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Israel's Negev desert

I never wanted to go to Israel when I was young. Growing up in an assimilated New York Jewish family, I had a horror of kibbutzim. Let them dance the hora in the Negev, I thought, I'm going to be dancing in a Paris boîte on Quatorze Juillet. I considered life in Israel the opposite of elegance and grace. Big-breasted girls wearing khaki and carrying rifles; boys in yarmulkes picking dates. Goody-two-shoes Zionists making the desert bloom with berries, barbed wire, and babies. Spare me. Cole Porter and Noël Coward were my idea of cool, not Ben-Gurion.

What an ignorant little twit I was! I went to Israel for the first time only two years ago (the occasion was a literary festival in Jerusalem) and fell so in love with the country that since then I have looked for every excuse to go back. The Mediterranean landscape, the Israeli exuberance, the way politics is a matter of life and death--all these things beguiled me.Never mind the archaeological sites, the mélange of ancient cultures, the sheer passion of the people for food, music, and literature. Of course, it didn't hurt that most of my books have been translated into Hebrew and are popular in Israel. But my newfound interest in Israel wasn't just a matter of ego. It was a genuine appreciation of the earthiness of a country I had been too uptight to visit in my teens.

LAST YEAR I RETURNED, THIS TIME TO THE CITY OF BEERSHEBA IN THE NEGEV DESERT, to give a series of lectures at Ben-Gurion University on writing and Jewish-American literature. I was enthralled by the way the Negev, seemingly empty, preserves a record of ancient history. In part, I became a novelist to travel through time. I like to be reminded that human nature is constant, that technological innovation alters us less than we usually think it does, and that the past is a prologue to the present. If Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have changed in the past 2,000 years, the Negev, it could be argued, has stayed the same. Jerusalem is eternal both in its beauty and in its endless warfare, but the Negev seduces us in another way. The air is translucent. The mountains shimmer. The stretches of sand are punctuated by green oases. Properly cultivated, the desert could become a great source of food and an attractive place to live in the new millennium.

The Negev was once the heart of the Nabataean empire, which at its zenith, in the second century b.c., extended from Egypt's Sinai to present-day Saudi Arabia. The Nabataeans, one of the wealthiest Arab peoples of their time, sold water and protection to caravans that carried everything from spices to bitumen along the most important trade route between East and West. The remains of their once grand cities, later conquered by the Romans, remind us that this region has always been a crossroads--for Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, from biblical times to the Middle Ages. In fact, the more you travel in the Middle East, the more you realize that Jews and Arabs have as many shared qualities as they do differences. Equally hospitable, bound to the same history, perhaps one day they will become friends and allies. Optimistic?Very. But if the desert can flower, anything can happen.

There's no denying that Beersheba is an ugly town, developed quickly in the sixties and still growing. Except for the Bedouin market and the university, the city resembles nothing so much as a vast building site--like New York, it's constantly under construction. But the energy of the academic community is appealing. Ben-Gurion University has an open, irreverent, pioneering spirit. Students treat their professors with an informality that, I'm told, is rare at the more traditional Hebrew Universityin Jerusalem.

Ben-Gurion University is as deeply committed to the desert as David Ben-Gurion was. Elected Israel's first prime minister in 1949, he believed that the future of the nation lay in the Negev, which comprises most of Israel's landmass. For him, to "make the desert bloom" was as great a test of the country's strength as defeating its enemies.Beersheba itself dates to long before the time of Abraham, who, according to the Old Testament, "planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God." Fittingly, the university's best-known botanist, Yosef Mizrahi, is experimenting with desert-growing plants like white sapote and nopal (prickly pear) from Mexico; monkey orange from South Africa; pitahaya and apple cactus, once farmed by the Aztecs; and the argan tree--which yields a fine oil--from Morocco. The idea is to pinpoint the plants, cultivated or wild, that once were and might again be used for food. As he walked me through his desert greenhouse, Professor Mizrahi let me taste the succulent fruits that he hopes will defeat hunger in the next century.


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