Patrolling with Camels to the Dead Sea, 1940, Part One

I was only a very minor cog in the wheel at the beginning of 1940 , so I don't really know why it was decided to send a patrol to 'Ain Jiddi, but I think it was because someone just thought it would be rather fun; and so it was.

'Ain Jiddi lies about half-way down the western shores of the Dead Sea and, though from time to time people travelling by boat between the North and South ends of the sea have been attracted by the lush greenery of the shore in an otherwise arid desert, it was many years since it had been visited by land. I had only been a couple of years in Palestine then and I was very keen to see all I could of that fascinating country where - in the rural areas at any rate - time seems to have stood still for hundreds of years and people are apt to say of some ancient building, "No, it's not very old - only Crusader." And when I heard that 'Ain Jiddi had been identified as the En-Gedi where David had hidden when fleeing from Saul I was very glad indeed that I had been included in the patrol.

It was on a Thursday that we left Hebron by truck for our jumping-off place at Beni na'im - nine policemen, British and Arab, an Assistant District Commissioner and our doctor. There were 12 camels, each in the charge of its owner, waiting to carry our kit and provisions and, as it was by then after mid-day, no time was lost getting our things off the trucks to be loaded onto them. Loading a camel is an art which looks easy, but which the uninitiated would do well to keep away from. Having then sorted out our things into eight equal lots - the remaining four camels were to carry water and fodder - we stood back to watch. Each camel was led by its owner to the load allotted to it where, by tugging downwards on the headrope it was made to kneel down. One foreleg was then tied round with rope so it could not be straightened, the cameleers carefully divided the loads into two parts of equal weight - an important point this if sore backs are to be avoided; and with surprising ease considering the unfamiliar nature of the loads - kitbags, radio set, Lewis gun and ammunition boxes - everything was hitched on to ropes slung across the camels' backs and the complaining beasts were allowed to jerk themselves to their feet. We received good wishes from the Mukhtar and elders of Beni Na'im and incredulous stares from the remainder of the villagers - they did not need all this preparation and equipment to make what was, after all, less than two days' journey - and started on our way.

Beni Na'im is some 25000 feet above sea level, while the Dead Sea is about 1300 feet below, so we were all saying to ourselves what an easy and comfortable walk it was going to be; but we soon learned that walking downhill for almost two days brings aches to muscles you never knew you even possessed, and blisters to both heels and toes. However, the camel's pace is a very steady one (on the way back one irritated member of our party stated that "a camel only has two speeds - damn slow and bloody stop") so we were all able to complete the journey at a complaining hobble.

On leaving the village we were strung out in single file on stony tracks which zigzagged down through fields of durra and millet, but by late afternoon the fields had deteriorated into small patches half-heartedly cultivated by some of the more sophisticated Bedouin. Among them, just before dark, we came to the tents of Sheikh Eissa Musa of the Ka'abineh, who invited us to stay the night. This we were very glad to do as it meant we should not have to prepare our own meal. It was, of course, strictly against rules and regulations for Government officers to accept food in this way, but it was always done and I am sure that no great suffering was ever caused. These Bedouin have very little excitement in their lives and I think they were only too glad to welcome strangers - especially such funny ones as Englishmen, and I am sure that the cost of the food was written off as entertainment more or less as we write off the cost of our cinema-going.

The camels were brought into the camp and with much tugging and many gutteral orders were made to kneel. They did so with their usual bad grace, grumbling and snapping at anyone foolish enough to get near their heads and I wondered, as I always do when I am with camels, why they are always so obstinate when it is so obviously in their favour to be co-operative. I think their trouble is that they know that anything that smells like a camel has little hope of obtaining anybody's affection and therefore their only hope of attention is to be as objectionable as possible. Anyhow, down they went and were hobbled while their loads were unhitched. Our personal belongings and the Lewis gun and radio set were taken into the guest tent which had been set aside for our use and we cleaned ourselves up ready for the feasting.

Bedou camp
Photo: Matson Collection

One of the blessings of accepting hospitality in a Bedouin camp is that one does not have to bother about guards for arms and equipment: the awful things that would happen if anyone should go so far as to forget themselves and steal from guests just do not bear contemplation; so, as soon as we were ready we left everything and all went across to Eissa Musa's tent, which had been strewn with rugs and cushions for his guests to sit on. There we squatted down to drink the customary coffee and mint tea, without the offer of which a stranger would realise in no uncertain manner that he was persona non grata and would do well to get out as quickly as he could. The hour and a half which it took to prepare the meal was then spent in polite enquiries after each other's health, family and animals, while we all got hungrier and hungrier.

At last our dinner arrived: a vast dish, fully three feet in diameter, piled high with boiled rice and mutton - the traditional and staple Bedouin food; while we were close enough to the static agriculturalists to have also various side dishes of tomatoes, olives and eggs fried in semneh. The main dish, however, is what we all made for, for nobody can boil mutton like the Arabs - tender, juicy and of an exquisite flavour. Our host, of course, did not eat with us, but stood behind the circle of his ravenous guests and saw to their comfort. I would like to be able to record that I was offered the eye of the animal, but I am afraid that in all my time with the Arabs I have never seen such a morsel offered to anyone. The fat of the tail of the sheep, yes - and any quantity of that takes a bit of stomaching - but if the Arab does eat the eye of a sheep I am quite sure he does not look upon it as a particular delicacy. We sat and gorged until we were bloated and exhausted, but even so we made little inroad into the vast mound of food and it was hard not to give the impression that we did not care for it. The trouble is that the Arab anatomy seems to be adapted to putting away enormous quantities of food and then going for long periods on very little. However, by chewing slowly we tried to give the impression that we were loath to stop - which was rather a shame really, when one thinks of all the women and children of the Sheikh's family who were waiting to fall upon the left-overs as soon as the guests were replete. As soon as we decently could we got up one by one and went outside the tent where Eissa Musa himself poured water over our hands while we washed. This was not done, as so many people in these democratic days would have us believe, in servility to his English masters, but because we were his guests and he would have done the same had we been beggars.

After more coffee and talk we went back to our tent, laid ourselves down on the rugs that had been set out for us, and scratched ourselves to sleep. One of the disadvantages of staying in such an encampment is the hordes of fleas that are waiting to attack strange bodies. But one must not blame the Arab for this - they were as clean as the scarcity of water allowed them to be and, in those days at any rate, soap and water were the only means of getting rid of the parasites. (Perhaps by now some enterprising salesman has introduced them to the advantages of DDT) However, we were tired enough to sleep soundly and were up at the crack of dawn to get things packed up. Breakfast eaten, the camels were brought in and loaded up. By eight o'clock we had said goodbye to Eissa Musa and were ready to move. The word was given and one by one the animals were goaded to their feet and a straggly line formed, the first camel being at least ten minutes ahead of the last. I believe it is possible to train camels into a disciplined body - indeed, I have seen evidence of it in the impeccable drill of the Palestine Police Camel Corps and the Arab Legion - but anything more undisciplined than our baggage camels and their masters would be hard to find; as would anything more vulnerable than our patrol. Down we plodded through dry, stony wadis where six men with rifles could have finished off the patrol with ease, while we were strung out in a line half a mile long with our precious Lewis gun on a camel at the rear!

Harold Jennings, Palestine Police News Letter, No.104, September 1976.