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Sabha, the Bedouin woman, or the journey there — and back again? (Shifting Sands. Stories from the Negev Bedouin community)

This intelligent pioneer would give up the hot shower to be able to live in the desert village again
(Courtesy, Dorota Molin)
(Courtesy, Dorota Molin)

Meet Sabha — a 50-year-old Bedouin woman from the city of Rahat in southern Israel. She won’t be able to read the article, because she doesn’t know any English. Despite this, she is one of the brightest and most impressive women I have met. She has been a pioneer in different areas of life. For instance, she became the first in her family to obtain a university degree. She also founded her own charity for the advancement of Bedouin women. Despite her davka[1]-nature and perseverance, though, she also strikes me as a very loyal daughter of her culture. And she is not the only one to find herself in such a position. Some of the paradoxes she has had to navigate reflect the dilemmas of the larger Bedouin community — a community that finds itself at a historical crossroads.

Sabha grew up in a Bedouin desert settlement in the Negev, near the city of Beer Sheva. There, they didn’t have running water and relied on generators for electricity. In light these conditions, after she had got married and already had a few children — some 27 years ago — her family decided to move to Rahat, one of the cities built by the government for the Bedouins as a part of a plan to gradually settle the Bedouin population. Sabha’s family grasped the opportunity to improve their living standard as well as their job prospects. Undoubtedly, this would give their kids a better start to life, Sabha thought. There would be schools nearby, guaranteeing that the kids could attend them without interruption, even in rough weather — which wasn’t the case when living in the desert.

Today, some 80-100,000 Negev Bedouins — out of the approximately 240,000 — are still living in villages — settlements unrecognized by Israel. The rest have in the recent decades made the transition to a (semi-)urbanized life. Some families — like Sabha’s — moved voluntarily in quest for a new life. Others were moved by the government after being evicted by the authorities from unrecognized Bedouin villages.

Though Sabha left the desert, she took with her to the city one thing — the memory of a rough childhood. She had observed her mother struggle to make ends meet and it pained her. In her family, only the father was working, but there were 11 people to feed and dress. Traditionally, Bedouin women have stayed at home, caring for the family. To this day, only some 22% female Bedouins are in employment. The employment rate among Bedouin men reaches 60%. This number still lags behind the percentage of working men in other sectors of the Israeli society — in mid-2017, the national unemployment rate for men reached 4%.

This situation is changing slowly. For instance, some 450 Bedouin students — of whom 70% are female — are currently pursuing higher education at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev (in Beer Sheva). However, while it might take a month to put a new education policy in place, it will take years for the mindset to change. One female Bedouin Master’s student at the Beer Sheva university learnt this the hard way, when her family refused to support her financially while she was still studying, silently begrudging the fact that she wouldn’t get married.

But Sabha, looking at the state of affairs in her parents’ home, knew she wouldn’t have this for her family and herself. Upon arrival to Rahat, she decided to complete a university degree and started working at the municipality. At first, she was hardly being paid. Her half-time position would only yield her some 700 NIS per month. At the time — in the early ’90s — this would have been just under the minimum wage. Worried that her husband would forbid her to work if he found out how little she was making, she decided to open her own bank account. And she persevered, waiting for the situation to improve little by little. Eventually, she went on to become the mayor’s adviser for Women’s Affairs.

Bedouin girls from Rahat. (photo by the author)

To say that Sabha was ambitious and resourceful is to state the obvious. However, what drove her wasn’t a desire for professional satisfaction or intellectual stimulation — it was the quest to improve her family’s standard of living.

Following the footsteps of Sabha, we now find her in Rahat – with her growing family and humble beginnings of a public career. Settled. Though perhaps — despite this relative progress — not all the dust of tradition has settled just yet. Take her city as an example. Rahat, erected 35 years ago by the government, isn’t externally all that dissimilar from the nearby Jewish towns. However, despite these physical similarities, the social maps which have been imposed on the Jewish and the Bedouin cities respectively are staggeringly different. When these Bedouin families moved to Rahat from their native desert settlements, they left behind makeshift metal constructions, exchanging them for brick houses. On the other hand, they brought with them the social maps of their communities — the traditional hierarchy of authority, the bond of kinship and the obligations of loyalty.

I felt this on my own skin when — walking around the neighborhood — I was warned not to cross the road over there — “There is another family living behind it. It’s their territory.” Some areas of life seem to be more resistant to change than others.

Marriage also appears to be a domain which is impervious to the shifting sands of history. To learn more about this, we listen to Sabha’s story of her grandmother.

“As a teenager, my grandmother fell in love with her cousin. However, she was fixed up with a man older than her by 30 years. After over 30 years of marriage with the man, however, he passed away. Once a widow, my grandmother went to marry the man who — now also a widower — had once been the love of her youth.”

We now turn to Sabha’s mother. You’d assume that she — with the story of her own mother in her memory — would be more sympathetic to her daughter’s sensibilities. Wrong. History — or, to be more accurate, human nature — tends to repeats itself. Sabha was made to marry a cousin who she didn’t take a liking to, though there was someone else she was in love with. Later, she admits, she came to recognize that her parents had been right all along. They chose her husband on the basis of his admirable qualities, not a platonic fancy. Today, Sabha still wishes to follow in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps — she believes that the tradition’s got it right:

“Look, the son who married the person I chose for him is now happy, but the one who didn’t obey me is now having a hard time in his marriage.” Her conviction notwithstanding, her personal will for her children is expressed through advice rather than commands.

Sometimes, therefore — to use Sabha’s words — you will ditch the doctor’s prescription to stick to your great-grandmother’s medicine. Other times, you swallow what the physician prescribed and feel better. The bitter aftertaste arrives later.

Sabha feels that this has been the case for her with her transition to the city. When asked now, she says without hesitation that she would give up the hot shower to be able to live again in the desert village. Why? For the joy of the freedom and the closeness of nature you have there, she says. “Here, you are squashed on a few square meters, you can hardly even keep farm animals.”

Illustrative photo. (photo by the author)

Is this longing to return a mirage of an idealizing mind, a photo retouched by the forgetfulness of years? I suspect there’s more to this dream than that. It’s pride. Some mornings, Sabha yells at her teenage daughter to get out of bed. She is infuriated, believing that her daughter takes the comfort of this new life for granted. “These kids don’t have the ability to work hard!” In the attitude of Sabha and others from her community, one notices pride. A pride in their ability put up a fight, to face the circumstances — be it the rough living conditions, the need to provide for large families or the pressure to live up to the expectations of those above you in the social hierarchy. A pride that you can bend over backwards and still stand up straight at the end.

So perhaps amidst all this — the shifting sands of history, the slow but ever-present wind of change — it is pride which is here to stay. Maybe this pride is also what slows down — if not blocks — the morphing of the society. The Bedouins are proud in who they are as individuals and as a group. This, in turn, means that they want to remain distinct from others. I feel this pride when the Bedouins mock the other Arabs’ Arabic accent. I sense it in the tone of Sabha’s reply when I ask: “so will the Bedouins one day be just like Israeli Arabs or the Palestinians, when they have moved into cities and become a less insular community?” But she shakes her head militantly. “What is wrong with you? No, no, no, obviously not. We are not like them. A Bedouin doesn’t want to go out and campaign for a national cause. A Bedouin wants to live in respect and wants to protect his world: his land, his house, his family.”

Meet Sabha, the Bedouin woman who has made the journey there — and back again?

[1] Davka is a Hebrew word. If you do something davka, you will do it despite the difficult circumstances, despite someone’s advice or will etc. Why? Davka.

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.
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