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Unique Ethiopian and Bedouin Women

Embroidery Visitors sit on chairs and floor cushions at the Bedouin Embroidery Center

On an excursion with members and friends of Bet Israel Masorti Kehillah of Netanya, Marsha Stein traveled south and met with women who have made unique contributions to their cultures and to the mosaic that is Eretz Yisrael.
Photos by Alan Stein

Atachlit, Beta Israel Village

The Gojo House, a mud and straw one-room Ethiopian hut
A bread similar to challah is baked for Shabbat

Atachlit is an Ethiopian farm whose sign, Beta Israel Village, explains the nature of this place. Beta Israel is what Ethiopian Jews are called. Visitors first see the Gojo House, a traditional mud and straw one-room Ethiopian hut, just like the ones newly married couples would build in Ethiopia. Larger families' houses would have several rooms.

Shmagtotch House, or "Gathering of the Wise," is a central meeting place where Geula, our Ethiopian guide, explained the Ethiopian way of life. The Buna for guests offers a special coffee prepared with ceremony. Beans are roasted over a fire pit, then ground and served black in small cups.

For 2,500 years, she told us, Ethiopian Jews lived completely cut off from other Jews. They have a strictly Zionist motivation to come to Israel.

Geula lived in a village in Ethiopia until she was 8 years old. Forty days after the birth of one of her brothers, Geula's mother set off on a 1,000 km walk to Sudan; it took one and a half weeks of walking for the family to arrive. For Geula's family, after being in a transit camp for two years, it took three weeks to get to Israel.

When the Ethiopians arrived in Israel they were confronted with an entirely new culture, a new language, and the 20th century. It became difficult for them to preserve their identity. The hardest thing was to not be accepted in Israel after all the hardships they had endured to arrive.
There are 150,000 Ethiopians now in Israel. Those who reached Israel feel obliged to integrate and also to honor the memory of the 4,000 who died en route.

Geula was 10 years old when her family arrived in Israel. They spent two months in ulpan, then she was put in a class with 32 students, all of them white except for her. Geula studied in a school for religious girls, then worked in education for 10 years. For the last 14 years, she has run the Beta Israel Village, now an amuta (NGO) called Hineini (Here I am), set up to advance Ethiopian culture and language. 

The organization has several goals: 

To bring back self-respect and the respect of their families to Ethiopian men. In Ethiopia, fathers were in charge of everything, the masters of their families. In Israel, their standing in the family dropped as they were dependent on their Hebrew-speaking children to help them manage the bureaucracy in Israeli society. Ten years ago, the farm was established in order to give fathers, 60 to 70 years old, a place to feel useful. The men walk 8 km from Kiryat Gat, where they live, and arrive at 5 am each day. Each has his own plot. They take home the produce and distribute it to family members. Forty-five people work there and others are volunteers.

To educate young people about Ethiopian culture, heritage and traditions, so that they will be comfortable with their two identities. Geula wants Ethiopian heritage to be seen as a gift enriching Israeli society. In a typical year, 20,000 people from all over the world pass through this village. There are six such villages in Israel, but this one is the center, a showcase village.

On Shabbat, holidays and Rosh Hodesh (the start of a new month), a special bread is baked. It is similar to challah but not braided and the texture is different, to me more like injera, the traditional flat, pancake-like bread that Ethiopians use to pick up food and eat with their hands. On Shabbat, Ethiopian Jews say a blessing only over the bread, not the wine, as the wine in Ethiopia was not appropriate for blessing. A kes, an Ethiopian rabbi, assembles all the men to say the blessing and then translates. The bread is cut in half to remind one of the separation of waters of the children of Israel. Geula robed our friend and had him recite the blessing in Hebrew and English, while another congregant was draped and asked to roast the coffee beans over the fire.

