Israel’s First 'Bedouin Promenade': A Colorful Source of Pride Against a Backdrop of Neglect

A Negev village that has no electricity or proper sewage system is pinning its hopes on a million-dollar walkway to boost its fortunes. A foolish investment or a historic turning point for Israel’s Bedouin?

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The new promenade in Qasr al-Sir. The tall, colorful metal pillars are engraved with designs that emulate traditional Bedouin motifs.
The new Embroidery Promenade in Qasr al-Sir. The tall, colorful metal pillars are engraved with designs that emulate traditional Bedouin motifs. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The "first Bedouin promenade” was inaugurated in December at a festive event in Qasr al-Sir, six kilometers west of the southern Israeli town of Dimona. All the school children from the Bedouin village, which is home to 3,000 residents, marched in a parade along the distinctive, colorful new promenade. They wore colorful shirts custom made for the event, decorated with an illustration resembling Bedouin embroidery and the inscription Tayelet Harikma (“Embroidery Promenade”) in Hebrew and Arabic along with the village’s name in both languages. Qasr al-Sir has 10 preschools, three elementary schools and one high school. No one was absent from the ceremony where much local pride and lots of smiles were on display.

The new Embroidery Promenade is 800 meters long and is situated southwest of Highway 25 in the Negev desert. You can’t miss it. It draws the eye – a bold streak of color against the pale yellow landscape. Seven huge totem-pole-like metal pillars loom above the promenade, reaching nine meters high. The pillars are laser-cut metal sheets, each featuring a different motif of Bedouin embroidery. Along the promenade there are three plazas and rest areas with signs providing information about Wadi al-Sir, a streambed that runs adjacent to the promenade, and about the village of Qasr al-Sir. At the northern end there is a variety of outdoor exercise equipment. At the official dedication, this was called “the country’s first ever Bedouin sports center.”

I walked the length of the promenade several times. Two children’s orchestras played. One class sang. A local Scouts troop waved and ran through drills. A slight stench wafted from the nearby stream, but no one paid attention to it. If we don’t talk about the stink – maybe it will evaporate.

I spent five hours in Qasr al-Sir and I admit that my attitude toward the new promenade fluctuated a few times. Initially, my response was one of pleasant surprise. Everything looks colorful, thoughtfully designed and well made. The contrast between the bright new promenade and the houses of the adjacent village, across the fetid streambed, couldn’t be starker. A beautiful façade with a pitiful backdrop.

The cheerful first encounter was followed by this thought: Qasr al-Sir, an officially recognized locality, still does not have a proper sewerage system. Residents get electricity from solar panels they install on the roof of their homes, not from Israel’s national electricity grid. Power outages are frequent. Many of the houses are in poor condition. Nevertheless, the Neve Midbar Regional Council, the Drainage Authority, the Open Spaces Fund, the Israel Lands Administration and the Environmental and Agricultural Ministries invested 3.7 million shekels (just over a million dollars) to build the promenade. Where is the logic here? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to invest in infrastructure? Wouldn’t it have been worth recalling that in 2015 the Neve Midbar council was ranked at the very bottom of the socioeconomic index of the Central Bureau of Statistics?

The colorful new promenade is a backdrop for the fetid streambed of Wadi al-Sir.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Soon I came to realize that such thoughts are typical for an out-of-town visitor who lives in a home hooked up to the electricity grid and thinks he knows better than everyone else what the villagers really need. In Qasr al-Sir I learned that there are a lot of people who think that this somewhat peculiar promenade, which seems to a visitor to be a bit unnecessary, or at least a bit premature, is the best thing that ever happened to the community.

Ibrahim al-Hawashla is the head of the Neve Midbar Regional Council. The promenade dedication was a red-letter day for him. He shook hands nonstop, hugged and kissed well-wishers and walked with me down the promenade like a proud father at his child’s wedding. Al-Hawashla is the first elected head of the council. His predecessor was Rahamim Yona, who was appointed by the Interior Ministry. The Neve Midbar Regional Council is just seven years old. It was founded in 2012 along with the Al-Kasum Regional Council. Both were “born” out of the split of the Abu Basma Regional Council, and were established in light of the Bedouin population growth in the Negev. The Neve Midbar council, south of the Be’er Sheva-Dimona highway, is home to 40,000 Bedouin, some in recognized communities like Abu Karinat (pop. 1,800), Abu Talul (pop. 1,800), Bir Hadaj (pop. 5,000) and Qasr al-Sir, and others in what are known as unrecognized communities.

A display window

Al-Hawashla explains that it was the need to manage sewage that flows along Wadi al-Sir that prompted the creation of the promenade. “Some of the sewage from Dimona still flows here and I’m sure you can smell it. We wanted to get this health hazard regulated and that’s where the idea for the promenade came up,” he says.

“We’ll turn this into a beautiful place. I see this as our display window. The whole country passes by on Highway 25 and from now on they won’t be able to ignore us. Because of the promenade, we stand out. Because this is the display window we wanted the promenade to present something from our Bedouin heritage, like embroidery. We were also happy to boost the status of the Bedouin woman, who is associated with the embroidery.

