A surprise visit to Shibli’s Bedouin Heritage Center

The Bedouin Heritage Center is a privately run museum in the Arab village of Shibli. (Larry Luxner)
The Bedouin Heritage Center is a privately run museum in the Arab village of Shibli. (Larry Luxner)

SHIBLI, Israel — For years, the obscure Bedouin village of Shibli, nestled at the foot of Mount Tabor in Israel’s Lower Galilee, has intrigued me.

The reason is simple: it always reminded me of my longtime friend and colleague, Victor Shiblie, publisher of the Washington Diplomat. Victor was born and raised in Maryland, but traces his roots to Ramallah — and every time I drove along Highway 65 heading north to Tiberias or the Golan, I would think about turning left at the junction and taking a look at the village that (sort of) bears his name.

Earlier this year, with a little time on my hands following an assignment in Nazareth, I did exactly that — and ended up with a story I wasn’t expecting.

Turns out that this town of nearly 7,000 residents is home to the Bedouin Heritage Center — a privately owned collection of artifacts run by Diyab Shibli, who like everyone else in the village speaks Arabic and professes Islam. Also, like everyone else there, his last name is Shibli.

Diyab Shibli, 67, explains the artifacts he’s collected over the years and now displays at his Bedouin Heritage Center in Shibli. (Larry Luxner)

I met Diyab simply by following the signs to the Bedouin Heritage Center, which I realized was someone’s house. After knocking on the door several times with no response, I was about to walk away when the kindly Arab gentleman opened it and invited this confused visitor in for coffee and baklava.

“I was a teacher and director of a school, and I was also a member of the local council,” said the 67-year-old pensioner as he explained how municipal officials established the Bedouin center in 1997 as a potential tourist attraction. “I would collect artifacts for their museum. But then we got a new mayor who said the museum wasn’t economical, that it was a waste of money. The collection was mine, so I decided to open a museum in my own house. The main floor is dedicated to the museum, and I live upstairs.”

Road sign along Highway 65 points the way to Shibli, the Bedouin Heritage Center and Mount Tabor. (Larry Luxner)

It’s a simple tourist attraction — one without fancy pamphlets, written explanations of its displays, or even its own website.

Nevertheless, Diyab’s museum contains nearly 3,000 artifacts “and also a warehouse for things I can’t exhibit, because there’s no room.” Articles on display range from a heavy old black telephone from the 1930s to an antique Royal typewriter that came from the house of a wealthy sheikh during the British Mandate of Palestine.

One alcove of Diyab’s house is filled with cooking and baking utensils, and another is centered on traditional Bedouin coffee. Off to the side are some very old Korans and writing instruments — as well as men’s artifacts like pipes, lighters, ink stamps with the signature of the sheikh, razors and shaving implements.

In a separate room are lanterns, soap labels, a huge glass case with dozens of traditional hunting knives and an enormous shortwave radio dating from the 1950s.

Literally every nook and cranny of this place is filled with reminders of Israel’s Bedouin past.

Clay pots and woven baskets on display at the Bedouin Heritage Center in Shibli. (Larry Luxner)

Diyab’s collection isn’t the only one of its kind; similar and larger museums to Bedouin and nomadic culture exist in various countries throughout the Middle East — including Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. There’s also another, bigger one in Israel: the Museum of Bedouin Culture at Lahav, in the Negev.

But this museum is intensely personal, as I learned while taking the tour, guided by Diyab himself. Admission costs NIS 35 (about $10) and includes the screening of an introductory movie about the Bedouins of the Galilee.

Visitors — usually Israelis but also Americans, Europeans and the occasional Chinese — come mostly in organized groups. The museum tends to attract Christian pilgrims visiting nearby Mount Tabor on their way to Nazareth, though it’s also received Jewish participants on Taglit (Birthright) as well as dignitaries and ambassadors.

Foreign diplomats enjoy traditional Arab hospitality during a November 2017 visit to the Bedouin Heritage Center in Shibli. (Ambassadors’ Club of Israel)

Local guides know about the Bedouin Heritage Center, and it also shows up in Google maps — all of which help to promote this underfunded attraction, which is still not that well known even after more than two decades in existence.

Diyab’s wife, Lulu, works with kidney dialysis patients at the nearby hospital in Afula. The couple has two sons, as well as a daughter who also works at that hospital.

One of those sons is 31-year-old Omar Shibli.

“Our tribe originally came from Iraq 400 years ago, and this area was controlled by our tribe. Obviously, that ended when the Jews arrived,” said Omar. “This museum tells the story of our relationship with Israel, what our position is as a Palestinian community, our day-to-day life and how we’re trying to adapt and live our own lives in a peaceful manner.”

Traditional Arab coffee pot and a scale-model Israeli-made Susita on display at the Bedouin Heritage Center in Shibli. (Larry Luxner)

Omar, who spent more than four years in New York, works as a software engineer for various high-tech startups in Tel Aviv and has a business partner in London. “Basically, we use Bitcoin to build commercial banking services,” he said. “We provide the infrastructure needed so that companies can focus on their business.”

Somehow, the mention of e-commerce seemed jarring in this shrine to the ancient, slowly disappearing culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its embroidered dresses, ceremonial knives and elegant silver cigarette cases.

But Omar doesn’t see any contradictions between Bitcoins and Bedouins.

“Younger people in this village are totally integrated with the Western way of life. It’s conservative, yes, but you can see a lot of openness here,” said the young man, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English. “We have a fruitful relationship with the Israelis. There are some difficulties, specifically with land, but overall things are good.”

Traditional embroidery displayed at the Bedouin Heritage Center in Shibli. (Larry Luxner)

While agriculture used to be the economic mainstay of Shibli and the surrounding villages, people now work in nearby factories and food processing, he said. “We are tribal, so a lot of sons leave, but eventually most people come back to the village.”

Asked about solidarity with the Palestinians and the failure of both Israel and the Arabs to achieve a lasting peace, Omar replied that it’s complicated, because even though Bedouins serve in the Israel Defense Forces, they share the same culture and language with their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

“There’s always a lot of tension in Israel. Yes, it’s a democratic country, but I wouldn’t say we have equal rights. However, things are not that bad,” he said. “I am blessed to have had a good education. It would be disgraceful if I said things were bad. Let’s say we can always improve.”

Diyab Shibli’s memorial to his beloved parents at the Bedouin Heritage Center in Shibli. (Larry Luxner)

Added his father: “Most of our visits are from Jews. It’s a friendly place to be. Things are pretty normal here, but this current government is right-wing, and any mistake Arabs make results in collective punishment of the whole society. It’s unfair, because most people here just want to have a quiet life.”

Before ending the tour, Diyab took me to one last corner of his museum, which contains a little makeshift shrine to his departed parents; Diyab’s mother, Amrah, died in 2000, and his father, Rashid, passed away five years later. The memorial is centered around a big wooden argaz, or chest, to store all his mother’s treasured clothing.

“I also included a rababa (a violin-like stringed instrument) so they won’t be bored, and a radio so they could listen to the news, and an old phone to call us,” Diyab said with a sad smile. “They haven’t called yet, but I’m waiting.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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