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'I couldn't just draw some pretty scenery," says Tahrir Alzbibi, a third-year art student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "I had to say what I feel." Alzbibi, 22, from the Beduin village Ar'ara, named her final project "Mahram: Self-Portrait." A mahram is the piece of material that divides the traditional Beduin tent in half, one side for the men, and the other for the women.
Her project, consisting of several self-portraits hung on cloth pictures, aimed for just the opposite: "Instead of covering myself as a woman, I put my own photo on each of the 'mahram' pieces of cloth, to express my personality and to feel alive, and not hidden behind a swath of material," she explains. "I wanted to show the reality of Beduin women. The embroidery threads covering my photo on each of the pictures represent how society limits the Beduin woman in her daily life."
Tahrir is one of two Beduin students who have prepared final projects in the Creative Arts Unit of the Department of Arts, and who are now exhibiting their work on the Marcus Family Campus in Beersheba. Nisma Alturi, 25, of the Beduin city of Rahat, is a fourth-year student at the Department of Hebrew Literature, who decided to take the "Personal Project" course on an impulse, and then almost got cold feet.
"I've never been particularly good in art, and certainly never thought of myself as an artist," Alturi says. "I was always more interested in art theory than in actually creating something myself, and when I joined the class and suddenly realized that we would be expected to express ourselves in a project at the end of the year, I got very nervous. But then I discovered that I do have an artistic side I never knew about."
Both Tahrir and Nisma deal with their personal identity from their own unique standpoint, and they both share the same reaction to the plight of the Beduin woman, says Prof. Haim Maor, coordinator of the Creative Arts Unit at the Department. "As Tahrir says, as women, they are like a dividing curtain or a rag hung on a clothesline to dry. Their work expresses a kind of criticism on being 'transparent.' Tahrir's work reflects the transparency she feels from her family, while Nisma feels ignored by Israeli society."
The fact that both women dared to present their work is not to be taken for granted. "I am just thrilled to see female Beduin students of art deal with a final project that requires technical ability as well as an initial theoretical exposure. It takes a lot of bravery and determination for them to rise to the challenge, to be artists and expose their feelings."
THROUGH THE creation of the Robert H. Arnow Center for Beduin Studies and Development in 1997, BGU has steadily increased the number of Beduin students - both male and female - at the university. Today, hundreds of students are studying for undergraduate and graduate degrees, while graduates - including the first female Beduin doctor, as well as dozens of social workers, educators and other health professionals - are working in the community.
"Tahrir and Nisma's participation in the course, where everyone else was Jewish, deeply enriched our learning experience. They expressed their art from a different angle, illuminating the 'backyard' of Israeli society - the discrimination, the Arab as a 'punching bag,' the dividing curtain we prefer not to see. It made all the students - kibbutzniks, settlers, religious and secular alike - realize there are no 'right' and 'wrong' answers, and inspired their art as well," noted Maor.
Both students come alive when speaking about their work. Tahrir explains why she hung the pictures on a clothesline, "to air our dirty laundry, and to reveal what we Beduins have been trying to hide."
She doesn't blame the Beduin men in particular, but rather the entire Beduin society which "hasn't changed its treatment of women, and is still hurting us, despite all the years that have passed." Nor does the outspoken Tahrir consider herself brave.
"I am not afraid to say what I think," she says. "I did a project that speaks to me. We were asked to do a self portrait, and for me, this is what is real. I couldn't just draw some pretty scenery. I am concerned about the situation of Beduin women and wanted to draw attention to it."
Tahrir, the second of eight children, is the first in her family to study at the university. Her parents didn't attend the exhibition opening. She didn't even tell them about it, or about her project, "because I knew it would only make them upset. They know that I say what I think and that nobody can make me do what I don't believe in, but I still need to keep my distance and protect myself."
Her original plan was to be a teacher, but she has recently changed direction; she began working instead as a counselor at a small factory in Rahat, where mentally challenged residents manufacture artwork. She finds it challenging and rewarding. "I'd rather work with people who are in crises, to help those who live on the margin of society to contribute and feel needed, than to just work with regular children."
She hopes to eventually pursue her graduate studies in art therapy and social work, and "to continue my art, to let my voice be heard."
NISMA, WHO deliberated about the topic for her project ("I couldn't decide what to focus on: the Israel-Palestinian issue, Beduin embroidery, which is something I love, or various emotions you express with your eyes"), finally decided to focus on herself. Her project, called "An El Acher - Myself as 'the Other'", is a collection of photos she took of ordinary objects and things in her home: a book of the Koran, a pottery pitcher filled with sand, a Chinese orange tree that grows in her garden - and in each of the photos appears a small - and blurred - photo of her own face.
"From the side, I may look like a clear image, but I am actually 'blurred,' confused, floating in uncertainty," she explains.
In Beduin culture, people do not like having their picture taken, Nisma says. "It is considered immodest, and people are always suspicious, saying, 'but why do you want to photograph me?'"
So she takes most of her pictures around campus, or photographs flower arrangements or embroidery she does herself. She didn't even own a camera before she began working on her project, and learned the basics of Photoshop from her 17-year-old brother, Halef.
"My family has always been unusually supportive of me, encouraging me to achieve whatever I want to do. They taught me not to care what society thinks, and to follow my heart," Nisma says.