The vocation of Israeli researcher Clinton Bailey, a Bedouin specialist who has accumulated hundreds of hours of sound recordings on this nomadic society, was born when he was jogging in the Negev desert in Israel.
It was at the end of the 1960s that this professor, born in the United States and who taught international relations at the prestigious Columbia University in New York, decided to move to Israel to teach English in a kibbutz in the south of the country.
By going for a run near Bedouin towns, he discovered a fascination for this part of the population often living in poverty and isolation, on the margins of Israeli society.
A country of nine million people, Israel has about 250,000 Bedouin living mainly in the Negev Desert. They are part of the community of Israeli Arabs, descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of Israel in 1948.
Some have retained a semi-nomadic existence, others have abandoned it while remaining attached to their traditions.
By dint of walks in the desert, Mr. Bailey, who is Arabic-speaking, has often been invited to their tents. Later, he invested in a jeep allowing him to access the most remote villages.
“By understanding Bedouin culture, you understand human nature, how people adapt to live in very difficult conditions,” he told AFP in his house in Jerusalem, where he lives in the middle of a mountain of books.
The National Library of Israel recently digitized its unique audio archives and transcribed them into Arabic and English, in order to expand knowledge of Bedouin culture, which has so far been poorly documented.
The project is intended to “catch up by documenting all aspects of Bedouin culture in Israeli society,” explains Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the library.
– “Vanish” –
Mr. Bailey undertook to record his interlocutors because oral tradition is their main means of cultural transmission.
“I felt it was important to record their memories”, says the researcher, now in his eighties.
This is all the more true as this society, tribal and traditional, is according to him in full transition, opening up to modernity.
Seeing them use radios and plastic containers was a harbinger of a pervasive modernity that would inevitably encroach on their traditions, he said, adding fears that Bedouin culture “might disappear”.
About 350 hours of recording immortalize his interviews with Bedouins from the Negev but also from the Egyptian Sinai, occupied more than a decade by Israel after the Six Day War (1967).
There are subjects as varied as history, the legal system or Bedouin poetry, subject to which the specialist has devoted the first of his four books.
These archives will be searchable on the internet so that all Bedouins can have access to this “rare and high quality oral history” of their culture and history, says Ms Ukeles.
The National Library is also seeking to collaborate with academics from the Gulf, a region still steeped in Bedouin tradition, a prospect facilitated by the recent normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
– Common points –
Mr. Bailey won a prestigious award in 1994 from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel for his commitment to the Bedouin community.
The researcher accuses the Israeli leaders of not having taken sufficient account of the specific needs of this population and of having thus fueled hostility towards the state.
“We decided not to recognize their claims on certain plots of land or areas because they did not have written title deeds,” he explains.
And because Israel does not want to take into account property rights as they exist in the Bedouin oral legal system, tensions remain high on the subject. The State regularly destroys buildings that it considers illegal because they were built without authorization.
If Israel does not heed their demands, this minority “will be more reluctant, aggressive, and it will be more difficult to deal with it,” says the researcher, who recently published a book with the ambition of highlighting the commonalities between the history of these nomads and that of the Jewish people.
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