Bedouin advocate

Clinton Bailey aims to find some reconciliation between the government and the Bedouin

Bedouins and Clinton Bailey521 (photo credit: Courtesy JOE SHADUR)
Bedouins and Clinton Bailey521
(photo credit: Courtesy JOE SHADUR)
Clinton Bailey is well aware of the good fortune he had in the late 1960s when selecting the Bedouin of the Negev as his scholarly focus.
For, through his books and articles, Bailey essentially created the exotic, hitherto mysterious field of Bedouin studies in Israel. By steeping himself in Bedouin culture – its laws, proverbs, poetry and Biblical allusions – and delineating that culture in his books and articles, this American-born Israeli scholar has been able to document the age-old traditions and heritage of these nomadic Arab tribes. He barely got in under the wire.
Before Bailey came along, the local Bedouin, today all Israeli citizens, relied on passing along their traditions orally, a practice that was hardly ideal, for it led to modest changes in language each time someone recited a poem or told a story or proverb.
Capturing Bedouin oral culture for posterity just before technology and modernization led to its gradual disappearance was Bailey’s good luck. As the Bedouin become more educated and live in towns instead of desert dwellings, the original Bedouin culture, he notes, is “on the way out. The main benefit from my work is that I was able to record all this stuff that I wanted to record before it disappeared,” he adds.
One vivid example of the disintegration of the Bedouin oral tradition intrigues Bailey. “If I took my book on Bedouin poetry to the Negev today,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “I would not find four consecutive lines that a Bedouin would know because their traditional culture is finished. They didn’t pass it on because of the confrontation with the modern world.”
Today, some 200,000 Bedouin live in the Negev; in 1948, there were a mere 13,000.
They have grown in number thanks to modern health care, polygamous marriages and their continuing desire to raise sons.
They represent one quarter of the entire Negev population.
Bailey is undisputedly the foremost Israeli expert on the Bedouin. Only a few other academics study and write about noncultural features of the Bedouin. Bailey, born in Buffalo, New York, and arriving in Israel in 1958, is the only one who has studied the entire Bedouin culture.
“I was fascinated by their ability to live under desert conditions and survive,” he relates. “They managed to get food and water without electricity or vehicles, without roads, telephones or radios.
They got food either by raising animals themselves or by growing it.”
For Bailey, there was no childhood epiphany encouraging him to study the Bedouin. The incentive to do research on these primitive desert tribes came later.
He spent his childhood exploring what it meant for him to be a Jew.
I met him in late March at his home, which he purchased in 1969, on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem. He speaks slowly, and wears small metallic eyeglasses that give him a professorial look. His light skin betrays all those years in the Negev sun; his rugged looks suggest he is someone who is comfortable sitting on the ground for hours in a tent with a tape recorder and a notepad.
Over coffee and brownies, he reviews the childhood journey that led him to identify increasingly with his Judaism. One trigger came while, at age 11, he lay on the grass in a Buffalo park on Yom Kippur and talked at length with other boys about life and death and God. A second trigger came at a Lubavitch school that he found more “genuine” than the Conservative Hebrew school his parents favored. He learned how to pray there and “little by little, I began to understand that I was different.”
For reasons that he largely keeps to himself, he had trouble getting a higher education, attending five universities – three in the United States, one in Norway and one in Israel – before being awarded a BA from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
While studying in Oslo in 1955, he developed an interest in Yiddish literature, after reading an Isaac Bashevis Singer short fictional piece, “Gimpel the Fool.”
Bailey notes, “All of a sudden, that story put everything into perspective for me. In other words, I understood where I came from – it was some shtetl.
He spent 1956 and 1957 in the US Navy and then planned to study Yiddish literature at Yeshiva University in New York. School officials, however, were willing to enroll him, but only if he knew Hebrew – and he didn’t. After enrolling in an ulpan in upper New York State, Baily met an Israeli emissary who made moving to the Jewish State sound attractive.
Bailey arrived in Israel in 1958 as a 21-year-old who knew no one; he had one goal. “I wanted to write a book,” he says. He had no idea, however, on what subject. But after enrolling at the Hebrew University, he developed a fascination for Middle East studies. “It completely engaged me. I loved it. It was the first time I was able to study a subject I loved,” he recalls.
In 1959, Bailey married his wife, Maya and they have four sons and seven grandchildren. Maya worked at the Jerusalem Theater, organizing cultural programs. In 1961, Bailey received a BA in Middle Eastern History and Islamic Culture from the Hebrew University. He spent a year during 1961 and 1962 at an Arab village called Kafr Yasif in northern Israel, where he taught English and learned Arabic; that year proved to be a key preparatory step in his eventual Bedouin studies.
Bailey spent 1962 to 1966 getting a Master’s degree and then a PhD at Columbia University in New York. He taught International Relations for a year in 1967 and 1968 at Columbia University and Hunter College.
Early in 1967, while visiting Israel on a semester break from Columbia, Bailey eagerly looked for work. One day, walking on a Tel Aviv street, he met a woman he did not recognize but who turned out to be Paula Ben-Gurion, the wife of the former prime minister. She was wearing a simple housedress. The next day, she introduced Bailey to her husband, who arranged for him to teach English, starting in 1968, at a new school he had started at his home, Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the Negev.
While at that job, for the next eight years, Bailey met and spoke with the Bedouin who lived in the Negev and in the Sinai Desert. He often ate and slept in one of their long black tents, with goats and sheep for company. He took copious notes of his conversations with them. He learned to eat the same bread mush, sometimes with cheese added, that the Bedouin ate for dinner. Occasionally, they slaughtered a goat or sheep and served the meat to Bailey.
