A carpet of dreams

Beduin women today are using embroidery, a traditional skill, to portray their hopes and desires in tangible form.

Beduin rug 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Beduin rug 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Visitors to the Beduin Culture Museum at the Joe Alon Center near Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev have been getting more than they could have anticipated for the past month or two. Since just before Pessah, in addition to the fetching displays of traditional Beduin dress, utensils, firearms and jewelry, the public has been able to view a highly attractive wall carpet.
But this isn’t just any old wall covering. This is a carpet of dreams – literally.
The project goes by the self-explanatory name of “Women Embroider Their Dreams” and originally incorporated 12 women from the Beduin town of Lakia in the Negev. One of the embroiderers dropped out mid-stream, which, in more ways than one, is the story of the carpet and the society in which the women live.
Beduin women are not generally encouraged to express themselves publicly. The traditional role of the woman is to care for her husband and children, and ensure domestic affairs are kept in balance and running smoothly. But around 25 years ago, things started changing in Lakia when then-14-year-old Hissin Elsana and a few of her teenage friends decided their mothers and other women should get a little pat on the back for their ongoing domestic efforts, in the form of a day trip up north.
“Eventually we got 28 women; quite a few were not allowed to join in by their husbands,” explains Hissin.
Hannah Deckel, who has worked with women from Lakia for many years, also recalls that trip with great affection. “I wasn’t with them, but the girls told me that as the bus got closer to Haifa, some of the women looked out to the west and saw all the water. They were amazed. They’d never seen the sea before in their lives.
Imagine what the trip did for those women.”
Hissin says it was important to offer the women an opportunity to learn something about the world around them. “We wanted them to get out, and not just spend their whole lives at home and in Lakia. We wanted to help them open their eyes to the things around them.”
However, like the carpet venture, there was some male opposition to the idea of women gaining greater freedom and engaging in non-domestic activities. The pace of change in the status of women in Lakia began to increase 15 years ago, when a number of local women, including Hissin and her cousin Nama Elsana, set up the nonprofit Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status in Lakia, which incorporates the Desert Embroidery initiative.
“We do a lot of things at Desert Embroidery,” explains Nama, adding that the association operates in all sorts of areas. “We arrange lectures once or twice a month on all sorts of topics, like health and hygiene and home economics, and there are classes in things like English and Hebrew, and reading and writing.”
The association is supported by a number of bodies, including the New Israel Fund, the Heinrich Boll Foundation of Germany and the EU’s Europe Aid Co-operation Office. It runs a young leadership project and English- language courses, and operates a Beduin tent visitors’ center.
The official association material spells out the organization’s goals as empowering women through employment and literacy, supporting working women and improving children’s education. Part of the latter is achieved through the operation of a popular mobile library that makes the rounds of the recognized Beduin towns and other smaller communities in the area.
Nama says the association is central to improving the lives of women in Lakia, and was instrumental in getting the wall carpet project off the ground.
“We have come a long way in the 15 years since it started up. Today women in Lakia are more empowered and better educated,” she says.
Desert Embroidery also helps to bring in income, and it is this aspect that has also helped to bring some of the husbands on board.
“The association started organizing things, like getting summer camps going and women getting together to cook meals for children,” notes Deckel. It also got the women out of their homes and generated a sort of collective dynamic: “Slowly but surely, women began to get involved in activities on behalf of the community, rather than just being engaged in running their own household. That had never happened before.”
The wall carpet project was initiated last year by Orna Goren, who left her position as director of the Joe Alon Center last December, 26 years after founding the cultural enterprise.
“After I thought up the idea of the carpet, I asked the women at Desert Embroidery if they wanted to take part in it,” says Goren. “The whole project took about six months. It was a sort of going away gift from me to the museum.”
The initial seed of the carpet project was planted by the center’s management board.
“They asked me to organize a project connected to women generating change in the community. I wanted Lakia, and the association, to get more attention. The embroidery work they do is very special,” she says.
Goren also wanted to offer the Beduin women a vehicle for expressing something of their own. “They weren’t used to talking about their dreams and their own personal story. They certainly weren’t used to depicting that in embroidery. Each of the women received a piece of cloth and, with Hannah’s help, we put the whole thing together.”
Artist Nurita Armoni, who lives in Even Yehuda, also came in and helped with the actual execution of the carpet and, crucially, with the preliminary process.
“I held four sessions with the embroiderers, which were more a form of art therapy,” explains Armoni.
Considering that these women spend almost all their lives in a largely insular society, it was understandable that they’d be reluctant to suddenly reveal their deepest desires to the world.
“They are very modest women,” she notes. “I used a different technique at each session, to help them to talk about their dreams and to open up.”
Armoni, who has a large wall carpet displayed in the Tel Aviv Municipality building, encouraged the women to tell their story by sharing hers with them.
“I brought all sorts of objects and asked each woman to choose one, and to tell something of their own story based on what they’d picked out,” she explained. “I chose something and told them a bit about my childhood, and how I decided to work in jewelry. They gradually began to open up.”
The process was moving along nicely. “Even Hannah told me that she’d been working with the association for so long and she didn’t know about some of the things the women mentioned at our meetings,” Armoni says.
Deckel got in at ground level, long before anyone thought about the carpet project.
“When the Beduin started developing towns and stopped their nomadic existence, they had to learn how to do all sorts of things, like using a fridge or a microwave oven,” she says.
Did the menfolk mind Deckel being around and putting modern ideas into their wives’ heads? “Not at all,” notes Deckel. “As soon as they smelled the food [that we had prepared together] was ready, they all gathered round and tucked into the food. I became a welcome presence.”
Deckel also brought some unfamiliar items from her own home. “I spent time with each woman in her own kitchen, and showed them how to use all sorts of household utensils, and they were very attentive. I taught them how to lay a Western-style table, with individual plates and cutlery.”
The food and dining etiquette stage, indirectly, laid the bedrock for what eventually became Desert Embroidery.
“The women had a lot of spare time,” continues Deckel.
“There were schools and kindergartens, and their kids were all taken care of during the day, and they started asking to learn handicrafts and how to make things that they could put on their whitewashed walls.”
They had found just the right person in Deckel: “I am a qualified teacher, so we started with some weaving and flower arranging and a bit of macramé. After a while they said they wanted to do something they were good at – embroidery – and to make embroidery decorations for dresses.”
Embroidery is a traditional Beduin skill, but according to Deckel, they still needed a guiding hand to help them make products with genuine market value.
“I gave them each a square to embroider, and I got them back with the embroidery at the side instead of in the middle. I started to get a better idea of what I needed to teach them in order for them to make bona fide products,” she says. “We started with a circle of six women, and that led to the establishment of Desert Embroidery.”
The circle started from scratch.
“We didn’t have anything at all,” Deckel recalls. “The initial group didn’t have its own permanent premises, so the women would gather at a kindergarten, or some other building. One day a woman passed by and bought one of the embroidered pieces. It was then that I realized that the women could make things to sell. I wanted them to make real products for sale.”
The enterprise began to gather momentum, and today, Desert Embroidery is a serious concern which provides education, culture, leisure time activities and, importantly, a source of income for many women in Lakia.
“There are around 70 women involved in Desert Embroidery,” says Nama, who runs the project. “It brings in income and it gives the women a sense of selfrespect.”
However, even after a long process of emancipation,most of the women involved in the wall carpet project had a ways to go before they could put their innermost fantasies into tangible form.
There are no names either on the carpet squares or in the explanatory information on the museum wall next to the exhibit.
There are, however, some short texts in which the women explain the thoughts and feelings behind their work. One embroiderer, for example, wrote: “Childhood memories give me strength: the rock I rested on from the hard work of farming, the sack of cement I carried while helping my father in his work.”
The textual description suits the corresponding, delicately crafted square well.