After the bread tasting, we met Adina and went to the Gojo House for an explanation. The messesso is the center pole that holds it all up; it is nicknamed "the elder." In Israel, Adina told us, the children became the messesso. Building takes place in a community environment; everyone helps.
We had a chance at mud brick building. Three men from our group took hoes and began to break up the soil. Some women took turns, with the guide sifting the soil over a screen. Then they added water and straw and mixed it by hand. Once the texture was right, several people slapped it onto the frame of the hut both inside and out and pressed it into place.
At the end of our visit we had a chance to learn Ethiopian dance. Most dances are with the upper part of the body. A man dances in front of a woman to show his love for her. The group made a circle and everyone shook shoulders while the lovely Ethiopian guides demonstrated in the center of the circle and then with several individuals.
Feeling much more familiar with some of the customs of our Ethiopian neighbors, we were on our way.

The second group of people we visited were Bedouins. We stopped at two different places to learn how some Bedouin women broke the mold of their patriarchal culture. In the first case, they started a nonprofit organization built out of a small business. In the second, a business was built literally from the ground up using natural ingredients from the Negev desert.

Rikmat HaMidbar, the Bedouin Desert Embroidery Center 

Learning Ethiopian dance

We learned that embroidery is a means to an end in this special place. It is more a women's empowerment center located in the town of Lakia.
As Bedouin coffee was served, Huda, our guide, explained that coffee means that "you are welcome in our tent." The coffee is drunk strong and black. Tea is drunk afterwards – sweet tea to sweeten the rest of your day.
Huda told us about the founder, a non-married woman fed up with the treatment of Bedouin women and wanting to make a change. She opened the embroidery center to help women earn money and to expand the project from embroidery to education. Because she was breaking with Bedouin traditions in not marrying and in taking the initiative to start this project, she was threatened with murder, but she persisted.
The transition was difficult when Bedouins went from tents to houses. Women were less busy at home. The center tried to keep women busy with something that they knew how to do and that would make money. The embroidery project was the beginning. The women do the embroidery work at home and bring it back to the organization and get paid for it. The custom is to embroider only on black. The design is from the woman's imagination. The colors have significance. If the dominant color is red, it means the woman is married. If blue, she is divorced or widowed. If purple, she is single. The items for sale range from traditional black dresses with embroidered bodices to vests, handbags, purses, wall hangings, and items for the home.
The center tries to give more respect to women and to help them to be able to study to become nurses, pharmacists, and the like. The center is now accepted by the community.

Huda herself speaks Arabic, Hebrew and English. A tour guide taught her to speak English. When he retired three years ago, he came to see Huda once a month and taught the staff to speak English. The mother of three children, Huda told us that in Bedouin culture it's not normal to speak about girls with pride, but her children grew up with equality and open minds. When you know more, you have power. Her own mother never went to school. Girls in Bedouin society can't leave the house. The new organization went to the houses to teach women to write in Arabic; those women were of her mother's generation. Then they began health lectures for women. Rivka Carmi, former president of Ben Gurion University, came to teach the women about genetic diseases.
The center helps children with many activities, including a summer camp and a mobile library, which started with a donkey and a cart. There are now two libraries, one in a building, and one that is mobile. The books are not only in Arabic but also in Hebrew and English, to expose the children to these necessary languages. The center also has after-school classes in addition to the women's education program, the library and the embroidery business. It became an official NGO in 1994-1995.
The center's library is the only one that serves all the villages in the Negev. It is serviced by university students on scholarship, who must work with the library in return for their financial aid. They are required to bring in those from outside the tribe, and the girls make activities for the children via the mobile library. The administrators of the schools are men who usually wouldn't allow women in but they didn't stop the women from going to the center. They now serve 10 schools in the Negev. Students get one year to serve and then each must find another to replace her, so more girls get a chance for the scholarship and work.
The Bedouin school curriculum is the official one from the Education Ministry; it is the same as the Arab curriculum, but they take into account the different customs. Boys and girls are together in class, but the girls must go right home after school. The sexes are separated at recess. No one among the Bedouins thought to ask for gender-separate schools. The Young Leadership Project began with girls. Now they have boys and girls together. This educates boys to respect girls.
Today Bedouin women can be teachers; that wasn't so ten years ago. Girls now study other professions, such as social work, since they don't need more women teachers. Bedouins are starting to study abroad as well. A few Bedouin women teach Arabic in Jewish schools. A project of the organization is to teach the Bedouin women Hebrew, which gives them power, for example in hospitals. They are able to ask for what they need.
Huda's husband supports her in education, travel to Beer Sheva, and more. She was 25 when she married, late for Bedouin society. Her husband only finished high school.
Huda said that it still happens that men in her village take multiple wives. Her grandfather had four wives. He was 65 when he married her grandmother. They had three children and then the grandfather died. It is very difficult for a widow with three girls in Bedouin society. Bedouins want boys, but it's the girls who take care of the elders.
The Bedouin Embroidery Center wants to work with other organizations, believing that togetherness is power.

