Razi was a local Bedouin, who led me on a camel trek with my mother through the Negev Desert in Israel over twenty years ago. I can still picture my mother, perched atop a camel like the Queen of Sheba as she bobbed and wobbled with each of its steps. She let out squeals of delight and fear as we progressed deeper into the Desert. Razi told me that my mother reminded him of his own, with her enthusiasm and adventurous spirit, even in her later years. Until that day my knowledge of the Bedouins and their life was limited to what I had seen from my narrow tourist perspective. What looked to me like meager tent camps dotted the dusty stretches of land along the Israeli roads. When we stopped anywhere near these communities, we were instantly swarmed by smudged Bedouin children with outstretched
hands. I felt terrible for them. From what I could tell, they had no homes, received no education and clearly lived in poverty. As our camels plodded along, Razi spoke about life in the desert and life as a Bedouin. He easily navigated the desolate terrain, and described it as full of life if you knew where to look. He explained that the Bedouin are expert trackers. He spoke of following the stars and planets like a map in the night sky. He told us about Bedouin poetry and the tradition of oral history. Much of this knowledge, he said, had been traditionally passed on to him, as it was to all Bedouin children. As Razi spoke, my idea of the Bedouins being uneducated seemed increasingly inane. It dawned on me that being well educated might be subject to individual cultures. I became highly aware that I would perish quickly if left on my own in this environment, despite my own university edification.
When we stopped for our midday meal, he baked us flatbread with ingredients from his camel pack. He brewed some sweet tea on the fire, and as we drank together, he told us how he pitied us with our burdens and responsibilities. Razi loved his life of freedom, and, to him, possessions only meant entrapment. He had a point. He said that it would be a nightmare for him to own more than he could fit on the back of his camel, thus inhibiting him from the nomadic life that he loved. At that time in my life I did not own much to begin with, so it’s not like I returned home and sold all my worldly goods. It was an impactful experience for me though, and I brought back a new understanding: that the world is seen through a lens unique to each person within his or her own culture. Through the many countries and cultures that I have visited since then, the lesson I had learned from Razi stayed with me. It has allowed me to open my mind to try to understand and respect others’ points of reference. I am still fascinated by varied customs around the globe, while continuing to be amazed, and touched by the ways in which we are all so alike.
(A different version of this post was printed in The Baltimore Sun Sunday Travel section and on www.amomknowsbest.com)