SOUTHWARD BOUND MASA‐Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students visit projects of Negev Bedouin
Executive Director of Bustan Raed Almickhawi explains to Intensive Arabic Semester participants about the city of Beersheba (in the background)
Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg
Harboring high expectations for a day of interesting out of the classroom experiences the last thing the fifth session of the MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students and staff expected in mid-May was to be caught in a rainstorm in the Negev – but that it did and that they were!
Driving to the Negev from the north of Israel, half an hour away from Beersheba the terrain drastically changed from plentiful greenery and crowded red-roof top Jewish communities to large open spaces dotted with small encampments of unrecognized (in the main) Bedouin ‘villages.’ The villages are made up of a few dozen tin roofed huts, a couple of traditional tents, tethered camels and fenced off sheep pens along with an assortment of battered cars and old tractors. Outside every dwelling large bales of hay stacked three or four high form a natural barrier between different families – the barriers presumably depleting during the course of the summer as they are broken open to feed the sheep, goats and camels – the latter fondly known as ‘ships of the desert.’
In the near distance a number of large sprawling Bedouin towns can be seen on the horizon, the mosque minarets dotting the skyline – almost like giving the finger to the Israeli governments attempts at rounding up the Bedouin, having them settle permanently in townships but unfortunately not developing alternative means of livelihood for the 160,000 Bedouin who make up 12% of the Arab population in Israel.
Approaching the Negev the myriad shades of green switch to just the two shades of yellow as expansive fields of wheat wait harvesting. Waist high dried up weeds bordering the wheat fields and roads create the other swaths of a paler shade of yellow. A number of kibbutzim in the area farm large areas of the land and the rest under the ploughs of the local Bedouin tribes.
The first port of call was at the rather expansive and impressive offices of the Mandel Foundation’s Center for Leadership in the Negev situated near the busy city railway station. The Intensive Arabic Semester students are welcomed to the center by Bedouin educator and special projects organizer Raed Almickawi. Raed is the executive director of Bustan, a not-for-profit organization engaged in empowering the Bedouin whilst at the same time preserving their culture and encouraging a sustainable way of life that can serve not only the Bedouin people but all Israelis.
“Our work is focused on developing a model for community empowerment projects based on principles of sustainable development and permaculture. The project model will stregthen both the ability of the community to thrive in the reality of the modern state, and the connection between the community and its cultural heritage,” explained Raed, a Bedouin in his mid-30s who has been involved with such projects for over a decade.
“Bustan’s work with the Bedouin villages is opening a new chapter in the relations between the state and the Bedouin population in the Negev.”
Raed Almickawi grew up in a traditional Bedouin family – in a traditional Bedouin tent. At the age of 17 his family were relocated to a permanent structure in one of the townships.
“At the beginning I couldn’t fall asleep in this house as all the reassuring sounds of the night – animals, birds and so forth – had disappeared and the silence was very unsettling,” explained Raed. Wanting to serve in the Israel Defense Forces Raed’s father died just a short time prior to his intended conscription and so he had little choice but to stay home to care for his family. However, he eventually attained a university degree in Film and Communication and will shortly be going to America for a four-month course dealing with sustainable living and community consciousness.
“One thing I can definitely say today is that living in the so-called modern town has greatly changed the inter-family relationships,” says Raed. “The relationship I have with my older siblings is very close indeed. We grew up together in the traditional way, sharing everything but sadly the relationship with my younger siblings who grew up with modernity is very different – distant in comparison,” commented Raed.
One Bedouin village where the Bustan organization has projects up and running is that of Qasr A-Sir but before visiting the village Raed accompanies the group to a hill on which stands the Palmach Negev Brigade Memorial commemorating 312 members of the Negev Brigade. From this vantage point - and as the sky gets darker and drops of rain begin to fall - Raed explains about the city and surrounding region, pointing out Bedouin townships, recognized and unrecognized villages and close to the bottom of the hill, the very green, upscale Jewish community of Omer.
“Basically, the Bedouin village to the right of Omer are the poorest of tribes living in this region and the people of Omer the richest,” he explains. From that vantage point one can see the only physical division between the two communities is the main road.
The second stop was at Lakiya, one of the Nevgev Bedouin townships and these days also home to LAKIYA NEGEV WEAVING an extremely colorful – literally – and successful women’s empowerment project giving creative employment, enjoyment and a truly bond building experience to a few dozen Bedouin women.
Explanations are given as to the cleaning, spinning and dying the wool from the local four legged wolly clan, students being treated to a demonstration of the process from start to finish – and finish up buying an assortment of beautifully crafted rugs, cushions and bags on sale at the Lakiya Weaving shop.
