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Monday, May 11

A father such as this, a daughter such as this

If you want to know something more about Rahat, or what Area 7 is and who Janice Abu Hani is, you'll have to read the entire in-depth report by Matt Rees for Tablet Magazine, The Lost Tribes of Israel: The Jewish state seeks to bring the Bedouin in from the desert. Here, I feature only the excerpt where two of the people Rees brought into the report to give it 'human interest' appeal ran away with the story:


Nasser Alfrawna came to Rahat to find work as a structural engineer. He married Foda, a woman from Area 7 where Janice Abu Hani first lived, and had four girls and four boys. Unusually for a Bedouin, he put equal effort into the education of his daughters and his sons. He was highly protective of them.

Not only were they Bedouin, they were also black, which made them doubly subject to prejudice. Descended from Africans, black Bedouin are often called abeid (slave) by lighter-skinned Bedouin. The rounded, chocolate-covered marshmallow treat called krembo in Israel is sometimes referred to by Bedouin as a ras abeid (slave’s head).

Nasser’s daughters resented the attention he paid to them. Bader, the second girl, wanted to be like her female schoolmates, for whom there was little expectation other than the production of children.

But Nasser arrived at Bader’s classroom at the end of every school day to quiz teachers about her performance. He kissed and hugged her in front of her friends.

“You’re embarrassing me,” she said.

“No, it’s natural,” he said. “Don’t be embarrassed.”

Bader used to go home crying, feeling that her father’s attentiveness marked her out even more than her dark skin. It would be years before she understood him, and then she made tremendous sacrifices so that his wishes for his daughters could be fulfilled.

Bader’s mother tried to rein in Nasser’s ambitions for Bader and her elder sister Hind, who wanted to be a doctor. Nasser intended for both of them to leave Rahat and study in a boarding school.

For Bedouin girls to sleep away from home was scandalous. “What will people think?” Foda said.

“I don’t want to hear that talk,” Nasser said. “The girls will do what they want. Don’t listen to anyone else.”

At 13 Bader went to Ha-Kfar Ha-Yarok, a Jewish agricultural school in Ramat Ha-Sharon, north of Tel Aviv.

“I felt like one of them,” she says. “We were all friends, the Jewish girls and boys too.”

Even now Bader’s speech is a mélange which, as she converses in Arabic and Hebrew, provides many of the technical words and most of the verbal tics and phrases that add color to her meaning.

But her mouth wasn’t what her relatives worried about.

Nasser’s clan back in the village of Shaqib al-Salaam cut him off, to pressure him to bring Bader and Hind back to Rahat from the boarding school.

Instead Nasser announced that Hind would go to Germany to study medicine. If Hind went, his relatives responded, they’d kill Bader, who was then 16. They stole Hind’s passport to prevent her traveling. Only the intervention of a male relative allowed Hind to recover her travel documents. 

Eventually he also persuaded the hotheads to withdraw the threat to Bader.

When she graduated boarding school, Bader returned to Rahat. Her old friends were married. Many were beaten by their husbands. When one of them described a beating, another told her she deserved it.

“Nobody deserves to be hit,” Bader said.

She made excuses to visit her friends in Tel Aviv whenever she could. “I’m from here in Rahat,” she realized, “but I’m not really one of them.”

She volunteered with Step Forward for the Promotion of Education in Rahat, an organization aimed at improving the lot of Bedouin women and children. Within three years she ran it. 

She went door-to-door recruiting women for a literacy program. Some signed up, but when they asked their husbands—or when their husbands asked the clan sheikh—they backed out.

Still, Bader had many successes too. One woman said her children no longer laughed at her for holding their story books upside down.

Then it came time for Bader to pay back her debt to her father. Stricken by diabetes and severe cataracts, Nasser was no longer able to work. Bader took a second job at night, working with handicapped people in Beersheba, to pay for Hind’s medical school in Marburg, Germany.

It saddened Bader to see her father brought low. He had such aspirations for his society. He ran for the local council, but no one would vote for him because he was black. Now he was too sick to do anything.

She worked around the clock for two years, until Nasser was able to secure disability benefits. That allowed her to quit the evening job and study three days a week for her law degree at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, four miles from Tel Aviv.

She qualified six years ago and took a job at the prosecutor’s office in Beersheba.

“I loved it. I felt energized,” she says.

Her first appearance in court was a domestic violence case in a Jewish home. She noted down everything she needed to tell the judge to be sure that she didn’t forget. She was so nervous, she even wrote down her name.

She stayed with the prosecutor’s office a year before she opened her own practice in a basement under a shabby Rahat commercial strip.

In the sickly light of three fluorescent strips she tends to Bedouin clients whose unfamiliarity with electricity and running water has led them to amass debts on unpaid bills, as well as handling immigration cases and domestic violence suits.

People told her that men wouldn’t come to a female lawyer—she’s one of only two practicing in Rahat—but many of her clients are men.


Bader Alfrawna in her basement law office in Rahat

At that point the author makes a determined effort to get the report back on track, so while we learn a little more about Bader's life since she became an attorney, Rees quizzes her about how she feels about being Bedouin.  In a word, she feels nothing.

Studying her proud posture and fearless gaze, pondering her father's fierce independence of thought and hers, I venture Bader's judgment could soften a little as she gets older.  

Long ago the nomadic peoples of the desert were famed for their independence and courage.  Today, the Negev Bedouin are part of that sorry parade of clans and tribals all around the world whose ways of life eroded under the onslaught of time and the modern state, leaving them to squabble for scraps from a government's table.  This ignoble pastime has brought out the worst of tribal customs without the mitigating grace of harsh survival challenges in which the customs arose. 

Yet the story of father and daughter transcends time and tribe. It's a story of the mysterious alchemy of conscience, character, and love.  


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