Guns ‘n roses in the Negev re­gion

Flow­ers,frui­tand­pomegranatesabound­here,writes Cyn­thi­aQuerido

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2010 -

THIS au­tumn, Is­rael is en­joy­ing an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally bumper sea­son. Bus­loads of tourists dis­gorge ev­ery­where and it’s a l ong wait t o f i l e past t he al t ar of t he Church of the An­nun­ci­a­tion, a must-do in Naza r e t h . At Ya d Va s h e m Hol o c a u s t Mu­seum, the crush of hu­man­ity is such that one pan­ics and can find no exit from this ter­ri­fy­ing tes­ti­mony to man’s in­hu­man­ity to man. The an­cient moun­tain fortress, Masada, is host­ing more vis­i­tors than ever, there where Ro­man troops laid siege to those famed but ill-fated zealots.

And so, to es­cape the tourist swarms, the bumpy bus rides, the much-trod­den paths – yet not keen to leave civil­i­sa­tion too far be­hind – we headed down to the wide open spa­ces of the Negev and the tiny town of Ne­tivot, one of the last stops be­fore nowhere.

We have trav­elled to this quiet spot to spend time with my cousin Shalom, a flower mer­chant, shad­ow­ing him on what for him is an or­di­nary de­liv­ery day, but for us proved to be an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence and a priv­i­lege few out­siders will have en­joyed.

S h a l o m l i v e s a t Te ’ a s u r e , o n t h e doors t e p of Neti v ot . I t ’s a s pr a wl i ng moshav or com­mu­nal set­tle­ment com­pris­ing 100 fam­i­lies rep­re­sent­ing a host of na­tions and call­ings. Born and bred in Uping­ton, Shalom is a “flower and pome­gran­ate man”, his wife a ge­neti­cist at Be’er Sheva Uni­ver­sity. Te’asure is also home to or­ganic farm­ers, doc­tors, artists, ar­ti­sans, a rabbi, a psy­chi­a­trist, re­tirees and housewives. There are those who stay home and work the land and those who go to work and lease their land. Lively and largely un­kempt, it’s a homely sprawl, the size of a small sub­urb, where the sounds of chil­dren at play rings out long af­ter dark and any­one can stroll the streets at any time in safety.

The flower run be­gins at 7am and the Ka­roo-like sur­rounds are lost in mist, but we have seen enough of the land­scape to know that de­spite the growth of vi­brant cos­mopoli­tan ci t i es, de­spite t he awein­spir­ing ru­ins and relics, more than half the Promised Land is desert. Clearly the peo­ple have worked a mir­a­cle; they have nur­tured their patch of land and the land has paid back hand­somely. Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than in the seem­ing noth­ing­ness of the Negev.

Our door-to-door de­liv­er­ies take us to dif­fer­ent desti­na­tions, from fac­tory foy­ers to moshavs and kib­butzes. Shalom’s truck is awash with roses, anemones, peonies, chrysan­the­mums, mag­nif­i­cent lisianthus and home-grown pomegranates, the lat­ter in huge de­mand since their mul­ti­ple health ben­e­fits, i nclud­ing an­tiox­i­dant prop­er­ties, were pub­li­cised.

At kib­butzes, we carry buck­et­fuls of b u n c h e s t h r o u g h t h e t r a d e s m a n ’s en­trances. The kitchens are vast halls with gleam­ing sur­faces, hosed-down floors and the clin­i­cal air of a surgery – but the smell of cook­ing lingers on. We seem to have missed break­fast and ev­ery­one is sin­gle­mind­edly go­ing about their busi­ness, a clear in­di­ca­tion of se­ri­ous work. No longer so­cial­ist farms or small man­u­fac­tur­ers, kib­butzes are now a force to be reck­oned with as more and more grow into in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions.

We are not fussed with high fi­nance to­day. It’s the fruit of the good earth we’re here to en­joy, at which point, we ar­rive at a moshav where toma­toes and pep­pers glis­ten like gi­ant jew­els from Aladdin’s cave. Un­ex­pect­edly we meet a fel­low coun­try­man, now a moshavnik pas­sion­ately in­volved with veg­eta­bles. She takes time to talk, walk­ing us through nurs­eries, dis­cussing new meth­ods to com­bat plant dis­ease, drip ir­ri­ga­tion and the plants’ per­fect diet of Dead Sea wa­ter.

