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Historian Clinton Bailey waxes poetic about Bedouin culture

CM 18/08/2021


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Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)
Say: last night how I felt in my heart a great pain, 

for the chiefs aren’t aware of what I would complain. 
I sighed when I saw them, their faces so cool, 
making deals in the market, led on like a fool. 
They said, sell off your farmland, there’s someone who’ll buy; 
You’ll get all you want, for the price of land’s high. 
Your sale in the end is of roots you’ll have torn: 
You’ll yet wander between Egypt and Sham till you’re worn. 
The land that was spacious, yet narrow will be; 
You’ll find nowhere to rest between the hills and the sea.
This 1943 poem criticizing Bedouin Arab sheikhs who were selling their land in the Negev Desert to the Jewish Agency is surprisingly contemporary, and withering in its condemnation. The English-language rendering of the oral poem is by Clinton Bailey, a worldwide authority on Bedouin culture and history. It’s one of 113 poems in his 1991 book, Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture. 
The traditional Bedouin culture which Bailey captured on cassette recorders during 50 years of research has largely disappeared. It is now set to be preserved digitally as Bailey recently donated his rare audio archive, photographs and slides to the National Library of Israel
The library has begun a transcription project to preserve and disseminate the culture of this once nomadic and largely illiterate society.  
The author of four books on the Bedouin – most recently, Bedouin Culture in the Bible – the US-born Israeli scholar, now 85, began documenting the Bedouin in the 1960s while he was living in Midreshet Sde Boker in the Negev. 
 Bailey discussing Bedouin law with a tribal judge in southern Jordan, 2003. (credit: Paula Deitz) Bailey discussing Bedouin law with a tribal judge in southern Jordan, 2003. (credit: Paula Deitz)
Bailey’s first job in Israel was teaching English in a school just down the road from Kibbutz Sde Boker, the home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Bailey often accompanied the 82-year-old retired politician on his walks around the desert kibbutz. Decades later, Bailey’s long-forgotten 1968 English-language interview intended for a British documentary surfaced in two separate archives. The remarkably introspective, soul-searching interview is featured in the 2016 film, Ben-Gurion, Epilogue.
Bailey’s fascination with the Bedouin began while jogging through the Negev. In the early 1960s when Bailey began his research the Bedouin tribes were still living much as their ancestors, wandering in search of pastures for their livestock. 
“As I had already studied and spoke Arabic, the shepherds I met would invite me to their tents,” he relates. “I realized that their 4,500 year old culture was really something very unusual.  But there were already tell-tale signs that things were going to change, that their culture was beginning to disappear,” Bailey tells The Jerusalem Report in a recent interview at his home in Jerusalem. “So, although I wasn’t an anthropologist, I decided to try to record as much of their culture as I could. It took me years to get into this world, but I found a way of operating. I would record, then I’d go to the older people and play them the poems, and they’d explain them to me.” 
Bailey lived and traveled with the Bedouin, joining their migrations through harsh conditions in the southern Negev and the Sinai Desert. Along the way he recorded tribal legal negotiations, weddings and other rituals. 
“I bought an old Jordanian army jeep to travel around. I’d always have something to talk about with Bedouin I met because of the poetry. They were all very happy that I took an interest in their culture. Ethnocentrically they think their culture is the best; and maybe it is,” laughs Bailey.
How did he decide to donate his audio archive to the National Library of Israel? Bailey pulls out several desk drawers filled with cassette tapes. 
“I suggested it to them. It involves a lot of work and organization, but we finally worked it out, and they agreed to take on the project if I would explain what was there. So these days I’m going over all the recordings and writing down the contents in English. It will all then be put on line” he explains. Once completed, the unique Arabic audio archive, providing a portrait of the lives of the Bedouin, will be freely accessible to scholars and researchers to Israel the Arab world and beyond.   
When Bailey began studying the Bedouin, there were only about 30,000 living in the Negev; today there are close to 300,000, almost a fourth of the Negev population. Roughly half live in eight government-built towns and 12 recognized villages. The other half live in “unrecognized villages,” lacking municipal services, including water and electricity.
