In this article we will seek to understand how Bedouin poets in the Negev perceived the Jews – Zionists at first and later Israelis – and how they represented them in the verses they composed between the 1930s and the 1980s. Much of what we know about Bedouin society comes from texts written by foreign observers in their own language.1 Similar to the contemporary history of Arab-Jewish relations, which is based largely on written sources in Hebrew and English,2 and only to a limited extent on written sources in Arabic and even less on oral sources, this has led to a bias in favor of the foreign perspective even in studies that show sensitivity to the Bedouin stance. In view of this bias, which is of course related to the difference between the predominantly oral culture of remembrance of the Bedouin and the written culture of memory of the Zionist and Israeli Jews, this article attempts to offer a corrective historical perspective. Instead of relying on sources written in foreign languages, in this article the world of the Bedouin is explored through oral sources in their own language.3 The oral sources presented in the article consist of six excerpts of popular poetry, with the help of which we will try to understand what the Jews looked like to the Bedouin in the Negev over a period of about fifty years.4
Bedouin poetry in the Middle East has been studied from two main disciplinary perspectives: philological and anthropological.5 The works of Clinton Bailey, who studied Bedouin poetry in Sinai and the Negev, combined philological with historical perspectives.6 Although Bailey was also interested in the poems as reflections of Bedouin culture,7 as well as in the portrait of the Bedouin expressed in their proverbs,8 the history he wrote is basically a political history.9 Moods, attitudes and emotions, as well as the perception of the other – the subject of this article – occupy only a very small place in his historical works. The aim of the present article is to add depth to Bailey’s pioneering achievement by exploring the potential of Bedouin popular poetry to shed light on their cultural history and their relationship with the Jews.
Poems are an excellent place to seek information about shifting moods, attitudes and emotions. Thoughts may be spoken in verse that cannot be uttered in any other way, or they may be expressed with liveliness and precision that we would be hard put to find in other sources.10 This is especially true in relation to Arab societies, since the Arabs saw in poetry the most wonderful of their cultural treasures, an unparalleled reservoir of their precious memories and values,11 more ancient even than the dogma of Islam.12 Moreover, Bedouin poetry is popular poetry, close to the dreams and anxieties of ordinary people. Poets and rhymesters, while much esteemed and admired, lived among the people and were not exalted above them or cut off from the hardships of life. Those who, like the author of these lines, seek historical sources from which they can learn about popular culture directly,13 without the mediation of a foreigner or an upper class, will find what they are looking for in Bedouin poetry. Because the language of the poems is difficult and sometimes even incomprehensible to Arabic speakers from other lands,14 and because until the penetration of written culture the verses were never written down, they constituted a protected space in which the poet could speak relatively freely on political issues that could not otherwise be discussed in public.15
The six excerpts that will be discussed in this article are taken from the collection of Sasson Bar-Zvi, a Jew born in Jerusalem (1924-2012) and a student of Bedouin culture who collected poems, proverbs, traditions and stories in the Negev for over forty years. Arabic was a language spoken at home during his childhood, alongside Hebrew and Ladino. At the age of twenty he was sent to the Negev by the Haganah. There he joined Mitzpe Revivim, a Jewish settlement about 40 km south of Beersheba established a year earlier (1943). At Revivim Bar-Zvi cultivated ties with his Bedouin neighbors, some of whom aided the Jewish side in the war of 1948. After the war he was recruited by the military administration imposed on the Bedouin, and in 1963 was appointed military governor of the Negev. As a military administrator he was part of the system that expelled Bedouin from the Negev, transferred others from one part to another, blocked the return of Bedouin, and even returned some of them to the Negev in the early 1950s.
With the abolition of the military government in 1966 and the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 War, he served for a time as the military governor of Northern Sinai, and in the early 1970s he joined the Beersheba municipality. Before the 1970s he recorded whatever verses happened to come his way, but during the 1970s, finding himself master of his time, as well as to a lesser extent in the 1980s, he collected poetry intensively, and in effect documented the demise of this ancient tradition in the Negev.
In those years and later as well, Bar-Zvi labored to transcribe the Arabic verses into the Hebrew alphabet; furthermore, he translated the vast majority of them into Hebrew and wrote notes about the language and culture which reveal extensive familiarity with the life of the Bedouin. He left the work of analysis and interpretation to others. As a rule, he provided scant information about the circumstances in which he had heard the poems, their performance, the identities of their composers (who sometimes preferred to remain anonymous) and their reciters, and the date of their composition and recitation. This is a regrettable omission from the standpoint of those seeking to understand the poems.16
The collection comprises more than five thousand pages with hundreds of poems as well as an abundance of other cultural manifestations. The poetic genres included in Bar-Zvi’s vast collection are variegated, but only a few of them consist of either explicit or implicit references to the Jews. Six excerpts, one for each decade of the period under study, were selected for the purpose of writing this article from a couple of dozens of poems that refer to Jews. The collection of Bedouin poems laboriously amassed by Bar-Zvi throughout the years is indeed vast and diverse, resembling in this sense Bailey’s corpus of poetry from the Sinai and the Negev. However, it is reasonable to assume that only a part – probably a large one – of the Negev’s poetic tradition is included in the collection.17 This assumption clearly limits the validity of the observations presented in the article.
