The Bedouin women breaking with tradition in the Negev
In several government-planned villages in southern Israel, trailblazing pioneers are empowering local girls through business and education
Amal Abo Alqom dreamed of becoming a doctor. An unusually brilliant student, she especially excelled in English. Yet as soon as she finished elementary school, her family put her to work in the fields by her home in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi Na’am.
Desperately anxious to continue her education, Amal went on a hunger strike. And when that didn’t help, she threatened to hurl herself into the deepest well she could find. No problem, said her parents: let us know which well, so we can take your body out and bury it.
Today Amal not only runs a successful tourist attraction, but is the founder of a non-profit organization that helps younger women achieve their goals and, at the same time, provides older women who didn’t attend school the opportunity to boost their self-esteem by passing ancient traditions and expertise onto the younger set.
Amal is one of several amazing women who reside in three Bedouin townships, or villages, planned by the government: Tel Sheva, Lakiya and Segev Shalom. Living proof of what courage and resolve can achieve, each initiated a tourist attraction that brings in visitors from all over the world and provides a decent living for many of the local women. Most are also deeply involved, as well, in empowering girls and women in their home communities and from the unrecognized settlements nearby. Incredibly, they have been able to avoid treading on the feet of the local men, or flying in the face of age-old Bedouin traditions.
Kudos to a number of government offices that offer them assistance: the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Social Justice, and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee; the Negev Development Authority coordinates their efforts.
In the 1960s, the government began preparing seven permanent Bedouin settlements in the Negev. Oblivious to Bedouin needs and ignorant of their traditions, they began with Tel Sheva – and it was a disaster. Most of those who moved in, quickly moved out.
Only after the far more successful Rahat was established in 1972 did Bedouin begin to repopulate Tel Sheva. But many a family still preferred living in tents; on a visit in the 1990s, we shared a tent for the night with a family that owned — but didn’t use — a lovely house located on the same plot.
Mariam Abu Rakaek operates out of a Visitors’ Center called Daughter of the Desert that she built by sheer determination. Born in an unrecognized village, she moved to Tel Sheva when she was seven years old. For years, the family lived in a tent in the township, with Mariam attending the local schools. Upon graduation, she became one of the first Israeli Bedouin women to further her studies abroad.
After completing a degree in business administration, Mariam returned to Tel Sheva. There, her parents demanded that she marry a man of their choice. When she refused, the family decided she had to remain at home – and that is where she stayed for the next 10 years.
Yet armed with her business knowledge, a consciousness of the environment that she picked up in England, and the teachings of a grandmother who was a village healer, she began manufacturing soap made of the purest, most natural products. She took courses in cosmetics and medicinal plants, gathered shrubs and herbs from the nearby riverbed, and added oils and creams to her line.
These days foreigners and Israelis come from far and wide to hear Mariam’s fascinating personal story, watch her demonstrate the process of preparing her cosmetics, and to taste authentic Bedouin fare.
Well over 200 years ago, a Gazan Bedouin named Haj Mahmud arrived in Lakiya with perfumes and spices to sell. When he decided to settle down in the village, he built a large house of straw, mud, and stones that the locals, who lived in tents, called Haj Mahmud’s Palace. As time passed, family members moved out and the structure was used as a storehouse.
Great-great-granddaughter Amal Abu Karen was born in Lakiya when the village was still unrecognized by the Israeli government and lacked basic municipal services like electricity and running water. (It was officially declared a township in the 1990s.)
Luckily, Amal was permitted to attend high school and even encouraged to become a teacher. She, however, wanted to study medicine. Although her family objected, she eventually realized her dream and became a nurse.
We met 6-year-old Mi’ar (Light of the Moon), one of Amal’s four children, on our visit to Horiya Palace. Amal had renamed the site in honor of her grandmother, who had been taking care of the building.
It was Grandmother Horiya who suggested opening the Palace up to the public and relating its extraordinary history to listeners. With its authentic atmosphere, it also became the perfect venue for displaying locally made handicrafts, and for presenting groups with delicious Bedouin meals prepared by local women.
Amal feels strongly about the need to educate Bedouin women about a variety of health related issues – including breast cancer, a disease rarely discussed in the villages. Lectures on these subjects are coordinated with another remarkable woman from Lakiya: Na’ama Elsa’ana.