Though the situation in some of the townships has improved somewhat in the last few years, most still lack industry and job opportunities and remain at the bottom of every Israeli socioeconomic measure. Decades of neglect have created a third-world reality: widespread poverty, rampant crime, polygamy and, particularly among the young, feelings of alienation and rage.
 Bailey with his jeep in the Sinai Desert. (credit: Courtesy) Bailey with his jeep in the Sinai Desert. (credit: Courtesy)
Bailey, one of Israel’s foremost experts on the Bedouin, as well as an advocate and activist, has long been the go-to guy for commentary, especially when the situation boils over to the point where the media remembers the Bedouins’ existence. In 1994 he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for his life’s work in studying and preserving the history of the Bedouin in Israel and promoting their civil rights. 
OVER THE years, there have been a dozen official committees, government plans and academic studies attempting to find a solution to the intractable land disputes over Bedouin ownership claims. As recently as 2019 a plan to forcibly relocate 36,000 Bedouin in southern Israel generated a backlash from the community, and is still not resolved.
“The problems haven’t been resolved when they could have been resolved all along,” Bailey laments. “To this day nothing has been agreed on, things have gone nowhere. It is a marginal subject to most people and politicians.”
“There seems to be a complete lack of goodwill on the part of the state toward the Bedouin and a lack of flexibility on the part of the Bedouin toward the state. The fact that Bedouin tribalism has been unable to produce a united leadership has impeded their ability to further their claims. Traditionally everyone cares about his own interests, family, people and tribe.  That’s why you can’t get a Bedouin leadership,” he continues. 
In 1982, Bailey was called up to serve in Lebanon when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon to push back the PLO which had been shelling northern Israel. He was appointed liaison to the Lebanese Shia and he advocated that Israel develop strong links to the Shia, partly because they were the majority in southern Lebanon, and also anti-PLO. 
 Bailey with Bedouin poet Anayzan Tarabin in Sinai. (credit: Courtesy) Bailey with Bedouin poet Anayzan Tarabin in Sinai. (credit: Courtesy)
“I got the distinct impression that the Shi’ites (Shia) had been gaining in power and popularity. But we had ignored them totally.” His advice was not taken. “The AMAL organization was then far more moderate than Hezbollah which came later. AMAL welcomed us at the beginning because they thought we’d get the PLO out of there and then leave.” 
To this day Bailey believes that had Israel fostered warmer relations with AMAL, Hezbollah would not predominate there today. “But you can see, there were so many things we didn’t understand,” he sighs.
He pulls out a prophetic piece he penned in The Jerusalem Post in 1985 titled “Facing a wounded tiger,” in which he urged Israel to leave Lebanon or face a holy war.
“The only way to avoid a long and bloody struggles against this wounded tiger is to disengage from it before it is too late,” he wrote. He sees the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain as a positive development that could potentially change the future of the Middle East. “Still, one has to be careful,” he advises.
In a report titled “The man who saved a culture” by Isabel Kershner in The Jerusalem Report almost 30 years ago – on September 26, 1991 – Bailey acknowledged that once in a while he sensed a certain resentment from some of the younger, educated Bedouin that “somebody else” was recording their culture, but on the whole he met with appreciation.
The report quotes Dogan al-Atawna, the son of Negev chief Musa Atawna and a lawyer based in Beersheba. “Dr. Bailey is one of a kind,” he said. “The poetry would have disappeared for sure, like the tents. Bailey has done work for many generations to come.”
Bailey believes there is some hope among the Bedouin that with the newly established Israeli government there may be a better atmosphere and a basis for cooperation. For the first time in the state’s history, an Arab party has joined the ruling coalition. Mansour Abbas, head of the small Islamic Ra’am party, has vowed to secure more resources for Arab communities. 
The question, says Bailey, is whether he’ll be able to deliver on his promise of improving the lives of Arab citizens – including the Bedouin.  
“There’s a Bedouin saying ‘Don’t empty your water bag because you see clouds in the sky; wait until it rains,’” he says. “They haven’t seen the rain yet.”■

Source: Jerusalem Post

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