Furthermore, the positions of power held by Bar-Zvi from the mid-1940s until he ceased gathering poems in the Negev, in the late 1980s, which accompanied him wherever he went, must have influenced the verses he collected and more than that the verses he did not collect – the poetry not recited to him, the verses that escaped his ears because of the Bedouin’s fear from him. His power, however, and the fear from him must have caused some of the Bedouin to recite poems for him. Moreover, Bar-Zvi was indeed an authority to fear from but at the same time he had been – as some of the following excerpts show, and especially the fourth – a close friend to some of the Bedouin, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, a time in which he diligently documented their passing poetic tradition. It seems that he felt at home in Bedouin tents (we can only speculate about how his hosts felt with regard to his presence), observing his friends and acquaintances, perhaps like a “big brother”, big and watchful but nevertheless a brother – participating in their joys and grieves, as his papers attest, a friend in need to many and a stranger, always a stranger, with an unusually profound interest in their ways of life and particularly in their poetry.18
The article comprises four sections: The first discusses the period preceding the appearance of Jews in Bedouin poetry. The second section opens with the first allusion in poetry to Zionist activity in the Negev, in the 1930s, and concludes with the end of the British Mandatory period. The third section deals with the image of the Jewish-Israeli other during the period of military rule, while the fourth section deals with the same image in the period between the 1967 War and the beginning of the First Lebanon War. The late 1980s witnessed the fading away of the voice of the last of the great poets in the Negev, Slīmān Ibn ʿEdēsān, who died in 1992. Little is known about the fate of Bedouin poetry since then, and in any case this period is not represented in the Bar-Zvi collection.
Before the appearance of the Jewish Other in Bedouin poetry
The first allusion to the existence of the Jewish other in the popular poetry of the Bedouin in the Negev dates to the 1930s, probably the mid-1930s. There is no earlier allusion either in the poems collected by Bar-Zvi in the Negev, on which this article is based, or in the works collected by Clinton Bailey in Sinai and the Negev.19 It is certainly possible that the Jewish other figured earlier in verses not documented by Bailey and Bar-Zvi, since the volume of Bedouin poetry composed and recited in the Negev was greater than the documented material available to us,20 but if the image of a Jew did make an appearance in the Bedouin poetry of the Negev in the 1920s and even earlier, it would have been a very brief appearance. This is because before the 1940s the Jewish presence in the Negev was extremely limited,21 and also because the violent clashes between the Jews (and British) and the Arabs at the start and end of the 1920s did not leave a painful impression on the Negev, as they did in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron and elsewhere in Mandatory Palestine. Although the Riots of 1929 dealt a fatal blow to the small Jewish community of Beersheba,22 the young town, home to merchants and artisans many of whom were from Hebron and Gaza, in addition to some of the Bedouin leaders, did not witness bloodshed that summer.
The Jews in general and the activists of the Zionist movement in particular probably hovered on the horizon, at the edges of the Bedouin political discourse, even before their existence was alluded to in the verses of the desert dwellers. Poetry is indeed an unparalleled window into a culture, but not everything that people think and feel is necessarily expressed in it.23 It is not inconceivable that the figure of the Jew and his new national aspirations appeared in the conversations of the Bedouin in their tents even before they appeared in their verses. And yet, despite all these reservations, we believe that their absence from the poems documented by the two Jewish scholars of Bedouin culture mentioned above is significant.
The poems of the Bedouin, and especially their political poems, lent a voice to their pains and hardships, and even more so since the turn of the twentieth century, when their political verses became a poetry of protest. Had the Jews caused them sorrow and disturbed their peace at the end of the Ottoman and beginning of the Mandate period, we may assume that their poets would have given expression to this. However, the poetry of the period, from what little we know about it, dealt with the sorrow inflicted on them by the Turks at the end of their rule, and at the time it was the great historical change brought about by the British conquest of Palestine that disturbed the poets' tranquility.
For the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the Jews were not key players in the south of the country. Their first settlement in the Negev, Ruhama, established in 1911, was abandoned three times (in the course of the First World War, in the Riots of 1929, and in the Arab Uprising of 1936-1939), before the kibbutz that bears its name was founded in December 1943; the Jewish community in Beersheba was destroyed following the events of 1929. The Zionist aspiration to settle in the Negev was finally fulfilled about a decade later, with the founding of Kibbutz Negba (literally: “To the Negev”) in the southern coastal plain, in the summer of 1939. Till the 1930s, then, the Bedouin poets had no clear and present reason to speak of the Jews in their verses.
