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Artisan Spotlight: UM MUSSI

Peace Be Upon You.

My name is Um Mussi. I am married and have 10 sons and daughters. I’m also a grandmother to 10 grandchildren for now. Together we raise herds of sheep, goats, and camels, which we take out to pasture daily. We live in an “unrecognized” village tucked inside a fertile valley in the northern Negev Desert, a walk’s distance from the ancient Nabatean ruin village of Avdat. Our village is made up of a collection of families living in tents as we have for centuries. My husband is an inspector and ranger for the Nature Conservation Authority. I also make a living by hosting tourists and travelers who come to visit our beautiful desert.

Over a decade ago, I met Yael, who was a young woman back when she came to live with us. A few years later we began initiating workshops for Jewish Israelis to live with us for a few days. During this time we’d introduce them to our self-sufficient life in the desert. They would study traditional crafts such as cooking, basketry, and weaving. This also developed into a central hub for Bedouin communities in the area. Women would come to my compound to learn the endangered craft of weaving and sell various crafts.

I don’t know my birthday because we didn’t grow up with calendars. I was born not far from here, in a place called “Al-Matrada” in our local Bedouin dialect. Today Al-Matrada is an Israeli airforce base called Ramon. I spent my childhood as a nomad with my parents, brothers and sisters. We moved our camps according to the seasons, and lived in tents made of goat-hair which my mother wove. As girls we grew up helping her out.

My mother always had a loom open at home, ready to be woven. When it came time to move our camps, she would roll up the loom in normal nomadic fashion, and load it onto our donkey. When we got to the new camp she’d open it again and continue weaving. I remember when I was 4 years old, my mother would sit for hours to weave a panel for a tent, and she’d sit me down on the part that was already woven. Because we were nomads on the move, we had very few possessions, but we always had a loom. It was common for a woven piece to be in use before it was even finished.

When I was little, my mother first taught me to weave, by letting me practice on her loom. She would then go back behind me to fix all my mistakes. By the age of 15 I already knew how to spin yarn professionally, and at 18 my mother allowed me for the first time to weave a full tent wall by myself.

My mother was among the women who were given the special role of warping the looms, and creating the designs and patterns of weaving. Many women knew how to weave but very few knew how to warp a loom. Women from all over the region would invite her to set up looms for them.

In those days the people were few and the desert was big, and no one had cars. A woman who knew the wisdom of the warp, was often called upon by women from her tribe to erect the loom. She would have to ride a donkey for a few days to reach some families who needed her help. It was done in service to the people and the culture. There was a great sense of pride and honor in that, and so she would never take payment for her work. It was done happily with no ill thinking. Instead, it was known that her people would always take care of her whenever she needed anything. There was a cultural law of mutual debt to one another, and reciprocity.

When I married my husband, his mother wove two long strips for us to turn into a small tent, as was tradition. Through her and her weaving, the family lines along with our values and customs would continue for generations. We lived in that wool tent for a short time. Then foreign materials started coming in. First came the large feed sacks. We’d sew them together to form large tent panels. Then plastics were introduced. The plastic was light, cheap, and waterproof. Soon after that, the beautiful desert landscape originally dotted with traditional wool tents began to disappear. As late as 2002, there were still a number of old women who wove panels from hand-spun wool for their tents. When they passed away, these tents disappeared from the Negev’s landscapes.

Today there are a few women who weave carpets for their homes using cotton yarn which they buy at the market, instead of wool which they’d need to spin themselves. The young women aren’t interested in the craft at all. We stopped weaving once everything in the market could be bought at a cheap price, and weaving was no longer needed, or so we thought.

Through the eco-tourism work that has been developing in our compound in recent years and through my acquaintance with Yael, I realized the importance of maintaining the craft traditions. This inspired me to return to weaving and to teach it. I’m the only one in my village who weaves with wool. Weaving is renewing our traditions, and providing a new livelihood for women to earn a living by working from home. In our society, it’s not customary for a woman to go out to make a living. Women also don’t want to leave the house. Leaving home for us is perceived as neglecting one’s home. On the other hand, working in or around the family compound is considered respectful and empowering.

In 2000 my family and I settled on the land we are on today. Since then, we stopped living as nomads, as did the rest of our tribe; the last nomads of the entire Negev Desert. The only vestige of nomadic living that has remained is the custom of “Izbe,” and now weaving is bringing more back. During Izbe, in the Spring season families take their herds to pasture far away, living for a period of months in the wadis far from the family camps. It used to be that we would pull up our tents and move the entire camps, but today our house is a permanent home and we no longer dismantle it when the time comes to nomadize.

In my opinion, life used to be better. Today there’s a lot of pressure put on us which we didn’t used to have. Once we were free to live and wander wherever we wanted to, following the spirit of the desert, moving according to the water and the pastures for our herds. Today it seems everything is forbidden and there are loads of new laws we must follow. The food was natural. We grew all our own wheat. The water was natural and clean, and we drank straight from the wells of the earth, unlike today’s piped water. We still take our herds to the wells we can access. The woman still had to do all her work which was no small task, but she was still more free than today.

The women were once diligent and nimble. We would weave, harvest the wheat fields with our bare hands, grind the flour ourselves on stone mills, milk the herds, make butter in goat skins, and helped each other out with everything.

Today we’re moving toward modern life and everything is rapidly changing. It’s important to me that my children and grandchildren go to modern schools to acquire the education and skill sets of the new world. But at the same time I continue to proudly teach them all the wisdom of desert life which my mother and grandmother taught me. I always strive to find the balance between these two worlds, for them, and instill in my children a sense of confidence and pride in their Bedouin identity and heritage.

Written by: Um Mussi


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