All the yarn used at Lakiya is purchased from Bedouin shepherdesses who whilst watching their flocks graze spin the wool on what are known as drop spindles – a demonstration of which shown at the beginning of the visit. To prepare yarn for weaving we learn, two strands of spun yarn are skeined together, dyed and mothproofed, dried in the sun and rolled into large balls.
In the past Bedouin women wove strips from which tents were constructed as well as decorative colorful rugs and cushions for inside the desert style mobile home. Since the 1991 founding of Lakiya Negev Weaving they have also turned their hand to weaving belts, bags, wall hangings with desert themes and other domestic and commercial items thus not only empowering themselves with their financial earnings but also contributing to the revival and preservation of a craft central to Bedouin social and cultural heritage.
Apart from honing their creative skills in wool spinning, dyeing, weaving and magnificent embroidery, the ladies of Lakiya have also acquired new roles and skills – that of being businesswomen managing all aspects of Lakiya Negev Weaving from purchasing the wool from shepherdesses out on the pirarie to watching the fruits of their nimble fingered labors leaving the premises in the hands of appreciative customers to end up in homes in Israel and far off countries.
Home woven comforts of yesteryear with an eye on the future and right: Intensive Arabic Semester students and staff purchases bagged and ready to go
Following the visit with the creatively industrious women of Lakiya, onward to Qasr A-Sir.
Just half an hour journey from the highrise buildings of the rapidly expanding university city of Beersheba and just a few kilometers from the town of Dimona, the sprawling village of Qasr A-Sir is situated on an ancient caravan road that a few generations back was a main artery from the Arabian peninsula to the Middle East.
Together with a number of other northwestern Negev villages, Qasr A-Sir received recognition just over a decade ago and belongs to the Abu Basma Regional Council. The village basically sits in a wide wadi (valley) straddling the main road and a railway track transporting phosphates from the Dead Sea, the racket made by passing trains cuts through the sounds of the Bedouins horses, donkeys, camels and in small household compounds, squawking chickens and roosters. One hardly hears human voices probably because the children are at school and the men out of the area for the better part of the day working.
Raed Almickawi spoke with great pride about how with the support of the Bustan organization the village is well on its way to becoming the first Bedouin ecological village in Israel with many plans for the not to distant future in developing a visitors center and constructing of guest rooms – eco-friendly style - alongside the existing abodes of the Bedouin of Qasr A-Sir, home to the al-Hawashla tribe. The khan, as with the additional planned buildings, will be constructed from straw and earth and an organic farm also being developed. In a carefully marked off area small patches of earth - covered in mulch – will soon be producing vegetables and another notch on the belt of success in permaculture not only as a way of life but also livelihood.
A group of older Bedouin women in traditional dress sit under a small clump of trees, a few small children playing at their feet as chickens strut their stuff around them. In another fenced off area by a rather attractive private house, a young girl enters a makeshift chicken coup. She scoops half a dozen eggs out of a few large biscuit tins on their sides, laid with straw and lined up on a rickety shelf inside. Gingerly putting the eggs into the folds of her skirt she carefully, oh so carefully, walks barefooted over the stone strewn sandy ground and quickly disappears through a side door.
A large fenced off compound is the site of the first of the strawbale-mud abodes planned for the khan and eco-village. Made up of three rooms – one of which a kitchen the other two covered in mattresses where a half-dozen students of permaculture are living whilst on a work-study project for overseas students at Qasr A-Sir. The abode – or should one call it an adobe - is far from the sleek versions of strawbale-mud buildings of some kibbutzim and other communities that have attracted a great deal of attention and tourism to their sites in the Negev and northern Israel. The construction gives the impression of not-quite-finished but actually it is.
A young American with a degree in permaculture named Summer explains the advantages of living in such a natural home – how inexpensive it is to construct, cool in the summer and warm in the winter for starters. A nearby eco-toilet looks a bit daredevillish sitting on stilts, dry palm fronds all around the construction making it look more like a primitive Dr. Who’s time machine than a privvy, but Summer assures us that it works and not likely to fall down around one’s ears, and everything else, whilst in use.
Summer speaks with great enthusiasm about the development the Qasr A-Sir project and especially of her friendship with many of the local families and learning to sort out the do’s and do not do’s acceptable to the culture of the Bedouin people.
The IAS students are taken on a hike up and over the hillside running parallel to the village in order to see from above the terrain and realities of daily life under the most difficult of conditions for the Bedouin of Qasr A-Sir who have collectively decided on moving forward to achieve Raed Almickawi’s vision for a better, more modern future but maintaining their distinctive cultural heritage and pride.
Sitting around on colorful mattresses and cushions, the students participate in a meal cooked by local ladies who are hopeful of catering to many more visitors in the not too distant future.
If the enthusiasm permeating the air of Qasr A-Sir during the IAS visit then that is not far off materialising for sure.
Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg
At the end of April – on not the friendliest of days with regard the weather - students participating in the fifth semester of the MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester nevertheless managed to pack another interesting experience under their IAS travel and study belts with a tour of the Jordan Valley and Golan Heights.
Accompanied by staff members Lydia Aisenberg and Uri Barel, the first port of call was the Old Gesher site located on the banks of the River Jordan, the Gilead and Golan Mountain ranges looming high on the other side of the river wending its way through the valley.
For the first part of the morning neither mountain ranges visible through the dust-laden atmosphere but clearing up somewhat during the course of the day.
At Gesher, following an audio-visual presentation shown on the walls of what had been the dining-room of pre-1948 Kibbutz Gesher prior to evacuation and resettlement on higher-ground a short distance away, kibbutz born and bred guide Nirit Bagron, whose grandparents were founder members of the kibbutz, accompanied the students to the bunker that had become not only a place of defense during the Iraqi Army attacks of the 1940s but also the command center where Morse code messages sent out as well as being the treatment center for the wounded defenders of Gesher.
Nurit pointed out a rather tattered and stained book where the names of the patients and the treatment they received all recorded in clear handwriting by nurse Leah Kremer, a founder member of the kibbutz who died a year ago at the age of 93.
Opening up the gate in the security fence – having coordinated the visit with the security forces in the area – Nirit led the students and staff down to the banks of the Jordan River where the remains of 3 bridges over the river – built by the Romans, Turks and British and blown up by Israeli forces in 1948 to hamper the advances of the Iraqi army – straddle the narrow river. The old khan and customs house have been restored and on the banks of the river by the Roman era bridge is a wooden platform amongst the riverside reeds. Here the group sits and takes in the surrounding beauty, birds twittering in the background and the slap-slap sounds of the water gently connecting with the river bank whilst listening to the story of Israeli heroine Esther Arditti Bornstein in whose memory the “Bridges Viewpoint” was built.
Born in Bulgaria, Esther Arditti Bornstein and family fled to Italy in the Second World War. Aged 16 she and her brother arrived in Israel and despite being so young, joined the Israel Defense Forces, completed a medic’s course and was known to see serving the country as an honor and not a duty.
In 1954 - during her watch – a Mosquito plane was hit by lightening and crash landed nearby. Esther ran toward the burning plane – loaded with ammunition – and pulled the pilot from the wreckage before the craft blew up. In the recorded story of Esther Arditti Bornstein the pilot, Yaakov Shalmon tells the story of how she saved his life for which she was awarded a medal.
Upon completion of her army service Esther continued working as a nurse and was the first female ambulance driver in the State of Israel. She also became a tour guide and during the war of 1967 joined the paratroopers, tended the wounded and became known as the “Angel of the Paratroopers.” She also volunteered for the Yom Kippur War six years later.
Continuing on from Gesher to Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov ISA students visited the memorial flower garden to 7 Israeli schoolgirls killed in 1997 by a deranged Jordanian soldier whilst visiting the ‘Peace Island’ nearby. With local guide Rachel – a tour of the area known as the ‘Peace Island’ under the jurisdiction of the Jordanians since the peace treaty and visits to the remains of the Naharayim hydroelectric power station and old railway station undertaken and also the opportunity to chat with Jordanian soldiers manning the archway – adorned with large posters of the late King Hussein and his son and present king, Abdullah – and opportunity to practice some Arabic was much appreciated by both the students and the soldiers!
The soldier explained that he was from Amman, stayed at this post for 10 days and then had 5 days home leave.
He had no relatives among the Arab population of Israel he said and also told everybody that he had signed along the dotted line to serve in the army for twenty years!
From the Jordan Valley the IAS students travelled on to the Golan Heights.
Travelling deep into the valley between the Gilead and Golan Mountain ranges, the River Yarmuk wending its way deep down below the narrow, twisting, turning road - even on a muggy day, great views over the pass, river and El-Hamma (Hammat Gader) mineral springs and ancient Roman baths as well as in present times, crocodile farm! From there only up – up, up and way to the top of the Golan Heights the road getting steeper by the meter and dangerous bends tackled. From an old bunker on the top, the opportunity to look back down from a great height over the area as well as take in the Kinneret and kibbutzim of the Jordan Valley.
At the base of the Ben-Tal mountains overlooking the headquarters of the United Nations on the Golan Heights; the old Syrian town of Kunetra and the Valley of the Tears, a spontaneous meeting and chat with a local Druze fruit and honey seller proved to be one of the highlights of the day.
A retired maths teacher who spoke excellent Hebrew as well as English, Ahmad Farhat considers himself Syrian although he holds an Israel identity card. The extremely friendly and jovial Druze, dressed in traditional clothing, explained about the old town of Kunetra and of the new one built in the near distance behind it.