Before we explain what happened in the Negev and in Palestine to cause the image of the Jew to appear in the political verses of the Bedouin, we will briefly describe what those verses were like before they evolved into a poetry of discontent at the turn of the century, when the Turks founded Beersheba. In the nineteenth century, the political verses of the nomads in effect served as a weapon in the ceaseless battles for power and land being waged between rival tribal coalitions in a series of protracted campaigns. This conflict came to an end about a decade before the founding of Beersheba, at a spot where the borders of the three largest Negev confederations met.24 In a society in which honor is a supreme value, and such was – and still is – Bedouin society,25 words have immense power, especially words chosen judiciously and fashioned into rhymes, which are easily remembered and disseminated over space and time. It is in their power to elevate a person's name and glorify a group's reputation – but also to grind them into the dust.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, and to some extent also at the start of the twentieth,26 poetry was a political instrument, a battering ram in the Bedouin campaigns. When the tribal wars ended and the central government consolidated its power, the poets ceased to serve as mouthpieces to the leaders of the rival tribal groups. Instead, they aimed their barbed verses at the Ottomans, and subsequently, during the British Mandatory period, at those of their leaders who placed their private interests above the common good and joined hands with the new adversary – the Jews. Since the beginning of the twentieth century Bedouin poets assumed the role of the conscience of the tribal society, and their poetry gradually became an expression of opposition to the government – a government whose only concern was to settle the nomads, recruit them to serve in its systems, collect taxes, and put an end to their old way of life – as well as opposition to the Bedouin leadership that tamely obeyed the dictates of the government. Denunciation of the weak Bedouin leadership is the most prominent motif of the political poems of the twentieth century.
Following the Riots of 1929, the leaders of the two national movements, the Jewish and the Palestinian, realized that they were heading for a clash and that compromise was not likely to be reached.27 With the increase in Jewish immigration in the 1930s and the intensification of the Zionist movement's efforts to acquire land for Jewish settlement in the Negev,28 the Palestinian national movement stepped up actions aimed at recruiting the nomads (who were becoming semi-nomadic) and foiling Zionist attempts to extend their hold on the Negev. In one such action, which was preserved in the social memory of the Bedouin,29 the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the prominent Palestinian leader of that time, appeared at a conference in the western Negev in which he induced the Bedouin leaders pledge on the Koran and a sword not to sell land to Jews and not to act as middle-men in land deals. However, although there were Bedouin leaders who sided with the national movement, others did not stop selling land and mediating in land sales. The first allusion to the Zionist Jewish other may be found in poems composed in the 1930s by Bedouin poets who enlisted in the national struggle and raised an outcry against the sale of land and against those of their leaders who added sin to crime and betrayed the common interest of all the Arabs of Palestine.30
The British mandatory period
It was in the 1970s that Bar-Zvi first heard most of the Mandatory-era poems, about forty years after their estimated date of composition. In that period, he was a high-ranking official in the Beersheba municipality and had more leisure to devote to documenting Bedouin culture and collecting poetry – the pinnacle of their art – than during his time in the military administration. The many years that passed between the composition of these verses and their recital to Bar-Zvi attest to the depth of their influence. Our hypothesis about the date of their composition is robust, because they were addressed – and this is stated explicitly in the body of the poems – to Aref Bek,31 that is Aref al-Aref (1891-1973), governor of the Beersheba sub-district on behalf of the British. Al-Aref was appointed to his post in 1929 and served in it for about ten years. One of Bar-Zvi's most prominent informants, a sheikh from the Tiyāha confederation who was well versed in the history of the Bedouin and their traditions, claimed that the poem from which the excerpt given below is taken was composed by a poet of the ʿAzāzmeh confederation.32 In keeping with an ancient and common pattern in Bedouin poetry of the Middle East,33 the poem opens with an appeal to a rider on a noble camel, asking him to carry a message to Aref Bek complaining, by way of the words of the poem, about the devious ways of the tribal chiefs. And this is what the bearer of the rhyming message says to the man governing the Bedouin, who was an Arab like them (though not a Bedouin but a city dweller):34
Hurry up and head to the sheikhs who are famed,
For protecting the homeland with their swords and spears.
يا سرع ما تلفي الشّيوخ المشاهير
دون الوطن بسيوفهم والحرابي
Say: your fathers protected it in times of war,
Their mares then galloped like wolves.
قول: أهلكو حاموها يوم غزّ القناطير
ومهارها تهذل هذيل الذّيابي
And you sold it and bought yourselves ‘carriages’,
And gave up riding on horses and camels.
وانتو بعتوها وشريتو حناتير
وتركتو ركوب الرّمك والرّكابي
The poet urges the governor to exercise his power and influence over those Bedouin leaders, whom he regards as having betrayed their mission. Not only did they not defend the lands of the tribes, but they failed to defend the homeland (Arabic: waṭan). In his verses he calls up memories of the period of the tribal wars, which ended at the turn of the century: This is how one should understand the reference to swords, spears, and mares that gallop like wolves (the wolf symbolizes daring in Bedouin poetry). In the eyes of the poet, the tribal chiefs’ betrayal of the new national cause is a betrayal of the ancestral heritage. In previous generations they did not shy away from wars for the defense of their lands, while in this generation their feeble leaders abandoned their cultural inheritance, sold the homeland, and with the money they received bought themselves ‘carriages’ (Arabic: ḥanātīr). Conceivably the word ‘carriages’ is an allusion to the cars that some of the Bedouin chiefs acquired at that time.35
The protest is addressed to Aref Bek, who had to maneuver in those years between his obligations to the Mandatory authorities, his responsibility to his Bedouin subjects (and objects of study),36 and his ties to the Palestinian national movement, which he helped shape, in particular at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century (he and al-Husseini were tried in 1920 for their part in the incitement that preceded the events of Nabi Musa, but soon after the British pardoned him and made him a high official in their service).37 The poet denounces the Bedouin leaders who transgressed, seeks to propel al-Aref into the arms of the national movement, but makes no mention at all of the Mandatory authorities, al-Aref’s employers. The Jews too are not mentioned in the poem, yet who but they could have bought the lands of the nation? While not explicitly mentioned, they are there nonetheless, behind the scenes, and they will soon advance to the front of the stage.
