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Film Tries to Capture 'Truth' of Bedouin Life, in All Its Hues

June 21, 2007 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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Exterior of "A Step Forward" in Rahat
Nothing is ever black and white, especially when it comes to people.

Take, for example, the situation with Israel's Bedouin population, particularly in the south of the country, in the Negev Desert. There, some 180,000 Bedouin reside -- all citizens of Israel, but some black, and some white.

The so-called white Bedouin are often dark-skinned, in typical Middle Eastern fashion, like many Sephardic Jews. The black Bedouin are actually former Africans, who were kidnapped by Arab slave traders; auctioned off in Zanzibar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; and eventually brought through the Middle East -- and into the Negev. With the establishment of the State of Israel, they were freed, and later settled, for the most part, with many of the white Bedouin in desert towns and villages.

Israel keeps no record of the number of black Bedouin as opposed to white; population figures go by ethnicity, hence all Bedouin are counted together. But a sizable community lives in their own neighborhoods in Rahat, one of seven recognized towns established in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Israel government for certain Bedouin tribes. Less than 30 miles due north of Beersheva, modern-day Rahat is now a bustling city of more than 40,000 people -- the second largest Arab city after Nazareth in the north.

But these people are not faring so well, and their hardships led a Jewish filmmaker to take a snapshot of life in Rahat, seen through the eyes of a handful of black Bedouin.

Uri Rosenwaks, originally from Beersheva, came to teach a film class to a group of women amenable to the idea, and along the way, learned a lesson or two himself.

For one, Rahat -- which means "collective" -- ranks as one of the poorest cities in Israel, with an unemployment rate of about 18 percent, twice the national average. Some 50 percent of Rahat's adult population and 60 percent of its children live below the poverty line. It boasts one of the largest birthrates in Israel, with especially low education and employment rates for women, and especially high dropout rates when it comes to boys and school. Statistics point to the blacks as having an even rougher time of it than the whites.

"Israel," says Rosenwaks, "is turning into a capitalistic jungle," and it's leaving behind some of its struggling citizens. With no previous knowledge of the status of black Bedouin, Rosenwaks took what he absorbed in 18 months and turned it into a 53-minute documentary called "The Film Class," completed in 2006 and now weaving its way through the Jewish film-festival circuit.

'An Unfounded Stigma'
Superficially, the documentary centers on women of different ages understanding the mechanics of film production, but its real value lies in the self-knowledge and ancestral history they gain from interviewing others. For instance, they learn that older women know little in the way of their family trees, reaching back only to a grandparent at best. They know little of how they even wound up in Rahat. Male subjects seem to know more, like the nearly 90-year-old man who tells of black Bedouin, both male and female, being stolen as children, dragged away to be sold.

At times, the women visibly wrestle with their reactions to the stories they hear. They also get the chance to travel to see firsthand where they come from -- the group, with grant money for the making of the film, go all the way to Zanzibar to uncover their roots and find out more about the hardships of former slaves. (They also fly to England for quite a different adventure, one that addresses a serious familial issue, but also adds a bit of levity to the production.)

And it isn't just the past that stings. In an on-air talk with Talal Alkiernawi, the mayor of Rahat, the women challenge him on contemporary issues, like the discrepancies between blacks and whites.

In that interview, the women ask him rather bluntly, "Don't you feel that there is racism inflicted upon the blacks?"

The mayor distinctly pauses before answering with, "I don't see any racism."

Look, he continues, "I am a Muslim like you, an Arab like you. We speak the same language; we share sorrows and joys. I don't see any racism."

But another response to the same question is offered by Majid Al Kamalat, the 36-year-old director of "A Step Forward," a nongovernmental organization founded in 2000 by young Bedouin professionals to help residents from the grass-roots up. Its office in Rahat serves as a natural meeting place, as well as the location for part of "The Film Class."

This time, Rosenwaks plays interrogator, referring to something Al Kamalat quietly notes on film: "When you talk about a stigma, what do you mean?"

Replies Al Kamalat: "There is a stigma about the Afro-Bedouin community -- an unfounded stigma -- that we are all thieves and criminals, that we don't care about anything, but the opposite is true. As one of the community, I think it's the opposite. I see positive things, but people tend to see only the negative."

One such positive is the career of Al Kamalat's wife, Alia, who serves as headmistress of the Omar bin Al-Khatab elementary school -- kindergarten to grade six -- in Rahat. A working mother of three, Alia Al Kamalat represents one of the very first female Bedouin principals, though several more have followed in her footsteps. At 35, she is setting a trend for a new generation.

As is her husband, who notes that he appears in the film "for the future of the children," meaning all of the children in his city and elsewhere. And because of his own young daughter, he says he wants to further opportunities for women in general.

Those in the film class mention the exact same thing. They are empowering themselves and their families. They are undergoing an awakening of sorts. Be it operating the camera, setting precedents for their children, contemplating higher education or, for a few of the younger women, dabbling with the idea of marrying someone white, the assembly of students winds up earning an "A" -- for awareness. 

 

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