Cultural schizophrenia without and within (Shifting Sands. Stories from the Negev Bedouin community)

Waiting on the streets of the desert metropolis called Beersheba, a wave of familiar sensation washes over me. Yet again, I am about to enter a parallel universe. Leaving behind Beersheba, we – a group of Bedouins and I – will be heading for Rahat, a nearby Bedouin city. There, we will exchange the high-rise towers of Beersheba for family houses with tent-like annexes. We will swap the city’s shopping malls for minarets, and the trendy cafes will be replaced by the occasional camel grazing by the road.

And as we gradually become immersed in the community of Rahat, we will realize that the differences between these two nearby cities run deeper, deeper than their architecture. The social maps imposed on the physical space of the two cities are staggeringly different. In Israeli cities, the space is neutral and may be tamed to serve the citizens’ needs. You put down roots where you wish, never mind who happens to live next door. In a Bedouin city, on the other hand, the urban space is a mirror image of the social organization and hierarchy: where you live reflects what tribe you belong to, and, consequently, to whom you are bound by obligations of loyalty.

How do these two communities – the Jewish Israelis and their Bedouin neighbours – manage to co-create the hybrid organism called Israeli society? Figuratively speaking, these two groups share one body. They sit together in university classrooms, shake hands in government offices and argue in cafés over who was first in the queue. On the other hand, they inhabit entirely different mental spaces. While one prides itself on being semi-Western, largely secular and individualistic, the other is steeped in a rigid patriarchy, conservative with regard to social norms. Together, these two minds inhabit one body, creating a schizophrenic, yet distinctly Israeli organism. Indeed, schizophrenia is the best diagnosis of the Israeli society as a whole; the split of personality runs not only between the Arab and the Jewish, but also between the different Arab minorities themselves, as well as between the various facets of the Jewish majority.

Looking out my bus window, it occurs to me that schizophrenia might be a suitable diagnosis not only of Israeli society, but also of my own state of mind. When I arrive at my Bedouin home, I’ll find myself in a culture drastically different from my own. My Bedouin family are hot-blooded; I can be an angsty introvert. They spend most of their free time together, laughing and teasing each other, in animated discussion; I am a chronic individualist and feel a social claustrophobia unless I get my daily dose of solitude. They live in the now, everyone is involved in everyone else’s life. For me – an adrenaline addict – a given moment in time is only a point on a journey elsewhere. The sooner I leave here, the faster I will get to my next destination.

But we humans perceive through contrast and surprise. Immersing ourselves in a different culture leads to us to reconsider our own background. On the other hand, familiarity can dull the senses and, consequently, lessen appreciation. Confronted with strikingly different priorities and ways of reasoning and acting, we are forced to think through our own behaviour patterns and values. In this way, we sometimes discover what we are by identifying what we are not. This new-found sense of identity may, in turn, make us more appreciative of our own culture. On the other hand, in the face of contrast, we also develop a greater cultural humility and curiosity.

I experienced this first-hand living with my Bedouin family. Some of them have spent a significant part of their lives within the 150 square meters of their house compound. Many of their dreams and joys of life are also connected to this space. I, on the other hand, love my freedom – intellectually, physically and emotionally. At the same time, I can’t help but wish that in the most critical and beautiful moments of my life, I could have my loved ones as close to me as members of this family have one another. Through wanting to imitate my Bedouin family, therefore, I also desire to be reunited with my own community and to be re-immersed in my own culture.

But what is it that I have lost and long to regain? Perhaps I appreciate my home community in a deeper way not only when I miss them, but precisely because I miss them. I am a being idealistic in nature. I assume the best of individuals and communities. Now, I am away from those individuals and that community. And as we know, distance is the retouching technique of the merciful memory. In longing to be reunited, we forgive and idealize. Perhaps, therefore, I have thrown myself into this culture so drastically different form my own because I felt that I ought to learn to love my own tribe more. Maybe I also knew that this love would increase if separation led me to idealize my home.

I will soon be on my way out of Rahat again, journeying back into the Israeli ‘mainstream’. Boarding the bus, I will pass by an Israeli teenager in a crop-top and skinny jeans who – despite living next door – has probably never visited this Bedouin city. Behind her will walk in a veiled Bedouin woman, in a conservative, traditionally embroidered dress.

As for me, getting on the coach, I will – for a moment – teeter on the edge, gasp for breath in the vacuum of the space between two worlds. My head spinning from vertigo before I fall over the edge.

Yet this vertigo fills me with exhilaration. I find my body inhabited by the minds of the different cultures which I come from or encounter. Somehow, I love inhabiting this space between these cultures, because in this way I can somehow claim both. It is there that I find myself in the constant negotiation of who I am and who are those around me, and which of the selves in my mind is the ‘real’ me.

I settle myself on the bus and look out of the window, watching the landscape gradually grow greener as we are travelling northwards, leaving behind the Negev Desert. I think about my own mental landscape, about these shifting sands of the multi- and inter-cultural space. It is there that I allow myself to be distant in intimacy and intimate from a distance. What I mean is that the culture which I am experiencing seems to belong to me, since it is so near. However, this proximity is fragile, because this culture is not mine. On the other hand, though – and perhaps because – I are away from my own community, I feel deeply connected to it. ‘Everything’s mine, but just on loan, though mine as long as I look.’[1] Never stop looking.

[1] Wisława Szymborska, ‘Travel Elegy’

About the Author
Dorota, originally Czech, is a Semitic linguist, working at the University of Cambridge, where she also obtained her PhD. She researches Neo-Aramaic - the language of Jewish and Christian minorities from Kurdish Iraq. She also teaches and works on Biblical and Modern Hebrew. She's lived and studied in Israel, working in a charity advancing Bedouin women and at the Polish Embassy.
Related Topics
Related Posts