Following the publication of the 1939 White Paper, which from a Zionist perspective gave a narrow interpretation of the “national home for the Jewish people” promised by the Balfour Declaration and severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and acquisition of land there, the Bedouin witnessed increased efforts by the Zionist movement to stake a peg in the Negev and consolidate their hold. At first, the Jews settled in the northern Negev, in an area where the climate is relatively mild and the lands are more fertile than in the southern Negev and in the east. Then, in 1943, they cast their eyes on parts of the Negev where the climate was less favorable and the geographical conditions were not the best. They established three settlements in the Negev that year – in the west, in the south, and near Beersheba. Three years later, the settlement drive intensified in the wake of the publication of the Morrison-Grady plan, according to which most of the Negev would remain under British control and its northern part was to be handed over to the Arabs. In response, the Zionist movement established eleven Jewish settlements in the Negev in a single day. This settlement momentum is known to have had an effect on the boundaries set by the 1947 partition plan.
By the 1940s Aref Bek was no longer governor of the Negev under the British, and the poets, witnessing the Jewish settlement drive and intensified efforts to purchase land in the Negev, now addressed their verses to another leader, whom they called the Emir. This was not Abdullah the ruler of Transjordan, whom they also called Emir, but Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia. In those years, Ibn Saud was an influential leader on the regional scene and a personality with standing in the international arena. A refugee from the Tarābīn confederation who lived in Rafah declaimed the poem cited below to Bar-Zvi in 1977.38 The poem opens with an address to God, another accepted convention of Bedouin poetry, and continues with an injunction to the bearer of the message to say nothing about his journey to his wife, fashion himself a stick from the branch of an almond tree, and turn the neck of the she-camel on which he will ride towards the land of Ibn Saud.39
Say to him: oh Amīr, the government,
That took our country – you haven’t heard of it.
قول له: يا أمير، الدّولة
الّي اخذت بلادنا ما معاك خبرهي
They surveyed the lands with light-brown ‘carriages’,
They measured the plains and the rocky hills.
قاسوهي بشهب الحناتير
قاسوا سهلهي مع وعرهي
They drove narrow pegs into the land and said:
Damned be the father of the land and whoever set its boundaries.
ودقّوا فيها رفاع المسامير وقالوا:
يلعن ابو الأرض ع أبو الّي حجرهي
The mode of operation and the discourse of the Jewish agents who purchased land on behalf of the Zionist movement in the Negev are vividly rendered. Although the Zionist Jewish other is not explicitly mentioned, the reference to the Jewish community and its emissaries as a government (Arabic: dōleh; may also be translated as state) is apt; indeed at the time the Zionists spoke of “the state on the way”. The anonymous author of the poem seeks to draw the attention of the renowned Bedouin leader to the actions of the rising political force which seized the land of the Bedouin (Arabic: blādna). The Zionist acts of surveying the land and marking boundaries with thin pegs, both foreign to the Bedouin, are described here in the most tangible way; note the reference to motor vehicles, a sign of the times. We will encounter the pegs again later on, for though many years had passed since this image first appeared in their poetry, it persisted till the early 1980s at least in the consciousness of the Bedouin. The Zionist discourse is no less important than their deeds, in the eyes of the poet, who renders it using direct speech as if he had heard the Zionists speaking as they measured and marked the plots.40 In their words may be felt their contempt for the original landowners and for the very concept of Bedouin ownership of land. The poem’s concluding verses are devoted to a condemnation of the failed tribal chiefs who indulged their pleasures using the proceeds of the sales and abandoned the old ways.
The period of military rule
The Zionist Jewish other appeared on the stage of Bedouin poetry in the Negev in Mandatory times, yet the poets refrained from naming him. The words Jew and Zionist are absent from the verses of the period, which generally portrayed Zionism as a mysterious, nameless and destructive adversary. Perhaps it was out of the deep and ancient cautiousness of Bedouin poetry that the Zionist Jewish other was not named,41 or it may have been an expression of fear of an unknown and unknowable enemy, for to name the other means to dispel that fear and transmute it into something that can be grasped. This attitude changed following the upheavals of the 1948 War.
