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Tales from the Negev: Stargazing in otherworldly silence


Israel's extraterrestrial desert pays homage to the red planet

As long as there is air in my lungs, I will never know perfect silence.

But I will know something close to it: The hills of the Negev.

I am on Earth, and then with a swift turn of our bus, I am on Mars. Or, I am in what I imagine Mars would look like: a vast, meandering foreverscape of sinusoidal curves of dirt, rock, and whatever relics lay beneath. I feel as capable as a single-celled organism, swallowed by something as maddeningly infinite as the universe.

We ride. The bus, as it snakes through the desert, gives the sensation of tipping, but never tips. We arrive at our Bedouin experience, a recreation of the ephemeral habitat of the wandering tribes that have haunted this desert for centuries. A group of lounging camels bray at us, flapping their lips in that fed up way of theirs. It's time to eat.

We feast on platters of couscous, hummus, and roasted things, seated on mats at low tables. We grab at it with laffa bread and are instantly revived. We are fueled to ride camels, or "desert ships" into the sunset. They are formidable, ancient beasts who are expertly engineered to withstand the harshness, and loneliness, of this landscape.

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Our camel squeals and snorts; I approach and see patches of wool on her hump and legs. My camel-mate and I board the beast in unison; she brings us to the sky.

The sun falls quickly in the desert, and before long we are grasping onto the last remaining light. We then let it go willingly. The stars are out, and one blazes across my retina. It is the first shooting star I ever see that isn't just a plane.

We walk out beyond our camp into a vacuum of darkness. Small rocks roll between our toes. We breathe. Infinitesimal whispers dissipate into the air. We stop; we sit; we lay into the rocks. We watch.

The sky is whizzing by us in slow motion, each star a celestial reflection of our human tombs on Earth. The sky is a gravesite of the angels, impossibly real and imaginary.

We settle into another state of matter, sacrificing ourselves to the air, becoming the adoptive human siblings of rocks. Are we still human, I wonder. I don't hear anyone breathing anymore. For half a minute, we are suspended in putty, living inside our most beautiful memories projected onto the sky, onto the stars.

Suddenly, a Jeep engine sends us shooting upward. It sounds like it's coming right toward us, but when I look up, I see it sailing hundreds of meters away. We're far out of its reach, cloaked in our dome of silence. We sink into the earth again. We quiet. Then a wild yowl startles us again. It's a camel speaking her desert language. We chuckle, then quiet again.

The sky invites mourning and longing, fantasy. I form my own constellations; I think of those whose souls have departed, whose eyes shine among the stars. In space, stars that burn out in fiery explosion appear to us on Earth as candle flames soundlessly extinguished by a fingertip.

I hear a breath. I hear a tear soak into the ground: A soft sob from a nameless body next to me. It sets off a chain reaction, sending sour tears to my eyes. Our collective cries wax and wane like the endless dunes. I am in Israel. I am in the loneliest place on Earth. I am on Mars. I am nowhere and I am everywhere.

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