And, with the in­tro­duc­tion of bee­hives into the cul­ti­va­tion sheds to fa­cil­i­tate pol- lina­tion, this moshav has ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve it’s not just a hive of ac­tiv­ity, but sim­ply the bee’s knees!

Our de­liv­er­ies done, we’d saved the best for last: a visit to a flower “fac­tory”, where life be­gins, is nur­tured and thrives. To the layman it may seem as­tound­ing that flow­ers can not only be cul­ti­vated in such a dry and bar­ren en­vi­ron­ment, but in suf­fi­cient vol­ume to sup­ply much of the coun­try and places abroad. How­ever, a l i t t l e r es­earch r eveals t hat busi­ness i s bloom­ing for Is­raeli flow­ers, that con­dit i o n s i n t h e Negev a r e e x c e l l e n t f o r grow­ing sum­mer f l ow­ers, that I srael’s flower in­dus­try is heav­ily ex­port-cen­tric and that this tiny coun­try pro­vides five per­cent of the world’s flow­ers and the great­est va­ri­ety of species year-round.

We leave the fac­tory floor and head for the green­houses where we are awestruck by the glo­ri­ous oceans of colour. Each bloom is a per­fect spec­i­men, nour­ished by re­cy­cled sewage wa­ter.

In­con­gru­ously, the fac­tory is manned al­most en­tirely by Thais, their heads and faces swathed in scarves to ward off the heat. Hir­ing con­tract work­ers from Thai­land is the norm and the Thais have cre­ated their own home from home in the Negev. To add spice to home com­fort, a

comes by weekly to de­liver au­then­tic Thai food. Sim­i­larly, in the cities, a com­mon sight is the num­ber of aged res­i­dents – some pos­si­bly Holo­caust sur­vivors – be­ing cared for by these gen­tle folk.

Our work­day is over and it’s time to take in some sights. Just as we might take vis­i­tors on a scenic drive, so Shalom drives us along the Gaza strip. The very name sug­gests dan­ger, drama and war. We view it across a for­mi­da­ble, barbed-wire, dou­ble-bar­rier fence. Of course, dis­tance lends en­chant­ment to the view and in the desert haze, it’s just a sandy waste­land with dis­tant dwellings. A young fe­male sol­dier of Ethopian ori­gin sits at her lonely post on the Is­raeli border, and be­comes coy when Shalom presents her with a bunch of flow­ers. Her work space is a chair, a dusty ta­ble, a look­out post. In mil­i­tary gear, armed and hold­ing her roses, she’s a poignant study in “guns ‘n roses”.

Our last stop is Ra­hat, a Be­douin town that boasts the largest Be­douin set­tle­ment in the world. No longer the ro­man­ti­cised wan­der­ers of yes­ter­year, these Be­douin are ar­ti­sans and busi­ness peo­ple com­mer­cially i nvolved with their I sraeli neigh­bours. Ra­hat is a jumble of arches and domes, run­down homes with over­grown gar­dens and ubiq­ui­tous palms. Though l argely ramshackle with pock­ets of el­e­gance, it has that Mid­dle East­ern charm that can be so al­lur­ing. On the lit­ter-strewn out­skirts, dogs and camels for­age for morsels.

Driv­ing back to Te’asure, we pass fields of granadil­las, pa­payas and pota­toes, ba­nana plan­ta­tions, and date and olive groves. We munch on sweet pomegranates. This is surely the Gar­den of Eden. Yet I f e e l we ha v e onl y made a noddi ng ac­quain­tance with the Negev and that there is so much more to dis­cover. But for now, this is am­ple to di­gest.

UNTAMED: The wide Negev wilder­ness.

SWEET RE­WARD: A stall sell­ing pro­duce sourced from the Negev.

GROW­ING PLACES: Agri­cul­tural sheds i n t he Negev.

V E R D A N T G R OWTH: A mos h a v Te’asure gar­den.

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