Attempts by the Palestinian national movement to gain the allegiance of the Bedouin, whose paramount loyalty was to their descent groups,42 met with only limited success. During the 1948 War, the Bedouin in the Negev were divided into three main groups: those who sided with the Arabs, those who were neutral, and those who sided with the Jews. Some Bedouin in this last group remained in the territory of the State of Israel after the war, in addition to others who were not necessarily pro-Jewish. Most of the Bedouin who lived in the Negev, who numbered about 65,000 before the start of the campaign,43 were forced to flee their places of residence or were expelled by the Israeli army. The segmentary tribal fabric was torn to shreds during the war and its aftermath. Tribal groups large and small split up, and brother was separated from brother. For a few years after the war there was a constant movement of refugees, deportees, infiltrators, and people returned to the Negev by the authorities, but eventually most of the Bedouin residing within the boundaries of the Jewish state – about a fifth of the number that had lived in the Negev before the war44 – found themselves living under military rule in an enclosed area east of Beersheba.
The trauma of the war spread a silent gloom in all hearts. Yet several poems composed in the years when the Negev was in turmoil, in 1949 and the early 1950s, attest that certain voices were venting their pain at the upheavals and suffering, as well as their opposition to the newly imposed Jewish dominion. These voices, of course, continued to criticize the leaders who had failed in the war and in the early years of military rule, as they had failed during the Mandate, but now the scope of their protest broadened as they sought to give expression to the immense changes that had taken place in their lives. Their attitude toward the Jewish other, who was now Jewish-Israeli, also changed and the protest became more direct. Some of the poems composed in this period reveal an audacity not usually associated with the Palestinians who remained in Israel in the first years of military rule.45
One of these poems was composed by a poet who was well-known at the time named Shiḥdeh Ibn ʿAjlān. He belonged to the Abu Yaḥya tribe, which was part of the Jarāwīn sub-confederation affiliated with the Tarābīn confederation. In the year the poem was composed, 1949, Bedouin belonging to the Jarāwīn still lived in the western Negev, but not long afterwards they were expelled. In his poem Ibn ʿAjlān describes several tribal chiefs sitting as if turned to stone in the office of the military government officer in the western Negev. Mild contempt and praise are heaped upon them in alternation. The poet mentions their names and assigns one couplet to each. To the officer he devotes two couplets, which are reproduced below, together with a third which might seem unrelated to the preceding ones but is in fact an integral part of the poem.46
The officer set over us is the ring in all the bullies’ noses,
His lash is long and his right hand is most strong.
مسؤولنا يا خزام كلّ عتريس
سوطه طويل وينفّذه باليميني
Anyone summoned by him, oh brave men, “dries up” from sheer fright,
And when he swings the whip, it strikes hard.
ويّبّس المطلوب، يا جواد، تيبيس
وان شاح بالكرباج هواته ضميني
A man whose wife complains about him is foolish as a goat,
When he sees her, he weeps and begins to implore her.
الحرمة الّي تشتكي رجلهي تيس
إن شافهي يبكي ويرخي الحنيني
We are not told the officer's name, which is in keeping with the practice in regard to the Jewish Zionist other during the Mandatory period, though in some poems from the early 1950s officers in the military government in the Negev are mentioned by their first names. The officer with no name in the present poem is described as violent and terrifying, and that is why the sheikhs sit in his office in great discomfort, because “anyone summoned by him […] ‘dries up’ from sheer fright.” But more than the violence and fear, it is the description of the officer as a 'ring' in the thugs' noses that is intriguing. The poet intends to convey – in a description that shows courage in a period when the utterances of the Arabs remaining in Israel were closely monitored – that the officer is nothing but a link between the entity with the real power to lead others by the nose like animals, namely the state, and those among its Bedouin subjects who display signs of unrest and are disinclined to show immediate submission. Despite his great strength and the fear he sows, the officer is a mere cog in the mechanism of control, as the poet was acute enough to grasp, in this period when the new power system was taking its first steps in the Negev.
The third couplet introduces a motif not uncommon in Bedouin poetry, and that is, reversal of the gender relations that ought by rights to prevail in Bedouin society (according to the poet).47 Indeed the proper order is domination of man over woman, whatever the woman’s character. Her complaints and his weeping and pleas are all signs of his weakness and folly. This gender reversal, which we will encounter again in this article, symbolizes the upending of the political and social order in the world of the Bedouin: instead of the man controlling the woman, she controls him. Prior to the 1948 War – the previous year’s war – and before the inception of the longue durée processes of permanent settlement, which weakened the Bedouin and their leadership, man was no goat. His wife would not dare to complain about him, and it was inconceivable that he would cry and plead. The tribal chiefs described in the poem as submissive in the face of the menacing figure of the regional officer are nothing but goats, men whose strength has deserted them. This is how we interpret this couplet: as an allusion to the weakness of the Bedouin leadership in the conditions created after the 1948 War, and perhaps to the weakness of all the Bedouin, who were all transmuted in 1949 into billy goats.