“Before the 1967 war, there were 25,000 Syrians living in Kunetra and now in the new Kunetra there are over 100,000. I have family there and visit them from time to time – it isn’t such a problem to be able to pass through to the other side,” he said. These days the old town of Kunetra lies in ruins, a ghost town.
Ahmad was selling locally grown olives, apples, honey from his family beehives and an assortment of different jams at his roadside stall. He liberally handed out pieces of thin Druze bread for the students to dip in the honey pot.
Atop the Ben Tal Mountain and extensive bunker complex, Intensive Arabic Semester logistics and finance director Uri Barel shared with the students his experiences of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when he was 12 months in to serving his 3-year national service in the army.
Having prepared maps to show the students Uri walked and talked the students through a very difficult time for the nowadays 60 plus-year-old kibbutznik who was born and lived all his life at Kibbutz Barkai where the MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students reside.
A great deal achieved in one day with plenty more left to see for the next time.
MASA‐Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Students take a study day in a classroom of a different kind at CAESAREA
Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg
The ancient port city of Caesarea recently became an open air classroom for the MASA‐Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students almost four months into the five month program – the fifth group to participate in the innovative and successful project that can these days literally be awarded hard earned high‐fives!
Just a 20 minute drive from the Givat Haviva campus, Caesarea is one of the most popular sites to be visited by both tourists from abroad and Israelis. Not surprising when on offer is an enormous open to the skies wondrous site that as one enters the impressive high‐ceilinged arched gateway, legends instantly come back to life with visual evidence of human creative greatness – and the opposite ‐ as well as the awesome strength of the wrath of Mother Nature when unleashing earthquakes powerful enough to upend massive marble pillars weighing a few tons apiece and toss them one on top of the other along the seashore.
In some places the impression is of a giant’s successful strike at the local bowling alley – the pins knocked down to lay at different angles until of course picked up and reset for the next attempt. Here the massive pins‐ofthe‐ past pillars of the ruins of the city built by Herod the Great to serve as his main commercial center, are never likely to be moved from their resting places either embedded in the rocks or at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea together with a large portion of the destroyed Herodian and Roman harbor.
One of the greatest cities of the ancient world, as huge as the Caesarea site available to the general public is today, it is known to be only a portion of what lays on the floor of the Mediterranean in the area as well as beneath the sandy dunes of the region awaiting excavation.
On a breathtaking blast to the past, the Intensive Arabic Semester students wandered through painstakingly evacuated layers of rich history contained in the remains of the city walls, ramparts, ancient roads, massive hewn slabs of stone from long destroyed buildings and strolled around the old port area. One's imagination – helped along on the day by the most professionally graphic descriptions given by educator and Semester academic director Dr. David Mendelsohn – worked overtime taking in the glorious and gory past of Caesarea. The sound of horses hoof’s pounding the paved road, chariot wheels screeching to a halt and the hum and drum noises emanating from a busy port seem to penetrate the tranquility of Caesarea in present times.
“I can almost hear the fishermen discussing their catch or instructions being yelled to port workers,” said Mendelsohn, whose comment enhanced by the joyous cry from a nearby fisherman reeling in his rod and finding a fish that couldn’t resist the bait thrashing about on the end of the line.
The building of and destruction by the wrath of both man and nature, from the Phoenicians to the Crusaders and every people and their leaders who came, conquered and were conquered in between, makes Caesarea such a fascinating site, legends simply coming back to life and enhanced by the glorious azure Mediterranean waters and sandy beach.
Talented stone masons and artisans have left their mark for eternity, the detail on a sarcophagus or base of marble pillars and slabs crafted to decorate doorways, ceilings and inner walls, leaving present day visitors standing in awe of their work.
Apart from the Intensive Arabic Semester students visiting Caesarea that day there were hundreds of other visitors from a number of different countries, yet hardly heard as the effect of the sheer beauty of the site drives one to silence – andvworking overtime with the camera.
At 11.00 p.m. the silence was shattered by a siren. It was Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel.vSirens sounded throughout the country. The IAS students and staff stood still – as did other people at Caesarea and throughout the land as the ear‐splitting sirens blasted full pitch. In Caesarea an eeriness prevailed standing at such a time in a place where so much had been fought for and been destroyed in the long gone past especially as peace is yet to prevail in modern times in the same region.
Following the visit to Caesarea’s old port, the students and staff continued on to the Roman aqueduct a short distance away. Having prepared a presentation on the history of Syria, student Dan Price could not have asked for more attractive and meaningful surroundings to deliver his excellently prepared presentation than standing under the aqueduct archways, surrounded by sand and sea, seagulls and strong scent of history in the air.