Hope is a Woman’s Name

An excerpt from the memoir of a trailblazing Israeli Bedouin women's activist.

The fifth daughter in a patriarchal society, and an indigenous Bedouin in Israel, Amal came into this world fighting for her voice to be heard in a community that did not prize girls. At birth it was only her father who looked at her and said “I see hope in her face. I want to call her Amal [hope] in the hope that Allah will give us boys after her.” Five brothers were indeed to follow.

Hope is a Woman’s Name is a rare look at Bedouin life from the even rarer perspective of a Bedouin girl. Amal challenged authority from birth, slowly learning where her community’s boundaries lay and how to navigate them.

As a shepherd at the age of 6, Amal led her flock of sheep across the green mountains of Laqiya, her village in the Negev in southern Israel. Given such responsibility, though rarely recognition, Amal came to understand her community and forge her skills as a leader.

Aged 13 and frustrated by the constraints put on her education as a girl, Amal set up literacy classes for the adult women in her village. She aimed to teach them not only how to read, but to value education itself: “I wanted them to taste an education so that they would never again deprive their daughters of one.”

This was the beginning of a lifelong career initiating projects that would help create change for the Bedouin – a minority within Israel’s Palestinian minority – and for their women in particular. She established economic empowerment programmes for marginalized women, helped found an Arab-Jewish school, and created organizations to promote shared society.

‘Worthy of Meat’

[In this story from her childhood, Amal describes a meal being prepared while the men of her tribe conduct a trial, presided over by her grandfather. The trial takes place in the diwaan: a tent reserved strictly for men, the name of which is derived from the Arabic word ‘to discuss’. The young Amal has already got into trouble for trying to look inside the diwaan and now she, with the other women and children, must prepare food for when the men have concluded their business.]

As the women worked, the aroma of baking bread and braised goat wafted through the tent and mingled with the coffee that had been brewing in the diwaan all afternoon. Two of my sisters were seated in another corner of the tent, washing a seemingly endless stack of large metal serving platters. Whenever there were guests, women were put to work. Amid the hushed bustle, Abouee [my father] quietly entered and pointed towards the pot, inquiring politely if the meal was ready. Jidatee [my father’s mother] left her post, moved closer to Abouee and asked:

“Did they solve it?” Her dark eyes gleamed.

“Yes, yes.”

Al-hamdulillah!” She clapped her hands together. In our tradition, we only serve the meal once the issue has been resolved. The two parties will share bread as a sign of peace and a commitment to cease fighting. If the problem is not resolved, the men will only drink coffee.

Jidatee barked at Ummi [my mother]: “Prepare the food for serving. It’s time!”

Ummi leapt up from the fire, grabbed the metal plates, and lined them up on the floor of the tent.  I counted them with my eyes. There were seven. Like a well-rehearsed play, everyone took their places. Ummi and Abouee lifted the pot of stewed goat and placed it on the floor. Now came the time for everyone to play their part in a coordinated dance of speed and precision. Ummi and my sisters were on first. They tore the bread into small pieces and covered the platter with them. Then Jidatee swooped in, delivering a careful splash of hot soup, a mixture of bone broth and yogurt, which was followed by Ummi firmly planting a full flatbread to soak up the soup. For the grand finale, a man’s solo in this women’s production, Abouee added the last, but most important flourish: healthy morsels of savoury goat meat that had been stewing since the early afternoon. They loaded up the platters one by one until all the food was laid out in seven magnificent and mouth-watering arrangements. Jidatee and Abouee then sent each other a silent signal that it was time to place the feast before our guests. For the second act, Abouee lifted one platter in each hand and disappeared swiftly into the other side of the tent. Ummi and my sisters stood in a straight line just behind the curtain that separated us from the diwaan, each holding a platter, and Abouee moved back and forth, gracefully taking the plates from their hands and placing them before the guests. When every last platter had been brought out, Jidee’s [my grandfather’s] voice proudly declared: “Medo eidayko ala ali qasma allah ya hala wahayaala [Dip your fingers into the food that Allah has given to you].”

After all that work, everyone on the women’s side, including my brothers, had to endure the next act: the waiting game. We had been enveloped in that sumptuous aroma all afternoon and the tease of seeing that tasty feast was almost too much for our empty stomachs to bear. All the kids sat impatiently around the fire, counting the minutes until the guests would finish eating so that we could devour their leftovers. Some kept perfectly still, forcing an inner calm, while those who were less disciplined fidgeted and wrestled, desperately distracting ourselves from our desire for food. After what felt like an eternity, we heard a shift. The voices of satisfied stomachs stepping out of the diwaan to wash their hands rippled into a tsunami of excitement on our side of the tent.

“The food is coming! The food is coming!” My brother squealed.

My mind conjured up a particularly plump piece of meat I recalled Abouee ladling on top of the fresh bread and yogurt soup. I ran my tongue along the inside of my mouth and licked my lips in anticipation. My uncle appeared from behind the curtain, approaching us with two half-eaten platters in his hands. He saw our enthusiasm, but didn’t smile. His dour expression told us to keep it down since the guests were still there. We ran towards him, our arms reaching out towards the plates but Ummi snatched them from him first.

