Past Perfect: An English Newsgirl in Palestine
Controversial English journalist Barbara Board (1916–1986) began her travels to the Holy Land in the mid-1930s, probably one of the few women to venture there at that time. In the preface to her book Newsgirl in Palestine (1937), she explains why she chose to travel and what she experienced:
This book is a record of things that I have seen and heard as a newsgirl in the Holy Land. Apart from the people who come out to Palestine on duty, or business, most visitors make the journey for sacred or sentimental reasons, and their interest is in the past, rather than in the present …
I came out to Palestine to see for myself how the women of the country live, what their manners and customs are, what they think about life. I found I could not get this from the multifarious books that have been written on the country, and what I have set forth in these chapters is nearly all news in the sense that it has never been published before …
I have been in homes in all levels of society— from the poorest Christian and Jewish home to the harem of the Emir Abdullah, which I am the only woman reporter to have visited. I have slept in the black tents of the Bedouin and have shared their life with its joys and sorrows …
No one can appreciate the fabric of Palestine by keeping to the tourist tracks, least of all by listening to the professional guides. One must go into the by-ways and talk to the people in their homes and at their daily tasks.
If this book, therefore, is different from other books on Palestine, it will have served its purpose.— Jerusalem 1937
Following is an excerpt describing one of her escapades:
I reluctantly shed my blouse and trousers and stepped into a long black cotton garment which reeked of dirt and dust. Around my head I wound a black kafia and in this costume walked with three of the tribal women out of the encampment to the grazing grounds. It was a hot day and the sun beat down fiercely. We climbed the hill-side slowly, picking our way between the stones and gravel. Every two or three yards a fleshy onion plant— one of the few signs of vegetation one finds— provided a morsel of food for our flock. The swollen root is too deep for the sheep to get at, but the juicy green leaves on the surface are a rare and tasty tidbit. It was for this scanty herbage that we had driven the sheep up the long stony slope from our encampment …
It was noon and everything was without shadow. We moistened our mouths with water from our leather water pouches and half-lying, half-sitting on the hard ground, I fell asleep.
I woke an hour later when the sun was slanting across the wadi. My face was dry and burnt and my back aching …
The tribal women had woken before me and were walking slowly across the hills to catch up with their flocks.
I got up lazily and followed them.
I had been walking for a few minutes, steadily climbing, when through a gap in the hills I saw Jericho. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, its green loveliness enhanced by the suddenness with which I stumbled on it. Not all the town was visible, but between the hill-spurs I could see the gleaming, white-roofed houses, the verdant banana groves— the gardens green with cypress and pine trees. It looked like a 074toy village, a Lilliputian town set down in the middle of the desert.
It must have lain some fifteen miles from where I stood, but every feature was distinguishable, even the tracks on the Hills of Moab, some thirty miles away— the air was so clear.
I was still standing, gazing at the panorama, when I heard excited calls from the women on the hill-side below me. I looked down and found they had driven their flocks together and were taking them down to the tents. They were gesticulating and pointing far away over the hills and beckoning me to follow them. I looked where they pointed and could see nothing save a small cloud of yellow dust on the horizon. But I turned and followed them. As I drew near I saw a look of anxiety on their faces and I wondered why they were half-running, half-walking back to the encampment. A few minutes from the tents one of the women left us and ran swiftly to the old sheikh’s tent. Suddenly the scene was electrified. The men dozing in the afternoon heat rushed out of their tents and gathered around the old sheikh. He issued orders and they separated to different parts of the encampment. The cloud of dust on the sky-line was gradually coming nearer. I watched the men swiftly loading their rifles, gathering their livestock nearer to the tents, making a sort of barricade with mattresses and boxes …
The old sheikh took me firmly by the hand and led me back to the stifling atmosphere of the women’s tent, and motioned me to stay there. By now the cloud of dust had separated into half a hundred smaller clouds— half a hundred Bedouin raiders, white garments billowing as they rode, yelling and brandishing their rifles. I crept nearer to the little charcoal fire. My hands had gone cold although the sun outside was shining brilliantly. But the women went on preparing the next meal unperturbed.
I saw the defenders concentrating on one side of the encampment and I waited tensely for the first shots. After a moment the air was echoing with rifle shots. Two of the raiders appeared to stagger, dropped their rifles and fell. The raiding party turned and galloped swiftly back. The encampment took breath, and the old sheikh issued orders in sharp, excited tones, in preparation for the next attack. This time our men were going out to meet the raiders, and the women and I left the tent and stood in the big clearing exhorting and shouting at the men. The inspiration given by the Bedouin women to their men-folk in battle is necessary for successful fighting. There is nothing a Bedouin hates more than to be despised by the women of the tribe, especially by his sister. Often a desert battle has been won through the exhortation of the women alone.
If the men dare to return and acknowledge that they have lost, the women send them back. It is far better for a Bedouin to die fighting than to return defeated and suffer the scorn of the tribal women.
Controversial English journalist Barbara Board (1916–1986) began her travels to the Holy Land in the mid-1930s, probably one of the few women to venture there at that time. In the preface to her book Newsgirl in Palestine (1937), she explains why she chose to travel and what she experienced: This book is a record of things that I have seen and heard as a newsgirl in the Holy Land. Apart from the people who come out to Palestine on duty, or business, most visitors make the journey for sacred or sentimental reasons, and their interest is in the past, […]