Dr. Amal Abu Sa’ad is one of only a handful of Bedouin women with a Ph.D. Tomer Appelbaum

'He Was Shot, Left to Die, Called a Terrorist and Had His Name Tarnished'

Dr. Amal Abu Sa’ad, 42, of Be’er Sheva’s Kaye Academic College of Education, lost her husband last January when he was shot by police during the evacuation of the Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran. She speaks out about her life and about losing two husbands



First of all, I’d like to express my condolences.

Thank you.

Before we talk about the incident in Umm al-Hiran in which your husband, Yakub Musa Abu al-Kiyan, was killed and about what has happened since then, let’s talk about you. Let’s start with the fact that you are one of only four or five Bedouin women with a Ph.D.

I was born and raised in the village of Lakiya. In the 1980s it was an unrecognized village. It only had an elementary school, and when I finished there I wanted to continue and go to high school. For that I had to travel to another community.

You come from a family that’s considered an open one. All your brothers attended university.

Courtesy

That’s true, but it was still difficult. Not just for me, but for all the women in the village who wanted to continue studying. After we finished sixth grade we sat at home, since our parents wouldn’t let us go out. They wouldn’t let us go to study at [the Bedouin town of] Tel Sheva. It took some time but we eventually managed to convince them, me and some other girls who wanted to study, as well as some of our teachers at elementary school who moved to Tel Sheva themselves. They promised to look after us.

At the age of 16 I graduated from middle school and high school with distinction. I wanted to study medicine but didn’t get accepted. I didn’t know exactly what the psychometric tests were, I didn’t know you had to prepare for them, so I got a good mark, but not enough for getting into medical school. I didn’t know what to do. The principal of my elementary school told me not to sit at home. He told me not to get married, since that way I’d never go to school. He told me to at least take a college education degree. That’s what I did. I studied and became a teacher. I received a Bachelor’s degree in education and went on to obtain a graduate degree.

You were already in your mid-20s. Wasn’t there pressure on you to get married?

There was, but I wanted to reach my educational goals before getting married, since I didn’t know who I’d marry and if my husband would let me continue or stop me halfway there. I wanted to reach my goal of teaching in an academic setting. When I finished my graduate degree and thesis with good grades I decided to continue and do a Ph.D. in teaching sciences and medicine, at the Kreitman School of Advanced Graduate Studies at Ben-Gurion University. This choice stemmed from the fact that I had done a lot of work in genetics.

Your research dealt with congenital defects in neonates born to close relatives.

Yes, that happens a lot in the Bedouin sector. I also wrote a genetics curriculum for Bedouin schools in order to raise awareness about the risks of marriage among close relatives, and so that women know that if they are coerced into marrying within their family, there are many tests they can take to assess the risks.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

How common is this, actually?

The number of Bedouin children born with congenital defects is among the highest in the world.

Is this because the norm is to marry within the family?

Yes, a woman will usually marry her first or second cousin.

Is it very uncommon to marry outside the family?

It happens, but very rarely. Most people marry within the family, and wherever there is a recessive gene that carries a disease and you marry someone close to you the gene can be expressed, with the birth of children carrying the disease. Many families already know they carry a specific disease.

And that doesn’t prevent them from intermarrying?

No. The Genetics Institute and the Faculty of Medicine are trying to raise awareness and convince people to get counseling, taking into account information they get there. But there isn’t enough awareness. There are still many families who carry diseases but who simply don’t care. They continue intermarrying.

Is this a religious or traditional matter?

It’s not religious. In fact, it goes contrary to religion. When I did my research I investigated religious attitudes to the marriage of close relatives. I found in scriptures remarks about a tribe in which intermarriage was common, in which many children were born with diseases. Associates of Mohammed told them not to marry within the family, since they would have diseased children. This was long before anyone knew about genetics. There is a verse in the Quran that says that God created many nations, and that they should marry one another so they would love one another and become close. So religion encourages people to marry outside their families.

But in Bedouin society tradition or culture are stronger than religion.

Yes.

What is the rationale for marrying within the family? I understand there is a political motive, connected to giving a family more power.

From what I’ve investigated, I believe it stems from the conception of a woman as something very precious, as someone who should be protected so that no evil befalls her. If, God forbid, something bad happens to her, she can at least be protected by her family.

Do you buy into this conception?

No. I don’t see any justification in keeping a woman within the family, certainly not today. A woman can be anywhere, she is always reachable; a supportive family can support her anywhere she is.

You didn’t marry within the family.

That’s right. Even though I’m from Lakiya village I married someone from the al-Kiyan tribe. I have six children – two seven-year-old twins and another eight-year-old girl, a 12-year-old boy and two girls aged 13 and 14.

You were married twice. The children are from two different fathers.

Tomer Appelbaum

Yes, the younger girls belong to Yakub, of blessed memory, and the older children are from Mohammed.

Was your marriage an arranged one?

