For the first 17 years of his life, Ra’ed Almickawi lived in a tent in the desert with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. And he was happy.
He awoke every morning to his mother’s fresh-baked bread. He never had to wash his salad greens, which came from the organic garden that he, his father and his brothers tended.
His mother helped him with his homework between their homemade lunch and homemade dinner. It wasn’t always comfortable sleeping in tight quarters side-by-side with his brothers, but he was never lonely, and he always had someone to look out for him.
Fifteen years later, Almickawi recalls what he lost when his family, Arab Bedouins living in what is today the Israeli Negev Desert, moved into a “modern” cement house in a government-sponsored township.
“The thing that I lost,” he tells a small crowd that gathered at IU’s Wylie Hall on Oct. 21, “is my traditions ... my connection to the land.”
Suddenly, he began to oversleep, because he no longer could hear the roosters. He finally had his own room, but he was lonely.
His mother still baked bread, but now that she had a refrigerator she would make huge batches and freeze them. To enjoy “fresh” bread, her children used the microwave. They no longer waited for each other to have a meal.
“We’re not a family,” says Almickawi. “We’re individuals.”
When he was 17, Almickawi was excited to be moving into this cement house, to have access to junk food and modern appliances. But now a new excitement grips him.
“Maybe 100 times (more), I’m excited to get out, back to my freedom, to my nature, to put my hands in the earth and to be dirty,” he says.
Today, Almickawi, a journalist and filmmaker, is the director of Bustan L’Shalom, an Arab-Israeli partnership organization that teaches peace through cooperative environmental stewardship.
He and his predecessor, American-Israeli peace activist Devorah Brous, gave a presentation about Bustan’s work to the Wylie Hall group.
Brous, who founded Bustan in 1999, explained that the Bedouin have lived in the Negev for thousands of years and depend on their close relationship to the desert to sustain their health and way of life.
Their connection to the desert is highly inconvenient for Israel, which wants to develop the Negev, but the Bedouin do not want to leave, said Brous.
The pressure to do so, however, is fierce. According to Brous, Israel has persuaded about half of the Negev’s 160,000 Bedouin to move into seven “recognized” townships with promises of modern services, such as water and electricity.
Meanwhile, said Brous, the 45 “unrecognized” Bedouin villages aren’t on any official Israeli map. They share the fragile desert ecosystem with 22 chemical factories, the Dimona nuclear reactor, closed military zones, mines, quarries and other hazardous facilities.
The Israeli government does not acknowledge the Bedouin leadership council and has been known to demolish their homes and plow under their newly planted crops.
The toxic environment and lack of services have contributed to widespread health problems among the Bedouin, particularly cancer and respiratory problems, said Brous.
Bustan recently started the Children’s Power Program to provide off-the-grid Bedouin families with solar-powered medical equipment, such as oxygen tanks and refrigerators for cancer medicines.
Other projects include the preservation and revival of traditional Bedouin crafts, such as medicinal herb cultivation, and building solar- and wind-powered medical clinics in unrecognized villages.
Bustan’s goal, however, is greater than healing the wounds of environmental injustice for the Bedouin, Brous said. Bustan wants a sustainable connection to the land for Jews as well as Arabs.
“Polluted air and polluted groundwater know no boundaries,” said Brous, showing her audience pictures of raw sewage running like a river through both an Arab and a Jewish settlement.
“This land is something that is holy,” said Brous. “This land is holy for the Jews, the land is holy for the Arabs. The land is holy for the Israelis, the land is holy for the Palestinians. But in the process of fighting all these wars over a holy land, what’s happening is we’re destroying that land.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, said Almickawi.
“In the desert, we have renewable, sustainable resources we can use instead of supporting the pollution, establishing another nuclear power plant,” he said. “There is life in the desert.”
Bloomington resident Bret Davis, who attended the presentation, noted the similarities between what’s happening to the Bedouin today and what happened to Native Americans in the 19th century and minorities in America before the advent of the civil rights movement.
“[Bustan] makes a convincing testimony that it’s time for Israel to move into the 21st century by ending its blatantly racist policies and treating all its citizens equally,” said Davis.
Bloomington resident Sue Swartz, a member of the Beth Shalom congregation and a former synagogue board member, noted that many Israeli citizens are committed to peace and justice, but it often goes unrecognized.
“It’s important for people to understand that Israel has this incredible civil society, this nonprofit, social justice world, where people are doing really exciting things, whether it’s doing this kind of work in the Negev, or women’s rights, or conversations between secular and religious Israelis,” said Swartz.
Swartz got to see Bustan in action this summer while on sabbatical in Israel.
“It gave me enormous hope,” she said. “I’m very committed to Israel’s future, and I think that the kinds of solutions (Bustan is) creating, building coalitions across sometimes very difficult cultural boundaries, are totally crucial to the future of the state.”
Brous and Almickawi visited Bloomington as part of a two-week fundraising and networking tour of the United States.
Their visit was cosponsored by the Center for Sustainable Living, the IU Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Student Organization, and the IU Progressive Faculty Coalition.
Charli Wyatt can be reached at .