One of the great things about working with a small NGO in which everyone has a fairly unique skill set is that when you present a project that sits squarely in your corner, everyone responds with a resounding, "Go for it."
Working in Rahat over the past two years consistently reminds me of not only why I started working with A New Dawn but also why I chose the Middle East and Indigenous Populations as my academic areas of focus long before moving to this part of the world was ever on the table. During a Skype meeting with the Chairman and Program Director of A New Dawn a few weeks ago, I threw out an idea I had to visit Bedouin families in Rahat during the month of Ramadan and join them for the iftar meal when the broke the daily fast and began their evening prayers and celebrations. I wanted to film the meal, interview the families and try to paint a picture of what this month of celebration looks like among this vibrant community in the south of Israel. They told me to go nuts. In their own words, of course.
It is surprisingly easy to live in this country for years and never set foot in a Bedouin home, much less visit one of the Bedouin towns scattered across the Negev desert. Even recognized towns like Rahat and Tel Sheva are tricky to find. Rahat is the largest Bedouin town and it "shares" a train stop with Lehavim. The "Lehavim/Rahat" station is a five minute walk from the city center of Lehavim, while anyone coming from Rahat takes a twenty minute bus that leaves once or twice each hour during the day. Unrecognized villages are a whole different song. It's illegal to place signs or markers on main roads pointing the way to these communities so commuters and visitors rely on shrewdly-placed rocks and inconspicuous tire tracks leading away form the main road in lieu of official markings.
This project focus primarily on Rahat and to date I've had the privilege of visiting four different families and mosques to observe and participate in Ramadan festivities. It's easy to forget that even though people describe Israeli food as a sort of Middle-East/European fusion, Bedouin food is its own unique variety both in terms of superior flavors as well as presentation. Both family and friends have heard my diatribes against the insufferable mediocrity of food here (especially at meatless kosher restaurants) and I always relish the opportunity to experience Bedouin food with those same people so they can see the other side of the coin. The traditional Ramadan meal among Bedouins in a rice platter cooked with roasted almonds, chicken, assorted vegetables and assorted homemade sauces made from cream, blended greens or broth. An essential closing element of the meal are the sweet and savory baked treats that combine sugar, breads, cheese, nuts and honey in a thousand varieties that will compel you to test the limits of what your stomach can hold, especially if you've been fasting all day. While the purpose of the project (and my participation in the meal) is primarily sociological and academic in nature, I have a habit of getting lost in the amazing food and forgetting why I'm there.
Food is an integral component of the Ramadan celebrations, but no less significant is the communal element of the holy month. Families make a habit of visiting the homes and villages of their relatives during Ramadan and also go to pray at different mosques following the evening meal. I felt incredibly honored to be invited to two different mosques to observe prayer services and interview both imams and laypersons about what Ramadan means on a personal, social and global level. I'll hold my observations until the movie is finished but I will say at this point that I am impressed by how Ramadan is a collective experience that the community shares together. The central elements of fasting and praying are experienced by all. Hunger does not care whether you are rich or poor and bowing in prayer reminds everyone that they are all equal before God. As someone who comes from a cultural and a religious heritage that is far more individualistic, I find the collectively shared experience of Ramadan intriguing and I am grateful for the chance to take part.
The lunar month has less than a week to go. I'm really looking forward to sharing the final product here before too long.