Coffee is the Bedouin Way of Life

Photos by Rei Segali

Story by Lindsey Bressler, Global Co-op

Bedouins are traditionally nomadic Arab Muslim tribes who have lived in the Sinai Peninsula for about 7,000 years. They are also the poorest demographic group of Israeli society, suffering from unemployment, high rates of crime, and a lack of access to education. For the tens of thousands who live in unrecognized villages, Bedouins are often subject to threats of home demolition.

The Bedouin village of Qasr al-Sir is dusty and bleak. Most of the homes there are made of scrap metal. In the fall of 2017, I spent my global co-op researching, living in, and learning about the southern, desert region of Israel known as the Negev Desert, and took a memorable trip to learn about the people who inhabit it.

Rei Segali_Israel2

In Qasr al-Sir, I asked my guide Anwar what he meant when he said that being a Bedouin was a way of life, rather than a religion or nationality. In response, he picked up a tiny white coffee cup and held it in the air: “When a guest comes in, we fill their cup of coffee only a third of the way through,” explained Anwar, as his friend translated his Arabic to English.

“This is a Bedouin coffee cup. You will find ones that look like this in every village. If we filled the cup up all the way, it would be extremely rude, because it would imply that we want you to finish the cup and then leave immediately. So, we serve three cups, which each have different meanings. The first cup of coffee is for the guest. It represents hospitality. The second cup is for fun, for laughter and enjoyment. The third cup is for protection, for now and in the future.”

I was his guest, drinking coffee in dramatically smaller doses than I’m used to in America. Anwar’s division of three meanings – guest, fun and protection – embodies the people I met in the Negev.

As I guest, I stayed at a house in the development town of Mitzpei Ramon, where I ate authentic Indian food on tin metal plates. I was served by Rosie, an Orthodox Jewish woman who grew up in Mumbai. Her walls were adorned with wedding photos and paintings of rabbis. She had seven grandchildren, and I found myself wondering what Shabbat would be like in her home. On the first night, we sat in Salaman Al Azazme’s tent. As he spoke, Salaman kneaded a pile of dough and told us that a life in the desert makes one’s spirit light. He threw the dough into a bed of hot coals, turning it over. As the bread cooked, it glittered red and black.

Later, I met Maryam Abu-Rakayek, a female businesswoman who inspired me with her story of being the first Bedouin woman ever to go to university abroad. She took her grandmother’s wisdom of plants and herbs in the area, and became the owner of the cosmetics company Desert Daughter. In a workshop she led, we crushed rosemary leaves with a mortar and pestle and strained them into cream, then walked around her store and smelled soap made from camel’s milk. Finally, at Midreshet Sde Boker, a nature reserve and the resting place of the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, I spoke to Assaf, the park ranger. As Ibex grazed behind us, Assaf spoke about the necessity of environmental protection in the vast Negev Desert.

At the end of my trip, with the wind howling and whipping my face and hair, I listened to one last, complicated story: of the Israeli government’s relocation of 1,000 Bedouin residents in the town of Umm al-Hiran to make room for a new Jewish town, Hiran. As I staring at the rubble of the demolished Bedouin village and the infrastructure for the new town that was emerging in its place, I heard about the Bedouin protests against the relocation, and the ensuring demolishment raid by Israeli police which ended in the deaths of a Bedouin man and an Israeli police officer.

Like a good afternoon cup of coffee, you can drink and feel refreshed but you are not satisfied. Your mind is awake but your belly is not full. In those three meaningful, sandy days of my trip in the Negev Desert, I heard so many different perspectives that I could not simply wipe the dust away and see a clear truth lying underneath.

I found Anwar’s talk and other moments of my time in Israel difficult to distill. As I learned more about the problems, conflicts and big questions surrounding Bedouin society, I could not help but feel the burden of not knowing enough. However, I settled on the importance and truth of being a guest in the complicated, barren, endlessly interesting Negev, staying for just a bit longer than the time it takes to drink one cup of coffee.