In their condition as goats and beasts with rings in their noses, with the Jewish Israeli other surveilling their every action and utterance and controlling their lands, property, movements and, to a considerable extent, their consciousness,48 their poetry offered a hidden way (though not hidden from Bar-Zvi’s eyes and ears) for the Bedouin in the Negev to preserve sanity and self-respect, or what was left of them. After the 1948 War, from a distant figure who unceasingly bought lands in the Negev and strengthened his hold over them, the Zionist in the poems transformed into the Israeli military man – a closer and clearer figure, who ruled over many aspects of their lives, causing sorrow and pain, and therefore a target for the denunciatory arrows of the poets. These arrows, though sometimes harsher and even more pointed than in the poem quoted above, were almost always delivered in the subdued, measured and refined tone that characterized the political poetry of the Bedouin in the half-century discussed in the article.
There are no protest poems in the Bar-Zvi collection that we can date to the second half of the 1950s and to the 1960s, either because they were not recited to Bar-Zvi or because at that time the Bedouin rarely composed such poetry. However, the collection contains several letters in verse that were sent to him. In those years, Bar-Zvi had become a high-ranking officer in the military government, and in 1963, as mentioned, he was appointed military governor of the Negev. Three years earlier, in the summer of 1960, he received a letter in rhyme from a man of the Abu Rgayyig tribal group saying that a rifle he had been holding legally was confiscated by the authorities for no good reason. In contrast to the criticism voiced by Ibn ʿAjlān and other poets in 1949 and the early 1950s with regard to military government officers and their injustices, this poem showers praise on Bar-Zvi. In the letter, the man who signed it explains how dear the rifle – a well-known symbol of masculinity – is to him, since without it he would be exposed to disaster and humiliation. As is not unusual in Bedouin verse, he addresses the rifle itself:49
But I place you in the custody of a very fine officer,
Frayḥ Abu Dāwūd, of noble descent.
لاكن مدخلكي على نعم والي
فريح أبو داوود من فرع عالي
He will enquire and reflect on what happened to me,
And there is no doubt that he will render justice.
يسعل ويتفكّر بالّي جرى لي
لا شكّ عنده إلا الحقّ ميزاني
Except for you, sir, there is no-one to care for me,
You are the beloved, the one in charge of everything.
وغيرك، يا مولاي، ما لي مراعي
انت الحبيب الّي على الكلّ راعي
As Bar-Zvi notes in the margins of the rhyming letter, no one may touch the rifle without the permission of the person entrusted with custody over it.50 The sender addresses Bar-Zvi by the name in use among the Bedouin – Frayḥ (a translation into Arabic of Sasson, his first name, which means happiness), followed by his nickname Abu Dāwūd (after his firstborn son David). In keeping with Bedouin conventions, he declares that Bar-Zvi has a noble pedigree. By framing his request in verse (to distinguish it from the numerous prose appeals in the archives of the military administration), he transforms it into a personal appeal to a man he describes as having a sense of justice, at once master and beloved.
The sender of the letter, who may well have composed it himself, was aware that the Jewish officer appreciated Bedouin poetry, and he clearly assumed that his chances of eliciting a response would be higher if he formulated his appeal in verse. This appeal (and similar ones) attests to the special type of dialogue that flowed in the days of military rule between the high-ranking officer and some of the Bedouin who were under his authority – a dialogue, however, not devoid of signs of subordination. It also shows that a Bedouin who was neither a sheikh nor highly placed, and perhaps even socially weak (“except for you, sir, there is no-one to care for me”), could turn to a senior officer in the military government in an unconventional way. Although the verses are full of flattery, there is no obvious sign of fear, the recipient is addressed by his first name and nickname, and he is called “beloved” (in Arabic: al-ḥabīb). Had the recipient not been familiar with the poetry of the Bedouin, this unique interaction would not have been possible.
After the 1967 War
In the late 1950s, after the 1956 War and the massacre in Kafr Qasim in that same year, supervision over the Palestinian Arabs who had remained in Israeli territory after 1948 gradually grew looser and the powers of the military government were significantly curtailed.51 The developing Israeli economy, which was in desperate need of workers – and many such could be found, and cheaply, among the Israeli Arabs – also contributed to the weakening of the military government, until it was finally abolished in 1966. In the late 1960s and early 1970s another significant change took place in the Negev with the establishment of the first Bedouin towns, Tel Sheva (Tel as-Sabʿ) and Rahat. This was the beginning of a new phase in a long-term process that began in the late Ottoman period, in which the nomads became semi-nomadic and eventually sedentary.52 Bedouin poetry in the 1970s displayed a growing interest in this great change and in the upheavals of the Bedouin world. A little over half a century earlier (1915-1916) their warriors had set out alongside the Turks to attack the forces of the British Empire in the Suez Canal area, and now they found themselves forced to settle permanently in towns planned for them by the Jews, the rulers of the whole country and of the expanses of Sinai, from which many of their ancestors had emigrated to the Negev and which were now in Israeli hands in the wake of the 1967 War.
