Looking at the Bedouin

The sometimes elusive group opens up in an exhibition and expresses who they are – warts and all.

The Desert Embroidery project at Lakia empowers local Bedouin women and provides them with an income (photo credit: ANAS ABU DAABES)
The Desert Embroidery project at Lakia empowers local Bedouin women and provides them with an income
(photo credit: ANAS ABU DAABES)
We live in a cultural melting pot. Israel, as we all know, is a country of numerous cultural and ethnic strands, with immigrants coming here from all over the world. But there are also some groups here with which most of us are not particularly familiar.
Take, for example, the Bedouin population. What do we know about it? How many of us come across Bedouin on our daily rounds, or ever? We may have heard of the urban communities that have sprung up in the Negev, such as Hura and Rahat, and there are more Bedouin towns in the Galilee. The Bedouin are, traditionally, a nomadic lot, so it is intriguing to consider how their transition to an urban environment is affecting their lifestyle and approach to their own roots, particularly in the Negev, where they currently account for a third of the local population.
Some of that is being conveyed in the thought-provoking “Hewiyya” exhibition currently on view at the Joe Alon Center, near Kibbutz Lahav in the northern Negev. Hewiyya, in Arabic, means identity, which is very much the name of the game for many Bedouin today, especially those of the younger generation.
“Hewiyya” takes in several video installations and photographs, all created by youngsters. The idea for the exhibition was sparked by the Joe Alon Center, along with the Desert Stars organization, and was curated by Liat Yehuda, with Regev Tovim providing the young artists with professional guiding hand.
The exhibitors include 16-year-old Saja Hemdia, who has started 11th grade at the nearby Desert Stars School which was founded by Matan Yaffe in 2013.
Hemdia’s work, which she devised together with fellow youngster Sujud Abu Kuider, is called Makchella, referencing the bluish-tinged makeup used by Bedouin women through the ages. Hemdia may be freshfaced, but she is certainly not wide-eyed and innocent about the ways of the world, as Makchella clearly demonstrates.
The photography-based work proffers a sticky and little discussed, issue – violence within Bedouin society, as in violence perpetrated by men toward their womenfolk. Surely that takes courage, hanging your dirty laundry out for the world to see. And was Hemdia at all apprehensive about the response her work may provoke? “Yes, people responded to the photography,” says the teenager. The work in question shows a young woman who seems to be the victim of a beating. In fact, the arresting image is the result of the applied artistic efforts of Hemdia and Abu Kuider.
The “bruising” looks pretty convincing, but the visual end result is strangely alluring while, naturally, prompting question marks.
“People [who came to the exhibition] said the photograph is very beautiful and moving, but they didn’t say anything bad about it,” notes Hemdia. “They only said good things, women and men alike.”
But this is no ordinary work of art. There is a powerful sociopolitical and personal message being put out, in no uncertain terms.
“They didn’t express any difficulty they had with the work, but I am sure it was hard for them to look at the picture,” Hemdia adds.
It seems that, by and large, Makchella is having the desired effect.
“People reacted to the pictures. People are always trying to hide the violence in the society. They don’t want to talk about the subject.”
Although the work didn’t fuel too much debate among her peers, Hemdia says the older generation took the message on board.
“People outside my school talked about my work and about the exhibition.”
That includes those closest to Hemdia.
“My parents have been very supportive and they said the work was very good.”
Hemdia says the parental pat on the back will spur her on to keep up the good artistic work.
“I will definitely carry on with this work. I want the violence to stop.”
Makchella touches on the very core of Bedouin society and its centuries-long traditions. The eponymous self-beautification accessory has been around since days of yore and served Bedouin women as a rudimentary means of improving their appearance in the unforgiving conditions of desert life. Hemdia and Abu Kuider’s antithetical take – portraying the less appealing side of Bedouin society through a means of self-adornment – hits home.
“I have met women who have suffered from violence, but not in my family,” says Hemdia. “I don’t know if women who suffered from violence came to see the work, but I hope this leads to more open discussion about it. I could see that people were moved by the picture. That is good. That will, hopefully, open things up a bit.”
The local authority is fully behind the Joe Alon showing.
“This is a moving and inspiring exhibition that raises many question marks about Bedouin society and the process it has experienced in recent years,” says Sigal Moran, head of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council. “[These are] young boys and girls who combine quality works of art with a powerful and profound message, compelling spectators to take a good hard look at themselves, with regard to accepting others, tolerance and respect. I am very proud of the connection between the Joe Alon Center and the Desert Stars organization, and happy it is taking place here, in the area of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, which strongly supports these values.”
THERE ARE a number of inter-ethnic enterprises running in the vicinity of the Bedouin Heritage Center that generally aim to improve the lot of the Bedouin community as a whole through educational vehicles of various forms and cultural endeavor. That includes Desert Stars, which runs a leadership program looking to make young Bedouin more conscious of their duties and rights as full members of Israeli society and more able to take responsibility for their own personal growth.
Awataf Abu Mammar teaches at the Desert Stars School, on the informal education side of activities there. She sees the exhibition very much as an extension of her own daytime job.
“I work with kids in grades nine to 11. Our activities take place after school hours, and we have all sorts of things going on – technological and other activities, which the children themselves choose.”
It is not just about enhancing individual expertise; there is a strong emphasis on character building, and bringing the teenagers into the wider fold.
“The children also go on field trips, and they also volunteer at all sorts of places, including homes for senior citizens and working with special-needs children.”
Language barriers are also targeted.
“Some of the kids come here, to Kibbutz Lahav, to teach Arabic,” continues Abu Mammar.
