Negev Hospitality

By Julian Bender

Photos: David Landis/API

A scouting trip in January took the Abraham Path’s prospective route further into the wilderness than it’s ever been—down to the Zohar and Mt. Sodom areas of the northern Negev, above the salt pools of the Dead Sea.

A long trek through Hemar Canyon led us to the shore-side village of Neve Zohar. Here, we’d been informed by an local contact, was a town where we’d be lucky to find even one person worth talking to. In the Abraham story, ten good people was more or less established as the lower limit for a city in these parts to be spared a fire-and-brimstone shower, so this town would seem to be really pushing its luck.

A 24-kilometer day of forging down desert cliffs, over boulders and through seasonal pools left us tired, sweaty and thirsty, so any sign of civilization was welcome. We stopped in at a regional government building for water, and so far, the town’s population seemed quite friendly. The people there happily shared information on the area with us, and one surprised me by being strangely familiar with the recent weather patterns in my hometown back in the US.

Camping out on the beach (incidentally, at the lowest-altitude campsite possible on Earth’s surface), we were approached by another local resident and his small pug dog. He expressed the usual mild surprise that we’d walked here all the way from Arad, and then offered to show us to his house where we could get the next day’s supply of drinking water from an outdoor sink.

Shortly after bedtime (namely, 8pm – long hiking days tend to shift one’s sleep schedule decidedly in the direction of “Grandpa”) I was roused from half-slumber by someone calling my name. It was Moti, the same guy—and he was announcing that he’d brought us food!

I struggled to get dressed in my cramped tent, and emerged to find David sitting out there with a container of hot Russian soup and a couple slices of warm bread—and Moti already gone. A paragon of efficiency, he’d deposited the food and vanished into the night.

We’d already eaten dinner, but our hikers’ appetites left no hesitation to eat another serving. As we feasted, we reflected on the radically different modes of hospitality one can encounter while walking across the Middle East. Middle Eastern hospitality is renowned for its overwhelming generosity and personal care—not only do hosts welcome guests for a long social evening and a lavish meal, they take pride in observantly watching to make sure the guest’s every want is met, and repeated emphatic declarations of welcome are made.

All this is great, and makes a person feel welcome and taken care of. But, particularly for the introvert, there’s really something to be said for the functional, to-the-point hospitality we got in Neve Zohar. Hikers tired out from a long day of walking are often just as inclined to wolf down dinner and fall asleep, as to talk for hours with their hosts—and being brought dinner in a simple act of kindness without any social obligations has its own definite appeal.