Leading Bedouin scholar Clinton Bailey has amassed hundreds of hours of recordings about the nomadic society's poetry, history and legal system, in a career that began while jogging through Israel's Negev desert.
Bailey’s unique Arabic audio archive is now being transcribed and digitised by Israel‘s National Library, a project aimed at enriching Bedouin scholarship in Israel, the Arab world and beyond.
“I find that in understanding Bedouin culture… you understand human nature, how people adjust to living under very difficult circumstances,” Bailey told AFP.
There are some 250,000 Bedouins living in Israel, part of the mainly Palestinian-Arab community that stayed in the Jewish state following its creation in 1948.
Impoverished and often living on the margins, Bedouin culture is understudied in Israel, a problem Bailey’s recordings will help address, said Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the library.
The national library has consistently prioritised material on Islam, but focused less on the culture and history of indigenous Arab communities, she told AFP.
“This collection enables us to preserve and document Bedouin culture, in an area we are trying to fill in gaps and document all aspects of Israeli society,” she said.
‘Going to disappear’
Bailey was teaching political science at New York’s Columbia University in the late 1960s when he decided to move to Israel to teach English on a southern kibbutz.
An Arabic speaker, he was frequently invited by Bedouins into their tents as he jogged in the surrounding area. Eventually, he bought a jeep to visit Bedouin communities further afield.
Now in his early 80s, he recalled thinking that Bedouin society was at a transition point.
Watching them use radios and plastic containers was a harbinger of encroaching modernity that would inevitably infringe on their traditional ways, he said, adding he feared Bedouin culture “was going to disappear”.
In order to preserve it, Bailey decided to chronicle the Bedouins orally-based culture. The first step was to acquire a tape recorder.
“My senses told me that recording what they remembered and how they lived was the important thing to do.”
His interviews with Bedouin citizens of Israel and in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, which Israel occupied for more than a decade after the 1967 Six-Day War, yielded around 350 hours of recordings.
The content includes Bedouin poetry, legal issues, religion, history and environment.
Bailey, who in 1994 won a human rights award from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel for his advocacy, has also penned books, including a tome of 113 Bedouin poems.
To complete its three-year digitisation project, the library has hired members of Israel’s Bedouin community to help, among other things, transcribe the recordings using their knowledge of the local dialect.
Ukeles said the library would make the archive accessible online, enabling Bedouins in the Sinai to access the rare cultural record by mobile phone.
The library is also seeking collaboration with scholars in the Gulf, a prospect made easier by recent agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to establish ties with Israel.
“It’s a high quality, rare oral history of a culture” that was very important “in the rainbow of cultures here in Israel,” said Ukeles.
Israel’s Bedouins once laid claim to much of the Negev desert, but the minority community now survives on the margins of Israeli society and often in poverty.
Land ownership is one of main bones of contention between the Bedouins and Israeli authorities.
“We decided not to recognise their claims to any plots or any areas they held in common, because they had no written deeds,” Bailey said, faulting Israeli policy makers for alienating the Bedouins.
Bedouin property rights are codified in their oral legal system, and as a result tensions over land issues have persisted.
Israeli authorities have repeatedly tried to relocate Bedouins from some villages to build new towns and demolished structures they deemed illegal.
If Israel does not address the community’s grievances, it will become “more restive, more belligerent… and it will be more difficult to deal with them,” warned Bailey.