I turned on my phone and frantically tried to connect to the Ben Gurion Airport wifi. I’d been checking my email compulsively for the past week, twitchily scanning my empty inbox with rising anxiety. But now, as I hopelessly stared at the screen, the sinking feeling in my stomach told me that time had run out. The ream of expensive documents I’d submitted over several weeks – police certificates, references, bank statements – had all been for nothing. There was no sign of my promised visa.
So now, here I was, approaching the stony-faced passport control officer like a march to the scaffold. All I had was a letter from the university, hastily forged at midnight; a sketchy record of time spent in the ‘hostile territory’ of the West Bank including on an expired tourist visa; and what I hoped was an appealingly innocent face. With my heart fluttering, I willed the queue to move slower, each shuffling advance of bags and bodies filling me with dread.
All too soon he beckoned me forward. As expected, the officer did not waste any energy on pleasantries. His questions, barely audible through the thick glass, had the tone of a burnt-out headteacher wearily reprimanding a repeated troublemaker. He paused frequently to scan his screen, frowning and shaking his head cryptically. Each second stretched in torturous agony. Eventually he read the letter again, sighed, and shoved it back at me through the slit in the glass along with my passport and a small blue slip of paper. ‘Enjoy your stay,’ he muttered, his tone somewhere between sarcasm and a threat. Inwardly, I jumped for joy and punched the air. Outwardly, I thanked him and sailed calmly through to baggage reclaim.
Before long I was gliding out of Tel Aviv on a spacious, air-conditioned train, surprised at the expanse of lush farmland on either side – a miracle of irrigation. As we sped south, the rich colour faded like an aging photograph, green and blue turning to beige and brown. The remainder of the journey was remarkable only for the sheer absence of anything remarkable. Dry, flat, featureless terrain extended all around, broken only by occasional spindly trees and pylons. Eventually, the train tracks and overhead lines converged into a messy grid and I caught my first glimpse of Be’er Sheva’s concrete towers. As the train squealed to a halt, I stumbled down the steps and out into the sultry evening.
I staggered through the small terminal and dragged my suitcase towards a waiting yellow taxi. The young, dark-skinned driver threw my luggage into the back and asked me a question in Hebrew. Assuming it was about my destination, I told him the address. He seemed satisfied, jumped into the car and we shot off through the grey urban twilight in a cloud of dust and pounding bass. We sped along streets fringed with sand. The dark, hollow shells of construction sites towered above rickety, open-fronted fast food outlets with knots of dark young men crowded around garish plastic tables. We pulled over and, confusingly, a heavily made-up young woman climbed into the passenger seat. She glanced at me briefly then lowered the window and lit a cigarette. It was unclear if she was a fellow passenger or a personal acquaintance of the driver, and their brief exchange in Hebrew offered no clues.
As darkness fell, we turned down an impossibly narrow back street lined with a jumble of rough walls and shabby fences. Giant cacti loomed in the headlights, spilling over the walls like strange tentacled creatures. The driver swerved down the perilous path between the parked cars, peering out manically at the gates on either side. Suddenly he did a near emergency stop and pointed to a gate on the left. He waited until my suitcase was mostly out of the back door before tearing off, sending several emaciated stray cats dashing beneath the parked cars.
I peered up and down the dimly lit alley and at the unmarked gate. An electronic doorbell was hanging off the gatepost. Pressing it miraculously brought my grey-haired host flip-flopping down the garden path. With a mug in his hand and a wiry ginger cat at his feet, he greeted me warmly and led the way through a dark jungle of scruffy palm trees and dry bushes then up a flight of winding metal steps. As he explained the various quirks of the fat – ‘this window does not close,’ ‘you cannot use the hot plate at the same time as the microwave’ – the chugging air-conditioning got to work dispelling the stifling humidity.
He reassured me that himself or his wife were always downstairs if I needed help with anything. Anything. Anything at all. ‘Well, tomorrow I have to go to Rahat,’ I explained. ‘Do you know where I should catch the bus? I think it’s bus 450?’ Instantly his face dropped.
‘Rahat??’ he asked, wide-eyed. ‘Are you sure..? Rahat is a Bedouin town!!’ ‘Yes, I will be working there..’ I told him. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know, I have never been to this place,’ he said hastily, backing out of the door. ‘Anything at all..we’re just downstairs..enjoy your stay,’ and with that, his voice and body disappeared into the clammy night.
Extracted from the first pages of Victoria’s very excellent book, ‘Mirage‘, an explorer’s experience of (trying to pin down) the world’s only Bedouin city. Check her website for more writing, as well as a huge range of creative ventures.