No, it wasn’t. I married Mohammed because he wanted to marry me. Since 2002 we lived in Umm al-Hiran, where our children were born. After three years Mohammed was stricken by cancer and died and I was left with the children. After a year, in order to protect them according to our tradition, I married Yakub, so I could raise my and Mohammed’s children.

Yakub is Mohammed’s brother.

Yes, he is. After Mohammed died, we married and had a daughter and the twins.

What do you mean you had to protect the children according to tradition?

It’s because I don’t belong to the al-Kiyan tribe, because I’m an outsider. In order for me to stay in Umm al-Hiran with my children, I needed to come under the tribe’s protection.

Can you talk a bit about polygamy? Many people argue that this is one of the deeper-seated problems of Bedouin society. What do you think?

I can’t talk about that – you have to understand.

I do. What about the status of the children? You said you had to remarry so they wouldn’t be taken from you. Whom do they belong to?

They belong to me. I raised them their whole lives and took care of them. But if I returned to my parents after my husband died, his family could come at any time and take them back. I didn’t want to be in that situation, since from the very beginning I gave my entire life to my first children.

When their father died I had to ensure that they had everything and did not lack for anything, that they would have an easy time, not having to contend with being orphans, so I gave them my all. When I joined Yakub, Mohammed’s brother, and had the girls with him, I continued giving them all I could. That’s the most important thing for me, the children.

With all those difficulties, you didn’t quit your studies. You managed to reach the goal you had set for yourself.

Yes, it was a long and arduous journey, and if my family hadn’t been a strong and supportive one I’m not sure I could have finished. Mohammed, my first husband of blessed memory, supported me and enabled it. My parents helped a lot, they were always ready to look after the kids and take them in.

It’s my character as well. I know how to attain what I want, and I’m quick. I knew how to study so that nothing was missing at home as well. I know how to manage everything. When I left for school the house was tidy and there was food, the children were all showered. I do everything quickly. My children have been very independent from a very young age. Their reality dictated that. I taught them to do everything for themselves from the age of three. They get ready, eat, go to school and even tidy the house by themselves.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Let’s talk about how your life changed since the evacuation of Umm al-Hiran. It’s a very small community.

Yes, around 400 people, a small community. We’re actually one family, the al-Kiyans, consisting of brothers, cousins and nephews.

Where are the residents now?

They are all still there.

No one left after the evacuation?

No, they’re all there. It’s a community with a lot of history, from the 1950s. Kibbutz Shoval was built on land belonging to the al-Kiyan tribe, and the tribe was moved to Umm al-Hiran. We had good houses here, well-appointed ones.

But since this was an unrecognized village there was no infrastructure.

An unrecognized village is a big headache, for everyone. I don’t think people can really understand what it’s like to live without electricity, water or roads.

The state claims it’s offering to move the Bedouin to permanent settlements, and that they are refusing.

They are refusing because they own land they are afraid of losing if they move.

Yes, that’s a complex issue. Each side digs in, certain that it’s right, and in the meantime time goes by with no solution.

I think that if the state talked to each village separately, a solution could be found for everyone.

So the problem, in your opinion, is that that the state is trying to find a systemic overall solution rather than individual ones?

Yes, I believe that many problems could be solved on a local level. Thinking that one solution fits all won’t work. I come from this society. I know it. Each community has its own character and way of life, its history and way of doing things, even if from the outside it seems that all Bedouin are the same. The people making the decisions propose solutions according to how they understand life, according to how they want things to be, but they can’t enter the shoes of the Bedouin and understand how they think.

The state claims that the Bedouin foil any possibility of finding a solution.

Tomer Appelbaum

Look, the tribal and cultural structure of the Bedouin is really very complex. There won’t be one solution that’s good for everyone. You can’t, for example, say that you’ll deal with all the unrecognized villages [in one manner].

Let’s go back to Umm al-Hiran.

A few years ago they started talking to us about leaving, since they wanted to build a settlement called Hiran there.

A Jewish settlement.

Yes, and the issue went through the courts with negotiations going on for years. Then it was decided that we would be evacuated [the Supreme Court decided that Umm al-Hiran would be evacuated, while noting that the residents were on the land with the state’s sanction – A.S.].

What happened in the days preceding the evacuation?

The night before the evacuation I was in Hura with Yakub’s mother. He came with some documents and said that there was a decision to sign them and that all the brothers had seen the agreement. He said he trusted the community’s representatives.

What was the agreement, that you’d receive alternative plots in Hura?

Yes, and Yakub was sure the agreement would be signed that night.

But it wasn’t signed.

No. We were told in the morning that houses would be demolished. I woke my mother-in-law so we could go there to help and see what was happening. She and I and my sisters-in-law went there at six in the morning, but there was a police barricade – they said the village was closed and entry was forbidden. My sisters-in-law got out of the car and walked to the village and I drove my mother-in-law back to Hura. Only when we got back we heard about the trouble and shooting, and they told me Yakub had been killed.

That’s how you found out he was dead.

