Emily Raboteau in Orion Magazine:
IT WAS UNUSUALLY HOT FOR JUNE, and the heat was dry at the desert’s edge. The semiarid South Hebron Hills were stubbled with brown scrub and thistles and strewn with bone-colored rock. Though it was not quite summer and not yet noon, my guide, Ahmad S., estimated the temperature at thirty-seven degrees Celsius or, as my mind translated it, almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. “Drink,” Ahmad, a water lab technician, reminded me. I lifted my canteen to my lips and, without thinking, drained it. A first-world privilege, this—to be thoughtless about water. We were at the ankles of the West Bank, far off the utility grid, in the cab of Ahmad’s dusty truck. Ahmad, twenty-nine, Palestinian, comes from a town northwest of Hebron called Halhul. When I met him he was a newlywed. His new wife had been married once before. Because she was a divorcée, Ahmad’s brothers looked on her as used goods but he’d dissented from that point of view and married her for love. With his light-brown skin, gelled hair, gold chain, slim-fitting jeans, and Nikes he could have passed for one of the Dominican guys in my neighborhood in New York City. But apart from Ahmad’s slick look, I found nothing familiar in the desolate landscape. We may as well have been driving on an asteroid. The desert was bewildering to me as a city dweller, and not just because of its harsh quiet and the vast field of vision it offered, but also because of the pitiless way it exposed one to the sun. No buildings to offer cover or shade. No straight lines. Just rolling hills of rubble and saffron-colored dust. I felt jet-lagged, carsick, and ill at ease.
Judea, the right-wing Zionists call this place. The apostle Mark called it “the wilderness.” I couldn’t comprehend how such barren hills could sustain life. I’d been to Brazil’s Sertão, the steppes of New Mexico, and to Andalusia, in Spain, where the spaghetti westerns were filmed. None of those deserts were as dry as this. Yet to the north of us grew the vineyards of Mount Hebron, famed for its grapes since biblical times. The foothills to the west extended into Israel. To the east dropped the Jordan Valley, where the storied river, once crossed by the Israelites, bottoms out into the Dead Sea. In Israeli-settler parlance, and according to the Torah, God granted this land to the Jews.