The Goats: A Middle Eastern Pastoral

By Joanna Chen

It’s that time of year. The goats are here again. They’re back with their shepherds, munching their way along the lower slopes below the forest that surrounds the village where I live. They have all the time in the world, wandering around from slope to slope leading down to the main road. They walk slowly along, dipping down to the low-growing bushes and the wild oregano, raising their necks to branches that crackle when bitten through.

These are the goats that belong to the Bedouin shepherds and they’ll be here through the long summer that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing the forest near my house with them again. They remind me that there is a different pace of life.

The shepherds have set up house a few hundred meters from my village. They have a tent, mattresses and satellite TV there. The goats are taken out twice a day, early morning and late afternoon. This is a reciprocal relationship between land and animal, in which the goats keep the weeds down, lowering the risk of fire. The land, in return, feeds the goats. A peace agreement, and a very good one.

On the other side of the Ella Valley, across the road from my house, is another herd of goats. They belong to an organic farm run by Jews. Sweet, fresh milk is sold there in bottles with gold screw caps, but you have to get lucky to get some of it.

The day I visit the goats coincides with the celebration of Jesus’s ascension to heaven. I’ve been invited to join the nuns at the church of Bet Jamal for a special prayer to celebrate the occasion. I decline the invitation, despite the lure of incense and the rare opportunity to see this beautiful ceremony. Today I have a date with the goats and I am not about to cancel it. So, glancing upwards at the pale sky above my house, I get into the car and travel the ten-minute journey to the farm. It’s been around for about two years and I fell in love with this farm the first time I saw it.

The goats live in a rundown shed on the farm. There’s a café with old armchairs and mattresses scattered around, where hikers can drink coffee and sample the sour yogurt, labeneh and hard cheeses that are made on the premises. Every morning and afternoon, the goats are taken out to graze on the low slopes that surround the farm. They’re a happy bunch, living in harmony with an old donkey, two huge white dogs and a scattering of hens that wander in and out of the goat pen.

The first time I visited the farm, I leaned over the fence and asked the shepherd if I could stroke the goats. In response, he lifted up a new-born kid and dropped it into my surprised arms. “Feel free,” he said, “they love company.” The kid nuzzled me with its soft little face and I breathed in its sour smell. Since then, I’ve come by regularly to buy milk but mostly to say hello to the goats. There’s something peaceful and otherworldly about this place and I always leave there feeling a little less stressed, a little less worn.

I drive to the farm just before 7am. The sun is out, its weak rays glinting on the slopes of the Ella Valley. The shepherd, a young guy called Ido, is already at work in the shed. I can hear the goats bleating as I exit the car and walk towards the gate. I’ve brought a new hat with me, a straw one with a pale beige ribbon around the rim. I drop it on one of the chairs. It looks too new. The goats are still indoors, being milked in a long row. The milk flows from their full teats through a rubber tube into a huge bucket. Some of it splashes onto the floor. Ido throws a glance at me. “Get the goats out into the pen,” he says, without looking up again. I walk gingerly into the middle of the shed, my feet sinking into the goat droppings and dry straw that is scattered over the ground. The goats raise their heads, look up to me. I clear my throat. Ido grins. “Just wave your hands in the air and tell them to get out,” he says. I do this and, miraculously, the goats begin moving out, but slowly, the baby kids tripping up and getting pushed into the wall. “Out!!!!” Ido yells, and they make a rush for the open gate that divides the shed form the pen. There are one hundred and twenty-three goats here on the farm. Most of them are Shammi goats, indigenous to this area. Fifty of them are kids, delicate, pliable creatures that nuzzle up to my blue jeans, pulling on my shirt. One gets up on its hind legs for a cuddle and I pull back, surprised at the welcome. Some of them have names: Isabelle, Menuda, Issa. These are the goats that were rejected by their mothers at birth and they look to humans for attention.