Sometimes, he went out to the pastures with Bedouin and learned of their plant life. They were, he notes, always friendly to him, treating him like a special guest.
From 1970 to 1971, he taught Palestinian Nationalism as well as the Politics of India and Pakistan at Haifa University. From 1974 to 1994, he served as an adjunct lecturer at Tel Aviv University. But unlike most academic scholars, he views himself as an independent researcher, not affiliated formally with any university.
Invited into Bedouin homes, he became fascinated with how they managed to survive desert conditions. “They rode camels, wore simple desert clothing, and grew or hunted their food,” he says.
The scholar in Bailey grew excited. “I just suddenly got this desire to record as much of this as possible,” particularly, he adds, because the Bedouin way was already changing. “They had a jerry can or a plastic bag instead of a goat’s skin and things of that sort.”
One day in the Sinai, in 1968, Bailey asked a few Bedouin chiefs if they knew poetry.
One did. “We sat down on the ground and I asked him to recite a poem for me,” Bailey recounts. “He recited 30 poems.”
Other Bedouin gathered around the chief and Bailey. They loved the poetry though they were all illiterate. The chief had created these poems and retained them in his head, Bailey explains, because he considered it the highest expression of Bedouin culture.
After studying Bedouin poetry from 1968 to 1988, Bailey turned his research into his 1991 book, “Bedouin Poetry: Mirror of a Culture.” The book contained 113 poems with notes that clarified the Bedouin’s cultural, linguistic and historical background. A few months ago the poems appeared in Arabic, an English transliteration of the Arabic, and an English translation, all in a paperback volume that Bailey began distributing to Bedouin who had no access to his hardcover book.
Speaking of the paperback, Bailey observes, “Now at least, it’s there. So they’ll know it from now on.”
His second book, “A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev,” was published in 2004. A third book, “Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice without Government,” appeared in 2009.
Why study the Bedouin? One reason – they provide pathways into the minds and ways of the Arabs in general, says Bailey. “I realized that the Bedouin are either the biological or cultural ancestors of all Arabs. I felt I could understand the contemporary Arabs better and in many ways I have.”
He plans to write a book on tribalism and Arab politics. “I see tribal characteristics all over the Arab world. Now you see it in Syria, of course,” he says.
Bailey also studies the Bedouin because their desert culture and mores reinforce what one reads in the Bible. That is the subject of his fourth book, due in 2014, to be called, “Bedouin Culture in the Bible.”
“Every time I recognized Bedouin culture in the Bible, I jotted it down and categorized it,” he says.
These days, he spends much time in the Judaica Reading Room of the National Library, on Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, perusing material on the Bible.
“After years of doing ethnography, I need to study the Bible for my next book,” he says, in order to show how Bedouin life and culture suggest parallels with the Holy Book.
One example he found (Numbers: 27 and 36) tells of the seven orphaned daughters of Zelophehad, descendants of Joseph, who told Moses that though their father fought bravely, Moses had not given the women any land (since only sons could own land and inherit). Bailey identified the Biblical women’s plight with Bedouin culture that also did not permit women to inherit or acquire land.
He also found that the Biblical story of the rape of Dinah, in Genesis 34, had parallels in Bedouin culture. After a Canaanite prince raped her, Dinah’s brothers – Simeon and Levi – took vengeance upon the Shekhem clan. “In Bedouin culture,” notes Bailey, “the touchstone of a clan’s power is that their women, who are forced to spend a great deal of time alone, do not get violated. It’s a very tough section to teach in Sunday school.”
When he mentioned these events to Bedouin (without saying they came from the Bible), the Bedouin thought Simeon and Levi had behaved properly “because,” observes Bailey, “justice is when you make someone suffer who has violated you because there’s nobody to protect you in the desert.”
In 1982, after the Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon to stop the Palestine Liberation Organization from shelling northern Israel, Bailey became Israel’s liaison to the Lebanese Shia, and later adviser on Shia affairs in the Ministry of Defense. He advocated that Israel develop strong relations with the Shia, in part because they were the majority in south Lebanon and in part because they were anti-PLO. His advice was not taken. “I am dismayed,” he says. “Had my advice been taken, I do not believe that Hezbollah would predominate there today.”
Bailey has taken on an advocacy role in his dealings with the Bedouin, especially as they seek a fair solution to their land claims vis-à-vis the Israeli government.
“My policy is to try to find some reconciliation between the government and the Bedouin so they can live a happy life,” he says.
After years of studying the Bedouin’s land claims, the government has sponsored a Knesset bill that, Bailey says, will deprive most of them of their land claims.
The bill is scheduled to come before the Knesset within several months. And while Bailey says the Bedouin are not violent by nature, he fears that passage of the bill could ignite violence.
“Basically, the Bedouin are not political,” he explains. “Each one is looking out for his own pasture, so traditionally, they don’t tend to band together on political issues. They do believe that you have to protect yourself. So life and limb or honor and land cannot be taken from you.”
How do the Bedouin regard Clinton Bailey? “As a friend,” he says with pride.
“And now more and more as somebody who preserved their traditions.” Grateful that their oral tradition has finally been recorded, the Bedouin, however still regard the Zionist movement that inspired the Jewish state as Johnny-come-latelys.
Bailey observes, “The Bedouin always said of the Zionists: Everybody comes and goes. You will too.”
Bailey admires the Bedouin for the values they espouse and live by. “They are not a materialistic culture,” he observes, “and that gives them a status and makes them happy.” The Bedouin are, he maintains, the only non-materialistic people he has met.
They make do with little – little food, little clothing. They also value good company, friendship, and hospitality.
“I am very grateful to them for showing all of us such values,” Bailey says.