Thursday, March 29, 2012

Reflections on the Desert People, by blogger of the month Cherec Dickey

Saffa and I.  Her dream is to get a 
medical education in Turkey.

One of the most amazing things about being a student at MSIH is our bi-weekly clinical rotations.  We are split into small groups and sent to places all over Be’er Sheva and the surrounding areas to meet and interview patients.  We have visited pediatric oncology wards, internal medicine departments, and old folks’ homes.  More recently, we got to interview Holocaust survivors.  One of the most impactful experiences for many students in my class was the Bedouin home visits.  We also visited clinics located within Bedouin villages, but there is nothing like visiting a Bedouin family in their home.  I have read about the Bedouin people and explored their current situation in Israel.  Stuck between their traditionally nomadic lifestyle, a more recent tendency to settle, and the politics of Israel being in control of the Negev, the experience of Bedouins in Israel is one worth exploring.

I have a limited experience interacting with Bedouin people. A few of my classmates and I visit a local Bedouin village every week to teach English to Bedouin teenage girls.  It’s available to boys as well, but the boys usually sit in the corner and giggle the whole time (yes, like little girls in American culture), or they just don’t show up at all.  This has been a rewarding experience for me, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to the girls talk about their lives, hopes, and dreams.  One of the most interesting things about these girls is their focus on the future.  They’re always talking about the future, because they know the future brings change and hope for them.  Some of them want to be doctors, and others want to be teachers.

This blog isn’t about the future, though.  It’s about the present.  It’s about the current everyday lives of Bedouins through the eyes of a Caucasian girl from the small-town American Midwest.  As you read this, keep in mind that this is my medical school experience.  Crazy, right?

The pen of sheep.
The sun was warm and pleasant as we made our way across the uneven desert earth toward a small building made of concrete blocks.  I quickly snapped a few photographs of the back yard, focusing on a pen of sheep, then a rustic clothesline with clothes hung using modern, brightly-colored clothespins, which were a stark contrast against the otherwise dull desert background.  I thought these would be some of the very few photos I took that day. Nothing about that day was really what I expected.

The second photo I snapped as I approached
my first experience in a Bedouin dwelling.

I stepped into another world.  We walked into a dim room, with light lent only by the sunlight peeking through the door and windows.  Colorful straw mats were placed neatly to cover most of the floor.  We spotted a long, softer-looking rug on one side and all six of us sat down on the floor of our first Bedouin dwelling.

There was a man sitting on the floor on the opposite side of the room.  He wasn't sitting on a rug as we were, just a straw mat.  Behind him were rumpled blankets and a small pillow.  A red and white keffiyeh was loosely draped over his grey-haired head.  His leather-like face wore lines harshly drawn by a life in the sun, partially covered by a stubbly beard.  He had gold in his two front teeth and the others were grey and incomplete.  His face was expressionless, humbled by years of poor health and a life in the harsh desert.

He sat with one foot underneath him and the other leg straight out in front of him.  My eyes followed the leg to the end, where there was no foot, only a club-shaped stub covered in a dirty sock.

In front of him were an ash tray, cigarettes, a lighter, and a glucometer.  He had various other supplies to the side of him - pills, injections, and glucose measurement supplies.

The nurse, dressed head to toe in white, spoke to him in his native tongue.  We learned later that she had learned it on her own over the past year as she worked with the Bedouin people.  Her attire was almost poetically symbolic.  From her white socks within her white Crocs to her white fleece jacket, she glowed like an angel in that dim room.  Her compassion for these people was evident.  She had brought a group to this house just a few weeks before, and she was very happy to see that man was doing better.  When she journeys out to villages to do home visits, she is volunteering.  She works for the hospital inside the hospital, but she isn't paid to have compassion on the others who cannot or do not wish to go to the hospital.

As she continued to speak in Arabic, I began to notice more about the room we were in.  The walls may have been white at one time, but they were covered in layers and layers of dirt and grime.  An old TV stood in one corner next to a dilapidated couch.  The couch had arms which were no longer soundly attached but lying on the floor next to it, connected only by upholstery.  Electricity was provided by a power strip which was hung by a black string from the middle of the wall.  Its cord also went back into another room, tied the whole way mid-height on the walls with black twine.

