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The concert that changed Bedouin society

An event in the Rahat desert town sparked a near-boycott, clashes over separate seating and ire from feminists – but against all the odds, the show did go on

Few Bedouins study Talmud, one may assume, but Pirke Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers – nicely describes the ballooning controversy surrounding a recent concert in Rahat, Israel’s second-largest Arab city: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure.” That’s how I feel this morning as I juggle queries from journalists and angry letters from social activists. The truth is, everyone involved did something right, for a change.

It’s been nonstop drama since we asked a popular music ensemble to perform the music of Um Kulthum, a legendary Egyptian singer, in Rahat’s new culture hall. To be sure, promoting shared culture for Jews and Arabs is the mission of the Thaqafat Center (“cultures,” in Arabic), a project of the Hagar Association. But we never expected to shake things up like this. Our basic idea was quite simple: bring Jews to a Bedouin town for culture and the arts; and offer the City of Rahat quality content to jump-start its new, state-of-the-art performance hall. Not so complicated, right? Wrong. As the date approached, ticket sales lagged. The auditorium holds 500, I thought to myself. I just hope the audience is larger than the band. What were we doing wrong? This was supposed to be the first concert of its kind in Bedouin society, comprising the poorest and most underserved communities in Israel. We cannot fail them. We cannot fail ourselves. And then, with our marketing efforts in high gear, the Islamic Movement issued a statement condemning the event and demanding its cancellation. Women singing to a mixed audience, they said, constitutes an affront to Moslem tradition. I started looking for a rock to hide under.

The next morning, just hours before curtain time, the Mayor of Rahat responded. Fayez Abu Sahiban, himself a member of the Islamic Movement, took to the pages of the Arabic press in support of the event. Rahat, he said, is a pluralistic city, and people have the right to enjoy fine culture. It was a bold statement. And it ignited ticket sales. When the Siraj music ensemble final took to the stage, there were 400 people in the audience, Arabs and Jews, enthusiastically singing and clapping along to popular hits like Ente Omri. I felt like we had broken a glass ceiling. More precisely, the people of Rahat had done it for themselves.

But it didn’t end there. Local organizers had made a half-hearted attempt at separate seating for men and women – presumably wary of the previous day’s warning by the Islamic Movement. Improvised signs referred men to one part of the hall, women and couples to another. As if to say, “please sit separately, maybe, if you wish, unless you really want to sit together.” Photos of the event showed most people sat where they felt most comfortable.

Not everyone, however, was comfortable. A group of outraged Bedouin feminist leaders fired off a letter this morning to me and the City of Rahat pointing out that gender separation is against the law. Journalists picked up the story. Local officials debated how to respond. And as I spent the next few hours on the phone with organizers and municipal officials, all I could think of was Pirke Avot. This, after all, is genuine social debate, social criticism, social change. It’s been a crazy ride so far. What happens next? I won’t venture to guess. Let’s just keep the discussion going.

About the Author
Sam Shube is the CEO of Hagar - Jewish Arab Education for Equality, which operates the only bilingual, Arab Jewish school in the southern Israel, Scout Troop Adam - Israel's first integrated scout troop, and the Thaqafat Center for shared culture in the Negev.
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