In Lakia, Israel, there are 160 women throughout the village who are responsible for designing and developing embroidery materials. (photo from Michelle Sitbon)
Our trip took us to the southern part of Israel, where we traveled to Beersheva. There is a small sign along the way, that you can miss quite easily, and it says Lakia. Lakia is one of the many Bedouin villages in this part of the country.
The Bedouins are a group of nomadic tribes who have lived in the Negev Desert for hundreds of years. Their heritage can be traced back to the traders along the ancient Spice Route, which happened to cross this region. Most traditional Bedouin hospitality experiences include camel riding, Bedouin food and staying inside a Bedouin tent overnight. However, in the village of Lakia, you are probably not going to find any of those things.
When you stop there, you are in for quite a different and unexpected experience. We arrived in Lakia in the middle of a hot summer day at the end of July and our main goal was to visit the Desert Embroidery. As we drove along the unpaved roads of the village, we quickly realized that Lakia might be small, but the Embroidery was extremely difficult to find. There was no sign telling us which direction to go, even though it is a tourist attraction.
When we finally found our destination, we got out of our vehicle and were warmly welcomed by Naama Al-Sana. She is the Bedouin woman who today runs the Desert Embroidery, and also founded the place together with other women from the community in 1996.
As we entered the visitor centre, we saw a display of beautiful art that was recently made by the local women. These women create the art in their homes in between their chores, and they use the money they earn from it to help support their families.
We were invited to sit inside a beautiful and colourful hand-woven tent, while Al-Sana offered us traditional Bedouin coffee that was scented with local spices. She was excited to hear that we had come all the way from Vancouver, as she has a sister who is currently in Canada, studying at the University of Toronto. Her sister often gives lectures about women in the Bedouin society, as a way to keep the history of this region alive.
The Desert Embroidery doesn’t offer the typical Bedouin tent experience, which includes being served a traditional meal. Instead, you will have the chance to contribute to the empowerment of Bedouin women in your own way. When you participate in one of the workshops or purchase any of their artwork, you will be actively improving the life, health and education of Bedouin women.
The Desert Embroidery was known as the Association for the Improvement of the Status of Women when it first began. The business has grown tremendously over the years and there are now 160 women throughout the village who are responsible for designing and developing embroidery materials. They also provide worker training and product marketing, and there is another group of women who work part-time to provide quality control checks on the products.
The system is very well organized. The women visit the Desert Embroidery twice a week to collect embroidery materials, drop off their finished items, learn about new patterns and designs, and participate in educational workshops and lectures. All of the women are allowed to choose how many hours they work, and they are paid by what they are able to produce within that time. A few of the women have chosen to preserve the traditional jewelry-making that was done by previous generations. They spent time learning how their mothers and grandmothers made jewelry and are now creating their own jewelry to include in the Desert Embroidery collection.
The Desert Embroidery is continuing to achieve its goal of providing employment and income for Bedouin women while empowering them and improving their self-confidence. More than 40 different artistic products can be found on display in the visitor centre, as well as other collaborations that help generate revenues for their work. An example of one of those collaborations is with Kibbutz Gan Masarik, which assists with strengthening the coexistence of Bedouin and Israelis.
The Desert Embroidery is also currently involved in improving the education and health of Bedouin children. And they want to expand to other Bedouin communities within the Negev, so that all Bedouin women can achieve economic independence. There are still so many challenges that women face in Bedouin society and this group is trying to help every woman overcome them.
The main reason I chose to visit Lakia was that I wanted to learn about this destination and the work that the Desert Embroidery is doing. My goal is to share what I have learned and to take other travelers to Lakia, so that they can see it firsthand. Of course, such activities aren’t only being done in the Negev region. In the northern part of the country, in the Galilee region, Israeli and Arab women also create traditional artwork to create a change in the lives of women.
I have made a visit to Lakia part of my itinerary in an upcoming small group tour to Israel, because I believe that travel can support and strengthen local communities. Since I am a travel agent who creates itineraries that are art-oriented, this is a perfect way to show everyone that they can appreciate art while making a difference in both children’s and women’s lives.
In the Mishnah Torah, Rambam organized the different levels of tzedakah, or charity, into a list from the least to the most honourable. Sometimes it is known as the “Ladder of Tzedakah.” The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished, by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, by extending a suitable loan or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business. These forms of giving allow the individual to not have to rely on others.
Projects such as those led by the Desert Embroidery can be found around the globe in places like Jordan, Mexico and Canada. When we travel, we know the many ways in which we benefit. However, I believe we should also try to find ways to benefit others as we travel, even in small ways. We should become more involved with local communities and support them in respectful ways that will, among other things, help them preserve their tradition and art.
Michelle Sitbon is an art travel adviser who organizes small group tours to Israel among other art-related destinations around world. For more information, visit yourartvoyage.com.