A Bedouin Growth Industry

Tour guide Tomer Cahana is working with Bedouin entrepreneurs to develop tourism in the Negev.

Yitzhak Abu Hamadi, a council member in the Bedouin village of Darajat and the principal of the local school, doesn't look like your average political wheeler-dealer. The prefabricated building in which he sits serves both as the principal's office and the library. "We have a mosque lit by solar energy, 0 percent unemployment, and residents have completed Tourism Ministry courses and want to develop the village to receive visitors," he says.

Tomer Cahana, a tour guide who specializes in the Negev, calls the village "picturesque," a cliche that happens to be appropriate in this case. Darajat has houses in a wealth of colors, a cave recalling that about 100 years ago the village inhabitants lived under the earth, and a water system linked to the village wells. The most outstanding feature is the solar power system that lights up the village in the evening. However, now that the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) has demolished 25 homes in the villages of Oum Alhariyan and Attir, Abu Hamadi and Cahana's tourism initiative seems like a finger in the dike.

Cahana is working with Bedouin entrepreneurs to develop tourism in the Negev. With them, he is building an economic plan, obtaining support and funding, and conducting weekly trips. Darajat, for example, will host a spoken Arabic "summer school" next month - participants will study Arabic daily until 4 P.M. for a week, and will live in villagers' homes (for more details, call Cahana at 054-492-5888).

Encouragement of Bedouin entrepreneurship is a relatively new thing. Cahana, who is in his 50s and lives on Moshav Nir Banim, was director of the Joe Alon Center for Bedouin Culture. In 2000, along with Sefi Hanegbi, he established the Atarei Midbar (desert sites) company. "Gradually the plan came together. We realized we wanted to bring the Bedouin and the Israelis closer, and to break down a number of stereotypes," he says. "When I conduct a tour of Rahat, the participants say they would not have gone there alone. The image of the Bedouin has been terrible in recent years, and we must overcome anxieties and prejudices. I believe this is possible; otherwise I wouldn't be doing this."

One of Cahana's first projects was Ibrahim al-Fineesh's Peace Tent, which opened about two years ago. The tent sits east of Rahat, on the road between the Qama Junction and Lahavim. One day Al-Fineesh, who was a tow-truck driver for 13 years, was called to tow a car belonging to an Israeli family on their way to Eilat. "I saw the children were very disappointed that the car had broken down," he says, reclining on colorful cushions in his tent. Al-Fineesh lent the family his car and when they came back, they invited him and his family - two wives and 12 children - to visit them. "We stayed in touch and this led to the idea of opening an event tent," he recalls.

Al-Fineesh and his wives went to Jordan to buy fabric from goat's wool, which they used to stitch the tent. The colorful woven cushions are also from Jordan, and the carpets were purchased from local weavers. All told, setting up the tent cost NIS 100,000. "I sold the tow truck for this," says Al-Fineesh, and Cahana adds, "that boldness makes him a real entrepreneur." For two years the tent was funded by bodies including the Rahat municipality and the Tourism Ministry, with Cahana's mediation. A few months ago, the Peace Tent started becoming popular: "Two days ago there was a henna celebration here for a large group of women from Rahat, teachers from the town hold end-of-year parties here, and high-tech companies also bring employees here for a special day," says Al-Fineesh.

He serves breakfasts and lunches by reservation, including mansaf (rice and mutton) and maglubeh (rice, vegetables and chicken layered in a pot, which is then inverted onto a plate).

Sitting in the colorful tent during the heat wave last week was definitely a pleasant experience. What does Al-Fineesh have to say about the forecasters' growing hysteria about heat waves? "If you open the back strip of cloth, it makes an automatic air conditioner," he laughs, "and in summer we can switch to a light strip of jute that we quickly hang in the adjacent tent. The goats' wool tent is impermeable in both winter and summer. Water doesn't enter, and it could stand for 30 years."

But not all the Bedouin want to emphasize life in a tent. In the town of Laqia, near Rahat, stands a colorful tent belonging to the Desert Embroidery non-profit organization, which is run by the women of Laqia. Behind it is an air-conditioned building split into two parts: a sewing room and an improvised entrance hall. Waiting there are Husan Sana, 36, and Na'ama al-Sana, 41. The two women are exhausted: A few days earlier, that hosted 60 refugees from Darfur in the tent. This is typical of Israel in 2007: Sixty refugees come to the border and who takes them in, feeds their children and brings the sick to Soroka Medical Center? The directors of Desert Embroidery, who are far from well-off, feel a strong moral commitment.

The idea for the association began in 1984, when the two women were in high school. "Our tribe, al-Sana, is the only one that let its girls attend school," says Na'ama. "My great-grandfather studied in Istanbul and he was a judge and a sheikh, and my uncle was the first Bedouin in Tira. Laqia had an all-male administrative association, and as high-school students, we saw their importance and wanted to participate in the decisions.

"One time, they asked us to help establish a program for a day camp in the village," she adds in fluent Hebrew. "Our program included a visit to the sea. There were women who cried, because they never had seen the sea. When we saw that, we decided to set up an association ourselves." The two went from household to household, teaching women to read and write. "My mother would sign with a fingerprint, and we taught her how to write her name," says Husan. "In 1990 we registered as a non-profit organization and we started to raise money, and then we came up with the idea for embroidery," she says. They obtained financial assistance from bodies including the Jewish Agency and Shatil, a branch of the New Israel Fund. "The idea was to get women to do paid work - to let them embroider at home. They receive a salary, whether or not the embroidery sells," says Husan. "We make the embroidery into bags, bookmarks, cushions and other items."

At the start of the 1990s, the association had only six members; now it has 165. "We have women applying from other villages. But I am committed primarily to the women of Laqia," says Na'ama. She has four children, all of whom attend the high school at Kibbutz Shoval. Husan is not married. "That's what the association has done to me," she says. "I am not prepared to marry in a match I don't want."

On the day the wages are distributed, there is a lecture, sometimes by a nurse or a social worker, on acquiring a profession. "We invite nurses, because 70 percent of the women who are injured in household accidents and brought to Soroka are from Laqia," says Husan. "We still have a lot of work. We tell the women about their rights, about preventing domestic violence, about how to advance themselves. Women won't go to the welfare offices in Laqia, to prevent gossip. They come here to pick up work, and then they can talk to us. No one knows exactly why they have come."

Today the association also operates a network of mobile libraries in Laqia, and it earns additional income from Cahana's tours, which include a visit to the sewing center, discussions and lectures about the village women and sometimes a Bedouin lunch.

"After the women tell their story, there isn't single person who doesn't buy something," Cahana says. And even if this includes a degree of Israeli cynicism, he apparently is right.