“Sit!” She growled.

We crowded her, craning our faces as close as we could. With one hand, she stacked the dishes and with the other she swatted us away like the persistent flies on a horse’s back. She placed the platters on the ground, her hands moving quickly as she reorganized them, putting all the meat onto one platter and the yogurt soup and bread onto another. She kept the platter with the meat tucked behind her, but pushed the other one towards us. Like a pack of dogs, we scurried towards it. Sitting around the platter in a circle, we thrust our grubby hands into the warm mush, rolled the bread and yogurt together into gooey balls and devoured one after another.

Jidatee was sitting away from us, arranging other platters and handing them to my cousins to bring to their families for dinner. Usually, everyone in the tribe waited eagerly for this meal because goat was a luxury we only ate on very special occasions. Even if they only received a small portion of meat atop a large serving of bread mixed with yogurt soup, just a morsel of that sumptuous flesh was enough for everyone to feel like they had been fed. Ummi was sitting with us without eating, watching in silence. Each one of us was trying to get as much bread onto our side of the platter as we could. When she could see the metal of the plate through the pieces of bread, she’d cut more and toss it in the dish, only breaking her silence to warn us to move our hands away as she poured more soup over the plate.

With the edge taken off our hunger, the pace of our hands moving towards our mouths slowed. But this was only the calm before the storm. For this pack of dogs, the fight for our meal was nearing its deadliest event, the part that I hated the most. Ummi turned to the platter of meat behind her and started to pull it apart, dividing it between the seven of us. It wasn’t really a contest. We all knew where we stood and we all knew why the girls got the scraps. Ummi started by handing the meat to my brothers: big, juicy chunks dripping with the hot soup. I eyed them with envy. Now, it was our turn. To my sister, Basma, she tossed a scraggly bone with only a pinkie nail’s worth of goat flesh. Basma didn’t seem to care. Without even inspecting her meagre share, she popped it in her mouth.

I looked at the piece that landed in my hand. It was pathetic: a splintered bone covered almost entirely in fat. My stomach sank. I don’t know if it was the fat or the injustice that repulsed me, but I couldn’t take it. I tossed the bone back into the dish and waited for Ummi’s reaction.

Inshaala ma takli [So you won’t eat],” she said without even looking at me.

My other sister rushed in to grab my sad, discarded bone and suck out the marrow. Fuelled by my rage, I leapt up, and began yelling at her, my finger condemning her for this betrayal. The commotion drew my uncle from the diwaan. The light was fading, but we could see his eyes, blazing with anger. They could hear me shouting from the other side.

“Beat her!” Ummi demanded in a harsh whisper. “She threw her piece of meat and today she was trying to get into the men’s side.”

My uncle grabbed my arm and dragged me deeper inside the tent.  The more I fought, the harder his fingers twisted around my arm. “I told you a million times! You can’t be around men and you can’t be in there. It’s only for men.” With those words, he released my arm and pushed me to the ground. I landed face first and tasted the dirt.

“Leave her!” Jidatee came to my rescue again. “She didn’t do anything wrong. Her mother is exaggerating.” My uncle stalked off and Jidatee waited till I picked myself up before going back to whatever she had been doing before the commotion started. Dusting myself off, I looked over at Ummi, who was busy washing the platters as if nothing had happened. I was furious at her indifference, but that’s when I noticed my brother standing next to Jidatee, a fat piece of meat still dangling in his right hand. My eye on the prize, I ran towards him at full speed and with fury and determination on my side, I yanked the meat from his hand and bolted from the tent. His whimpering for Ummi followed me out into the darkness. I heard Ummi yelling after me, threatening to kill me if I didn’t come back this instant.

Jidatee, my biggest ally, turned to my brother and said, “Run. Go get your meat. If you catch her, it is yours. If not, you don’t deserve it.”

My brother and my sisters all sprinted after me. My little legs moved swiftly beneath me, carrying me faster and faster away from the voices shouting at me in anger or cheering my brother on. I ran and ran and ran until the only sound I could hear was the rhythm of my feet hitting the sand. I had made it to the very top of the hill that faced my parents’ tent. Finally, I stopped. I caught my breath and with a quick prayer to Allah, I turned around. No one was behind me.

A wave of relief coursed through my body. I sat down and opened my hand to see that decadent chunk of meat nestled safely in my palm. The soup had dribbled between my fingers and down my arm, coating it in a sticky mess of yogurt and dust, but I didn’t care.

Raising the meat to my nose, I inhaled its delicious smell. Then I brought it to my lips, kissing it before opening my mouth and biting off the tiniest piece. Closing my eyes, I savoured the taste of triumph. I swallowed and felt the meat nourish my entire being.

“Yes,” I said with a smirk. “You earned it.”

 

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