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October 29, 2015 7:25 am

A Day in Rahat: The Bedouin Capital of the World

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The Bedouin village of Rahat in Israel. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Bedouin village of Rahat in Israel. Photo: Wikipedia. – Liat Cohen is a seasoned member of an organization called Ma’agalim-Halkat (“Cycles” in Hebrew), which arranges visits between Jews and Arabs. Yet she admitted to being a bit scared to take part in an Oct. 24 visit to Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel — and the world.

About a week earlier, a Bedouin Arab was found responsible for the murder of an IDF soldier in a shooting attack at Beersheva’s central bus station. (At the scene of the same attack, an Eritrean asylum-seeker who was mistaken for a terrorist was also killed.)

My own visit to Rahat coincided with Ma’agalim’s tour. My personal host, Sharihan Al Kamlat, 22, whom I met on assignment this summer, was not part of any official hosting delegation. She was simply excited to show a reporter around her hometown, of which she is proud. Her dark skin and pretty face — and jeans and t-shirt — often cause people to mistake her for an Ethiopian Jew. This overachiever recently completely her national service at a health clinic and is a longtime volunteer at “House of Wheels,” an organization that provides enrichment programs for people with physical disabilities. Sharihan works at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Ministry of Health, but aspires to be a midwife.

While Liat related how she always looks over her shoulder in Israel — and particularly in Rahat — due to the ongoing wave of terrorism, Sharihan lamented about a more local concern. She pointed to a burnt truck across the road, thrashed during a brawl the night before between two rival Bedouin clans. Shots were fired in the air and one person was injured lightly, but in the end the clans made a “sulha” (truce). The brawl had nothing to do with the state of Israel.

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From a distance, Rahat looks like a typical Arab city. Ashen buildings lean over each other with no clear sense of architectural planning, and minarets dominate the skyline. During our tour on a wheelchair friendly van driven by our de facto co-host and driver, Fathi al-Krenawi, the main streets of Rahat appear grungier than the average Arab town, perhaps due to the nomadic roots of the Bedouin—dust is welcome. Palm trees and flora decorate the road dividers, but a persistent lack of finish on the pavements and buildings casts an air of depression. Ubiquitous trash on the streets comes from either negligent trash collection or poor sanitation habits.

Rahat is split into 33 neighborhoods, most according to clan, some more prestigious than others. While controversy surrounds the legality of Bedouin settlements in the Negev desert, Rahat is entirely under the auspices of the Israeli government. Beyond the city center lies the gargantuan headquarters of SodaStream, the carbonated beverage machine maker that made headlines when its celebrity spokesperson, Scarlett Johansson, remained loyal to the company even after it became anti-Israel activists’ target over its former factory’s location in Judea and Samaria.

Tents and tin shacks remain an indelible part of the landscape, but Sharihan pointed to the construction sites across acres of barren land set to become new neighborhoods for modern residences and industrial areas. Rahat desperately needs the expansion. Its population has grown from 9,200 in 1983 to 62,500 today. The Bedouin growth rate in Israel is the world’s largest at about 5 percent annually, in part due to the still-common practice of polygamy among Bedouin. But the age of arranged marriages is gone.

“We’re progressing,” Sharihan said. “Children of today are not like the children of the past. They want their own room, Internet.” Another local with us for the ride, however, remarked that “the tent is the best home.” Back at the city center, a tent was being set up in an empty lot for a traditional Bedouin wedding.

Rahat is sometimes cited as the poorest city in Israel. According to Sharihan, poverty indeed exists, but no one is out in the streets. A social safety net, partially funded by some of the city’s wealthier residents (who surely live in the beautiful stone homes we passed), ensures that people have basic needs met.

Given the informality of the visit, and Sharihan being so gracious, it didn’t feel right to pounce on the loaded subject of Arab-Jewish relations. So we left that for lunch at Fathi’s.

Fathi could have talked politics for the entire afternoon in his sparkling living room of sofas lined with deep red cushions. Surrounded at any moment by his (one) wife and smiling six sons, he sat in his wheelchair, which became more like a soapbox.

“You won’t see riots in Rahat like you did in [the northern Israeli city of] Uhm el-Faham,” he said, adding that Israel’s Islamic Movement, which motivated the riots up north, is not welcome in Rahat.

What, then, do they say in Rahat’s mosques?

“We’re against violence,” Fathi answered. “Keep calm. Do not panic. Keep the peace.”

Fathi was in denial that a Bedouin was actually involved in the recent Beersheva bus station attack, and was sure that an investigation will determine as much. He seemed equally upset by what appears to be discriminatory measures against Muslims in the wake of the current wave of violence — women in Muslim garb absorb dirty looks or slurs, with oppressive checks every time they pass security, he noted.

“How would you feel?” he asked.

Still, Fathi doesn’t identify with the Palestinians. “I’m an Arab Israeli,” he declared.

The rights of the handicapped consume him even more than the Arab-Israeli conflict. At age 28, a workplace accident left him paralyzed from the waist down — in part, he said, from malpractice during surgery. In the hospital, he had wanted to jump out of the sixth floor to end his life, until another woman in a wheelchair touched his wrist and said, “Life has just begun.” Her words inspired him, and he has been active lobbying for the handicapped ever since, receiving recognition from the Israeli Ministry of Welfare.

But if a new member of Knesset will emerge from Rahat, look to Sharihan’s family. The Al Kamlat clan lives in a multi-level complex, where we gather in an un-manicured courtyard covered by tarp as Sharihan’s nephews and nieces played around. The Al Kamlats are not your average Bedouin. They’re dark-skinned, with only the first generation wearing the traditional garb. Dark-skinned Bedouin are believed to be the progeny of African slaves bought by Bedouin sheikhs prior to the founding of the State of Israel; they often intermarried and converted to Islam.

Sharihan’s sister-in-law and cousin, Elham Al Kamlat, director of the Rahat branch of Yedid, an organization dedicated to civil rights and community empowerment, speaks like a natural-born leader. She may very well become the first black, Bedouin, female Knesset member.

“We have no way to advance except to learn a language, to study,” Elham said in elegant Hebrew. In Rahat, Hebrew is taught only from third grade. She makes it a point to send her 5-year-old daughter to a costly, advanced kindergarten and, recreationally, to a pool in a Jewish town since Rahat doesn’t have its own. She’s proud of her intellectually curious 8-year-old son, who constantly asks questions about world events and politics. She encourages Bedouin to participate in national service; five of Sharihan’s six brothers have served in the IDF. Civic engagement runs in the family.

“Be part of Israeli society,” Elham recalled her sister saying in a pep talk. “Don’t stay in the Rahat bubble.”

The topic of the ongoing violence in Israel was slow to come up. Why ruin this delightful afternoon with talk of blood? But as we walked to the car, Elham mentioned that the current wave of Palestinian stabbers do not represent Islam, and how according to her studies, Islam is a tolerant and peaceful religion that respects the “People of the Book.” As for the Quranic passages calling on Muslims to kill Jews, Elham said they applied only to a specific incident in which a band of capitalist Jews — “capitalist,” she reasoned, specifically because they charged interest—allied with heretics to fight Muhammad. As a capitalist Jew myself, I couldn’t say I was comforted by that explanation. But at that moment, in line with Elham’s spirit of learning, I just listened.

“If we would learn the language,” she insisted, “the culture of the other from a young age, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

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