Getting to know the Beduin

The Joe Alon Museum of Beduin Culture is the only museum of its kind in the world.

By ANN GOLDBERG
October 15, 2006 08:48
beduin feature 88 298

beduin feature 88 298. (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)

 
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The sight of traditional Beduin encampments dotted around the Negev Desert landscape has become more rare over the years. The Beduin, whose name means "of the desert," have been pushed into the 21st century - some willingly and some flailing helplessly against the tide of modernization. Their tents are disappearing as high-rise apartments fill up. Their herds of goats and sheep as a means of livelihood are being replaced by retraining in commerce and hi-tech. The traditional men's robes and women's embroidered dresses which subtly told of their marital status are being replaced by unisex jeans and T-shirts. Some say this emancipation of the Beduin is an inevitable result of the march of time: You cannot wander around the desert and live in tents in the 21st century. It's not normal/hygienic/conducive to getting a good education or making a decent living. Other Beduin say this is simply social coercion and they should be left alone to maintain their own way of life and customs, which have survived happily for centuries. But there's no doubt that social pressure is directing the Beduin, if not into the main towns, at least to the Beduin villages and small townships that have been set up in the Negev to encourage their transition into the Western way of life. Not surprisingly, the younger generation is eager to accept the modern Western lifestyle, while their parents and grandparents are mourning the loss of old customs. The Joe Alon Museum of Beduin Culture was originally set up in Kibbutz Lahav, not far from Beersheba, when some of the kibbutz members who had become friendly with local Beduin realized that if steps weren't taken, very soon there would be nothing left of this rapidly disappearing beautiful and distinctive culture. They started collecting homemade tools, artwork and handicrafts and displayed them at the kibbutz. At the same time, anthropologists Orna and Avner Goren, who had been living among the Beduin in Sinai, had set up a Beduin museum in the Sinai Desert. After Israel withdrew from this area in 1979, the Gorens searched for a suitable place to reestablish their museum. When they heard of Lahav's collection, they decided to combine their exhibits and artifacts with those in the kibbutz. Together they set up the only museum of Beduin culture in the world, which was opened to the public in 1985. So much of the Beduin way of life is connected to the physical and material aspects of their surroundings that it is impossible to continue in a different environment. In the museum visitors see a replica of a Beduin tent, divided by a heavy curtain into two sections: one for the women to live, work and prepare food in, and the other larger area for the men to entertain in. Hospitality is one of the most famous attributes of the Beduin people. There is a special ritual for announcing oneself at the tent entrance, and everyone is welcomed, fed and invited to stay for a specific number of days, depending on who he is. A Beduin never refuses any visitor - even the son of his arch enemy is invited in and given all the courtesies of an honored visitor. Negev Beduin women are renowned for their spinning and weaving. They used to spend much of the day weaving all manner of animal hair, making everything from soft blankets to coarse carpets, wall coverings, curtains and thick tents for winter warmth, as the desert can be as cruelly cold at night as it is scorching hot during summer days. There is very little call for these items in a modern home. Beduin women, who rarely ventured out of the women's section of their tents, wore dresses and head coverings that left only their eyes uncovered. To show her available status, a single woman had her dress embroidered with blue; but once she was married, she wore red embroidery as a sign that she was off limits. To us, most camels probably look pretty much the same. To the Beduin, for whom it was their main means of transport of humans and goods, there are so many different types of camels that there are 12 terms for the animal. The museum is a living memorial to all these unique aspects of Beduin life, with tents, cooking utensils, looms and works in progress arranged in a lifelike setting, making visitors feel that they are walking among the Beduin. There is even a life-size model of a camel carrying a bride to her wedding ceremony, beautifully decked out in exquisite, intricate finery. As local Beduin realize that their customs and way of life are dying out, they are eager to supply the museum with items from their homes, farming implements, cooking utensils, children's toys, works of art and jewelry so that their lifestyle should not be forgotten. The new modern Beduin schools send their pupils to the museum to see how their grandparents, and even their parents, lived. Some youngsters still remember this way of life. Although peer pressure has made many of them change their mode of dress, some girls still cover their jeans with a skirt. After visiting the museum, we were invited into a Beduin hospitality tent to sample the famous traditional hospitality, coffee and tea. First, coffee beans were ground to the special individual beat that each Beduin has. The coffee was then brewed and tiny steaming, thick cups were passed round as we sat on cushions on the floor. Then a glass of sweet tea was offered and another and another, until we were told that if we don't say "no," the tea glasses will continue to be plied. Usually in this museum, this hospitality is extended by an elderly member of a local Beduin tribe, suitably attired in traditional garb. At the time of our visit, he was sick and his grandson had come instead. He was very pleasant and admirably fulfilled his role as host - but dressed in a T-shirt with "I Love New York" emblazoned on it and wore a back-to-front baseball cap. He, more than anything else we had seen, brought home the ever-widening generation gap that is bringing about the demise of Beduin culture.

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