The Middle East may be roiled by civil wars, sectarian violence, revolutions, and counter-revolutions, but for some people there are more important developments to worry about.
“Have you seen my sheep?” an elderly toothless woman asked me while I was out hiking recently. “I've lost three of them,” she said, holding up three calloused fingers in emphasis.
This unexpected encounter occurred in the barren mountain wilderness of central Lebanon, a forbidding sun-scorched rocky terrain pitted with deep cone-shaped sink holes and broken outcrops of limestone. There was not another person for miles around. Then I spotted a tiny black speck moving against the sepia-hued landscape. As I drew near I realized that the figure in a voluminous black dress and headscarf was a Bedu woman.
The Bedouin are transnational Arabs whose wanderings across the Middle East are set to the rhythm of the agricultural seasons. In summer, their dusty canvas tents are a common sight beside the few roads that cross the Lebanese mountains. The Bedouin shepherds, usually wiry youths with heads wrapped in red-and-white keffiyahs, roam the mountains, demonstrating much the same unflagging agility as their flocks of goats.
They are on the whole generous and hospitable, if simple, folk. Once one who came over with an AK-47 to see if my camping friends and I were sheep rustlers heard a strange language and asked what it was. English, we told him. “English? What's that?” he responded, having never heard of the language nor the country from which it came.
On another occasion I ran out of water while hiking in the wilderness. Fortunately, I stumbled across a shepherd's camp. He and his wife gave me a jug of icy spring water and then insisted I share with them some maqouq, a papery thin bread cooked on a domed oven, homemade labneh, a tart yogurt spread, and fresh goat cheese.
There is a downside to encountering shepherds, however, and that is their dogs – ferocious, hulking brutes that seem to treat any passer-by as a cross between an enemy and dinner. Usually, when I hear the distant clang of a bell around the neck of a goat signaling a flock – and its canine protectors – I head in another direction.
There were no dogs accompanying the elderly Bedu woman, however. She carried nothing but a plastic pint-sized bottle of water, which I noticed was empty. Her skin looked as dry as a strip of beef jerky.
“God give you strength,” she said in greeting.
“And God's strength to you,” I replied.
Then she asked about her sheep. I could understand her concern. A fully-grown sheep can be worth between $150 to $200. That meant somewhere in this wilderness was the ovine equivalent of up to $600 lost amongst the rocky crags.
I told her I would keep an eye open for them.
“If you see them come and tell me. I'm in the first tent at the bottom of the mountain,” she said pointing a gnarled finger toward the south.
I offered her water but she shook her head and stumbled away. Twenty minutes later, I looked back over my shoulder and once more she had turned into a tiny black speck wandering across the side of a mountain on her lonely quest.