Saturday, March 25 and Sunday, March 26, 2011
After arriving Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I met up with half the other reporters on the media mission and we headed off to a hotel near the beach. We walked around the neighborhood until the rest of the group arrived. Altogether there are eight of us from a mix of Jewish and environmental publications, plus our contact from a private public relations firm and a Friends of Ben Gurion representative.
We introduced ourselves at a cafe overlooking the water. While everyone else went off to catch up on jet lag, I went out with another old friend from North Carolina – Sarah Fisher – who made aliyah three years ago. I’ll spend more time with her after the mission, but she stopped by early on to lend me an extra local cell phone. We chatted for a while at a nearby Irish pub. I was very impressed to see that you can, indeed, get shepard’s pie in the Mediterranean.
Sunday morning we were off to Be’er Sheva for an anthropological take on the local market and a jeep tour of research on the Negev’s disappearing sand dunes.
First, we met up with Faye Bittker, director of media relations and publications at BGU, who made a point of complimenting our group for not backing out of the trip in the wake of the recent missile attacks on the city. It was the first time the city had been targeted in more than two years. During those attacks in January 2009, the university actually shut down for two weeks as the city suffered repeated air raids.
By comparison, the university held classes as normal Wednesday after the early morning attack (only two days before our flights) and at least based on my rusty Hebrew, there didn’t seem to be much buzz about it on campus. As Bittker put it, “yes, it’s stressful, but we make jokes.” You have to have a sense of humor about it, she continued, or it’s impossible to live there.
Students are used to it, added 25-year-old Barak Herscowitz, a political science major who’ll graduate this spring. If they weren’t in the Negev in 2009, he said, they got practice diving for cover in the army or living in Tel Aviv at times when “buses exploded every other day.”
I don’t have those experiences, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around that nonchalance. But it was certainly easy to put aside safety concerns as we went on with our business, surrounded by everyone else going on with their business.
“There is no fear here,” said BGU cultural anthropologist Nir Avieli as he took us through the city market.
The rows of produce, dried goods and clothing stalls reminded me of the mercados I used to frequent while living in Mexico, only much smaller. Several peddlers were eager to show off their wares – including one butcher who held out a long string of entrails for a photo opp. Others looked at us with suspicion or asked not to be photographed. Nirieli pointed out the separation between Arab, Jewish and Bedouin vendors; as well as the card game area where ethnic boundaries seemed to fade away.
Later that day, we headed out to explore the desert surrounding the university with ecology professor Yaron Ziv and two of his students as our guides. Dry, brown sand stretched out for miles. Close to the Egyptian border, we charged off-road for an up-close look at their current experiments. According to Ziv, with fewer large mammals roaming the area now (many of them killed by Bedouins), what used to be shifting sand dunes is now covered by a hardened soil crust. Aside from missing out on the beauty of that landscape, Ziv said, the biodiversity of the area has also suffered. His students set out traps to study what wildlife still exists, and whether tilling the crust in one area will attract more animals.