By Shirabe Yamada and Khadra Alsanah
Bedouins in Palestine historically lived according to the cycle of seasonal migration, when their mobile households moved from one location to another in search of food and water for their livestock. While men worked in herding, farming, and bartering, women were responsible for building and maintaining their habitat, beit al–shaar, the house woven from animal hair. Women wove beit al-saifi, the summer tent, using sheep wool, beit al-shetawi, the winter tent, from warmer and water-resistant goat hair, and ruwaq, the partition screens, with camel hair. The entire diwan, the main meeting space consisting of carpets, cushions, and decorative wall hangings, was woven with sheep wool. They also wove the abah, a man’s cloak, from camel and goat hair, as well as various items for their animals such as mizwada, a fodder sack, khurj, a saddle bag, and ornaments such as ghurza and miqwad that decorated camels and horses for festive occasions.
Weaving was a multi-step, labor-intensive work that started with the shearing of the animal hair in late spring, followed by the washing, carding, and spinning of the wool into yarn using a maghzal, a wooden drop-spindle. The yarn was then rolled into hamleh, a ball, and coiled into maslak, a single-strand skein, and soaked in natural dye for coloring. After drying, the colored yarn was coiled into bramah, double-strand skein, for weaving. The bramah was then set on the noul, the ground loom, in a complex process that required three women to count and cast numerous strands of warps, the lengthwise thread, according to the design. Weaving was executed by the weaver, who sat on the ground, by passing the wefts, the horizontal threads, across the warps by hand and pulling them tightly in place with the help of a midreh, a pointy handheld tool made from a goat horn. After the weaving, the piece would be finished with hand-trimming, sewing, connecting, and attaching decorations such as tassels and beads.
Weaving is one of the most prominent heritages of Bedouins in Palestine. For centuries, the centrality of weaving in Bedouin life symbolized the importance of women’s role and their status in the society as the home builders.
The work was carried out collectively by family members who would pair up and rotate and who were frequently joined by neighbors. It was done in a beautiful communal atmosphere where women worked, talked, and laughed over Bedouin tea brewed on an open fire and traditional food.
Bedouin life in Palestine has undergone drastic changes since 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel. Restricted into small, confined areas and forbidden from migrating seasonally, the Bedouins have been forced to give up their traditional livelihood and lifestyle that centered on herding and migration. The resulting diminishing of their herds and the Israeli army’s destruction of the dyeing centers in the communities meant that the women were no longer able to weave and build their habitats, which had been gradually replaced by cheaper, synthetic building materials that became available in the local markets.
Bedouin women lost their important role and status in their households and in society when they ceased being the weaver-homebuilder. Under the discriminatory Israeli policies against their community, Bedouin women have faced many challenges, not only as members of an indigenous minority struggling to adapt to the new reality of the Jewish state but also as women striving for education and economic opportunities while the community expects them to adhere to traditional gender roles.
The Bedouin women of the Naqab rose up against these challenges and in 1998 created Sidreh, an initiative to empower women by reviving traditional weaving. Today, from their center in the town of Lakiya, Sidreh runs various social and economic programs that serve women in the communities across the Naqab, with traditional weaving at its core. Sidreh provides tens of women from unrecognized villages the opportunity to earn an income by keeping alive the art of weaving in their modern home decor products while awakening in the young generation of Bedouins a sense of pride in and belonging to their ancestral heritage.