A Bedouin Artist's All-but-dashed Dreams for a Shared Life

Bedouin ‘storyteller’ Rana Abu Fraiha, maker of a film that spotlights wrenching family, social and political issues of Arab identity in the Jewish state, slams the ‘most racist law in history’

Filmmaker Rana Abu Fraiha
Guy Nahum-Levi

Who am I?

“My father is a Bedouin who grew up in poverty and was supposed to be a shepherd, and my mother was a peasant from the [northern Israeli] village of Jatt,” says Rana Abu Fraiha, a 27-year-old filmmaker who lives in Tel Aviv today.

“Both my parents were revolutionaries from a young age, and the fact that they met each other sometimes seems to me to be like something mystical that was meant to happen. We first lived in Tel Sheva,” a Bedouin town outside Be’er Sheva, Abu Fraiha continues, “and because during my childhood there were neither day-care centers nor preschools there, when I was 5 years old, my parents decided to do something radical and move with their five children to the town of Omer – the essence of Jewish hegemony in this country, a largely Ashkenazi community that voted for the [left-wing] Meretz party (at least back then), very patriotic and elitist.

“Growing up there was grounds for great confusion. Today I understand how powerful this dual identity is. In effect, it means seeing everything that’s considered to be ‘normal’ and ‘right’ outside, while inside is what you should ostensibly should distance yourself from.

“For years, I distanced myself from my Arab, Bedouin, Palestinian identity. I didn’t want to speak the language, I was afraid to get too close. Thanks to God (and especially to the film), I’m not there today.”

Filmmaker Rana Abu Fraiha
Guy Nahum-Levi

The film in question is Abu Fraiha’s documentary “In Her Footsteps,” which was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year and has since garnered acclaim abroad and at home, and the prize for best director of a documentary at that 2017 festival. It tells the wrenching story of her mother, Rodaina, who, after developing breast cancer, fought to be buried as a Muslim in Omer – a predicament the Jewish town had never before considered.

This is a film that moves one to tears. It is the story of a special family that is undergoing a process of saying goodbye to a beloved wife and mother, and it moves between family intimacy, social and political dilemmas and questions of identity and belonging.

Why me?

Abu Fraiha originally studied architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “There was no group I felt I belonged to 100 percent,” she recalls. “I went home on weekends, upset and angry, trying to understand from my mother what made her make those choices and how I was supposed to live with them.”

That, in fact, was the kernel of a future film

“I didn’t know I was going to make a film or be a director. I started to film, but as a form of therapy and from a psychological need. The camera wasn’t alien to our house. My father videotaped us a lot as children; we were a well-photographed family. Or to be blunt, we were the perfect ‘pet Arabs.’”

So how did this become a film about the family?

“The camera gave me the courage to raise issues in the family, to confront things. It became an inseparable part of me for seven years. It brought me closer to my mother, and later to my father as well, and made me understand them from a closer perspective. My mother was ill with cancer for 10 years. She got sick when I was 13. I grew up with death constantly beside me.

“Something different happens when you decide to look death in the eyes. The audience begins watching the film in the knowledge that the ‘Arab’ woman dies, and very slowly. All the headlines fall apart and what’s left is a single value: the family, motherhood.”

Life itself

In Abu Fraiha’s family, education was always the top priority. Her father studied at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and became the first engineer from the Bedouin community. Her mother, who came from an educated family, studied English and behavioral sciences, and worked as an English teacher in the Negev Bedouin town of Tel Sheva.

“The feeling during my childhood was that this was the only way to survive, with a certificate and a degree,” the filmmaker explains. “Otherwise, you’d be cast to the four winds. So all of us children met those expectations: degrees in medicine, mathematics, psychology and so on.”

However, adds Abu Fraiha, “in my view, that isn’t the most important thing. The human values I was raised on are the stable ground on which I stand today.”

Who am I with?

Marriage, she said, “was the dilemma in the reality I was born into,” perhaps the most complicated price of her parents’ choice to move to a Jewish community. “My roots were in one society (perhaps two, Bedouin and peasant), but I was raised with the mentality of a completely different society. It didn’t matter what I chose, it would be a mess.

“My mother says in the film, ‘You need to find someone who has been through the same experiences you have endured.’ Once, I thought she meant a Bedouin who grew up among Jews. But today I hear it differently: someone who understands this life, this complex array of identities, the internal tensions. And I know in my heart that there are people like that.

What now?

“It’s hard for me to talk about my dreams and hopes during the difficult weeks Arab society and the state as a whole are now going through,” she continues, referring in particular to the recently passed, contentious nation-state law. “The most racist law in the history of the country has destabilized me completely and swallowed up all the energy and hope for a shared life that I’d grown up on.

“What was most painful to me this week is that I’ve experienced personally how, when a certain group has privileges, they don’t see the injustice that is done to other groups. Only when your privilege is infringed on do you start paying attention.

“But, as always, I’m trying to get beyond this. My dream is that people will truly start to wake up here, to take human and moral responsibility for this place. Every one of us has circles of influence in which they can have an impact, even if it’s only a limited one. And for all the naivete this entails, I also dream of building a home here and a family that will grow up in a better world, in more loving societies that live with less fear and anxiety.”

Says Abu Fraiha in conclusion, “I can also say that one of the things that’s most important to me in my work is telling the stories of Palestinian, and especially Bedouin, society from the inside, being our ‘storyteller’ about ourselves. That is where my heart is heading.”