Born into an educated family – her sister is a school principal, her uncle is a doctor and her great-grandfather studied law in Istanbul – Na’ama graduated high school, continued on to college, and eventually worked outside the township in the field of special education.
Nevertheless, anxious to improve life in her native Lakiya, Na’ama returned home to help found the Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status, Lakiya – the very first Bedouin women’s organization in the Negev.
Desert Embroidery is the group’s flagship project, featuring a tent-like Visitors’ Center where tourists from Israel and abroad learn about Bedouin traditions, the status of Bedouin women, and the meaning behind different types of embroidery. The adjacent shop displays striking embroidered goods produced by over 60 local women who are supplied with material and training and who work out of their homes.
Besides providing employment for nearly 200 women, the Association offers lectures on women’s’ rights, health (see above) and other important subjects. In addition, the Association runs a mobile library, and gives classes in reading and writing Arabic, mathematics, English, and spoken Hebrew. Classes are for adults lacking a formal education as well for pupils who need help achieving a high school matriculation certificate.
As soon as she realized that many of the local women had never left their village, Na’ama began taking them on trips around the country – even to nearby Beersheba, which many had never even seen. Na’ama, who last month received a prize for her work from Ben Gurion University, announces proudly that 80 per cent of the Lakiya women who have academic degrees were nurtured and supported by the Association.
After finishing elementary school, Zenab Garabia was kept home to work in the family fields of Wadi Na’am. It was only when she reached the age of 24 that she was able to finish school and continue on to graduate studies in art. Nowadays, she teaches art in area schools. But her dream is to found a School of the Arts from elementary school through high school for Jews and Arabs alike, where pupils can learn every facet of art while earning a high school degrees.
The only Bedouin artist to work in clay, Zenab produces stunning works embellished with traditional Bedouin designs. Incorporating Bedouin embroidery into her artwork is a way for Zenab to express herself and her heritage, she says. It is her way of honoring her mother, married off at 14, and forced to leave her children when Zenab was only eight months old. The story of how her mother managed to stay in touch with her offspring, and one day to return, touches the hearts of all who hear it.
Zenab receives visitors in an attractive living room in Segev Shalom, offers tea and coffee, and relates the whole remarkable story. Then they tour her gallery, filled with a unique and fabulous array of lamps, dishes, teapots and knickknacks, all with an embroidered motif. Her works are based on designs she learned from her mother. “When you buy something, a part of my mother’s soul goes with you,” she says.
Obviously, Amal Abo Alqom, also a resident of Segev Shalom, never did throw herself into a well. Nine years after being forced to halt her studies, some of Amal’s relatives moved to the planned Bedouin village of Segev Shalom. There was a clubhouse at the edge of the settlement and sometimes Amal would walk over by foot from Wadi Na’am. When she told one of the Jewish instructors how she longed to go to school, she received so much encouragement that she was able to continue her studies.
But she was the oldest daughter. And she told us, as we sat on cushions eating maqluba (upside down chicken and vegetables), that after she finally finished high school she was expected to help support her family.
So instead of medical school, she studied child care and established a day care center. But it wasn’t enough for Amal, who volunteered to set up a sports program for the village children. She was so successful that she was sent to Haifa to acquire a degree in the coordination of early childhood education.
Amal longed to do something more for the children of Segev Shalom, so eventually she returned home and initiated all kinds of activities for both children and adults. When she realized how many women lacked a basic education, she and some friends founded an amuta called Women for Themselves that offers lectures, trips all over the country and classes not only for older women but for high school girls who need help with their studies. Amal proudly told us that one older woman asked Amal to go to the bank with her – where, for the first time, she was able to sign her name onto a document.
One fascinating facet of Amal’s work brings in grandmothers and great grandmothers who do not know how to read or write. But since they know everything there is to know about Bedouin traditions, they teach the younger set the almost lost arts of storytelling, the preparation of traditional crafts, and the use of medicinal herbs.
People come from everywhere to hear about her struggles to achieve an education and to learn about Bedouin customs. Some of them stay overnight in one of 10 village homes, which Amal believes is the way for people to really taste Bedouin culture.
When I suggested that now she could go to medical school, if she wanted, Amal laughed: I am already a doctor, she said. Just a doctor of a different kind.
For more information, tours or data about Bedouin tourism, contact Yarona Richardson at [email protected]
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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