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.