In the adjacent corner lay an ornately decorated walking stick, which the man had learned how to use since the amputation of his foot.  Next to the stick rested a single shoe.

The nurse talked to him more, then it was time for his insulin injection. We watched as he slowly rolled up his sleeve, fold by fold, revealing an unexpectedly thin, pale arm.  He stabbed the needle into his bicep and held it there for an uncomfortably long time (the time necessary for the administration of the drug).

The second wife (we never met the first one) brought us the popular beverage of the Bedouin people: tea.  I anticipated my first taste as I watched the steam rise from my paper cup sitting on the floor.  I was seated next to the door, so the outside breeze gently beckoned the steam in its direction as it more speedily cooled off my tea.  I stared at it for a few minutes, observing the nearly black-colored tea with steam rising from it against a background of brightly colored mats containing holes burned by cigarettes and the rug upon which I was seated (which included a few strips of hot pink).

The steam began to subside, and I brought the tea to my lips for a taste of culture.  I sipped it, expecting the strong, bitter taste that tea that dark would usually yield.  Instead, it was . . . sweet.  Very, very sweet.  In fact, it was too sweet for me to drink more than a few sips.

The man loudly sipped his tea, inhaling the sweetness as he patiently waited for the nurse to explain their conversation to us in English.

While we were talking, a young boy walked into the room and observed the scene in silence.  His face was tan and his clothes were western.  He eventually made his way to the small couch which he sank into as we spoke.  A small bag of potato chips labeled in Hebrew and an empty bottle lay next to him on the couch.

The nurse told us about the man's medical history and her experiences with him.  She also explained how hospital visits can be a cultural problem for the Bedouins, one of the major problems being that it is completely different to them.

Imagine being deathly ill, and the place you must go for help is miles away.  You probably have to travel there on foot and when you get there, everyone speaks a different language.  Eventually, they lead you to your room, which you share with strangers who may or may not speak your language and you notice that your bed is a mat on the floor.

I would assume that's how it is for the Bedouins.  Although it's opposite: they're not used to sleeping in beds or even sitting in chairs.  A hospital is not a very homey place for them.
Not an uncommon site at Soroka - Bedouin patients
wanting to sleep on the ground in the open air sometimes drag
 their bedding outside to sleep in the stairwell.

In the doorway on one side of the room, I saw another boy, smaller and younger than the first, watching the people from the West observe his father's interaction with the lovely nurse.  His clothes were also western, but he was not wearing any shoes.

Later he also crept over to the couch to sit next to his older brother.  They politely sat in silence and observed what was happening in their house.

The man pulled out a cigarette some time after drinking tea.  The nurse asked him about his smoking, and he said that when he has something to drink, he likes to smoke afterwards.  It's just habitual.  She suggested less sugar in the tea, but she did not mention his cigarette smoking.  As she explained this to us, she mentioned that some things are cultural the way people like them to be.  He likes to smoke after his tea.  That is that.

Toward the end of our time there, the nurse turned around to speak to the boys sitting on the couch.  She asked them how old they are.  The older one quickly told her 15.  Then she turned to the younger one and asked him.  He just stared at her blankly then glanced at his brother.  She asked him again, and he looked at his brother again.  The older brother abruptly starting making hand motions and mumbling to him, then he turned to the nurse and said, "He's thirteen."

Evidently deafness is not common to that tribe (unlike others - because of consanguineous marriages, many genetic diseases are recurrent within tribes), and the nurse was surprised at his condition.

After a bit more chatting, our time there was over.  We ventured back outside where the boys got out their baby goats to show us.  Of course we fawned all over the poor animals!
A Bedouin boy plays with baby goats.

Kady and Maya loved to play with the baby goat, too!

A Bedouin woman giggling as the 
goat tries to nibble on her face.
They also showed us their puppies, but the momma was super protective (bad news bears).

