Tfadal! Welcome to my Tent!
In conversation with Yasser Mohammed Suleiman Gadir from the Hijerat Bedouin tribe
Interview: Ava Carmel
Illustrations: Haviva Seligson
The phone rings.
“Hi Yasser. How are you? There’s a wild boar in my garden. Please come and chase it away.”
It’s 9:00 p.m., and my conversation with Yasser, the night watchman in Yodfat, is interrupted once again.
“Salah is the one who takes care of boars”, replies Yasser. “As soon as he gets here, I’ll send him over.”
Yasser Mohammed Suleiman Gadir is a member of the Hijerat Bedouin tribe, and he has been Yodfat’s gatekeeper for the past 15 years. Between rounds he sits in his little office monitoring the security cameras and opening and closing the yellow electronic gate at the push of a button. ‘Tick tock tick tock’ goes the mechanism as the heavy gate slowly grinds open, followed by the whoosh of a car passing through.
Yasser is unassuming. He wears a tee-shirt and pants, unlike his father, who used to wear the traditional demay and kafia [long robe and headdress]. Yasser has the alertness of a tracker, the equanimity of a Buddhist monk, and an endearing humility. He speaks softly, using his hands to punctuate his speech.
In a traditional Bedouin tent guests sit by the fire, where saade [strong, bitter coffee with no sugar] is brewed in a finjan [coffee pot]. Yasser’s office is tiny, just large enough for a table, three chairs and a kitchenette. But it has become his tent, and it’s here that his Bedouin hospitality is expressed. Yasser is a classic storyteller and an attentive listener, generously imparting the wisdom he has acquired in his 67 years. And, of course, coffee (or mint tea) is offered to all guests. Coffee was always central to Bedouin culture.
When someone got up in the morning, he would roast the beans over the fire, then grind them in a wooden mortar and pestle called a djorn. Those living in nearby tents would hear him pounding the djorn and consider this as an invitation. The elder men would sit together for hours, drinking saade. There was always a finjan on the fire, 24 hours a day. Also everyone smoked, which was natural, because we grew tobacco.
Abu Aboud [an older relative] used to fell trees and make charcoal, and he was always black with charcoal dust. He wasn’t feeling well, so he went to the doctor in Shefaram. The doctor told him to stop drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Abu Aboud turned to his son and told him to bring his identity card from the car. He handed it to the doctor and asked for a death certificate instead. That was Abu Aboud.
Ava: There’s a lot of traffic going in and out of Yodfat in the evenings. As each car approaches, Yasser sticks his head out the window to see who’s in it. If it’s a stranger, he queries them. If it’s someone from Yodfat, his eyes light up, and he becomes animated, waving his hands and yelling Layla TOV! [Good evening], often adding tfadal [welcome], inviting the driver to join him for coffee. Other times he sprints out to the car and strikes up a conversation with the driver and passengers in Hebrew or Arabic or a mixture of the two.
I often take him up on his invitation and stop for coffee when I’m on my way home. This time I’m here to learn more about the Bedouins of the Hijerat tribe. When I came to Yodfat in 1970, there were black tents on many of the nearby hills. They are all gone now, most of the Bedouins having moved to the village of Bir El Maksur, near Shefaram.
With very little prompting, Yasser begins telling me about the origins of his tribe and about Bedouin life and culture. He spoke Hebrew, with Arabic words added for emphasis, and I have rendered what he said into English. When I read it to him, translating back into Hebrew, he was amused and kept nodding his head, as if agreeing with himself.
Yasser: Five hundred years ago the Hijerat tribe lived in Syria. A member of the tribe got into trouble. Rumor has it that he raped a woman. Anyway, the man was tried and banished for seven years and seven tribes. That means that he had to live at least seven tribes away. He left Syria with his brother, and the two travelled to Jordan. They wandered with their flocks, each of them eventually marrying, and took their families to Jericho, then to the Jezreel Valley.
When the Turks conquered the region, they tried to force the brothers to serve in the Turkish army. But that would have meant leaving their wives and children alone for an extended period. So they took their tents and fled to the Deidebe (Mount Atzmon). It was wild there like a jungle, and the Turks didn’t find them. Over time they bought land from the villagers and remained in the area.
In 1948 [during Israel’s War of Independence] many of the Arab villagers fled. The Bedouins were afraid, but they didn’t flee. They had good relations with Alexander Zaid [one of the founders of Hashomer, a Jewish defense organization meant to safeguard the Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine]. Zaid told them not to run away, reassuring them that Jews and Bedouins could live peacefully together.So they remained.
