A life lived best in transition

Jamal Alkirnawi, 28, represents the next generation of Israeli Beduin, and is at the forefront of the challenging leap to cultural change.

beduin soldier 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
beduin soldier 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There are rumors that Israel's once-nomadic Beduin population is hospitable like no other people in the Middle East. An invitation to one of their tents or corrugated metal sheds in the Negev Desert could include a never-ending round of sweet tea, cardamom-flavored coffee and sweets; and let's not forget the loafing around on big colorful cushions - much like one would imagine from an exotic tale of 1001 Nights. But not everything is like a fairytale for Israel's Beduin, who are regarded as a minority inside the already existing Arab minority. Mainly settled in temporary and ramshackle villages and towns in the Negev, they are a community in transition - one that is ailing as it moves from a nomadic life to a permanent setting (the antithesis of being a Beduin!). In the process, Beduin are suffering from more than the lack of basic amenities: They desperately need education and advocates. A perfect example of their woes comes in the form of a pesticide explosion at the Ramat Hovav industrial "wasteland" in the Negev earlier this month. There have been complaints of pollution and rumors of illness following the nearby residents - Jewish and Arab alike - as the site has been for years, decades even, a source of extreme environmental malevolence. Local factories such as Koor Chemicals and Makhteshim Beersheba produce everything from pesticides to pharmaceuticals - some companies have managed to evade responsibility for the chemicals they eject into the air and groundwater. This month a pesticide container from a factory exploded in Ramat Hovav, sending plumes of toxic phosphoric acid into the air. The Beduin in the nearby village of Wadi Na'am pleaded that they be relocated by the government, far away from the factories: "We want to run away as quickly as possible, because it's dangerous," reported one area resident in a local newspaper. But who is listening to the Beduin's cry for help? Wadi Na'am is an unrecognized Beduin village south of Beersheba: It is a conglomeration of encampments housing Beduin from various tribes, including the "El Azazme." Wadi Na'am is located near a military fire-zone, an electricity plant, an active oil well, and to top it off, the hazardous waste site of Ramat Hovav. With a gripping sense for storytelling, and a positive attitude toward his community and its relationship to the state is Jamal Alkirnawi, 28. He is a mediator between the Beduins and the system that is causing them to redefine their identity. Up until the age of four, Alkirnawi was living in a Beduin tent in an area of the desert around the Dead Sea. By age five, his family of nine had moved to the Beduin town Rahat in the Negev as part of the Israeli government's appeal to settle the Beduin. It took them years to build a permanent home, but they succeeded. Against the hand that was dealt to him, by the age of 24 Alkirnawi had a Master's degree from McGill University in Canada, and a BA in Health Systems Management from Ben-Gurion University (BGU). He is now an adviser for Arab students on campus at BGU where he helps tutor students, among other things. Alkirnawi is no longer a traditional Beduin who moves his tent with the oscillating seasons; he is a new kind of Beduin - one who is a nomad in spirit - crossing cultural landscapes to make Israel and the world a better place. Who is he? one might ask. Is he an Arab, a Beduin, an Israeli, or a Palestinian? Tracing his distant roots on his father's side back to the deserts of Morocco, Alkirnawi identifies with the entire list - a bit of a head-scratcher. The education activist working for social change in the Israeli Beduin community is on a mission to make change for people in the Middle East. When Alkirnawi was a teen and living in Rahat, the largest Beduin town in Israel, he was surprised to learn that a Jewish boy would be coming over as part of a cultural exchange. He hadn't had much contact with Jewish children, but was excited about the idea. As is the Beduin tradition of hospitality, he told his mother about the meeting well in advance, so that the family could be prepared - by cleaning the home and preparing food - for this guest. The day would be a turning point, and one that put Alkirnawi's activist wheels in motion. "I learned from this Jewish student what a student council is. He inspired me," says Alkirnawi. Not long after, and much against his parents' and teachers' wishes, Alkirnawi decided he too would like to establish a student council at his school. At the time, about 10 years ago, there were no extracurricular activities for Beduin students, and teacher-student codes of conduct were non-existent. His efforts to link the Beduin schools with the local and national student councils were much welcomed by the Israel Ministry of Education, he says. The problem was dealing with his family and teachers; and scraping together the bus fare for meetings in Tel Aviv. "It was a big battle," he says, while sipping coffee at the food court in the Azrieli Mall - his choice in Tel Aviv for the meeting. "Can you imagine a young child going off to Tel Aviv alone? It was not acceptable in my community. I had to convince them that what I was doing was good." But, "I became this famous little student," he says while smiling devilishly. "I met Bibi and other famous politicians and was there when Rabin was killed." Despite the inner protests from his community, Alkirnawi persisted and built his student council. During this time, Alkirnawi found himself volunteering with NGOs such as Re'ut Sadaka, to help encourage Jewish-Arab coexistence. Most of Alkirnawi's Beduin friends didn't dream of higher education. But at 18, he decided on university at Ben-Gurion in Beersheva. This would be the second turning-point in his life. As part of a program at BGU, in exchange for rent Alkirnawi could volunteer in an impoverished Jewish community nearby. It was a shock for both sides, which took some time accepting each other, he recalls. "Can you imagine, an Arab helping a Jew?" Eventually Alkirnawi and the Jews realized they had a lot in common. "I found that they too were struggling with the system and frustrated [like we were] with how they were living." Alkirnawi went on to earn his degree, recognizing the sense of independence education brought him: "I am the child who lived through the transition in my community. I am still living through it. It is sometimes painful and it is sometimes good. There is a sense of becoming something else," he