A bridge in the desert

For a week we had journeyed into Sinai -- three sturdy kibbutz trucks from GivatBrenner loaded with 75 people and everything necessary to preserve and maintain life. Crates of eggs and fruit, cases of canned goods, were packed and stowed in every available space; plastic water containers were lashed to the frame; tools, implements and gasoline -- all secured and ready. Each day was swallowed in the immensity of space -- a trackless, sandy wilderness that stretched to the horizon, untouched by the hand of man. No road or signpost pointed the way. Here and there, a cairn of rocks, piled in careless fashion, indicated the general direction of a trade route, but these were often obliterated by flash floods.Only instinct and long experience could guide a passage through the desert.

Badly behind schedule, we drove very late one evening, trying to make up for lost time. Long past sundown and the cessation of burning desert sun, we traveled.To supplement the headlights on our trucks (feeble pinpricks in the blackness), two large lanterns had been fixed to the lead truck, one on either side of the windshield. At last, bone weary from the constant jouncing and battering by boulders strewn in our path, covered with dust, we made camp in a sandy wadi.m Scouring the area for brush, we built a fire and cooked our evening meal. Relaxed, in the easy comradeship of such a time, we began to eat.

Suddenly we noticed a man, sitting in the shadows, apart from us. In the flickering firelight and at this distance, his figure was shrouded and obscure. He sat on his haunches, motionless, looking at us gravely and in silence. His presence -- unexpected and arresting -- disconcerted us. From his headdress and robe he was obviously an Arab, and that was the sum total of our knowledge. After a few moments of watching him sit as an immovable object, we deduced that he must be hungry, was too proud to beg, but offered us his presence as an object of charity. Initial alarm for our security changed to concern for this desolate creature.

After brief consultation, a packet of food was made up, and I was elected to present it. Surprised, and secretly in dread, I took the food and slowly walked the distance separating us -- which was like a rickety bridge between known and unknown, precarious and uncertain. As I approached, I saw how very poor he was. His simple robe was old and worn, and of a plan cloth, unrelieved by ornamnet. Only the eyes, intense and black, seemed alive in the pallor of that face. Much of his face was muffled in the headcloth, and even his hands were hidden in the folds of his sleeve.

Knowing little of Arab custom, except that the role of women is vastly different from her position in the Western world, I pondered how to address him so as not to give offense. Suddenly my whole consciousness was riveted on a single fact, and in letters of fire branded in my brain appeared the word Outcast,m in all of its biblical significance. "Of course," I thought, "it all fits -- his keeping at a distance, conditioned to wait for charity discreetly" -- all this was more than the natural hesitancy of a stranger or the reticence of Arab to communicate with Jew.

Panic and compassion fought a duel inside me. Mastering my panic, I placed the food beside him (bread, cheese and some oranges) and said, in a voice determined to convey kindness, "This is for you." He looked at me blankly, inclining his head once in acknowledgment. Realizing that he did not understand my words, I gestured toward the food, smiled and retreated to the campfire and the blessed society of humankind. Dimly, I perceived what it must mean to be an outcast, forever beyond the perimeter, a solitary wanderer in perpetual loneliness. Even to a Bedouin Arab, accustomed to solitude and open spaces, it must be a heavy burden.

After a moment, one of the older men who spoke a little Arabic also crossed the separating space. He put the man at ease, telling him we wished him well, patting his shoulder and urging him to accept our gift of food (as yet untouched). He brought him a plastic sack to carry the food and a few more tidbits. Slowly, the man came to life, smiled and answered quietly. I began to realize how important is the sense of touch, and how great its significance for this lonely man -- simple physical contact, the primitive need as elementary as air and water to the human spirit and condition.

Slowly he rose, bowed with dignity and vanished into the night -- for his companions, only the brilliance of the desert stars -- beautiful and forever remote.

Givat-Brenner means "Brenner's Hill" in Hebrew.It was the kibbutz where I lived for six months. It was named for Joseph Brenner, an idealist, who believed so strongly in Arab-Jewish friendship that he felt it imperative to demonstrate Jewish respect for Arab customs and the need to trust in them. He lived alone and defenseless in Arab Jaffa and was later killed during a wave of hatred. The kibbutz that bears his name has continued through wars and troubles to try to maintain Arab ties of friendship by learning the Arab language and culture, extending invitations to Arab villages for weddings and celebrations and accepting invitations in return, always treating Arabs as brothers in the human fami ly.m

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