In Bir el Maksur, near Shefaram, there’s a big well. Our tribe got together and collectively purchased 4000 dunams of land there. Families began to move there, and today there are only three or four families left in this area. The population of Bir el Maksur is now about 10,000. [Bir el Maksur became a local council in 1990.]
My father, Abu Cassim was the mukhtar, the chieftain, like his father before him. He built a stone house near Yodfat, and I was born there.
Abu Cassim loved his first wife very much. She gave birth to three girls and two boys, but she died when Salah, the last of the boys, was only two weeks old. There were no doctors, and there was no transportation to the hospital. After she died, my grandfather put pressure on my father, telling him that he had fields and herds, and needed a wife. So he married again. It was an arranged marriage, not like today. My mother had three boys and five girls. We all grew up together.
Just then a member of Yodfat brings Yasser a plate of lamb and potatoes from his son’s birthday party. Yasser wants to share it with me, but I have already eaten, so he eats as he continues.
We had no roads and no electricity. We had two camels, horses, donkeys, cows, goats, and sheep. That’s how it was. That’s the life of the Bedouins. We drew water from the well near our house, with a pail tied to a rope.
There’s a grove of ancient olive trees near Kaukab. We owned three trees. At that time you could buy trees, according to Turkish law. As long as the tree was alive, no one could touch it. It was the trees that mattered, not the land. After the tree died, the land was returned to its original owner. That was the agreement.
Every year we took our olives to the press in the village of Sakhnin or Arrabe. We still do. It’s part of life. Without olives there’s no life.
… Tick tock tick tock “Good evening. How are you? Ha kol beseder? Is everything OK? Layla tov. Good night.”…
We grew sorghum for the animals and wheat for pita. We crushed the wheat with a board with black stones under it [a threshing sled]. We kids would sit on the board while the horse pulled it. Then we would throw the wheat up in the air. The chaff would blow away in the wind, leaving the wheat berries. These we took to the mill in sacks on a donkey, a trip that took an entire day.
In winter and spring we ate wild plants like hubeisa [mallow], luf [arum] and elet [chicory leaves]. In summer we ate labani cheese, as well as lentils, watermelon, okra, broad beans, tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumbers that we grew. We also had grape vines and fig trees.
During Ramadan Moslems fast all day long. Today we have plenty of food, but once we didn’t. So during Ramadan, if my mother made hubeisa and a neighbor made labneh and another neighbor made mejadara, in the evening we would each bring what we had prepared and dine together. That’s how it was. That’s a good thing. But there’s less of that now.
There was a woman living in a tent near our house. She had small children and only a few goats. Father pointed out some of our fig trees and grape vines and told us not to touch the fruit on them. He said it was only for her.
As children, we would take the cows, sheep, and goats to pasture. If an animal got lost we had to follow the tracks to find it. By examining the tracks, we could tell if someone passed by, and whether it was during the day or at night. People walk differently at night, because they can’t see the rocks and bushes. Cows, goats, and other animals each have their own distinct tracks.
Some Bedouins know how to catch snakes. I don’t recall anyone ever dying from a snake bite. And scorpions aren’t frightening at all. When I was a boy, I used to catch scorpions, put them on my arm and watch them walk up and down. Sometimes I was stung. It only hurt for a few hours. If you put rue or garlic on the sting, it stops hurting. But don’t try that! I only did it because no one ever told me it was dangerous.
If you had a horse and I didn’t, and I wanted to go to Nazareth, you couldn’t refuse to lend me your horse. It’s the same with food. If you had a herd of sheep, and I had visitors and needed to slaughter a sheep to feed them, I could take an animal from your herd, without even asking. Then you could come over in the evening and eat with us, knowing that it was your sheep we were dining on. That was how things were. Whatever I lack, I can take from you. What you need you take from someone in the tribe. There’s no quarreling about this.
There were lots of animals – boars, foxes, jackals, rabbits, and birds. Once there were more birds. I don’t know why they disappeared. The barn owl calls out at night when someone goes by, a man or an animal. The Bedouins knew that, so when they heard an owl, they would go and check their herd. Horses also react to danger. Their ears stand up and they snort.
Cows can also sense danger. I was once out in pasture with my father’s herd at midday, and it was hot. I fell asleep on the ground. Some strangers from the village of Kabul passed by. The cows stood in a circle around me and wouldn’t let them get near me. They yelled and woke me up. The cows were all around me, looking belligerent. I raised these cows and I educated them. If you love an animal, it will love you back. If you protect it, it will protect you.
Animals are more compassionate than people; they love more than we do. People are the most dangerous animals. We can befriend a wolf or a snake, but to have a true friend, that’s difficult.
Ava: Tell me about growing tobacco. I remember seeing the leaves drying on racks.
Yasser: We were licensed to grow tobacco for Dubek [the only Israeli cigarette manufacturing company]. It’s easy to grow tobacco, but it’s a lot of work to pick it. First you pick the bottom leaves, when they get yellow. Later you pick the middle leaves, then the upper leaves. Then you pick the pods with the seeds to plant the next year.
… A car pulls up. “Good evening. How are you? Mabsutim? Satisfied?” Yasser asks the driver…
To dry tobacco leaves, you thread them with a needle and hang them up outside. The dried leaves are then gathered into bales and stomped on to press them. As children we loved to jump on the bales. It was against the law to keep tobacco for your own cigarettes, but my father used to have a tin can of hand-rolled cigarettes. When the police came, he would hide it.
The Mukhtar is the chieftain, the head of the tribe. His word is law. The elders decide who is wise enough to be the Mukhtar. Once someone is chosen, he can be the Mukhtar for the rest of his life, but if he’s not good, he is replaced. There was once a Mukhtar who was replaced after a week. Abu Hussein Diab was the last Mukhtar. Now we have a local council instead. But there was never a female Mukhtar.
Bedouin women were always highly respected, but their lives were very difficult. They milked the cows, goats, and sheep, worked in the fields, cooked meals and raised the children. And everyone had a lot of children. But the older kids helped take care of the younger ones. And from the age of about five, children also worked in the fields and helped with the animals.
Ava: Can you explain to me about the significance of honor?
Yasser: To the Bedouins honor and respect are very important. If someone enters my house without permission or steals something from me, it offends me. Another example of something offensive is entering a tent without removing your shoes. Also, Bedouins don’t wear shorts. In the West it’s acceptable, but to us it is a sign of disrespect. Our women wear long dresses and cover their heads. When I walk with my wife, she never walks in front of me. Either we walk together, or she walks behind me. Also, if a man and a woman who are not married to each other are alone in a room, like you and me sitting here now, we must leave the door open.
If there’s a major disagreement, for example if someone is raped or murdered, we need a sulha. The wise men of the tribe gather and sometimes bring in respected men from other tribes to help them resolve the matter. For example, a murderer has to pay reparations, in money, animals, or land. But sometimes the victim’s family wants revenge. Where did the Bedouins learn about revenge? From the camel. If one camel bites another, the one that was bitten waits for an opportunity to bite back.
A Bedouin man once killed another man’s son. The man knew who the murderer was, but refused to have a sulha. He wanted revenge. He waited 40 years for an opportunity. Then he saw someone he thought was the murderer and shot him. But it was the murderer’s brother. When he realized he had killed the wrong man, he was devastated, saying ‘I waited 40 years for revenge, and in the end I made a mistake.’
But even if someone murders my son, and we haven’t had a sulha yet, if he enters my house without me noticing, I can’t harm him. I have to feed him and protect him, out of respect. As long as he’s in my house, he’s a guest of the tribe. He isn’t forgiven, but he’s protected until he leaves.
Ava: Yodfat was established in 1960. What was it like for you to suddenly have a group of young Jews living nearby?
Yasser: The original members of Yodfat would come and visit us. At first they didn’t speak Arabic, and they knew nothing about our way of life. They got to know my father and worked with him in the tobacco fields. My father didn’t speak Hebrew, so at first they conversed in sign language, here and there a word. Shwai shwai [little by little] they learned about agriculture. They bought a blue tractor. They had a mule, a jeep. A road was paved. They were curious about how we lived.
… Tick tock tick tock. “Ahalaaaaan! Kif halak? How are you?” Yasser is animated, his hands clasped over his heart. The driver is someone he especially likes. As the car drives off, he continues…
We have various cultures here in Israel. Even if I understand your language, if I don’t understand your culture, it’s not worth anything. I have to understand your language, your culture and your customs. Only then can we live together in peace. We also have to respect each other’s cultures.
Yodfat is a good example. We worked together and ate together. We talked. That’s beautiful. Others should follow this example. Once we used to have a lot of time. We could sit for hours and talk. But today everyone is in a hurry. We need to meet more, to get to know each other. If young people from Bir El Maksur got together with young people from Misgav, they could do volunteer work, like cleaning up the forests. In that way they would get to know each other.
Ava: I agree.
Yasser: Sign here.
Ava: Yasser laughs his mischievous laugh, and opens the gate for yet another car. There’s so much more I want to ask, but decide to leave it for another evening.
And the boar? Saleh went to check, but the boar was close to the houses in Yodfat, so he couldn’t shoot it, just chase it away. And because it’s the olive picking season, and Salah doesn’t have time to go hunting, the boar got a reprieve.