Traditionally associated with the original nomadic peoples of Arabia, for many the Bedouins epitomise all that it means to be a “true Arab”.
The simple tents mirroring the silhouettes of sand dunes, strung in shades of coffee and terracotta and rust. Men with their heads wrapped lavishly in cloth, riding on horseback against the raging desert winds. The curious eyes of a Bedouin woman that stare through layers of ornate jewellery and mysterious voile. From a Western perspective, this image has changed little since the early 20th century, when Lawrence of Arabia rode camel-back through the desert. Nicole Kidman’s 2015 film ‘Queen of the Desert’, more than 100 years on, has done little to alter this image.
Long before formal borders, nationalism and sovereignty, these “desert dwellers” migrated with the seasons through the deserts of Wadi Rum, the Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. Now their descendants are split between the present-day states of these areas: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. But what happens when you find yourself a Bedouin living in predominantly Jewish Israel?
The status of the Bedouins in Israel is particularly contentious. Like so many minorities crammed into this small country, their story doesn’t fit with the two-sided narrative so rigorously espoused by politicians and international media. They are frequently moved along to make space for new developments, or asked to relinquish their nomadic ways and settle in purpose-built cities.
Cities like Rahat. Little over 50 miles south-west of Jerusalem, Rahat is the largest Bedouin settlement in the world. It is also one of the poorest cities in Israel. With white-washed houses stained grey by the desert winds and minarets towering high above the rooftops, it is an image of Israel the government would rather you didn’t see. Those Bedouins reluctant to settle have constructed their shanty houses at the edge of the city, so as to maintain a semblance of their nomadic past, yet remain close enough to the designated area not to cause trouble.
Within Rahat’s districts lies neighbourhood seven; “where the black people live”, I was told. The question, “wait, there are black Bedouins in Israel?” is not an illegitimate one. It is true that there are black people scattered across the country, be they Christian pilgrims, Ethiopian Jews or refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. Some are welcome. Some less so.
But to find black Bedouins, or to give them their formal name, Afro-Bedouins, living deep in the community of Rahat is an unusual, little-told story. The question as to why they are there, why they are black and yet also Bedouin, was a question this community had not fully explored until the NGO ‘Step Forward’ arrived in the neighbourhood. One could ask whether they needed to know why their skin colour differed from their neighbours? Did the NGO need to encourage them to question their identity?
Many would argue no. These Afro-Bedouins are as Bedouin as any Arab. The Mayor of Rahat pointed out that “we are all Muslims”. Afro and Arab Bedouins alike speak Arabic. They observe Bedouin traditions and wear traditional dress. They are also naturalised to their external Israeli environment. A woman invited to speak with us about her experience began speaking to us in Hebrew, and only with difficulty reverted back to her native Arabic.
But things are not so simple. Afro-Bedouins are not treated as equals within Rahat society. Racism towards them is institutionalised. One Afro-Bedouin gentleman spoke about how everyone treats them as thieves and criminals. Afro-Bedouin women can marry Arab Bedouin men, but Arab Bedouin women are forbidden from marrying Afro-Bedouin men. With so-called honour killings still rife, the penalty is not worth the risk.
An Afro-Bedouin girl of around seven years old was interviewed for the NGO’s documentary, cradling a chocolate marshmallow. When the interviewer asked her what she was eating she instinctively replied “a tea-cake”. After some thought she added “but they all call it a niggerhead”.
Were it not for this discrimination, perhaps the Afro-Bedouins should have been left content not to know their historical identity. But with such intra-community hostility and imposed inferiority, perhaps they can be forgiven for taking the opportunity presented by the arrival of the NGO to explore their own narrative.
For these Afro-Bedouins are descendants of slaves, bought by Arab Bedouin traders travelling in Africa. The members of Rahat’s black community trace their ancestry back to Zanzibar Island, off the coast of modern day Tanzania. Its capital Stone Town (now the oldest area of Zanzibar City), was once a thriving centre of the spice and slave trades. According to drawings found documenting the arrival of Arab traders in Stone Town and interviews with the oldest community members of Rahat, this is not a centuries old tale. It is possible that some of the Afro-Bedouins were bought by traders little over three generations ago.
Hence, the repercussions are still raw. The word ‘slave’ is used freely as a derogatory term in the community for Afro-Bedouins. A man named Rashad Abid, who once fled Rahat after being refused permission to marry his Arab Bedouin girlfriend, told us his surname ‘Abid’ derives from the Arabic root “’abd” (عبد), meaning slave or servant. This is far more than an abstract historical narrative. For Rashad, it meant exile from his own community.
Very few people in Israel know about the Afro-Bedouins. Those in the political elite who do, choose to ignore them. Perhaps even fewer in the wider world are aware of their existence. For there’s is a tale which, like so many minorities in Israel and beyond, is often swept under the carpet of dominant narratives, politically expedient as it may be to pretend that they aren’t important.
With so much media coverage of this fractious region, it is easy to suppose as Westerners that we are well informed. But as the case of the Afro-Bedouin community demonstrates, the reality is often far more nuanced than the overarching narrative that dominates our screens. Far from being an ancient people living outside the demands of modern day society, the Afro-Bedouins battle daily with racism, sexism, discrimination and challenges to their identity. They are just one group of peoples confronted by the reality of life as a minority within a minority.