The Bedouins of Rahat – Progress and Tradition
Rebecca Abrahamson | March 28, 2022
The goodness in the Bedouin community is palpable. I witnessed it in the largest Bedouin city in Israel, Rahat, some 80,000 residents strong, just one week before the devastation in Be’er Sheva in which four Israelis were killed and two wounded in a stabbing attack, March 22 2022. This attack was praised by Hamas, but condemned by Israeli-Arab political parties Ra’m and the Joint Arab List.
Part of me would relinquish all hope, but more of me is galvanized to share the goodness that I witnessed, and how we can support it.
As the Bedouin lives in a family oriented society, local efforts at social improvement, in line with their values, can blossom at lightning speed.
Here is an example. A Bedouin Sheikh and his wife, after marrying off their tenth child, sought to end the isolation of local elderly women. They took one woman out of a nursing home for a few hours a day, brought her to their home, and studied the Qur’an with her.
Another showed interest, then another, and another.
Their living room was getting crowded. They moved their, as we call it in the Jewish community, “beit midrash” – house of learning – nearby to the Al Nur mosque.
I had the privilege of visiting it with the Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue of Ohr Torah Stone.
Women of all ages were gathering to learn the Qur’an. Some of the Bedouin women wore full hijab gently veiled over the face, others were more relaxed in their dress, headscarf draped loosely over their hair, no hurry to readjust should it fall back a bit. Some were clad in a gauzy soft all-white, others in multicolored fabrics. Some were pale skinned with light gray eyes, others olive-toned and still others a rich ebony, a reminder of the amazing variety in this small land. They were reading, debating, taking notes, learning both in pairs and in lecture format.
One woman sported gold jewelry, and I tried not to stare, but I was amazed at its hue and I believe the first time in my life ever gazing upon pure soft gold; to reach out to her bracelet’s round pendants, or her rings, or long draped necklace, would surely have warped them like wax under my innocent grip. So I maintained a respectful distance, thinking – there are things I should be cautious about here, let me hang back and listen, no need to impose.
Sheikhas (Muslim women leaders) were emerging, closing the educational gap between Bedouin men and women, and between Bedouin and other communities in Israel, and the amazing thing is that some of their mothers had never learned to read and write.
This was one example of the lightning speed rate of progress that I witnessed in that one visit with the Blickle Institute – from illiteracy to proficiency with the written word, from a recent nomadic life to a settled urban one. We saw other changes – the spacious high school that teaches the Israeli core curriculum, the decrease in polygamy in recent years, the change in the authority structure of the hamula, or extended family; until recently, each hamula had only one authority figure, now there can be several authority figures in one hamula, and some families choose autonomy.
Fatma recreated a Bedouin tent in which she hosts people to describe Bedouin life and share her personal stories. She told us flat out, “my husband and I make our own decisions for our family, and the head of our hamula knows that.”
The women’s Qur’an study group was also an example of grass roots change, an effort completely in line with their values of studying Islam and in line with their values of gender separate gatherings. This change was not imposed upon from without, it was organic and internal, with local, trusted leaders at the helm.
And it began in their living room.
When initiatives to improve a community are rooted in its core values and headed by trusted leaders, such efforts will endure. Should they be perceived as imposed from without, then that can feel like a quasi-colonialism, which the various peoples in the middle east are particularly weary of and on the alert for.
Imposition from without may in fact fan the flames of extremism.
Madeleine Leininger’s “Transcultural Care Theory and Ethnonursing” is but one example of the need for interventions to be in line with that society’s core values. Be out of step, you will be out of line, and may fan an extremist response due to the resentment that brews when cultures are imposed upon with values that are against their own.
Let me tell you more about Fatma’s tent. Sitting on low pillows covered in weavings of multicolored stripes, with a deep burgundy background, we sipped tea and Turkish coffee warmed on floor level hot coals. Born in Gaza to a Bedouin family, she married a young man from Rahat, taught herself Hebrew, took courses in photography, lay counseling, early childhood education, and is now learning to be a chef. She told us that Bedouin women whose mothers could not read or write are attaining college degrees. Fatma’s outreach goes against societal norms, but this was her initiative and she gained respect and support for her presentations to visitors.
