Guns ‘n roses in the Negev region
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.