Promenade architect Zvika Pasternak, left, with Ibrahim al-Hawashla, head of the Neve Midbar Regional Council, at the inauguration.  Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“The promenade addresses a number of needs,” continues Al-Hawashla. “It has provided infrastructure for sport and leisure for residents of Qasr al-Sir; the appearance of the village next to the main road is improved; and later it will become a tourist and artistic attraction, something unique to this community, that will bring visitors here. It will be the basis for our tourism and for business. Eventually, the entire village will become an open museum. Perhaps we’ll also build a museum of Bedouin heritage here. Visitors from all over the country will be able to see how Bedouin live today in the Negev. They’ll learn about Bedouin embroidery, eat with us in restaurants that we build here, shop at the shopping center that will be built at the end of the promenade, even stay overnight here. I have a vision. I know that not everyone agrees with it, but in our situation, you have to be ready to take risks.”

Attempts to find people who disagree with Al-Hawashla’s vision came to naught. If there were any such folks, they preferred to stay quiet and keep their doubts to themselves. Another question that remained unanswered had to do with the odor. If this is what it smelled like after it was “regulated,” what was it like before?

Like in Ramat Hasharon

Later, at the official ceremony, Al-Hawashla was joined by Rahat mayor Faiz Abu Sahiben, Lakiya council head Ahmed al-Asad, Dimona mayor Benny Biton, and academics from the Center for the Advancement of Shared Society and graduate art program at Beit Berl College. The list of speakers clearly illustrated what honor was being accorded to Qasr al-Sir on this special day. Rahat, the only Bedouin city and the largest Bedouin community in Israel, has a population of 70,000. Lakiya has 14,000 people and Dimona 35,000. Their leaders all showed up to honor tiny little Qasr al-Sir. Or maybe they just came to marvel at the first Bedouin promenade in the universe.

The speakers all emphasized the fact that the promenade carries an educational and cultural message. Bedouin society is going through changes, the Bedouin lifestyle is changing, and thus it is necessary to present the ancient Bedouin heritage, so it will not disappear. Al-Hawashla also said that “The promenade project is a historic moment in the lives of the Arabs of the Negev, especially in Qasr al-Sir. The promenade is part of the regional fabric and is an expression of the good neighborly relations and cooperation between the people of Qasr al-Sir and Dimona and its mayor, Benny Biton.”

Women walking along the new promenade. 'We were also happy to boost the status of the Bedouin woman, who is associated with the embroidery,' says council head Ibrahim al-Hawashla.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When it was his turn, Biton said: “I am glad that the local leadership, including and especially the Bedouin leadership in the area, has become more independent and more involved, ready to ask for what it needs and to meet its people’s needs.” Even so, the sewage from Dimona could still be smelled quite strongly in the tent where the festive speeches were being delivered.

At this stage, I was thinking: If the people of Qasr al-Sir want a promenade, like the promenade and feel local pride because it was built – who can tell them they’re wrong? Maybe they’re really right and the construction of this odd promenade on the banks of the polluted stream will bring pride and joy to the whole community.

This was when Abed A’sem, the council spokesman, sat down next to me and explained to me quite eloquently and with much excitement how he saw the event: “This is the first time in history that we’re receiving what we want, what we dictate. No less. It’s hard for us to obtain a permit to build a house in the village, but we succeeded in building a promenade! Don’t belittle that. We have no beach but we have a promenade. And now everyone will also see that we have so much culture too. This hasn’t happened in any other Arab community. We’re human so of course we want to close the gaps. We want something to be proud of. For us, the promenade is a sign of modern culture. Bedouins are accustomed to living in an open area, not in a town. What you see here today is a sign of a modern community with a path, paving, lighting, aesthetics and proper planning. Like in Ramat Hasharon,” he said, referring to the affluent Jewish community in the center of the country. “Don’t laugh. This is a big deal for us. It’s progress on the basis of our heritage.”

Architect Zvika Pasternak, who designed the promenade, put it this way: “The quality of the little details in the execution is especially important to us here. The pillars, the signage, the finish – all of this was done at a different level than what you usually find in the Negev. Everything is of very high quality and that has a lot of importance, here in particular. The laser cutting of the embroidery patterns on the metal pillars was complicated and expensive work that we insisted upon. I’m a big believer that if you give the people of Qasr al-Sir an attraction that is on a high level – that is well made, that looks good – they will do their utmost to preserve it. It is theirs and was built in accordance with their wishes. Which is how it should be.”

You know that people will say the steel pillars won’t last long in a Bedouin area.

“This pessimistic attitude has to change. Sometimes it takes a catalyst like this to develop tourism in a village and I believe that tourism will develop here. I believe the people will continue to maintain the promenade in good condition.”

Raz Arbel, who lives in the Negev and has years of experience in the tourism industry, is a consultant for tourism development among the Bedouin and also involved in developing walking trails. When we meet later in Qasr al-Sir, he tells me that he also thinks the promenade can serve as a good basis for tourism infrastructure since it will open a door to the Jewish Israelis, who will enter Qasr al-Sir for the first time.

The ceremony concludes. The guests head home. The residents of Qasr al-Sir are left with an 800-meter-long asphalt promenade. On the long drive home, I made three wishes: that the promenade should endure and not be covered by sand; that the stench of sewage should vanish; and that the strange idea of building the display window before deciding what the shop is selling will succeed. Also that the children who marched with drums on their way to the first Bedouin sports center will be able to state with pride – “I am from Qasr al-Sir, where there’s a Bedouin promenade with huge colorful pillars.”

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