Fatma quipped that women and men can never be the same. Forays into male dominated fields should be due to a woman’s interest in these fields, opportunity for women does not spell gender sameness; if you want to help the Bedouin, you will have to accept their societal norms of separate spaces for men and women.
With all her outgoing energy she maintains traditional Muslim dress, mourns any loss of modesty in the modern age, and taught her children not to date, but to involve her or those they trust in choosing a marriage partner.
This alerted me again to the pull of basic values, even in light of other advances. Fatma has indeed broken a glass ceiling in her outgoing speaking, but she still values modesty in deportment and dress. One must not expect an advance in one field, either academically or economically, to necessarily spell a jettisoning of religious values.
So we were taken aback by our visit to a local high school in which we saw girls and boys sitting together in the same classes. One member of the Blickle group, a Rabbanit of the national religious stream, questioned the pupils, “does it not bother you to attend classes in which boys and girls sit together?” and, “would some parents refrain from sending their children to school because of the mixed classes?”
We also discovered that the community wished to open a pool and of course have separate swimming times for men and women. In both cases, the government mandated – no separate classes, no separate swimming.
This flies in the face of any culturally sensitive approach to meeting a community’s needs. I doubt that separate classes in school or separate hours for a pool are really such religious values, secular schools for girls and women are still operating, studies have shown that girls attain a higher level of achievement in girls’-only educational settings. “… Research from around the world provides strong evidence that girls-only education leads to higher academic achievement, higher confidence levels, greater participation in STEM, and enhanced career aspirations.” Women-only sports have also been proven to benefit women physically, academically, and socially. (See footnotes at end.)
This brings me to a question to members of the Jewish community and how we can help: you hold that God gave the Land of Israel to the children of Israel, well, does that not mandate that we take an interest in every square inch of that Land? If I am chosen for this promised land, I really cannot ignore swaths of it, neither regarding its environment nor its people.
Yes there are programs for Bedouins to improve themselves academically and economically, but the following is what Sheikh Jamal and members of the school administration told us on that visit – “we need our own college for higher Islamic learning. I cannot send my sons abroad to study shari’a, as they may absorb extremist views, which we do not want. We teach a moderate form of Islam”. One Blickle participant asked, “are you Sufi?” and the Sheikh smiled and responded, “I accept all Muslims and I accept the Sufi, but we are Sunni Muslims.”
Sheikh Jamal went to South Africa for several months with his son to attend a course in memorizing the Qur’an. “I was not successful at it, but my son was.”
Accompanying his son touches upon another point – the importance of family cohesiveness.
Each extended hamula gathers on a weekly basis, in some cases, the gathering is so large that two days are necessary – “on Friday we see my family, on Saturday we see my wife’s family,” quipped Sheikh Jamal. An additional difficulty in sending sons abroad to learn sharia is their lack of ongoing connection with the hamula, and thus the preservation of their traditions and moderate interpretation.
In regarding the role of the Jewish community in peacemaking in this land, are we trying to have a deeper connection, a feeling of caring for the entire space, in awe of having been granted a chosen status? If it is our land, we should want every flower to blossom, every community to thrive. We must not reduce peacemaking to granting favors in return for keeping quiet, nor to imposing school curricula and lifestyles out of step with the local values. If their leaders are saying that they need a college for Islamic studies right where their families dwell, with whom they are tightly bound, and where they can monitor the interpretation to thwart extremism, that may actually be good for Israel, and may be what we are called to do.
So I will hang back a bit as I learn about the needs of different communities, as I admired the first time I ever saw gold jewelry of that hue on the Bedouin woman as she studied the Qur’an. I would like to reach out and touch it, but not wanting to damage it, will consider being available to support the needs that they express, on their terms, in line with their values.
Rebecca Abrahamson is co-director of AlSadiqin, an organization that researches the common heritage of Islam and Judaism. AlSadiqin strives to conform in every way to sharia and accepted convention, with the conviction that conflict resolution occur in line with scriptural values that Muslims and Jews hold dear. Peace agreements that organically grow out of our scriptures and shared histories are truly the key to lasting peace. Rebecca co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, edited “Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims”, began a column in the Israel National News service entitled Giving Voice to Muslims Who Seek Peace and has written in the same vein for the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Press. She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue.