World News

Israelis Play Tourists in a Bedouin Town in the Negev

Posted June 6, 2018 7:29 p.m. EDT
Updated June 6, 2018 7:31 p.m. EDT

RAHAT, Israel — The Bedouin town of Rahat, in the Negev desert, has a reputation among many Israelis as a wild, lawless and generally no-go zone.

Last month, the town made news when local residents clashed with police officers over a traffic stop. Masked men were recently seen in the area driving down the highway firing automatic weapons out of the windows of their SUVs.

So it was an unusual sight on a recent evening when several busloads of Israeli Jewish tourists arrived to explore what a tour company promised would be a more alluring side of the city.

“Come and experience the magic of Ramadan nights,” a newspaper ad beckoned in Hebrew.

A main goal of the tours, according to Rahat’s mayor, was to spruce up the image of Rahat, a drab conglomeration of low-rise buildings that is also known for its poverty and low rates of education and life expectancy.

“Rahat is not only what you read in the media, the negative things. There are also good things,” Mayor Talal al-Krenawi told the tour group at a spotless industrial park on the edge of the city, built to alleviate unemployment.

For $28, the six-hour Ramadan Nights trip promised a guided bus tour of “the secrets” of Rahat, as well as traditional debka dancing and sweet-making workshops, shopping in the no-frills market and home hospitality for Iftar, the festive meal that ends each day’s sunrise-to-sunset fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

While some alternative tourism companies offer Bedouin desert experiences, Rahat has no listed hotels. Established in the 1970s, it was one of seven towns built in the Negev to accommodate the traditionally seminomadic Bedouin herders as part of a government policy of resettlement and integration into Israeli society.

The largest of the towns, it now has more than 70,000 residents.

The Bedouin birthrate, among the highest in the world, has been increased by the practice of polygamy. More than 200,000 Bedouin live in the Negev region, out of Israel’s total population of nearly 9 million, and they have long complained of discrimination.

With decades-old land disputes still unresolved, many have chosen to remain in unzoned, ramshackle villages and encampments lacking basic services, reluctant to move into the towns that quickly acquired a reputation for drug abuse and delinquency.

The tour group climbed aboard four buses. One included a dozen-strong Orthodox contingent from the predominantly Jewish Negev town of Yeruham and several families from central Israel. Most had never set foot in Rahat before.

“I’m happy for the opportunity,” said Dini Deutsch, 52, a teacher from Yeruham. “I wouldn’t wander around here alone.”

Sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Negev Development Authority, the Ramadan Nights tours began three years ago. In the first year 19 people showed up, said Shai Dotan, a ministry official. This year, 150 people signed up for the first of four tour dates.

The guide, Laila al-Huzayel, 42, a fluent Hebrew speaker, was eager to divulge some of the local intrigue on the bus, between stops.

The various clans, she said, lived in their own neighborhoods, except for New Rahat, where members of any tribe could buy a home. Families compete over who can build the fanciest mosque. With its glistening dome and twin minarets topped with golden baubles, the mosque of the mayor’s clan appeared to be winning so far.

There are three special education schools in Rahat, Huzayel said, because of the high rate of disability stemming from the widespread practice of marriage between close relatives.

The new trend is to clad houses in Jerusalem stone, a kind of pale limestone. “Whoever doesn’t,” Huzayel declared, “that means he is poor.”

Far from the stereotypical conservative Muslim the tourists were expecting to meet, Huzayel, a feisty, self-declared secular mother of five, spilled out her life story in intimate detail, perhaps giving the passengers more than they bargained for.

Her parents married her off at 16, she said, to a man from Rahat. At 19, having had her second child, she first learned that there was more to sex from a Hebrew women’s magazine.

She said she left home and an abusive husband to complete her education. Her marriage has been on and off since, she said, although she didn’t see the point in divorce, and the children remained a “joint interest.”

Wearing a striped shirt and tight jeans, her long nails painted red, she said she deeply respected Islam, although she was nonpracticing, and denounced what she saw as the distortion of the religion around her. The Prophet Muhammad had reasons for taking four wives, she explained.

Although polygamy was becoming less popular in the Negev, she added: “Our men — they don’t pray, they don’t fast. But they marry four wives.” The local bus driver could barely hide his amusement. “Any questions?” she asked, to the ensuing silence.

“Wow,” said Ortal Damti, a librarian who came with her husband and 11-year-old son from the coastal city of Netanya. “I thought polygamy had passed from the world long ago.”

There was a workshop on making qatayef — the syrup-drenched, half-moon, stuffed pancakes traditionally eaten during Ramadan — led by a local entrepreneur, Juliette Bader. After that, and after dancing the debka and shopping for spices and teapots in the market, some of the visitors said they found the tour “authentic,” and others, not authentic enough.

Amit Larom, 41, deals in U.S. real estate and came from a village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with his wife, Hadas, and their 5-year-old son. He said he had taken the tour “to experience a bit of Ramadan.”

Aharon Deutsch, the husband of Dini Deutsch, the teacher, said Rahat was “not that much less developed than Yeruham,” although he had spotted a couple of camels.

Aharon Deutsch, who works in the high-tech industry, said he had come on the tour more to speak to people than for sightseeing. By the end of the day, he said, he had had conversations with a Bedouin man who ran the community center and with Hafez Abu Latif, a truck driver.

The man who ran the community center, Fouad al-Zayadna, 36, thought the exchange was a good idea.

“You usually hear only about the small percentage of people who cause trouble,” he said. “You hear about thieves and so on. But now you will remember Juliette and the food.”

At sunset everyone piled into the backyard of Abu Latif, and his wife, Najah, where tables were prepared for Iftar. After a typical meal of soup, rice, chicken, okra and salads, Najah Abu Latif, in a traditional embroidered dress, hawked her homemade spice mixes and cookies, bonded with guests over recipes and handed out business cards. A kosher caterer provided meals for the Orthodox group.

“It’s good to bring people together,” said Ayoub Abu Madegam, 28, a son-in-law of the hosts who works in digital marketing. “People live five minutes away in Beersheba and have never been here. What you don’t know, you fear.”

Back on the bus, Huzayel had left one of Rahat’s secrets for last. Former generations of Bedouin brought slaves from Africa, she recounted. Today their black descendants live in poor, separate neighborhoods, she said, and although free, they live under the protection of what she called their respective “white tribes.”

“There is racism,” she said, against those even lower on the Israeli pecking order than the Bedouin. “I’m afraid to say we still call them slaves.”

The tour ended outside the town’s community center, where townspeople gathered to watch a man dance on stilts alongside a large, inflatable Pokémon character for the children.

For a few moments the Jewish tourists and the Bedouin stood and watched together under the desert stars.