A still from the movie Voices from El Sayed.
When one is a Bedouin living in southern Israel, ironies seem to multiply with regularity. Two relatively recent Israeli-made films bring this incongruous life into sharp focus.
In the first, Voices from El Sayed: A Snail in the Desert (2009, documentary), director Oded Leshem examines a minority within a minority – a special needs Bedouin group. In the second, Sharqiya (2012, drama), director Ami Livne focuses on an Israeli Bedouin who, although he has spent his young adult life protecting other Israelis – first as a soldier and then as a security guard – faces eviction from his land because the Israeli authorities do not acknowledge it as his.
Leshem focuses on both the social and technological challenges facing the deaf members of the El Sayed Bedouin. In an understated but convincing manner, Leshem makes this point: for people who are deaf, this Bedouin tribe is both heaven and hell.
Leshem presents a lot of information in his 75-minute film. For starters, he unearths this nugget: the El Sayed have the highest concentration of deaf people of any community in the world. Estimates are that this desert community located northeast of the Negev city of Be’ersheva has 3,000 tribal members and, of this number, 125-150 are deaf. Intra-marriage is high – 65 percent of El Sayed’s couples are somehow related – so deafness is, therefore, more often transmitted from generation to generation. Almost every family has a deaf family member.
In this village, deafness is acknowledged as a fact of life. Not only is it considered normal, but everyone in the film – hearing and deaf – knows and uses sign language. At first glance, deaf community members appear totally accepted and functioning comfortably within the group. There is always someone with whom to converse – but in which language does one communicate?
According to Leshem’s film, language is one of the major social challenges facing Israel’s minorities. The film notes that the older deaf members of El Sayed converse in their own form of signing: El Sayed Bedouin Sign Language (EBSL). A number of the younger members, however, have studied in schools outside the community. These schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Ministry of Education, so these Bedouin study Israeli Sign Language (ISL). In addition, these same young students learn to read and write in Hebrew, rather than in Arabic, their mother tongue.
There is no school for the deaf on tribal land: children are bused to a school in Be’ersheva. But not every deaf child attends or has attended this facility. As the audience learns, some young adults studied in the centre of the country. However, on the positive side, the film explains that Be’ersheva has a special early childhood class for the hearing challenged, which is taught by traditional Bedouin teachers.
The deaf young adult tribal members who speak in the film want to marry deaf partners. But in this strongly paternalistic society, their parents still have a lot of say in marital matches. Some of the hearing parents want their marriage-age children to break what they see as a chain of deafness, so they are interested in having their deaf offspring pair off with hearing mates.
Not only are there parents who want to alter the course of future generations, but there are those trying to improve the life of their offspring in the present. The movie depicts one set of hearing parents who decide that one of their children will be the first El Sayed member to undergo a cochlear implant.
The good news is that the Israeli health-care system will cover the cost of the surgery and the implant itself. But, as viewers soon grasp, this family faces many other obstacles. The first several months following surgery entail regular and frequent trips back to Be’ersheva’s Soroka Hospital. During these hospital visits, the parents learn how to encourage their toddler to listen in everyday situations. Both the mother and father accompany the child to the hospital. There, they work with a Hebrew-speaking professional staff. The father speaks and reads Hebrew fluently, but the mother does not. No Arabic translator is provided. This point is critical as, at home, the mother has the huge task of ensuring that all the other children participate in the training.
No less significant is the hospital staff’s lack of awareness of the overall situation in El Sayed. While Leshem’s camera reveals that high-tension wires stand in close proximity to the village, the film’s narrative discloses that El Sayed is not hooked up to the national grid. There is no electricity, except for the generators that power the village. Just as the hospital staff comes to terms with the family’s difficulty in keeping all the implant parts properly charged, so the audience grasps just how challenging this procedure is for this family.
El Sayed lacks what most Westerners would consider basic utilities or services. For the dispersed Bedouins living in areas of southern Israel, which successive governments have classified as “unrecognized,” not having electricity or running water is a common situation. Nowhere is that brought home more clearly than in Livne’s drama Sharqiya.
The story of Sharqiya centres around two brothers and the wife of one trying to live on family land. The land appears fairly inhospitable. Family members live quite minimally in one-room tin huts, serviced by a temperamental generator. In the barren surroundings, one brother herds a small number of goats, while Kamel Najer, the other brother and main character, works as a security guard in Be’ersheva’s central bus station.
Westerner viewers might wonder why it is so important to keep this undeveloped plot of land, especially when Israeli authorities offer compensation for leaving it. Coming from a Western society, it is also hard to get one’s head around the notion of inheriting land without documentation. But this is exactly what the Najer brothers claim: their family has lived on the land for generations.
In the film, viewers watch the authorities stand by, waiting to destroy the Najers’ homestead, as Kamel packs up cherished memorabilia from his army service. We witness this young Israeli Bedouin – who has felt enough sense of belonging to hold on to his army pictures and banners – have his living space made not just unfit, but non-existent. Livne makes it clear that if Israeli society does not appreciate the irony of this situation, it will not understand that such treatment puts the fragile foundation of Israel’s democratic structure at risk of collapse.
When the human and humane element is missing – as depicted by the Israel Land Authority’s tractor leveling the family’s meagre housing and corral – the cracks in society’s foundation deepen. The frustration and the disappointment do not fade out: in the closing shot, they are inscribed on Kamel’s face.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology.
More on the Bedouin
The following links are to position papers or websites of some of those involved in Israeli Bedouin affairs.
From the Israeli government: mmi.gov.il/static/HanhalaPirsumim/Beduin_information.pdf
From Jewish National Fund: www.kkl.org.il/eng/about-kkl-jnf/kkl-jnf-in-public-discourse/kkl-jnf-conferences/kkl-jnf-european-leadership-conference/kkl-jnf-position-bedouin
From a few nongovernmental organizations: