Our Time in the Friendship Tent By Lucas Liberman
Our latest Sunday tiyul took us to Beit Zarzir, an Arab regional council situated south east of Haifa and the Carmel Mountains in the outskirts of the valley of Israel (Eretz Israel).
Coming from birthright, one develops a particular picturesque view of the Bedouin as desert nomads living off their camel herds (and the tourism that comes with it), and wandering the sands from oasis to oasis. Upon reaching Zarzir, however, one realizes how outdated this picture has become. To begin with, the Bedouin of Zarzir, like in Lod, live in buildings like most of Israeli society. The only visible remnant of their previous life was the large tent that hosted us in the middle of a yard in plain view of the surrounding apartment buildings; the Bedouin called this “the tent of friendship.” Once inside, we were greeted with a short breakfast of tea, coffee, hummus, and bread – the usual Arab snacks – and two large boxes of sufganiyots, the famous deep fried, jelly-filled doughnuts of the Hanukah holidays. Waiting for us was a group of 27 Bedouin women, each of whom were graduates of Mercaz Ma’ase, having taken a couple or so years off after high school to volunteer as the Bedouin, unlike most Israeli citizens, are among the few groups in Israel of whom military service is not required.
The initial contact between our two cultures, that of English-speaking American Jews and Arabic-speaking Bedouins, was not easy, but nor was it expected to be. Only a few of the Bedouin women spoke decent English and most fellows only just speak basic conversational Hebrew. Consequently, and not surprisingly, the opening introduction went underway with the current volunteers of Mercaz Ma’ase sitting on one side of the tent and the alumni on another. Breaking the ice was going to be harder than previously thought… The introduction was given by three speakers, the first of which was Arkan, a twenty-one year old civic service alumnus from Mercaz Ma’ase and a current student at Haifa University. She opened the speech with a greeting followed by the story of how she joined Mercaz Ma’ase and, more importantly, how the experience changed her life for the better. She also acted as the main translator between the fellows and the next speaker, a tourist guide by the name of Moses, who gave us a brief history of the northern Bedouin. He explained that the Bedouin of Israel were divided by geographic location and origin into two distinct groups: the southern Bedouin who came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the northern Bedouins who came from Iraq and Syria.
The Bedouin once made their living as desert travellers and merchants, transporting people and goods across the desert. One of their most important tasks was guiding pilgrims to the cities of Mecca and Medina for the Hajj; a vital task that was cut short, however, when the Ottoman Turks built railways to the two holy cities. The Bedouins of Israel came soon after the British established the Mandate of Palestine and in time they changed their lifestyle accordingly after the establishment of the state of Israel, adopting normal jobs and moving into permanent homes. The government of Israel established this neighbourhood as a Bedouin town in 1971. Its name, Zarzir, was derived from the Arabic name of a regional bird. The current population of Zarzir, according to Moses, is 7,500 people whom are divided into five tribes: Elhayeb, Mzarib, Griphat, Eathat, and Ju’amis. Together these tribes operate three elementary schools, seven kindergartens, and a middle school and high school built only seven years ago. As a result of its tribal structure, however, Bedouin society is ripe with tribal tensions, an aspect that has stayed with them after settling into a sedentary life. Rivalries can be further exacerbated by the fact that tribes are kept in separate living arrangements and separate education systems; the only time some of them meet is either in the mall or at the supermarket. Yet Bedouin society is in some ways a microcosm of Israeli society. Moses described the country as being composed of four different tribes and it is true that these tribes, whether they are divided into secular or religious, Jew or Arab, rarely interact. To women like Arkhan, going to university provides them with a rare opportunity to see and experience another face of Israeli society.
Naturally, much of Bedouin life and culture has changed over the decades but it was clear from the presence of the 27 young volunteers that, by far, the most impacted subgroup in Zarzir was that of women. This was apparent with the way they dressed, wearing sneakers, jeans, jackets, and lipstick that would make them indistinguishable from their more urban Arab counterparts. But it would be foolish to judge change based on external appearance alone. Though women in Zarzir are still subject to arranged marriages, thanks to their high school education and the volunteer and leadership service offered by Mercaz Ma’ase, they now have a greater say with regards to whom they choose to marry. They also work in jobs that take them outside of the traditional domestic sphere. The second woman, Sheyma, was herself currently studying English in college with the goal of becoming an English teacher. After the introductory speeches, the floor was open to questions from the volunteers and these were met with, at times, uneasy answers as to how the role of women has changed, the relationship of Jews to Muslims as stated in the Qu’ran, the holiest text of Islam, and whether there are still recorded instances of spousal abuse within the village. What is more is that these questions were answered entirely by Moses, rather than any of the Bedouin women, while the entire exchange involved Arkan translating the questions from English to Arabic, and the answers in vice-versa. However, as common curtesy dictates, the presentation ended with a round of applauses and we made our way back to the bus with the Bedouin women following us to a nearby community center (sadly, the rainy weather had cancelled the planned tour of Zarzir).
We arrived at the community center shortly after and we were soon split into groups. These groups were then sent to different rooms, and what followed was a standard round of activities to break-the-ice and hopefully reach across the cultural divide. Sadly, this was achieved easier for some groups than others due to the language barrier. Yet success was still found, laughs were shared and commonalities were charted. The highlight of the day, apart from a stupendous Bedouin lunch, was the painting on a blank canvas. In this activity, each group needed to find something both the Bedouin in Israel and the Jews in the United States (or elsewhere) shared. The resulting paintings were no masterpieces nor did they reveal any shocking similarity between the two except that, when it comes to our dreams and hopes, both of us want the same: to live in peace and love while relishing on the more mundane aspects of life, mainly hummus and Leonardo di Caprio movies.