The following is a guest post from Leah Zigmund. Leah is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert.
I’ve just returned from a week at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir with our semester abroad students. The week was very moving for me, and truly a cross-cultural experience. I wanted to share with you some of what I saw there. These are crazy times here in Israel, and my week in the Beer Sheva region did coincide with some of the bombings. But in spite of it all it is so important to keep these ‘connections with the other’ alive…
I spent the last week with my semester abroad students at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir, about 10 km from Dimona, in Israel’s Negev region. We spent the week working with an aid organization called Bustan. Bustan has a camp set up in the village and does various projects there, the most successful projects so far are a women’s catering business that they are helping to establish and an educational tour of Bedouin settlements in the Negev that they run called the “Negev unplugged tour”. In particular my students and I were helping with some earth plaster construction of an eco-tourism site that Bustan and some of the villagers are trying to create. We lived on the site of this future tourism area together with a few of Bustan’s interns for the week.
We spent the week working; learning about Bedouin history and culture; getting to know some of the villagers; and drinking a lot of very sweet tea. One of the most consistent things about all of our interactions with the Bedouin over the course of the week was what everyone said at the end of any formal conversation with our group. Every single time we finished a conversation about culture or politics or history we were told, “Thank you for coming to visit us, we are so glad that you are here. Please tell people about our lives, about who we are, about how we live and what we are going through.” So, friends and family, I write this post in an attempt to do just that—to describe for you these wonderful people that I spent a week with, and to share with you a little slice of the enormous human tapestry of this world that you might not know of otherwise. Below I give you a very brief glimpse into just a few of the people who became our friends last week.
Tanwa is a woman who lives just up the hill from where we stayed; we went to her house several times to watch her make fresh pitta bread. She adds the water very slowly to the flour and kneads it for a long time until the dough is very elastic. Then she twists the balls of dough like a pizza maker until it is nearly paper-thin and cooks it on a steaming hot metal oven called a saj. Whenever we went she fed us fresh hot pitta, and then we bought a few to take back to our place to eat later.
Anwar is a young man, just married a few years ago with two children. We did not meet his wife but throughout the week Anwar was our main connection to the village. He came by often, helped us get things that we might need like tools and other supplies, he figured out why our drinking water had been disconnected at one point and took care of that too. Anwar took us on a tour of the village a few days after we arrived and besides giving us a history of the village (which dates back at least 300 years, in this exact spot), and pointing out the ancient spice route which runs right through the middle of the village, he also told us why he is so glad that we are here. “I am a man of peace,” he said. “I believe that we will make the peace, the simple people, not the men who wear the ties. When you come here, when people come here, and we sit together and we talk, we are learning about each other. Tell our story when you leave here. Tell people about our lives here in the village. This is what will bring peace one day. And if I come to America I will visit you, and I will learn about your lives, and I will be making peace too.”
Atia is an elder of the section of the village where Bustan has its base. The village is made up of one extended family, and is organized into neighborhoods by smaller branches of that family tree. They can trace back 300 years to a common ancestor and most of the people here know exactly how they are related to everyone else. If is confusing for us to understand, however, because when the men have multiple wives the distinctions between brother and cousin get blurred. Everyone there has the same last name. Our second night in the village we had a small bonfire and one of the other visiting Israelis had a guitar. We were singing a combination of Hebrew and English songs, when someone asked for a Bedouin song. At first the men were very reluctant to sing for us but then Atia said that he would sing, if one of my students, Laura, played with him. They were already sitting next to each other and so he told Laura to watch him and somehow he managed to teach her the song with music as the only common language between them. Watching her play with him was one of the sweetest moments of the week for me.
After about 5 days in the village I left my students in the hands of the wonderful staff of Bustan for a few hours and went into Beer Sheva to make some connections for the coming spring semester. I came “home” to the village to the news that the girls had been invited to a birthday party. Shaima was turning 23. This made her not too much older than the students themselves, about the age of their older sisters. We met Shaima a few times already over the course of our week. Her Hebrew was very good and I talked with her a lot one day about her experiences since leaving school and before getting married. Shaima is the second wife to Atia, they were married about a year and a half ago and have a baby who I about six months old.
When we were getting ready to go I thought that we were going to a traditional Bedouin party, and I was very excited. I hadn’t brought any skirts, and was hoping that I wouldn’t offend anyone in my jeans. We arrived at Shaima’s house and were welcomed into her guest living room. This is a separate room from the rest of the house; it had a large television even though they don’t have any electricity. I asked about this and was told that it just “looks good”. The room was lit with candles and there were plates of food on tables—the kinds of things that I would expect to find at any birthday party—pretzels, cookies, nuts, other snacks. Shaima was wearing jeans and a tight fitting shirt, and she was showing her hair—this was very very different from the last times I had seen her with her traditional loose black dress and her head covering. The other surprising thing was that we were the only guests. I asked about this. It turns out that Bedouin adults don’t have birthday parties, but she had been to one of the international volunteer’s birthdays a few weeks ago and really wanted to have one. So this was our present to Shaima—we were throwing her a birthday party. Well, we quickly organized some party games—we played “broken telephone” in 5 languages such that no phrase ever made it around the circle. We played “keep the balloon up in the air”; we danced; we took photos of each other with our cell phones and then looked at them; and then we lit candles and sang happy birthday in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.
I haven’t said anything here about Bedouin history, or what is happening with Bedouin land rights here in Israel. If you want to find out more about the Bedouin or about the organization Bustan and the wonderful work they are doing you can check out this website, www.bustan.org
Leah Zigmond grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert where she has been a resident since 1999. When Leah is not in the classroom, the garden, her office, or on a trip with her students she enjoys baking, reading, and hiking with her husband and two kids.