Nama and Hissin were the only embroiderers who were willing to talk about their contribution to the carpet, and their life in Lakia in general. Nama’s work depicts a young girl riding a horse, a palm tree and a tent. Her words of explanation at the museum say: “The horse is a noble, patient animal that arouses hope in me that I can fulfill my dreams. The tent symbolizes the tradition that we must preserve. The fruit of the date gives us strength and health.”
Not a bad comprehensive wish.
“When I was a young girl, I started to love horses,” says Nama, who became a grandmother last week for the first time. Naturally, as a Beduin girl, there was no chance of her being allowed to ride a horse. But she had other ideas: When she was about 12 or 13, she and a friend attended a wedding and decided they were going to take part in the celebratory horse races.
“The two of us dressed up like boys and no one noticed,” she says with a laugh.
Of course, it helped that she had liberal-minded parents: “I told my father about it after the race, and he didn’t object at all.”
Hissin also comes from one of the more open families in Lakia: “My great-grandfather was a lawyer in Turkey, and he taught my mother about law. He always encouraged her to speak her mind in public, and people learned to listen to her. That was very rare.”
Hissin’s parents maintained that approach to equality of the sexes.
“My father brought me up to be independent,” she says. “Yes, it takes courage to do these things in Beduin society, but having support from your parents is very important.”
This freedom, however, has come at some personal cost.
“I am 39 and I am still single, so I have paid a price for my approach to life,” observes Hissin, “but it is a price I was willing to pay.”
The opening ceremony at Joe Alon Center in April was, of course, a joyous occasion, and a largely female one.
“The husbands didn’t attend,” says Goren, “but all the embroiderers came, and lots of their children were also there. But only Nama and Hissin were willing to have their picture taken with the carpet. That reflects the complexity of the process, and of the women coming out and expressing themselves in this way.”
Nama notes that the carpet is the culmination of not only the 11 women’s work with Armoni and Deckel, but also of the 15 years of Desert Embroidery’s existence.
“It wasn’t easy to produce the carpet, but it is a lot easier to get Beduin women to talk about their dreams today compared with when the association first started,” she says.
“We have come a long way in our society, and lots of women have become empowered, become literate and more open. That also impacts on their husbands and the society in general.”
The carpet at the center portrays a wide range of topics, and there are some surprising elements in there.
“Not all the women come from Lakia, or the Negev,” explains Goren. “Some come from greener places, some come from farming families.”
In one carpet square, there is a delightful image of a house with a pool next to it. The text is as evocative as the picture: “The most beautiful days of my childhood happened when my family left the Negev and lived in a well-constructed house with green fruit trees and a swimming pool. The memory left me with a strong desire to study and grow.”
Some dreams have already been realized, some are in the works and some may never come true. Another square depicts a young girl leaning against a tree reading a book, with more on the ground near her. Her commentary reads: “An image of myself sitting peacefully under the trees while surrounded by many books. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do this now, but the door is not closed.”
Of course, to paraphrase a Hebrew saying, you don’t go to the grocer’s with your dreams. Deckel and the Beduin women are very much aware of the bottom line. Desert Embroidery doesn’t just incorporate women who make products, it also addresses crucial aspects such as quality control and marketing.
If the carpet was going to materialize, Deckel says, the financial side had to be taken care of, too.
“The women received pay at all stages of the work on the carpet. They received a sum for every session they attended, and for their work. That is important because it gives an added sense of worth, and the women’s husbands see this activity helps to boost the family income,” she points out.
The carpet project was a learning experience – and a culturally and spiritually enriching one – for all concerned.
“I have learned a lot from the Beduin women,” says Deckel. “It is an ongoing process for me.”
Armoni, too, says she came out of her work with the women feeling enlightened.
“I spent six months with them, and I don’t regret a single moment. I spent one month just working on the drawings they made for their dreams. They are a very special group of women.”

For more information about the Joe Alon Center, visit www.joealon.org.il. For more information about Desert Embroidery: www.desertembroidery.org