Talya and her sisters, Anat and Asnat, their mother, Tsiona Dahan, her cousin Noam Bensaid eating his ice-cream in Mitspe Ramon in 1961. Noam still lives there
Of all the women and men that I have met in my life, it was Maya, my nature teacher for three years, starting in 3rd grade, who made the deepest and most lasting impression on me. She was a strong, independent woman who lived her life as she wished, not as was expected of her. She has greatly influenced how I chose to live my life. From the very first moment of meeting her I was awestruck by her qualities and I aspired to express them in myself.
The years were 1960-1963. The place was a remote town deep in the Negev Desert of Israel. Our family was one of the first to settle in this godforsaken place. My parents were pioneers who wanted to build the desert. We lived on the edge of the Ramon crater, also called the Giant crater. At the time there wasn’t even one tree or garden there and no green grass as you find so abundantly here in Florida. The terrain was rugged, yet breathtaking. Till today it is the most beautiful place in the world to me. The deep crater had layers of light blue and pink sands in its walls. It was scattered with hundreds of thousands of sea urchin and sea star fossils. Above it loomed rocky cliffs that provided a great vantage point. I spent most of my days there, perched on the very edge, alone, marveling at the divine scenery. Actually, I wasn’t totally alone; There were thousands of scorpions, a few snakes, several large lizards and some spry mountain goats. Their favorite place to relax was the very end of the ledge. They were fearless and I admired them for it. I learned courage by observing their behavior, watching them skip from one cliff to the other over the precipice. The scorpions and snakes did not scare me at all and in the six years we lived there I never got bitten or stung by them. We were all members of the same tribe, the desert creatures.
Our school consisted of one room inside a prefabricated asbestos barrack. We had one teacher for all subjects. The living conditions were harsh. There were no modern conveniences such as running hot water, cooking stoves, washing machines, refrigerators, telephones or TV. Of course we had no luxuries such as air-conditioning heating, nor fans. Our furniture consisted of orange crates stacked on top of each other. If we ran into any trouble, we would have to sort it out on our own. It was not an easy life, but there was the comforting solitude of the desert with its breathtaking scenery, and there was Maya.
Writer Talya Dahan Dunleavy is on the far right with her sister, Anat, alongside
Maya appeared one day in 1960 when I was 8-years old. She was a tall and slender young woman in her early twenties who exuded independence and strength. Her striking chiseled features were a deep golden tan from spending most of her days in the desert sun. She had very long black hair which she braided to one side of her face, and unruly bangs covered her forehead. She was warm and friendly, yet sort of serious. Maya was the first independent woman that I have ever met. Our nature classes were outdoors and we had no text books. Maya would take us to the wilderness and we would experience it with her guidance. I will never forget what happened on one of our many memorable nature walks. We were meandering in the wilderness above the crater in a small group with Maya when we spotted a large, yellow-scaled viper slithering towards us. Maya remained completely calm. She told us to remain still and quiet. She said that even though the viper was poisonous, it was not going to hurt us. Maya told us that the snakes in the area were her friends and they knew her. As the viper approached, she slowly kneeled on the ground and lowered her right hand. The snake slowed down, then began to coil itself on Maya’s arm as she was whispering to it in a calming voice. Maya took that snake back home with her and it became a member of her snake family.
She lived in a stone-built house and she collected snakes for pets. The inside of her house had rocks of all sizes and sand on the floor, to make the snakes feel comfortable in their home. The first time I met Maya was when I went to her house to see who was the newest addition to our small community. She was warm and welcoming and introduced me to her large, yellow vipers and black desert cobras. She slept on the floor to be close to them. They would warm up next to her at night, when desert temperatures dropped drastically. She talked to them and they followed her around. There were no women like Maya in the small society I lived in. Most of the women stayed home, cooking and cleaning and raising children. They never ventured much into the wilderness. They were definitely not equal to the men. Many didn’t have an education or a profession. I didn’t want to be like them. Maya was a goddess. She was peaceful, fearless and noble. She was educated and her own person. She became my role model. I wanted to be like her in every way.
Maya spent very little time indoors. The desert was her home. The Bedouins, the nomads native to our desert, also loved Maya. They considered her a sister and a daughter. She could sleep in their tents safely and they would never harm her. Other settlers were leery of the Bedouins who never came into our town, but Maya with her trust and her respect won them over just as she did us and the snakes. She would often wear the black Bedouin robes with the colorful red and green embroidery. She would sit on the ground with them, around the campfire, sipping on tea, chatting in their unique Arabic dialect. They would speak to her with utmost respect, calling her “sister Maya”. She had their protection. I learned so much from watching her interact with them. From an early age I had no fear of people even if they were supposedly my enemies. From Maya I have learned love and respect for all people.
When I was 11, only three years after first meeting Maya, we moved to the city. I had to say goodbye to Maya. I mourned that loss very deeply. Over the years I met her again a few times when I visited the little town by the edge of the crater. One day Maya was gone from there. They said that she went to live with the Bedouins and that she was now a guide for people who visited the desert. She didn’t care for modern comforts, and preferred living as one with nature. Maya never had children. The desert consumed all of her and she could not be homebound. However, she was a mother to all of us kids because she gave us the warmth, guidance and respect that we craved so much.
Never again did I meet a woman like Maya. She lived by her own code and was true to herself. She was a symbol of dignity and integrity to me. Maya was the best teacher that I have ever had and the woman that I most admired in my life. Her influence has been evident in the way I chose to live it. As I am writing this I realize that I even wear my hair with a long braid to one side, the way she wore hers. I lived my life on my own terms and still do. My soul is still bonded with that place in the desert where I first met Maya and I yearn to go back there. Maybe I will meet Maya again. People say she still walks the desert with the Bedouins.