best ‘dialogue’ since we arrived. It got even better when the each group had to roll up their sleeves and make ‘bricks’ from the Negev desert soil and make models of their creations. We were not talking about peace, occupation, violence … but there was something good happening.

Although by the time the groups switches and had the chance to meet with the students from the Arava Institute, that aforementioned mumblings were present again. As one of the Arab students put when asked what she thinks about the importance of the environment, she said this she studies at her school … we have not come here to talk about this!

Late afternoon we hopped on our bus and were taken down the road for about 10 minutes, de-bussed and began our 15 minute hike into the desert toward our accommodation for the evening… a unrecognized Bedouin village, hosed by Suleiman and his family। The 40 or so of us arrived took a walk around the village and then parked ourselves in the massive tent for our second Bedouin meal of the trip already.

As the sun set and darkness descended upon us, both groups found ourselves left to the tent and the solar generated lights that hung from the ceiling of the tent. There was no where to go and in the radical emptiness of the desert, we were given our first opportunity for ‘dialogue’ as a group. With Omar, one of our group and a Lebanese Muslim, serving as translator we sat down in a circle and intentionally began to talk about why we were there – to listen, learn and understand the stories of all involved. The discussion was uneven, rough. Our Arab friends had a lot to say and question about the United States, its leaders, its relationship to the State of Israel. Our group attempted to listen, respond and explain. As I watched I wondered if this is what we all imagined for the exchange … there was a significant part of the discussion missing, Israeli Jewish students and their perspective; we heard a significant focus and frustration on American policy, actions and influence; and the challenges of language and simple logistics (how exactly do you have an inclusive discussion with almost 40 people, who speak various levels of three languages, with dramatically different cultural understandings about how to ‘discuss’ a matter?). All in all it was a discussion … and no matter how things end (on this trip or beyond) it had to begin here, and it did. I sense that we will also look upon this trip and our time in the Negev with a different perspective in a few days and by the end of our trip. Our next day will bring us to Neve Shalom – a cooperative community of Arabs and Jews and then onto Jerusalem – which we all seem to be anticipating with a palpable expectation of something special. As we move on, wherever the trip takes us physically or spiritually we must recognize the experience of the desert for preparing us. Abraham and Sarah fled to the desert when they began their journey, Moses fled Egypt to the desert to find God, Jesus ministry evolved on the road to Damascus … we, too, have begun this journey of ours in the radical emptiness of the desert, too. Perhaps we will realize a portion of the heights of those who precede us.


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