One of the devices which Bedouin poetry in Israel after 1967 used to portray the great changes that had taken place in their world was the motif of gender reversal. The same motif had been used about twenty years earlier in Ibn ʿAjlān’s poem, an excerpt of which was examined in the previous section, and has roots in the Bedouin poetry of the Mandatory period. The present weakness of the Bedouin – whose earlier poetry had celebrated the glorious days, the days of the tribal wars – was rendered in the 1970s and later as the weakness of a man vis-à-vis his wife, or as the weakness of men in relation to women. The poem of which an excerpt is presented below was declaimed to Bar-Zvi, but we do not know if the reciter was also the author, nor do we know when it was composed and when it was recited. We feel justified in including it in this section based on the fact that several poems making use of the gender reversal motif were composed in the Negev in the 1970s and documented by Bar-Zvi at the time.53 The poem opens with a conventional appeal to God, followed by a plaint about the order of things that has gone so wrong – an order in which the Bedouin, who once wielded great political power, have now become, at the time of the poem’s composition, subordinated to others who are unworthy to rule (in the eyes of the poet), to others who humiliate them. The Bedouin's weakness is so great in his eyes that he addresses himself to the women, and in strong language, as follows:54
Oh women! Adorn our faces with tattoos,
Give us your shawls and take our beards.
يا بيض، دقّن زراق النّيل فينا
هاتن ملاثمكن وهاكن لحانا
Take the golden bracelets off your hands,
And adorn yourselves with our swords, oh women of ours.
فكّن خلاخيل الذّهب من إيداكن
وتقلّدن بسيوفنا يا نسانا
If only tears were of any use, we would have wept and grieved,
For the acacia that today shades our enemies.
لو البكي ينفع، بكينا منيفة
الغرسة الّي شرّعت به عدانا
Make no mistake, this is not a call for gender revolution, it is a cry of grief over the political weakness of the Bedouin. Their situation is so bad that a gender-reversed world is represented as superior. These verses do not mean that the poet would have truly preferred to see his wives ruling over him and over men like him, wearing beards and wielding swords, while the men with faces tattooed55 wrapped themselves in their women’s dresses, submissive and obedient to their dictates. It is a bitter lament over weakness and an admission of failure. We Bedouin, says the poet, are not men at all. We are not fit for the beard, and our hand is unable to grasp a sword. We are weak, so weak that we have become effeminate. The third couplet, which is the closing couplet of the poem, expresses some degree of acceptance of their wretched condition and reveals something of the circumstances of their political weakness. The shade cast by the acacia, which is a vital resource in the harsh conditions of the desert and here symbolizes the land of the Negev and its resources, was plundered from the desert dwellers by “our enemies”, apparently meaning the Jews. The last word in the poem is a hint (as is the way of Bedouin poetry, which prefers clues to explicit statements) regarding the identity of those responsible for their weakness, or rather their effeminacy.
The struggle over the lands of the Negev and their resources is recalled in several poems composed in the early 1980s. Following the peace agreements with Egypt, in which the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt, the Israeli territory was reduced in size, and consequently the Negev with its (relatively) wide open spaces gained in importance. At that time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon (1928-2014) stood at the forefront of the struggle over the Negev lands between the State of Israel and the Bedouin. Sharon worked to displace the Bedouin from their temporary settlements, reduce the area of their grazing lands, confiscate their flocks, and in general restrict their movements in the Negev. His name is singled out for censure in some of the poems of the early 1980s, alongside the names of other Jewish Israeli leaders. Compared with Bedouin poetry in the Arab countries, which criticizes the weakness of local tribal leaders and government corruption but seldom voices explicit denigration of the heads of the state,56 Bedouin poetry in the Negev stands out as exceptionally sharp and critical.
In two of his poems the prominent Bedouin poet of the period, Slīmān Ibn ʿEdēsān, a member of the Masʿūdiyyīn tribe of the ʿAzāzmeh confederation, mentions Menachem Begin (1913-1992) and Moshe Dayan (1915-1981).57 Sharon is also mentioned, as we saw above, and is described as the one who, together with the tribal chiefs who collaborated with the Jews, “brought thin pegs”.58 This image, which first appeared in Bedouin poetry during the Mandatory period, means “claimed ownership of the land”. Sharon's activity was also mentioned in another poem, an excerpt of which is quoted below; its author explicitly asked Bar-Zvi not to reveal his identity. The poem was recited to him in February 1983, when Sharon was removed from his post as Defense Minister following the 1982 massacre in Sabra and Shatila. About six months later, then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who also appears in the poem, proffered his resignation to the President. The verses were composed some time before these events, and their focus is not on the Lebanon war but on Israel's policy toward the Bedouin, described in an ironic tone in the first line of the passage below:59
Long live Begin! Head of all those who act,
His men do not fear death.
يعيش بيجن! ريّس الكواين
الزّلام عنده لا تهاب الموت
Arik Sharon helps Begin along,
Silently he expelled the people.
أريك شارون لبيجن معاون
هو شيّل النّاس بسكوت
The flocks will graze no more across the desert,
People will no longer dwell in the tents.
لا مال بالبرّين يرعى
ولا ناس تسكن في البيوت
What do the words “Long live Begin” signify? They appear after the usual religious opening lines and some words about the impending extinction of the flocks. Without hearing their tone, and deprived of the ability to ask the author about his intentions (since his identity is unknown and his poem was composed about forty years ago), we can only speculate about his meaning. The words were surely uttered sarcastically, but there may be more to it than that. They may signify certain recognition of Begin’s power, as the main person responsible for restricting Bedouin movements in the Negev. He was able to prevail, the poet tells us, because his men were prepared to die. Here is no sarcasm: indeed equanimity in the face of death is a value that was prized in Bedouin poetry in days gone by. In the old world, during the tribal wars of the nineteenth century and long before, Bedouin warriors were not supposed to fear death; today, at the time the poem was composed, it is the Jews, Begin’s men, who cleave to the Bedouin ideal that the former nomads have forsaken.