Yes, from people talking. They said he’d been killed, then they said he’d been injured. They said that maybe he’d been taken to hospital. Everything was just rumors, people hearing from others who were there. No one really knew what was going on. We realized something had happened and we were in bad shape.

Then Yakub’s brother came and told my mother-in-law that Yakub had been killed. It was hard to understand, to accept that it had really happened; we didn’t know what had happened and why he’d been killed. The children started following the media, which had started reporting the incident, saying that it was a terrorist who had tried to run over policemen, things that didn’t add up to anything rational.

Olivier Fitoussi

Anyone who knew Yakub, even just as a teacher in the school, couldn’t believe that - a terrorist - impossible; absolutely not.

Tell me a bit about him.

Yakub was a quiet, modest and introverted man. He was bothered even by people speaking too loudly. One couldn’t imagine him thinking of doing anything bad. Before the evacuation he told his cousin not to intervene so that there would be no violence, it wasn’t necessary. Let them demolish the house, he said. And then he left, since he didn’t want to see that happening.

He said so before, to the whole family – if they come to demolish we’ll leave and let them do it. Don’t do anything stupid, he said. He thought the compensation was all right. He wasn’t a difficult or stubborn person. He simply wasn’t that kind of man.

After his death you didn’t receive the body. Only after the family turned to the court were you able to bury him.

That was a nightmarish week. It was the hardest thing, both the manner in which he was killed and the fact that they were keeping his body. We felt like it was a punishment from heaven. Then came the autopsy report showing that he was still alive for a while but had received no help. That he bled to death. I found it very difficult to cope with. In fact anyone, not just a medic or doctor, could have saved him. If he’d been taken to a hospital he’d still be alive. They should have saved him. You don’t let a person die like that.

If it had turned out later that he did have bad intentions, he could have been punished then. There are laws. But letting him die like that? Why? I can’t put my feelings into words; shooting him, letting him die, holding his body and tarnishing his name, calling him a terrorist. Each thing on its own is terrible, certainly all of them combined are. Only after a week did the Supreme Court release his body so we could bury him. We wanted a dignified burial like he deserved, not one held in the middle of the night, in a rush.

Many people attended the funeral. It was held under tight security.

Yes. Many people from across the country wanted to participate. There was great anger in Bedouin communities across Israel. But the family gave its word that nothing would happen at the funeral and it kept its word. We can’t bring Yakub back, so why should there be other victims?

Were you worried that things would escalate?

No. I knew the family wouldn’t let that happen. Look, there were 40,000 people there. People came from everywhere, Arabs and Jews. They also came later to console. Many people felt it was wrong. Many people were angry. They saw that both Yakub and the policeman were victims, victims of events that weren’t handled well, that were handled irresponsibly.

You went to the media and spoke. You were interviewed on radio and TV.

At first I didn’t want to be interviewed or to speak. I was subjected to enormous pressure. My phone rang nonstop. Even before I was certain he was dead I was contacted and asked to speak, but I didn’t want to. Only later did I feel I had to, that I had to say he wasn’t the kind of person he was portrayed as being.

I saw you being interviewed. I think it was very courageous of you.

It was very difficult, but I felt that as the mother of his daughters I had the responsibility of doing it. That’s what a mother has to do for her children.

You demanded an apology from [Public Security Minister] Gilad Erdan, who said to the media that this was a car-ramming attack. Were you frightened?

No, why should I have been? I didn’t do anything. I asked for an apology. Anyone can make a mistake, even if he’s a cabinet minister or a police commissioner. We all make mistakes in life, and people who make them should apologize, anyone who says what he said should apologize.

Erdan still hasn’t issued an apology. The investigation showed that indeed this wasn’t a terror attack.

You know, we haven’t even received the report yet. They haven’t completed the investigation.

Did anyone contact you? Talk to you, from the police or any other authority?

No one did. We’re still waiting for the written report so that the truth comes to light and he is completely exonerated from things that were artificially attributed to him. I had no doubt that he was innocent, but it is very important that they say so, since what they said hurts, very deeply.

Yakub's and my eldest daughter, who is eight years old, heard the police commissioner saying on TV that her father was a terrorist who ran over a policeman – she was very angry and told him to shut up and not say such things. My kids were in shock. They couldn’t understand that he’d been killed or how it happened. Adults can’t understand it, so how can children? Everyone is suffering.

I initiated meetings with a psychologist who would help them and me cope. I did speak to the media, but I’m not someone who expresses emotions. I was hospitalized after it happened, even though I’m young and healthy and had never been in a hospital. But all of a sudden I fell at home and lost consciousness. They said at the hospital that it had been caused by these events.

It’s quite a trauma.

Very much so. It’s hard to see the children so scared, suffering. It’s the hardest thing.

What will you do now?

In the meantime, nothing.

You live in Hura, with your mother-in-law and the children.

Yes, I’m waiting till we get a plot of land and I hope we can build a house. I hope I can afford it. Inshallah.

Will you marry again?

Not that.

You won’t be forced to?

No, at my age with older children it’s all right to stay this way, just as I am.

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