News / City Life

Women of the desert

Women of the desert
© Sali Petel
A considerable number of talented and independent women stand behind the recent rapidly developing Bedouin tourism, devoting considerable thought to a blend of social activity and tourism that preserves tradition. Hospitality, embroidery, cooking and natural cosmetics alongside experiential activity serve to introduce Bedouin culture well worth a visit
Bedouin tourism is fascinating and in recent years it's been growing fast. In the past the men of the tribe stood behind every tourism initiative, while today women are the leading entrepreneurs, displaying a great deal of determination and self-confidence. They attract their sisters to follow, both in organizing groups and in personal volunteering. Today's Bedouin women go out to study, have a profession and play an important role in supporting their families. All this may not have been possible in the past, but today they're outside the tent, the village or the new villa built in the city, working in between pregnancies, telling their stories, reinforcing their surroundings, and being inspired by each other.
It is wrong not to admire the advances that they've made in the past few years. Some women have set up their own personal initiatives, others have worked under the protective — and supportive — umbrellas of non-profits and other organizations, combining social activism in support of their status in society with tourism and links to tradition — weaving, embroidery, cooking and natural cosmetics in tandem with social projects.
Some women entertain in their homes, others have organized and set-up tent camps and visitors centers, where they receive guests in the finest Bedouin tradition, telling touching personal stories, leading tours and workshops, and cooking together. (Some tours and workshops are in English.) We went out to tour Rahat, Lakiya and Tel Sheva, where we ran into some interesting projects and inspiring women.

Daughter of the Desert (Bat Hamidbar) - Maryam Abu-Rkeek, Tel Sheva:

The story of Maryam Abu-Rkeek, one of the first to break Bedouin conventions, is nothing short of amazing. Maryam is an expert in the research and production of natural, organic and ecological beauty products, which she extracts and mixes from plants she collects from all over the Negev. Her fascination with plants and their natural qualities, and her abundant knowledge (from her grandmother) of identifying them, blending them and their medical applications. Even before she began at a time when she still lived in a tent, Abu-Rkeek was adopted by an acquaintance, a rich woman from England, who took her in and encouraged Maryam to study Business Administration in London. 

On completing her degree, Abu-Rkeek returned to the desert where she connected to her roots and her grandmother's expertise as one of the Bedouin sector's best known natural healers. Abu-Rkeek now assembles, produces and markets natural cosmetics approved by Israel's Health Ministry, entertains in a tent located at the edge of the village, lectures on the products and retells her own fascinating story — studies in London, dedication to a career, and how locals dealt with her decision not to have a family, all tied in with descriptions of Bedouin tradition and culture. Maryam's young husband Naji leads tours around the dispersed Bedouin communities and ancient caves, where his family lived in the past. 

Amal Abu-Karen, Huria Palace, Lakiya:

Amal Awafi Abu-Karen is considered a Bedouin trail-blazer. In parallel to her job as a nurse at Beersheba's Soroka Hospital, she manages Huria Palace, a social-cultural center established in her grandfather's old and history-filled house. The center supports the independence of the village's women and creates employment opportunities for them in embroidery, jewelry and cooking. Years later, Abu-Karen is still excited and enthusiastic about the women and the opportunities she created for them to leave the house, work, meet people and entertain. A visit to the beautiful and impressive mud palace includes a taste of traditional Bedouin hospitality, women's stories, family lectures and other important topics. The palace is also a venue for jewelry workshops, painting in henna, and cooking with Abu-Karen.

The Weavers of Lakiya, the Sidreh Women's Association:

The Weavers of Lakiya is a tourism-cultural project established and managed by Sidreh, an association of Bedouin Arab women who are mostly from the village of Lakiya. The project's goal is providing employment for women and  preserving the Bedouin art of weaving that's passed on from one generation to the next. The women, some of them living in unrecognized villages, weave stunningly beautiful, colorful rugs by hand, employing traditional methods. Behind the showroom, where three lovely (and expensive!) rugs are displayed, there's a courtyard where visitors can observe the process of making them — from the cleaning of sheep's wool and coloring with natural dyes in a huge vat, drying the wool and spinning it into yarn, all the way to the actual weaving in the evening.
The Sidreh NGO runs vocational projects for women and educational projects for local young people.

© Ariella Aflalo

(Sidreh / Lakiya Weaving)

Desert Embroidery, Naama Elsana, Lakiya:

Desert Embroidery is a unique project launched and managed by Naama Elsana, who set up the organization to improve the status of women in Lakiya. It provides employment for village women, many of whom come to an authentic tent every morning and work together, while others work at home. They weave, sew and embroider clothing, bags and decorative items. And in the finest tradition of Bedouin hospitality, they receive guests in the tent, tell their fascinating stories, conduct weaving workshops, and are active in Bedouin-Jewish coexistence. In recognition of her contribution, Elsana has been honored with Ben-Gurion University's Negev Award.

Flavors of the Bedouin Cuisine, Sabira Abu-Jaffar:

Even the thought of Sabira Abu-Jaffar's stuffed vegetables makes you salivate. A modest and interesting woman, Abu-Jaffar cooks and entertains in her home, and more recently, in a hospitality tent in the yard, where guests are greeted with specialties of traditional Bedouin cuisine, with her own personal touch and a modern twist.
She heaps the center of the table with fresh salads, followed by shining colorful stuffed vegetables and lamb, roasted for hours in the steel tabun oven located in the courtyard. The pinnacle is the maklouba — a large pot she turns over before the guests, unveiling in all their glory, tiny stuffed vine leaves, cauliflower, carrots and chicken spiced in a unique combination of flavors. After a filling and sumptuous meal, a chance to stretch out on matresses and partake in sweets and coffee her husband has roasted over coals.

The Kesem Hamidbar Negev Bedouin Experience:

This project trains, develops and promotes Bedouin tourism in southern Israel. The person standing behind it, Yarona Ben-Shalom Richardson, Project Manager and the Negev and Galilee Development Authority, guides and accompanies Bedouin women, initiating, promoting and connecting them with existing budgets. “After years in which the Bedouin community did not appreciate their rich culture's wealth or traditions, they've come to understand that they can win recognition, raise their status and proximity through tourism,” says Ben-Shalom Richardson. “They've begוan to entertain in their authentic tents, open their homes, conduct tours around the Negev and make it possible for their women to set up tourism projects dealing with hospitality and their traditional crafts.”
More than 30 official tourism sites are now operating in the region, half of them involving women and more is yet to come.