Excavating in the north of Israel in 1992 or 1993, I was running a trench in the hills out in the middle of nowhere. For the life of me I can’t now remember what we were excavating! A Roman road?
Anyway, we were visited several mornings in a row by a rather old and very small Bedouin man who would herd his cows past us on the way to pasture. He would stop and stand on the side of the trench a while, passing the time, smoking a cigarette, and occasionally opining on the sunrise or the beauty of the morning, or what have you. To tell the truth, we had no idea what he was saying because none of us spoke a lick of Arabic. But he was a pleasant fellow and seemed to enjoy our company.
One day he came by as usual stood on the balk and was a little chattier than usual. I kept hearing the word “qahwah,” which I eventually (and somewhat vaguely) remembered was the word for coffee. Observing his questioning look and gestures off into the distance I surmised that he was inviting us for coffee somewhere. So I gathered my team and we followed him into the woods. Sure enough, he led us to a neatly set up tent, cozy and warm inside, and treated us to real Bedouin hospitality of hot coffee, labnah with olive oil, and pita. We even managed to have a conversation of a sort, between his six words of English and my five words of Hebrew and two words of Arabic. (My team, unfortunately, could only bemusedly observe this entirely pidgin conversation.) After several minutes our mutual words had run out, although that bothered our host not in the least. He enjoyed talking anyway. But I had noticed a teenage girl sitting quietly in the corner, occasionally helping to serve, but saying nothing. I turned to her and asked her something (now I can’t remember what). She replied in perfect English! Of course she had studied English in school since a very young age, and what a relief it was to be able to speak and be instantly understood, and to understand her! But after a few minutes of animated conversation, I turned back to our host. He appeared to have lost interest in us, and I realized my faux pas. He was the host, and he was the father, and it was up to him to invite her to be part of the conversation! I should have asked him about her first, rather than speaking directly to her. I must have offended him, because the magic was gone and we couldn’t regain our former easiness. We finished our meal in relative silence.
I left feeling I had ruined something special. And I don’t think he visited us again, or at least I don’t remember him doing so.
Even so, I enjoy the memory of our visit to his tent and the warm hospitality he showed us.
And I keep hoping I’ll have the chance to benefit by the lesson I learned in someone else’s tent!