Betty Soibel
Bimkom NIF Shatil Fellow 2018-2019

How do you say cultural appropriation in Hebrew?

I remember the very first time I heard the term cultural appropriation. I was a sophomore at Columbia, hanging out in my dorm kitchen, when a friend pointed out that another student, one particularly known for her activism, was wearing moccasins bought from Target. She laughed cynically and said “She’s off protecting Palestinian human rights while stomping on the lands of erased indigenous people!”

I recall laughing uncomfortably, and then running off to read up on cultural appropriation. From my research, I understood that cultural appropriation occurs when a majority group adopts cultural aspects of a (typically oppressed) minority. This cultural theft is exacerbated by imbalanced power dynamics and perpetuates a majority culture’s dominance. Throughout the rest of my university career, the term came up constantly, ranging from courses on the Arts and Crafts architectural movement to my Jewish summer camp’s idea to build an Indian-inspired sweatlodge. When I visited home, it was seen as the pinnacle of “PC culture”; constantly sparking debates with my more conservative family.

Following graduation, conversation concerning cultural appropriation became a mere intellectual exercise in comparison to the more serious ways social justice could be pursued. Its place in discourse seemed restricted to academics who could argue about the nuances of oppression without ever stepping foot out of their ivory tower.

However, in the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how cultural appropriation-based criticisms can actually be used to call out power imbalances. As part of Bimkom’s planning and mapping work, I spend many mornings visiting unrecognized Bedouin communities in Area C of the Israeli-controlled West Bank. During each visit, I listen to countless families describe their struggles related to house demolitions. Before joining Bimkom, I thought about the occupation as an amorphous, incomprehensible monster; now I understand its most mundane evils.

On paper, occupation means that only 0.6% of land in Area C is available for Palestinian construction. On a more human level, occupation means that Abu H. of the Nkheila community is forced to split his family and allow his newly married sons to start their families in another village. In Bedouin tradition, generational family homes are built next to one another, but now, if a new structure is built, the whole community comes under threat of demolition. These restrictive measures hail down upon communities not just about constructing new homes but about the smallest infractions; an extra door here, an adjacent welcoming tent there. Settlers from nearby outposts often come by to take pictures of the community, sending proof of anything new to the Civil Administration (CA). Bedouin shepherds joke that the CA is so watchful, they are the first to know everytime a new lamb or chick is born.

Nkheila, November 2018

Israel’s approach to building permits for Bedouin communities in Area C has rippling effects that go much further than limiting natural growth. The restrictions and demolition threats severely affect their semi-pastoral economy, thus throwing families into poverty and disrupting communal life. And since Bedouin communities are so marginalized in both Israeli and Palestinian society, their struggles are practically invisible in the greater context of the occupation.

And yet, Bedouin architectural style is not just visible in Israeli society, it is highly valued. I invite you to venture to any “hippie” Israeli cafe, nature party or music festival. There, you will find beautiful tents with sheets and tapestries covering the walls and floors. There will be few Western couches; the seating will be an abundance of mattresses and cushions for leaning. You’re likely find traditional Arabic coffee passed around on silver platters and men and women alike donning scarves wrapped around their heads and shoulders, protecting them from the sun.

Desert Ashram Bamidbar, 2016

In the case of the desert music festivals, the similarity is even more striking. The design of the festival infrastructure will be built to accommodate the temporality of the structure and dusty desert winds. Many of the structures will use palm fronds as gates, cloth flaps as doors, wooden pallets as bases. Tarps abound as a form of insulation. The festival grounds couldn’t look more like a bright, colorful version of a Bedouin community if they tried.

Khan al Ahmar, Heidi Levine for The National
Nataraj Festival, 2018
Nataraj Festival, 2017

To me, the architectural appropriation occuring in Israeli hippie culture is striking because it not only fits the definition so perfectly but it blatantly points out the erasure of Bedouins. The hippie architectural style takes a very specific part of Bedouin culture and presents it out of context, showing only what it finds the most “cool” and attractive. The style adopts everything it can-the colors, the materials, the design-everything but the actual Bedouins themselves.

The appropriation of Bedouin architecture amidst the simultaneous erasure of the Bedouin narrative is clearly condemnable- and yet, I wonder if it also has the power to create opportunity? If the cultural appropriation analysis is to step out of academia, it must be harnessed as a method to create social change. Perhaps, if people who so enjoy Bedouin style become aware of the issue of cultural appropriation, they could join in solidarity with the Bedouin struggle for recognition. Hopefully, this type of action will have the power to ensure that Bedouin architecture will never again be threatened by demolition.

About the Author
Betty Soibel is the current Shatil Fellow at Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, which pursues human rights and democracy in the field of planning. She is a recent graduate of the Urban Studies program at Columbia University ('17) and is interested in how issues of urban development play out on the stage of the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She can be reached at bs2829@columbia.edu.
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