Bedouin hospitality is legendary, dating back to biblical times when it was imperative for nomadic people to host and be hosted. For the host, this was how he received news of what was going on in the world and for the guest it was a means of survival in a harsh environment.
During travels with Alon, my guide, we were invited to visit his old friend Sheikh Suleiman for lunch. Suleiman, from the most important Bedouin tribe in Israel, worked for the British Government during the Mandate period and later for the Israeli government, collecting taxes in the Negev.
Today he lives in a Bedouin village with his extended family having exchanged tents for permanent structures.
Alon was at pains to explain to me their traditions and in particular their eating behaviour. Bedouin never use utensils. They eat with their fingers, but only those of the right hand – NEVER the left hand, this being reserved for ‘other’ more earthy bodily functions.
“You must eat”, said Alon, “with three fingers of the right hand and the thumb, with little finger tucked into your palm. Take food from the communal dish, but never allow your fingers to touch your lips”. My first challenge was to keep my little finger tucked into the palm of my hand. I found this utterly impossible in spite of practising for six weeks with my finger taped to my palm.
The day arrived. We reached Suleiman’s home – a simple cement building with small windows overlooking the desert, and cushions scattered around the perimeter of the room. Outside it was 40 degrees. Inside it was more, as they had a blazing wood fire.
Salman, a village elder, welcomed us playing a one stringed instrument as we sat watching our host, as he prepared coffee. This ritual involved putting coffee beans into a circular wooden container and pounding them with a long decorative pole. The rhythmic sound was a traditional means of informing neighbours that he had guests.
Once roasted, the beans with the addition of cardamon seeds, were heated in water, poured into a vessel and handed around. Somehow they missed me out, which was a relief as I haven’t drunk coffee since 1966 when the Brazilians increased the price and I went on a one woman protest. (No-one noticed – either the protest or the fact that I did not drink any coffee with the Sheikh.)
Everyone began taking handfuls of food, rolling it around and lifting it to their mouths. I started hesitatingly – found a pitta bread and tried to fill it neatly with rice and vegetables – utterly impossible with one hand. I cannot describe the mess I got into. Food scattered everywhere, on my clothes and the cushions. Without thinking I found myself licking the greasy fingers of my LEFT hand – and recoiled in horror when I realised what I was doing.
You need to understand, I was brought up in a middle class Jewish home with Mother constantly admonishing me “Don’t eat with your fingers!,’ “Don’t mess with your food!’ and here was I having to do precisely the opposite to be socially acceptable.
I sat opposite Suleiman to watch carefully to see how the ‘expert’ did it. He lifted his right hand slowly and deliberately, placed it carefully in his inside pocket and to my surprise pulled out an enormous metal tablespoon with which he began to eat. With the other hand he took out his iphone and carried on a lengthy conversation.
I repressed a smile. I had been trying for weeks to perfect my technique, whilst here was our host, tucking in with a huge spoon. It was comforting to know that at least some of today’s modern conveniences have been adopted into his life style.
Suleiman was everything I expected, a charming, warm, generous and courteous host. I am not sure that I lived up to his ideal as a guest.
My experience confirmed one thing, however, to continue to be overly fastidious, and always use cutlery.
Alon saying farewell to Salman