After playing with the animals and narrowly avoiding an attack by an angry momma dog, it was time to leave.  We piled back into the cars and drove into Tel Sheva from the unrecognized village we were visiting.

Tel Sheva was another world entirely.  Still Bedouin, the town is an established place with westernized structures and standards of living.  I sat in the backseat of the car, contemplating the scene I just witnessed as I snapped more photographs.  We traveled on paved roads and parked on the street, rather than through rutted dirt that almost bottomed out the car as we had previously.

A photo taken as we were driving -- Bedouin women walking a
stroller through the dirt just outside the unrecognized village.
We were greeted at the door with open arms, literally.  The man of the house greeted us with firm handshakes and introduced himself as we climbed out of our cars.  His wife gave each of us (girls) a hug and kiss as we entered the house.

I took off my shoes and relished the feeling of thick carpet through my socks as I walked over to sit down on one of the thickly padded mats that lined the periphery of the room.  On the mats were a plethora of pillows to lean against.  The lady of the house sat in a chair in the middle of the room and spoke with the nurse.  Her tanned cheekbones firmly jutted from either side of her face, amplified against the white scarf that covered her head.  Her nose boldly stood out against her face, pointing down at the tip toward her ornate, black dress.  The traditional Muslim clothing covered her completely from the neck down, except for her wrinkled, veined hands.  She set her jaw as she listened to the nurse speak to her husband about her condition.

The nurse described her health problems and what had happened in the past with his lady.  She had recently lost a significant amount of weight in order to help her health.  I glanced back at the woman sitting so nobly on her chair and tried to imagine her overweight.  My mind would not allow it.

A few minutes later, the nurse informed us that our hosts insisted that we stay for lunch.  She tried at first to politely turn down the offer, but she was no match for Bedouin hospitality.  We already had our traditional sweet Bedouin tea sitting in front of us, and they proceeded to bring out biscuits and cookies.  The nurse was quick to tell us to go easy on the cookies, because the meal will be more than we can imagine.

Tea and biscuits!
She was right.  We had about ten students, and each person got their own chicken back.  The chickens were perched in groups on a delicious heaping bed of rice and vegetables.  Three to four people shared each plate.  The dishes were spread out in front of us on the floor, beckoning us to dig in.  We did use cutlery, although I’m not certain whether it was provided out of hospitality or if the family actually uses it themselves.

Just before the meal, the nurse had to leave with the other driver to fetch the second group.  It was originally planned to be an exchange, dropping us off and replacing us with them, but since we were invited for lunch, most of us stayed at the house.  While she was gone, the family engaged us in lively conversation in Hebrew and Arabic.  “What?” you say? “You know Hebrew and Arabic?”  As they say in Israel, “Ehhmmmm, lo.”  Some people knew Hebrew better than I do, but none of us were fluent.  Yet, we were still learning Arabic through Hebrew and following them on a tour through their large, spacious house.  The conversation went on for more than an hour, a flurry of Hebrew, Arabic, and lots of hand motions overwhelmed me with the realization that this was one of the most unique cultural experiences in which I had ever found myself.  There I was, speaking Hebrew to a Bedouin man who was teaching me Arabic while describing his journey to Mecca from Jordan.  He brought out photographs and excitedly described how he traveled, where he went, and how in the world he convinced them to let him in  even though he is an Israeli citizen.

Figure 1: The effects of a delicious meal 

served by Bedouins on Western medical students.

After the meal, the mats and cushions were moved outside to the patio, and we were once again served coffee and tea.  After a few minutes, my group had to return from our day among the desert people.  It was sad to leave the inviting community of lively conversation on the ground in the pleasant mid-afternoon sun.  The Bedouin people have a special place in my heart, and I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to speak with them, visit them, and learn from them.  Life in the desert is so much more interesting when one is among the people who came from the desert.  We can appreciate their customs and way of life as well as marvel at how they have so quickly adapted to a changing world.  The Bedouin truly are a resilient and hospitable people, and I look forward to spending more time with them as we learn together in the future.