Bat HaMidbar (Daughter of the Desert) 

Debbie Efron translates for the sister of Maryam, Bat HaMidbar's founder

Perhaps when you think of a factory for natural cosmetics products, you think of a gleaming white laboratory with stainless steel fixtures and test tubes and the like. Not so for a Bedouin woman in Tel Sheva using available desert plants and tribal knowhow to build a business literally from the ground up.
Bat HaMidbar is the story of Maryam who descended from a grandmother who was a great healer in the tribe and from whom she took her original ideas. When the grandmother died at age 102, Maryam started learning about herbs, fruits, and nutrition. She studied in England and then returned to her tribe at age 24. Because she refused an arranged marriage, her punishment was being made to stay in the home. She took up the creation of natural products, as it was something she could do from home. She began alone and then hired other Bedouin women. She started selling her camel milk soap and a rheumatic oil from booths at festivals.
At first, Maryam was not allowed to give a telephone number, to write her name or give her surname because she was a single Bedouin woman, so she used the name Bat HaMidbar, Daughter of the Desert.
Maryam eventually made a video for promotion that was shown on TV. She needed permission from the Israeli government to open her business and took out a NIS 20,000 loan. She even sold her sister's jewelry in order to have money for the business. It was her sister who was our guide for this visit.
Maryam made the Visitors' Center herself. In the back is an authentic Bedouin tent. From the outside, one sees a shack made of scraps of metal, wood, old tarps, and junk. It took a few years to complete the inside of the Visitors' Center. She gathered her raw materials and set them out for people to see. Once Channel 2 started showing her film and word spread about her facility, individuals and groups began visiting. In the first year, 10,000 people came through the center. At least six groups come each day.
It took her less than two years to repay all of her debts. Today she has a waiting list of more women who want to work there. At the beginning, women couldn't get permission to work but after two years, many men realized the economic potential and started to support her. Her sister said that her own husband knew about the business but pretended it didn't exist. He did like his wife bringing money home.

Maryam herself married at age 42. She chose her husband, who is nine years younger than she is and from a different tribe, which is unheard of in Bedouin society.
Maryam's products are approved by the Israel Ministry of Health. One employee works on Internet orders which are sent by Israel post. The company has an agreement with natural health shops; the Rotem chain are carriers of Bat HaMidbar products.
The product line includes Black Seed Oil, used for centuries by Bedouin women "to strengthen the immunization system, anti-infection, to reduce pain, as antiseptic, anti-virus, hormone regulation, problems of the digestive system, problems with blood cells and to reduce blood sugar and fat, for problems with the respiratory system and to strengthen bones and relieve insomnia", according to their literature. It is recommended to check with your own doctor about its use. We did have two doctors with our group who questioned the science.

Other products are Pain Relief Oil, Bedouin Hair Oil, Oil for Problematic Skin, Nail Fungus Cream, Gel for Treatment of Acne, Hemorrhoid Cream, Facial Scrub, Moisturizing Cream with Malva, Herbal Eye Serum, Moisturizing Camel Milk Cream, Body Oil, Hand/Foot Cream, Black Seed Oil Soap, and Camel Milk Soap.

Each of the women we met or learned about defied the norms in her group to start her project, all of which led to the empowerment of members of their group, especially of women. 

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