Tour Israel: Women of the desert

If you’ve had the chance to visit Beduin communities in the Negev recently, such as Tel Sheva, Rahat or surrounding villages, you’re sure to have noticed that tourism is blossoming among these women.

HUSANYA IBN BARI holds up a hand-embroidered garment that she designed and made (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
HUSANYA IBN BARI holds up a hand-embroidered garment that she designed and made
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
The many interesting tales and the magical feeling about the desert draws people to that vast open space, away from civilization. A number of Beduin living in the Negev have recognized this craving and now offer trips and adventures to locations where there’s no water and few living things. In these places, they teach visitors creative methods for farming and subsisting.
But not many people know about the unique lives Beduin women lead and the significant role they play in their communities. Traditionally, Beduin women are quiet and modest, but lately they have been speaking up more to discuss their role in society and describing their way of life for the benefit of outsiders. If you’ve had the chance to visit Beduin communities in the Negev recently, such as Tel Sheva, Rahat or surrounding villages, you’re sure to have noticed that tourism is blossoming among these women.
The following is a list of a few particularly interesting and enterprising Beduin women:
Everyone in the region has heard of Mariam, the creator of Bat Hamidbar. Mariam is a pioneer Beduin businesswoman who created her own natural cosmetics company. She was born in a tent in an unrecognized village and lived there with her family until the age of 14, when her family moved to Tel Sheva, the first official Beduin community recognized by the state. It was important to her father that all his children receive an education, but her grandmother Fatima had a hard time adapting to their new surroundings. Mariam took care of her grandmother until she died. Fatima was a healer who used natural herbs and had a strong influence on Mariam.
After graduating from high school, Mariam received a scholarship to study business administration at Luton University in the UK and became the first Beduin woman to study abroad, with the full support of her father. While abroad, Mariam lived with a woman who taught Reiki and began appreciating her heritage. After three years, Mariam returned and opened her business. Despite pressure from her parents to get married to a man they had picked out for her, Mariam stubbornly refused and only 15 years later married a man of her choice.
In 2005, Mariam opened her cosmetics business, which she based on her knowledge of medicinal herbs that she’d learned from her grandmother. At first, she carried out production of the soaps and oils at home. Afterwards, she created the Bat Hamidbar label and now sells out of a visitor’s center created in her brother’s repair shop.
90-minute tour costs NIS 35.
To sign up: (08) 648-8028, 050-444-3926
Directions: Search for “Bat Midbar” in Waze.
Wadi Atir
On Road 31 East in the direction of Arad, you’ll find Wadi Atir, a Beduin community project in the Negev that was founded by the Bat Kayama Farm. The goal of this endeavor is to teach organic agriculture and traditional Beduin farming skills that men and women have used throughout history. At Wadi Atir, farmers are raising animals, making cheese products, growing vegetables and medicinal herbs, and even developing an expanding line of cosmetic products.
Wadi Atir’s main purpose is to promote Beduin women and help them integrate into the labor market. Archeological remains show that ancient Nabatean women engaged in agriculture and commerce, and only when Beduin families moved into urban areas were the women forced to remain inside the home. When living in safe tribal spaces, women were free to roam the area since theoretically there were no temptations or dangers lurking there.
At Wadi Atir, women can be seen busily picking and drying herbs, as well as taking care of daily business transactions. At the farm, you will hear about this unique Beduin community and the many hurdles they’ve had to overcome. You can join a tour during which you will see the sheep and goats in their pen, the milking station, and the fields. Visitors can also participate in a workshop to learn how to create herbal tea infusions.
Cost is NIS 25 and pre-registration is required.
Package including entrance, tour, lecture and coffee costs NIS 550 for a group of 20 people. Details: (08) 917-0040.
Elham al-Kamalat
It’s impossible to speak about empowering Beduin women without mentioning Elham al-Kamalat, who grew up in Ramle and currently lives in Rahat. Al-Kamalat is an extremely colorful woman, and no subject is taboo for her. She leads tours in Rahat where people can meet Beduin women in their homes and at their businesses, hear their stories and catch a glimpse of their lives. The tours also pass through the market, the spice shops, and the neighborhood of the black Beduin, whose social status is lower.
Then al-Kamalat takes the group to meet Khalil Abu Zeid, who lives in an open area near Rahat. Abu Zeid loves to collect all kinds of objects, and his yard is full of blankets, musical instruments and a variety of animals. He also has a charming cave in his yard where his herd of goats lives.
Husanya Ibn Bari
Next, the group meets Husanya Ibn Bari, who is a designer and a mother of eight. Ibn Bari participated in a business initiative course with Maof, an Israeli governmental agency that offers assistance to small and mid-sized enterprises, and then began operating a booth at the annual Darom Adom Festival where she sells ceramic pottery intertwined with embroidery. Now she also hosts tourists in her home where she tells her story and talks about what it’s like to be a woman in the Beduin community. Ibn Bari also sells clothing and accessories she makes herself, and offers sewing and weaving workshops.
Entrance: NIS 45
Details: Elham al-Kamalat 052-483-8983
Husanya Ibn Bari 050-475-8947
Sabriya Abu Jaffer
No one should spend an entire day in the desert without stopping for a meal of authentic Beduin cuisine. While many of us are accustomed to eating industrial food, in the courtyard of Sabriya Abu Jaffer you will find tasty and healthy home-cooked dishes. Abu Jaffer began hosting tourists in her home three years ago as a way to bring in a little extra money to pay for her son’s medical studies overseas. Slowly, demand grew and now she runs a restaurant out of her home with meals running at NIS 150 per person, which is reasonable for what she serves.
Reservations required at least two days in advance: 050-894-0498.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.