“Knowing the same language can help people to communicate and get closer. Volunteering is an important part of the children’s education. They learn to give and not just to take. That’s an important message, that they have an obligation toward society in which they live – society in the general, wider, sense, or specifically Bedouin society. If you want to be part of something big, you have to give of yourself.”
Abu Mammar says that is a win-win situation.
“When these kids give to others, they have a sense of pride and achievement and they feel better about themselves. They feel they are capable of helping others. That is an important confidence booster for them. They feel they exist for something bigger than themselves.”
As the exhibition indicates, identity is fundamental to societal and integration efforts. That also comes across in Negative, a video work by Muthana Abu Kaff, Firas Ziadana, Sari Ziadana and Sallah Riatee.
The film revolves around readily identifiable Bedouin motifs with a traditional carpet with a tentshaped gash cut into it. The aforementioned urban transition is also referenced, as we peer through the aperture in the fabric, from a rustic backdrop to a cityscape. The urban community in question is Lakiya, just a stone’s throw away from Lahav, one of several Bedouin towns established in the Negev in the past 20 to 25 years Lakia is also where the Rikmat Hamidbar (Desert Embroidery) women’s project is located, and has been doing sterling work for close to two decades.
Naama el-Sana explains that the enterprise was created by four local women as a solution for the shifting breadwinning situation. Part of the latter was down to the move away from the traditional lifestyle to a Westernized domestic milieu.
“We set up the place in answer to the challenges Bedouin women faced, in terms of employment and empowerment,” says el-Sana. “There was no work in agriculture anymore and there were no jobs in the town itself.”
As the going got tough, el-Sana and her friends got going themselves. They weren’t about to wait around for anybody else, their menfolk or the authorities to come to their rescue.
“We thought about how we could help to alleviate the position of women and we believed that empowerment through employment would be best for local women.”
So it has proven to be. Today, Desert Embroidery produces eye-catching fabrics that are eagerly snapped up by visitors from near and far.
“We get a lot of Israelis from all over the country, and people from abroad, as well as Birthright youngsters,” says el-Sana. “They get to see what we do, and learn a bit about the Bedouin.”
El-Sana is keenly aware of some of the stereotyping prevalent in certain quarters of Israeli society.
“Some people think of Bedouin just as thieves and as violent. We want to open people’s eyes to the beauty of our way of life and what we have to offer.”
She is also appreciative of the “Hewiyya” initiative.
“It is a wonderful exhibition. It is important to show all sides of Bedouin society – yes, including the more difficult aspects like violence toward women.”
If you are battling negative preconceptions, you could easily try to go for a seeming hunky-dory line and restrict your offering to purely positive aspects.
But el-Sana feels that acceptance, on both sides, offers greater mutual benefits.
“We have to accept what we are and address the issues and also show people all sides of what we are.
There are good and bad sides to all societies and groups. You shouldn’t ignore them. You need to get to grips with them. We are all Israeli citizens. We are all part of this country.”
She suggests that taking a leaf from her enterprise’s book could help, too.
“With embroidery, you need patience. We had a dream, to show what we Bedouin women can do. It took time but we achieved it.”
That also included endeavoring not to ruffle too many feathers.
“There were men who opposed us, who felt threatened by women taking their own fate into their hands. But there were plenty of men who support us, too. You need to be patient.”
MUHAMMAD EL-NABARI goes along with the all-inclusive mindset. El-Nabari, who currently serves as leader of Hura Local Council, says there are all sorts of common denominators between the country’s Bedouin community and the Jewish majority.
“I grew up in a tribal environment and I always felt that tribalism was a Bedouin element. But I can see that applies to Jewish society, too. There is a lot of ignorance [about the Bedouin] in Jewish Israeli society.”
While el-Nabari is delighted with the “Hewiyya” exhibition, he feels the story of the country’s Bedouin sector covers wider ground.
“There is no single Bedouin ‘identity.’ There are numerous identities. I would like Bedouin youth to express themselves, who they are, and bring their baggage to into Israeli society.”
That certainly comes across in the exhibition.
“The kids, the artists, are saying ‘I am a Bedouin. The status of women in Bedouin society is important, and I want to talk about it with pride.’” For el-Nabari, politics, naturally, is an integral part of the societal equation. The recently approved Nation-State Law is, he says, a sticky issue for Israeli Bedouin.
“The law is not good for Bedouin society, but it is bad for Israeli society as a whole. This country, which is a democratic country based on the Declaration of Independence, which respects all Israeli citizens, has been led by the narrow interests of politicians. That’s a great shame.”
Still, at the end of the day, el-Nabari, who has a PhD in chemistry, retains a strong sense of optimism and is not unduly perturbed by the national boat rocking.
“Every good chemist aims to achieve disorder. Disorder generates opportunities. Today, disorder in Bedouin society is at its maximum level and it is high in Israeli society in general. I am full of hope, for the Bedouin and for Israel.”
Yaffe says “Hewiyya” provides another channel for Desert Stars youngsters to get their message across.
“For us, as an educational organization that aims to nurture leadership, it is important to provide the youngsters with tools and a forum for expressing the identity complexities they experience in a positive way. The works in the exhibition relate to conflicts, like violence in the family, Israeli society’s approach to Bedouin society, the dreams of young Bedouin and other topics.”
Yaffe and his cohorts are looking for a brighter future for all concerned.
“The Desert Stars youngsters will maintain the spirit of change in Bedouin society until we manage to bridge all the gaps and support the growth of a strong and authentic Bedouin leadership that will lead to the full integration [of Bedouin] in Israeli society, while preserving and empowering their identity.”
“Hewiyya” closes on September 30. For more information: www.joealon.org.il/ and www.desert-embroidery.org