Ido finishes the milking and opens the blue gate that leads out of the farm. The goats are frisky and wait expectantly. They know the drill and pour out onto the narrow path, jostling each other as they go. Ido lets them choose right or left. This morning, they go to the right. We walk uphill to the green slopes. The goats pause for a few minutes under a carob tree. There’s a smell of wild za’atar in the air. One of the billy-goats (there are five) rises up on his hind legs and pulls down a huge branch. The other goats rip leaves from it. He’s a huge beast, far bigger than I am and his brown body throbs, his long hair glistens in the sun. I am vaguely afraid of him. There’s the sound of concentrated munching as the goats chomp on the dull green leaves. A few begin wandering off and Ido, straddled on a horse, calls out to them. “Bo-bo-booo” he calls, and throws a few stones in their direction, not close enough to hit but close enough to scare them back to the herd.

Going out with the goats is like participating in a school trip of unruly children. They’re excited, hyped-up at the prospect of the walk that they take twice a day from the farm to the hills. They are powered by the need to fill their four-stomached bellies with an astounding six kilos of greenery in season. Right now, it’s carob, oak and a resinous shrub specific to the area, elat hamastic. They pack it away. This will be digested later, back at the farm, in repose. It will rise back into their mouths, they will chew it and it will go back down to be processed. Goats only eat as much as they need, Ido tells me. The simple life. I suddenly understand the phrase “got my goat”. Long ago, goats were kept on ships as lucky mascots and goats were also put in stables with horses to relax them before races. Now, encompassed by goats out here in the open air, I feel at ease.

We proceed up the slopes and I follow at a steady pace, ducking under low trees, leaves tangling in my hair, my white shirt catching in the branches. I fall a couple of times on the rocks and scrape my hands. So much for the romantic image of me as shepherdess, wandering idyllically through the fields. Ido is ahead of me, leading the herd. We do not talk. The kids stick close, pushing up against their mothers, sucking on their teats for milk as they graze. They burp, they cough. I wonder if I should wipe their noses, or pat them on their backs. While they graze, I sit down on a rock, drink from my water bottle and listen to the sounds rising into the air, layers of sound that filter through my ears. There are birds tweeting, hooves clattering among the stones and twigs crackling underneath. A few of the older goats have bells around their necks and they tinkle through the trees. The donkey moves among the goats, one of the herd. His big brown eyes survey the scene. He has all the time in the world.

Ido wants a smoke and has forgotten his matches. “Watch them,” he shouts to me, already on his way back to the farm. “Don’t let them stray too far, OK?” “OK,” I nod, and wonder exactly what he means. I’m alone, surrounded by one hundred and twenty-three pulsating creatures. I stand up, shift from one foot to another. The goats are already moving off, splintering. “Bo-bo-booo,” I say uncertainly, and then louder, for good measure. They keep moving off. “Boooooo!” I shout, my voice rising out from somewhere inside my stomach, and they raise their heads for a moment and stare at me, blinking slowly. This time, I mean business. One of the kids, a tiny brown one with floppy ears, pulls at my shirt. “That’s right,” I say, patting her on the head. “Stick with me,” I add, hoping that Ido will be back soon. But it takes him about fifteen minutes to get back, and by this time the goats and I have descended the slope and are crossing the path to the other side at a rapid pace, where an expansive field of ploughed wheat lies. I recall Mary Oliver’s “Music” in which she says:

Ah well, anyway, whether or not
it was late summer, or even
in our part of the world, it is all
only a dream, I did not
turn into the lithe goat god. Nor did you come running
like that.

But the goats do break into a run, streaming along as if they’re in a marathon. They reach the field and begin to crop enthusiastically. The two dogs, Snow and Snow White, are not very good at herding but when they see a fox running across the slopes they rush off, barking and wagging their tails. Some of the goats lie down in the field. They’re almost done eating. As I watch, the sky darkens and clouds hang thickly above us. Rain falls and we head back for the farm, a sudden chill in the air. I look up to the sky for a moment, wondering what the nuns are singing back at the church, wondering whether the Bedouin shepherd the other side of the valley is also heading for home. I begin running with the goats.

Back at the farm, the morning’s milk is being pasteurized in a big pot set over a fire in the middle of the farmyard. Steam rises thickly as the milk heats. It’s raining heavily now and I’m soaked through. I pick up my hat with its pale ribbon and turn to go.

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