confides. Throughout the past decade or so as an activist at handfuls of volunteer organizations, Alkirnawi got turned on to the idea of studying abroad. Sponsored to participate in the Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building at McGill University in Montreal, he found himself living in Canada for an entire year. "It was a unique life experience for a Beduin who has never before seen snow," he jokes, adding that he has not yet had a chance to visit Mount Hermon. "I learned with Canadians and had Canadian friends. It was special to be able to look at yourself from the outside - who you are, what your roots are and what this conflict [in Israel] is all about. It changed my perspective about who I am." For one year, Alkirnawi lived in Montreal's Plateau area and then later moved to the ghetto. "I mean the McGill students' ghetto," he corrects. "I don't know why they call it a ghetto. It's not a ghetto at all." After a few years since his return to Israel, Alkirnawi is excited that once again he will be able to return to Canada this fall, this time as a participant in the Young Leaders Forum at the Global Conference for the Prevention of Genocide. After returning to Israel, he will be expected to write an essay on the experience. Sam Walker, the program coordinator from the Faculty of Law at McGill, says, "Jamal was selected, like all the other Young Leaders, primarily based on his exceptional leadership potential and passion for human rights. In particular, we were impressed with Jamal's willingness to apply his academic training in social work to solving real world problems." Like many young Israelis after the army, going outside Israel's borders has helped Alkirnawi change his worldview. In his case, it helped him reach out and speak with Jordanians and Palestinians who are confused about the meaning of identity in Israel. "Who am I? I am a Palestinian, Beduin, Arab and Israeli. You could say that I have a lot of identities inside me," he relates. But as much as it is important for Alkirnawi to look inward, it is just as important for him to relate to his community and the big picture. In this respect, what are his dreams for the future? "I see myself as a social changer," he says. "I have a dream that things will be better for everyone who lives in the Middle East. After all, we are all human beings and we all want a little space, peace and love." Beduin women face two-fold challenge The Beduin community must face a rapid transformation from traditional to modern ways of living. While the entire community suffers, it may be the women who are most negatively impacted, since they must also contend with the patriarchal structure of their society. No longer nomadic, women in particular have been affected by the loss of pasture and farmland. The quick transition to a settled way of life has disrupted traditional activities like herding, milking and wool spinning, which in turn has had a negative impact on the woman's status in the community. While Beduin men have been able to replace traditional income-generating activities with modern employment, women are culturally prohibited from seeking employment outside their villages. As a result, most Beduin women in the Negev are unemployed. Furthermore, women who spend most of their time with their children do not have the knowledge or tools to educate and support the younger generation through the transformation process. Restricted to private space only, Beduin women mustn't be seen by men other than the immediate family. Between the bulldozer and the law While walking along an unsteady open field, one faces an obstacle - a barrier - and then a four-meter-high wire fence. There is no sign pointing to the village, no road that leads to it. Once you have circumvented the barriers, you are staring at corrugated metal shacks serving as homes in the middle of the desert. In this part of the land, there are 45 other encampments known as "unrecognized villages," housing thousands of citizens, who were once nomads. Shoddy sheds, often rattling in the wind, are scattered over 90,000 acres of land in the northern Negev desert. Home to those that sleep in them, they are deemed illegal by Israeli law. These dwellings are not recognized in formal documents, and so do not exist to the knowledge of many Israelis. As a nomadic people, Beduin tribes have lived and thrived off the land in the Negev desert since the Byzantine period. They relied almost exclusively on agriculture and herding for their livelihood, and had clearly established traditional patterns of land ownership, grazing rights, and water access. During the 1948 War, about 80 percent of the Beduin population fled or were expelled from their lands. The Israeli government has sought to resettle the Beduin population into government-planned towns, and in turn, confiscated Beduin land. Only about half of the Negev Beduins have acquiesced to the plan of resettling into government-initiated townships. The rest that didn't, continue to live in traditional settlements, referred to as "unrecognized villages." Since authorities view the villages as illegal, they are void of the most rudimentary services such as health care, electricity, access roads, plumbing and sewage systems, educational facilities, and adequate provision of water. In most cases, these marginalized villagers are living next to municipal dump sites, military zones, polluting factories, or as in the case of Wadi Na'am, a toxic waste incinerator. Making matters worse, most people know that as every day goes by, their homes could be demolished. As a response, villagers have resorted to innovative measures to conceal permanent structures from the claws of the bulldozer, such as brick walls covered with a metal sheet. The traditional hand-woven goat-hair tents have been replaced by shanties made from corrugated tin plates, jute plastic, scrap pieces of wood, and zinc roofs. In contrast, the establishment of small and scattered Jewish settlements, which can sometimes consist of a single-family dwelling, are encouraged by the government to live in the area. Some Jewish communities come to find a home in the arid desert as groups with a common ideology or way of life, and diverse relationships with the neighboring Beduin community are being formed. Though many Beduin men serve in the IDF for a source of honor and income, Beduin/Jewish inequality could potentially manifest into anger that can lead to aggression and violence inside and outside the home. Gangs and social hierarchies proliferate and trickle down to even the big Jewish cities such as Beersheba, where certain Beduin groups are known to collect protection money from shop owners, should they like to stay in business. Rivi Nissim contributed to this report.