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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

How The Bedouins Cross Rivers Without Bridges.

In the rainy season, the little wadys often swell and become great rivers, overflowing their banks, and thus prevent any one from passing to the other side for several days. When they begin to grow a little shallow, and the travellers are tired of waiting longer, a set of very tall and strongly built Bedouins make their appearance, and as it is their business to transport men and baggage across the stream, they undress themselves completely, take the traveller, who embraces their head quite firmly, on their shoulders, and wade through, whilst the water often stands up to their breast, and place their burden safely on the other shore.* When in this manner all the travellers are transported, the small packages are carried over, and then the cattle are driven through; after which all the things are repacked, when the journey is continued.

* These carriers may truly say with the Psalmist (66:12), “Thou hast caused a man to ride on our head, we have come into (fire and) water, and thou hast led us forth happily.”

With the greater rivers, for example the Southern Jordan, where there is no bridge, and which is not fordable even in the latter part of the summer, the ferriage is managed by the Bedouins with their cattle and baggage in the following manner: the smaller cattle, such as sheep and goats, are all cast into the river, and they then swim over of their own accord; the camels, however, which are not able to wade the Jordan because it is too deep and rapid, and as the great length of their legs prevent them from swimming, are driven close to the edge of the water, where they are made to kneel down, and their feet are then tied together with strong cords, so that it is impossible for them to raise them or to stand erect; they are then pushed into the water by the Bedouins with all their strength, and they are thus forced to swim over. They present indeed a most curious and ludicrous means of ferriage. With their head and hump out of the water, bobbing up and down as they are accustomed to do in walking, unused to the fluid element, and feeling themselves, though manacled, carried forward, their spirit seems to be occupied with the business of crossing over; and the whole appears to be to them a great mystery, as they indicate by constant, impatient growling. When they have arrived safely on the opposite side, their bonds are instantly loosened, and they jump up, as one might say, quite joyfully, in having successfully accomplished their toilsome voyage.

Men and baggage are ferried over in a yet more singular manner. They take eight to ten water-skins, made of goat hides, blow them full of air, tie them together on a square framework composed of several stout poles; on these they place some pieces of wood and boards as a floor; they fasten next the water-skins under the frame, and this artistical ship is thereupon launched into the water, and its cargo placed on it. The inflated water-skins prevent this frail vessel from foundering, and the crew then scull it over with their sticks to the other side of the stream. As may be imagined, this conveyance is not very safe, and it often happens that those who trust themselves to it make on it their last voyage, as they land from it in eternity. However, it is in this wise that the poor Bedouin knows how to help himself in various positions; and if he does not understand how to propel his vessel by steam, he can at least prepare his conveyance by filling the water-skins by the breath of his own mouth.

Jews and Muslims in Palestine