Yes, you read that right. We’ll get to it- read the whole way through 🙂
Today I went South. I’ve explored a lot of Israel’s Center and North- with plenty more to discover. And I’ve ventured a little south since making Aliyah to Ashdod. Now was the time to learn about another region.
I hopped on the train and headed to Be’er Sheva. It is a city actually mentioned in the Torah and there is a well there that according to tradition was dug by Abraham himself. I wanted to visit but it’s one of the very few places in Israel you need to call in advance!
I visited the city market which was cool. An amazing diversity of cultures that reminded me a lot of my neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Just with less traffic and yelling 🙂
I went into an electronics store and asked in Arabic where I could buy Bedouin music. For those who are wondering, Bedouin are substantially different in culture, language, and religiosity from many other Arabs in Israel. Therefore, their music is different as well.
The young man made me a deal and custom burned me a CD with MP3’s of dahiyye music. It’s basically happy Bedouin dance music- take a look. Somewhat reminiscent of the dabke I’ve learned- but in the words of the Bedouin man: “that’s fellahi music”. Fellahin were the villagers and farmers of the region- as opposed to the nomadic Bedouin. Most Arabs in Israel today are descendants of Fellahin and have distinct dialects from the Bedouin, who speak a bit more like Fusha, the standard Arabic which was likely modeled after them.
I was then peppered with questions about why I wasn’t married. Lest you think this is only a Bedouin phenomenon, it has been a frequent first question amongst Jews, other Arabs, even Samaritans here. It is extremely difficult for me- as a queer person, as an American (where this is considered invasive), and a survivor of partner abuse.
Eventually I shrugged it off by saying I was new to the country and needed time to settle in. Having gotten my Bedouin music, I decided to keep exploring.
I then came upon a bona fide music shack. A shack because it looks like one. And bona fide because this man knew his music. No CD burning here. He had hundreds of CDs.
I felt much more at ease here- Ahmed, also Bedouin, was gentle and friendly. And never asked me about my marital status. We bonded over Arabic music as he showed me tons of options. Eventually I bought an Israeli Bedouin CD (with songs from both the North and the South), Syrian dialect music (that’s the one I speak!), and another Bedouin CD from a town near Be’er Sheva. I personally find it miraculous to find Syrian-dialect music in a Bedouin shop in Be’er Sheva. First off, most Arabic music is not recorded in Syrian, even when the artists are from there. Egyptian tends to dominate. In addition, ten years ago when I took my Syrian dialect class, I could never have imagined this scenario. And I love it. When the stars align, language and culture bring me closer to good people like Ahmed.
Be’er Sheva’s Jewish community is also very diverse. Walking around, I found several Indian and Ethiopian Jewish stores. There were tons of Russian signs. I even found a sign publicizing a concert at a Tunisian synagogue from the famed isle of Djerba. Around the corner from the beautiful mural in my cover photo- showing how the ancient and modern co-exist and feed off each other in this beautiful land.
I toured a bit of the Old City, which I hope to return to- in particular to see the Grand Mosque/Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures. Like nearly everything in Israel, this place is not without its controversy. An Ottoman-era building, the mosque is no longer used for prayer, although local Muslims would like to do so. Instead, the city of Be’er Sheva wanted to turn it into a general museum. The Israeli Supreme Court, perhaps weaving between the two, decided it could be a museum but it had to be dedicated to Islamic history. I’m looking forward to visiting, being a fan of Islamic art and history, and would be happy to see it peacefully resume its role as a house of prayer.
Having the desire to see more Bedouin culture, I hopped on a bus and went to Rahat. An entirely Bedouin city, it is a fantastic place to go to experience their culture. Since it was already dark and my transportation options were dwindling to go back home (this can be a stressful part of spontaneous travel), I focused on my goal: food. Before I sat down to eat, though, I met a wonderful young man named Mohammed who is studying English. I had asked him for directions, one thing led to another, and we decided to stay in touch and exchange languages. In particular, I’m dying to learn his Bedouin dialect. And I can help him with English 🙂
I sat down to eat a feast. This is not an exaggeration. For 25 shekels, approximately $7.30, I got to eat this:
The picture doesn’t really do it justice- it’s huge. I didn’t finish half the rice (chicken is buried in it)- and I was very hungry. The bread is delightful- kind of like Druze pita i.e. nothing like the pita you’d find in a grocery store. The full bowl of soup that came with it was tomato-ey, a little spicy, and delicious. The rice kind of tasted like Biryani, for any of my fellow South Asian food fans. And it was covered in peanuts, peas, veggies, and delicious sauce. My doggy bag was enormous.
The people there were so kind. I have to paint this picture for you- there are 0 Jews anywhere. I can’t imagine many Jews come to Rahat to dine in one of the Arab restaurants that often sit at the footsteps of their villages for Jews to eat at without going “too far in”. I could be wrong, maybe some come. All I can say for sure is that when I was there, I was the only one around. And a totally novel figure.
People were so curious to talk to me. I was asked a million questions (fortunately nothing about marriage). All of them kind and welcoming. We mostly spoke in Arabic. I asked them to teach me some Bedouin- they said I spoke fellahi! 🙂 We used a few Hebrew words but they truly loved to practice their English 🙂 People knew I was American, Jewish, and Israeli. And I have to say, and this repeatedly shocks me, being American has been a huge plus to my travels in the Middle East. Despite the fact that the American government has a very long history of bullying other countries, so many people here still love America. Jews, Arabs- doesn’t matter. It’s fascinating and frankly really encouraging. It’s also a great way to disarm the people who are, in fact, suspicious of you, because I can play the innocent stranger. To be fair, I pretty much am one 🙂
Before my sated self headed to the bus (and then an exceedingly long train ride because I missed the more direct train- note to self for next trip), a man grabs my phone and insists we take a selfie. Apparently some concepts are universal:
As I headed to the bus, a man asked me what languages I spoke. One of them is Yiddish. And in a moment that you couldn’t even dream of in the wildest of scenarios, the Bedouin man tells me there’s a guy in their town…who speaks Yiddish. In shock and amazement, I asked why. He said that the man, back in the day when Yiddish was more widely spoken here, learned it just as he did every common tongue in the area. My grin, inside and out, could not have been bigger.
In pure cultural ecstasy, I headed home on a very slow train. With a lot of time to digest a rich and exciting day.
Intercultural exploration and communication can be very challenging. One does not come out of the womb with the skills necessary to make it happen- even if you may have some characteristics that help. I’ve spent my whole life communicating across cultures. From the my early years in Japan to my schooling in Maryland with so many immigrant friends to my work for refugee rights to the dozen or so languages I’ve studied (8 or 9 of which I can currently speak). None of this happened by osmosis nor just because I have “an ear” for it. I do have an ear for it- but just like a concert violinist doesn’t magically pick up a bow and play a concerto, I have honed these skills over years of practice and joy.
Today is the kind of day I’m proud to call myself a cultural explorer. One who learns, who tries new things, who makes people smile, who grows, who creates, who makes the world a better place.
If you’re looking for new adventure, the world is your backyard. And your backyard just may have a Bedouin Yiddish speaker.