Keep Dreaming: Hospitality among the rubble

Even as some Beduin are expressing outrage over the demolition of their homes, others are urging friendship and coexistence based on mutual respect.

Beduin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beduin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even before we enter his brother’s home in the Beduin village of Kuseifa, Mahmoud begins sharing his concerns with us about Israel’s future. “It’s not Iran that worries me,” he remarks, “but the internal discord.
Our clan’s younger generation, they don’t want to serve in the army as we did. I’m not happy about this, but I understand them.”
He says this not with resignation but as a prelude to his appeal that we do something to correct the situation – together – before it is too late.
Proud grandson of the Sheikh Saleim Abu-Rabia, he expresses dismay over the obtuseness of the Israeli authorities charged with interfacing with the Beduin population. “It’s not just the unnecessary hardships we have to endure,” he continues, “but the growing antagonism of our youth. They’re becoming vulnerable to the entreaties of the radical Islamic Movement.
He ushers us into the salon which has the appearance of a traditional Beduin tent, except that walls and ceiling have replaced the traditional hand-woven fabric flapping gently in a mild breeze. The floor is strewn with rugs, while a ring of mattresses draped in colorful textiles extends around the perimeter of the room. This is the genuine article, not a venue designed for tourists. None ever get here. So how did we? ON THE eve of Herzl’s 150th birthday, I was interviewed on late-night radio regarding the vision of the visionary of the Jewish state. The next day I got a phone call from Salman Abu-Rabia.
“We have to meet,” he informs me with an energy that leaves no room for equivocation.
“When can I welcome you to my village? We’ll roast a lamb in your honor.”
I was extremely busy at the time, and told him so. With mild regret, I assumed he would take that for a no. He didn’t, calling me persistently over the next few months until my schedule lightened up.
“About the lamb, though…” “No problem,” he interrupts me pleasantly. “You keep kosher; we’ll grill fish instead.”
I had run out of excuses.
We met at a junction south of Beersheba, then turned off the highway onto an unpaved road that seemed to be going nowhere. Soon, however, clusters of homes began appearing on distant barren crests. Some were no more than tiny tin shacks, corrugated metal sheets propped against one another like a house of cards.
A few were extravagant villas, more suited to Savyon than to this desolate expanse of undulating hilltops. Finally we pulled up in front of a modest building. The outside temperature registered on my dashboard as 44 degrees centigrade. On top of that, a headline in The Jerusalem Post that morning read “State demolishes Beduin homes for second time in a week.”
I switched off the engine and the air conditioning with an uneasy feeling that things may be getting too hot for comfort.
I needn’t have worried.
“The situation there,” Mahmoud tells me, referring to the illegally built settlement that had been razed, “is completely different than here. You can’t accept compensation for your land, agree to evacuate it, and then reclaim it.
We need law and order.”
Turns out Mahmoud was a police officer for several years.
“Your Hebrew is beautiful,” one of my companions says to him.
He appreciates the compliment. “I love the Hebrew language. I love the Jewish people.”
We take off our shoes and spread out comfortably among the pillows, as hot tea is served. “But still,” he goes on, returning to the matter of the demolitions, “the way things are done is unnecessarily callous.
People with no appreciation of who we are, ignorant of our culture, sit in their fancy offices in Tel Aviv issuing orders without understanding their implications.
There’s no one to talk to, no one really interested in listening – even to those of us who genuinely want to cooperate, who want to make this country a better place for everyone.”
Mahmoud speaks with a soothing voice. His message is forceful but his delivery gentle. There is no bitterness in his words. Not even anger. Just angst. “The government set up this Authority to work with us in reaching agreements regarding land, but they didn’t hire any Beduin.
Does that make sense to you?” It doesn’t to him, and he goes on to give us a brief history of his tribe, and how his people were taken advantage of when much of their land was turned into an airfield following Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai. “It’s not that what the state did was illegal,” he says, “but it wasn’t fair. We only got 30 percent of the compensation we should have, because we didn’t have the fancy lawyers that understood our rights.”
I ask about the several exquisite homes we did see. A sensitive subject. “For every one of them, there are a hundred tin shacks,” Salman responds, the only time during our visit that either of the brothers expresses any agitation. “You know what it’s like living in something like that, and on a day like today? There are dogs owned by Jews that are better off than many of our people. They get better food, they get to a doctor, they even get those little sweaters when it’s cold outside.”
MAHMOUD TELLS us of his efforts on behalf of his fellow villagers to redress the wrongs done them. He is trying hard not to complain, but it is clear that the years of struggle have all but exhausted that quintessential Beduin attribute of patience. A few years ago he decided to do something about it, and has just completed his law degree.
“Will you have a problem getting a job?” I ask him. “More than if you were Jewish?” “We all have problems getting jobs,” he smiles. “Our tribe has produced lawyers, doctors, academics, even a member of the Knesset. We are well educated. But 90% of us work as teachers in our own schools, whatever we may have studied. The only way I could get an apprenticeship with a law office, was to agree to do it as a volunteer.”
Mahmoud has a wife and children.
This is a second career. “How are you going to manage?” I ask him. I don’t really get an answer. Instead he tells me about his dream.
“There are people living in this village who weren’t fairly compensated in 1981, who are still living without electricity.
I want them to be able to walk into their homes and turn on a light before they die. That’s all.”
Actually, he would like more than that, and raises other unreasonable requests like paving the access road to the village and providing the homes with running water and sewage.
I ask him why none of this has happened, but get lost in his explanation of the status of these villages as being legal but officially unrecognized. “The regional council isn’t allowed to provide us with these services,” he tells me. “We have to do it privately, but don’t have the resources.”
“It shouldn’t be like this,” Salman says as we get ready to take our leave.
“When I heard you speak about Herzl’s vision for this country, I was reminded of the letter he sent to my grandfather, asking for his support in creating a homeland for the Jews, and promising him his rightful place in running it in return. Where is the respect the Zionist leadership once had for us?” I don’t have a ready answer. I can only promise to explore the issues he has raised with those in a position to do something about them. The brothers thank us for that. We thank them for the frank conversation and the delicious meal. “Which reminds me,” I say jokingly.
“Where’s that lamb we didn’t eat?” Salman quickly walks around to the back of his home and pulls one of the flock aside for us to see.
“It’s a shame you wouldn’t eat her.
She’d have cut like butter.”
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency executive.