Who Will Save the Sheikh’s Palace?

Negev Bedouin try to preserve historical structures that hosted Israeli leaders and even Eleanor Roosevelt.

Shirly Seidler
Shirly Seidler

At Rahat’s western entrance, just as the desert stops and before the western-style structures begin, there is a large, open area, home to an ancient well, that only the keen of eye can spot. A barbed wire fence surrounds it, as well as some graffiti, perhaps sprayed by those who don’t know that the 250 year-old well is one of the Negev’s few historic sites. The well belongs to the Al-Huzail Bedouin tribe, and the water marks on the nearby pool attest to the extensive activity that took place there some 60 years ago.

There are many other Bedouin legacy sites just waiting for preservation, much like the well. The minorities department at the Council for Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel works on preserving non-Jewish historical structures, also important parts of Israel’s history.

The department’s work can be seen in many Druze villages, but much less so in the Negev, where many historical structures sit abandoned by the side of the road. One such structure is a house at the entrance to Rahat, which used to belong to Sheikh Salman Al-Huzail the Second, who had 39 wives, 150 children, and over 2,500 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The extravagant stone house was built at the beginning of the 20th century, and was the first stone-building built by the Bedouin of the Negev.

The rest of the Bedouin population lived in tents, and so the building was called “the palace.”

“This building saw many beautiful days,” says Ahmad Al-Huzail, the sheikh’s 73rd son. “Early in the morning, the Sheikh would receive guests. It was a meeting place to exchange news, and meet people.”

The sheikh lived on the top floor, and some of his children lived in the other eight rooms of the house. According to Muslim law, a man can only have four wives at a time, and thus the sheikh was known to frequently divorce and take other wives offered to him by the various sheikhs that would visit. The divorcees would return to their families, but their children would stay with Sheikh Al-Huzail.

The canopy next to the house was used to house important guests – which included Moshe Dayan, Yigal Alon, Menahem Begin, Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, and even Eleanor Roosevelt. Photographs, documenting the visits of these noteworthy individuals, can be found at the small museum that Al-Huzail opened at the site.

The house of Sheikh Salman Al-Huzail the Second, who had 39 wives, 150 children.
Amal Abu Keren, who runs the preservation site in Lakia.
Amal Abu Keren, who runs the preservation site in Lakia.
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The house of Sheikh Salman Al-Huzail the Second, who had 39 wives, 150 children.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Amal Abu Keren, who runs the preservation site in Lakia.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Amal Abu Keren, who runs the preservation site in Lakia.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Who will save the sheikhs palace?

“Father was the Sheikh of Sheikhs, and heads of state knew that he had authority in the entire Negev, so they made sure to maintain good relations with him,” says Al-Huzail. “Since he died in 1982, the place has lost some of its luster, and we closed it down, because the structure has become dangerous.”

The old well and the Sheikh’s palace tell the tribe’s story from the time of Israel’s founding, and thereafter. In 1946, Al-Huzail’s wells served many Jewish settlements then under siege. But in 1948, the Sheikh and his extensive family were expelled from the area, and the palace was turned into an army command post and hospital.

“Only after long negotiations did we return to the area,” says Ahmad Al-Huzail. “It happened thanks to the kibbutzim in the area, which wanted to bring us back. In fact, due to the good connections we had with the Israeli government, everyone knew my father. It’s tough for me to see the house in such bad condition, that we won’t even go near it. It needs much more than a patch-up. Serious maintenance work is necessary. We’ve been on the preservation waiting list for four years, and as time goes on, the house continues to crumble.”

“The house had a statutory problem,” says Amir Mizariv, head of the minorities department at the Council for Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites. “The area the house sits on is serviced from Rahat, but the land belongs to the Bnei Shimon Regional Council. As a result, it wasn’t possible to begin the preservation process until recently, and now we are trying to put the house on the list of structures for preservation. This requires a large budget; it won’t be simple, and will require assistance from the government.”

16 kilometers south of Rahat, in Lakiya, sits a large house made of mud, and it’s been there for over 200 years. Two spice merchants built the house, on the road from Be’er Sheva to Gaza.

“When my grandfather’s grandfather reached the area, business was good, and he bought a plot of land from the village of Lakiya,” says Amal Abu Keren. “Even though everyone lived in tents, he decided to build a house that served as a home and a store.”

The house covers three dunams, and is made of nothing but mud bricks and wood. According to Amal, the house featured many arches, which characterize Christian building practices. As it was the only permanent house in the area, it was also dubbed a palace, and served as a meeting place for locals, and a place to spend the night for passersby.

“The village elders still remember the house when it functioned; it was a place to go to, and the men would sit and talk,” says Amal. Her family lived there until 1990, when they moved into a different house, and the mud house has been used for storage since then.

Only Abu Keren’s grandmother, who made sure to preserve the house and add new layers of mud every year, thought that there could be a better use for the house than a storage facility. One of her sisters learned jewelry making, and decided that the house could be used for Bedouin women to come and sell handmade crafts. In recent years, Abu Keren took the structure’s maintenance upon herself, and turned it into a visitor’s center.

“The house is very important as one of the oldest in the area, and adds a progressive aspect as well, due to the women’s activity here,” she says.

Mizariv from the council for restoration says that one of the problems inherent in preserving Bedouin structures is that they are located on private land, where awareness of the need for preservation is relatively low. Despite this, the two wells, and Abu Keren’s home as well, have been added to the list of structures set for preservation, but the projects are all awaiting funding, which is expected to come in 2014.

Extensive preservation of these sites could serve to remind everyone of the not-so-distant past, when all could drink from the same well.

The house of Sheikh Salman Al-Huzail the Second, who had 39 wives, 150 children.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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