Bedouin Woman with Her Camel, painting in watercolor and pastels by Helen Bar-Lev

Spa Day

A brown, buxom, barely clad Bedouin woman emerges from the darkness of this underground cavern. Her face is leathery. She nods knowingly, smiles, and gestures. Beyond her, I spy a small area carved into the earthen-and-rock wall, its floor covered by a woven basket, aching from use. I slip off my dust-caked sandals and place them gingerly within it. Then I remove my long patchwork skirt, short-sleeved coral top, undergarments, and head scarf. The woman’s dark eyes pierce every part of my nakedness, as if there must be something different about this foreigner.


Folds upon folds of coppery skin gather around the Bedouin’s midriff. Stringy waist-length gray hair moves gently across her sunken shoulders and humped back as she guides me farther into damp shadows. The soles of her feet are heavily calloused and covered with deep lengthwise cracks, revealing their own desert landscape.

Small torches tucked in wall crevices provide a soft amber glow. Heavy moist air caresses my nakedness as I follow the Bedouin woman, my feet padding quietly behind her on the hard-packed surface. We move in dark silence. She guides me a bit deeper underground and into a low-ceilinged space. Standing in the opaqueness are two naked females, both middle-aged and bent forward. They motion to me. Colored neck beads swing gracefully between their once-ample breasts, and each of them displays a similar toothy grin. Each takes one of my hands and leads me to a low, sway-backed stone bench.

Plunging their sinewy forearms into low troughs of sand mixed with steaming water, they gleefully draw out handfuls of warm, gritty mud and gradually apply it all over my body. Arms and fingers, legs and feet, torso and back, even my dirty neck, face, and hair are caked with the grainy mess.

Then a scratchy, scraping sensation. Grasping pieces of coarse burlap, the women diligently scrub lengthwise along my lean body. The pressure of their sweeping motions is so intense that I look to see if my skin is bleeding; but there is only new, pink skin peeking out through the wet, brown patches. Every inch of my body is scoured and raked. The women pull and stretch the coarse material over me repeatedly. Masters in the art of cleansing.

Bursts of laughter and unfamiliar Arabic phrases float in the scantily lit space as they work over the young American. It is easy to lose track of time in this humid, below-desert oasis. It feels as though hours have passed before their raspy torture is complete. After guiding me to yet another damp passageway and a second small bench, the scrubbers retreat. This corridor is lined, waist-high, with blue-and-white patterned ceramic tiles that, during my weekend sight-seeing travels here, have become familiar to me.

Suddenly, several naked girls appear, each one bearing a heavy earthen jug. Two balance them on their slender hips and the other three hold them shoulder high. On command, the girls swiftly douse me. Startled, I scream—the water is icy cold! The girls giggle and dance around before scampering off into murky darkness.

My teeth chatter uncontrollably. Shivering, I teeter on the stone seat. I’m surprised by the light touch of a warm hand on my shoulder. I turn to see another Bedouin woman. She has a kind face. Helping me to my feet, she guides me back through the maze of dark passageways to retrieve my garments and sandals. When I am ready, she steers me into a narrow walkway. The passageway weaves this way and that, and we are subtly climbing.

As we ascend, we move from the moist, dank atmosphere into warmer and drier air. The kindly woman pauses in front of an ancient wooden door, nods, and then withdraws. The hinges moan as I push the heavy door open. Fierce sunlight streams onto my face, and I blink at the brightness.

The beautiful Sahara lies before me under a blazing, oven-hot sun. My long patch skirt sways in the warm breeze, ruffling over my toes. I feel pristine, cleaner than fresh-fallen snow. I pause to savor the moment, wanting this fairy-tale sensation to last.

Reluctantly, I step out onto the desert sand stretching before me. Something stings my right shoulder. Before I can turn, a small rough stone catches me just behind the right ear. Droplets of ruby-red blood seep into the ochre sand below. Faint yelps skip in the air. I’m the victim of a group of boys who’d badgered me on the way here and are now running off. My two female students had warned me this might happen once I was past the cliff dwellings. All I can do is trek back to my adobe.

Within a half mile, the sky darkens eerily and the air grows heavy. Turbulent winds claw at the desert floor. The Sahara is famous for its ferocious, irreverent sandstorms. Pulling at my head scarf to cover my nose and mouth, I push through the wind gusts and finally arrive safely home.


Author's Comment

Living in another country is transformational. I am forever grateful for the depth of my Peace Corps experience and the lessons learned. My eyes were opened to the nuances of another culture, the Tunisian people’s keen reverence for their elders, the richness of living simply, and the stark splendor of a desert landscape.
Ghana Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
  Helen Bar-Lev, whose vivid paintings of Ghanaian men and women illustrate this issue’s poetry page, is offering a special set of her paintings of the people of Ghana, either as originals (for $350) or as signed and numbered prints ($20). The paintings, which Bar-Lev refers to as pencil paintings, are exquisite miniatures, each approximately 11cm by 15cm (4.5" x 6"). Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of these paintings goes to support the Ghana branch of the Sheenway School. Sheenway School in Sasekope Village is the first registered private school in the Volta Region of Ghana. Its partnership with the original Sheenway School in Los Angeles, its enriched curriculum, extended education, and cultural aesthetics provide an unparalleled opportunity for Ghanaian children from pre-K through secondary. To see the full range of Ghanaian paintings or prints available as part of this special offer, contact Helen Bar-Lev and let her know you are a Persimmon Tree reader.


A native New Englander, Deborah Burke Henderson is an award-winning children’s author, haiku poet, and freelance writer. She also enjoys writing creative nonfiction and flash memoir, photographing nature, making charity comfort quilts, and walking with her husband in wildlife sanctuaries or along any shoreline.

Helen Bar-Lev has lived in Israel for 50 years and has had over 100 exhibitions of her landscape paintings, 34 of which were one-woman shows. Her poems and artwork have appeared in numerous online and print anthologies. She has published nine poetry collections illustrated with her own paintings. She is the Amy Kitchener senior poet laureate and a recipient of the Homer European Medal for Poetry and Art. Her paintings and most recent poetry collection are available in ArtsMart.


  1. Wonderfully descriptive experience. Thank you for making me “feel”your whole cleansing spa treatment.

  2. Thank you Deborah. Quite and experience. It wasn’t just the treatment itself but the way you gave yourself to the unusual experience and trusted the Bedouin women.

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