Moreover, even if the poet's subtext is “he should die” or “he should go to hell”, it is not inconceivable that the phrase “long live” expresses mockery or contempt for the Bedouin, who like himself are forced to mouth it because such is their condition, they are Begin’s subjects. Also, in these opening words of the poem, perhaps three words resonate that were heard in the public sphere in Israel at the time: “Begin, King of Israel.” In the fearlessness of Begin’s men when faced with death (as the poet believes) may perhaps be heard echoes of the First Lebanon War and even the 1973 War, but this is no more than speculation. The man who helps Begin, as the poet tell us, is mentioned in the poem by the name by which he became known, Arik Sharon, and it is to him that the poet attributes the expulsion of the Bedouin in those years from their temporary encampments in the Negev. Begin and Sharon are presented as responsible for the destruction of the Bedouin’s main source of livelihood, pastoralism, and it was their policies, implemented by Sharon so the poet tells us, that spelled the demise of the tents and of an ancient and venerated tradition. The poem continues with the familiar critique of tribal chiefs and follows with a sharp condemnation of King Hussein of Jordan and Mubarak, the President of Egypt, from whom salvation will not come to the Bedouin. The poem ends on a note of despair in the face of the high inflation of those years and the fraudulent practices that pervaded trade.
What did we learn from this study of the representations of the Jewish other in the political poetry of the Bedouin in the Negev? For one, we saw that attitudes toward the Jewish other changed over time. In the first period, before the 1930s, he was not mentioned at all in the verses. Then came the first, veiled appearance of the Jewish other, between the lines of the poems, probably in the mid-1930s, but at any rate a short time before or after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt. In those years, there was a tone of urgency in some of the poets’ call to oppose both the Zionist movement and its collaborators among the Bedouin leaders. In the nascent national poetry of the desert dwellers, the figure of the Zionist other remained behind the scenes, but his presence was clearly implied. What was only insinuated in the poetry of the 1930s became explicit in the 1940s, with the increasing efforts of the Jews to gain a foothold in the Negev by acquiring land and establishing settlements. The Jewish other now appears on the stage of poetry, and although the words “Jew” or “Zionist” are not spoken, the Jewish Yishuv is referred to with great precision as “government” or “state”, and its actions in the Negev are characterized in the figurative language of Bedouin poetry as aggressive.
A clear voice of protest against the Israeli military government and the humiliation that was the lot of the Bedouin at that time arises from the poetry composed in the Negev immediately after the end of the 1948 War and in the early 1950s. The figure of the Jewish other became more tangible and its poetic expression more direct and sometimes even audacious, although the poets remained cautious in the knowledge that the Jews monitored the utterances of the Bedouin. Bar-Zvi may have collected poetry in this period in the framework of his duties in the military administration,60 but the interaction between him and Bedouin poets, rhymesters and reciters of poetry, on which we cannot expand here, cannot be understood solely in terms of the power relations between them. It seems that the Bedouin understood that the Jewish officer, who had begun to show an interest in their poetry as early as the mid-1940s, was captivated by the magic of their verse. Collecting poetry was certainly useful as a tool for understanding the Bedouin whom he administered and ruling them, there is no doubt about this, but over and beyond that it became a hobby and eventually a serious occupation, in which Bar-Zvi invested a great deal of effort over the years. It was a unique channel of communication between subjects and a powerful administrator who had fallen in love with Bedouin art – a channel through which the subjects could express discreet criticism and even forward requests phrased in direct terms, intermingled with judicious flattery.
After the abolition of the military government, the pace of the sedentarization process of the Negev Bedouin accelerated, and their first towns were founded. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the struggle over land between the Bedouin and the state intensified. Israel sought to class lands that the Bedouin saw as their ancestral inheritance and over which they claimed ownership as state property,61 and the state used force to achieve that end. In those years, between the 1967 War and the period of the withdrawal from Sinai and the 1982 War, Bedouin poets did not hesitate to speak out about the struggle for control of the Negev against the Jewish state, which they portrayed in their rhymes as a rival and enemy, and were not afraid to name the Israeli leaders who set policy and led the Jewish move to dominate the Negev.
In those years the Israeli other was described in bold language and harsh terms, although, as is the way of Bedouin poetry, this was done using allusions and insinuations. The representation of the Jewish other in Bedouin poetry evolved during the period examined in the article and became sharper and more tangible, but it was always characterized by the same restrained tone and language of allusions, the same deep caution in the choice of words – since words can kill – and the same fear of the central authority, whose power the Bedouin had suffered from since the late Ottoman period. Daring and caution are opposites that seem incapable of coexisting, yet the representations of the Jewish other in Bedouin poetry, which combine the two opposites, are proof that poetry can encompass both.