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Artisan Spotlight: YAEL BEIT-AV

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Yael Beit-Av, co-founder of Ghazala Weaving, has been serving as an active bridge between Bedouin and Jewish cultures for 15 years. She specializes in preservation and research of traditional crafts and culture in the Middle East. In 2010 she was adopted by one of Israel’s last semi-nomadic Bedouin clans who also shared much of their folklore with her and taught her the many languages of the desert. Yael has since become a expert weaver on the ground loom, specializing in processing fiber, spinning, dyeing and weaving. Her desire to live and learn from native people of the desert led her to become a leading voice for the renewal of Bedouin culture. She has since worked closely with Ministries of Tourism and Development in the Negev and Arava to create programs that teach women traditional crafts, as a tool for economic empowerment and cultural preservation.

Yael also teaches weaving courses where Jewish and Bedouin women meet for cross-cultural exchange, emphasizing community work through traditional crafts. She leads seminars through a series she calls “Return to the Desert.” These intimate seminars give people the opportunity to live with Bedouin families where they can experience and participate in the full breadth of traditional desert life. Her seminars include “From Shepherding to Cheese-making,” “Fleece to Fiber - From raw wool to weaving,” “From The Wheat Field to Baked Bread,” “Traditional Cooking and More.” She is also a licensed desert tour guide and leads camel treks. She lives in the village of Shacharut with her partner and their toddler, where they serve as community leaders and raise camels, donkeys, goats, orchards, and gardens.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been drawn to nature and to wildlife. When I grew up, I left my parents’ home in a small town in central Israel and ventured into the Negev Desert. There I found work on a camel farm, where I learned how to cook food over a fire, how to train and ride camels, how to memorize several kilometers of open desert and recognize ancient, hidden trails taken by camels for thousands of years. I then began leading camel caravans that took groups out into the heart of the desert for weeks at a time.

After a while, I felt something was missing. On this earth that I was standing on, once lived the Hayawat Bedouin tribe, brave and resilient people who knew every stone and rift in this desert. While they now live in the Sinai of Egypt, and Ird, I was roaming the desert, picking up the remains they left in their trail.

So I left to go on my own journey in search of the real people of the desert. In a different region altogether, on a day when the sun beat strong, I stumbled upon a Bedouin clan who still breathe and live as real as desert life as one can live these days. These people were born in a fold of this wadi (dry river bed) where I suddenly found myself surrounded by a herd of goats grazing on grasses growing between the rocks. Time travel.

One of these families adopted me, in their generosity, I was a member of such a family and lived with them for some time. My first teachers were the children. They taught me how to graze the herd while riding donkeys, how to find good plants for food, how to milk ewes, and mainly to feel the freedom and joy of life that exists in the natural connection to the earth.

Women are the heart of the culture. I sat and observed their hands for hours and hours, how much wisdom their hands held, the intelligence of generations. I would follow them and not believe how they knew to track, to find water in unlikely places, and find a perfect cover for the night. They would churn butter in leather hides, and prepare bread over coals as if effortless. They would walk in the sun and the rain as if they were animals themselves. Their movements were remarkably accurate and their rhythm of walking would blend seamlessly with the rhythm of the desert, like the perfect harmony of a gifted musician. Breathing through their noses, the length of their breath would be as long as the cool breeze of a summer morning. They embodied the perfect balance between diligence and patience.

I’ll never forget how every morning I would see one of the women going out to pasture with herd of goats and herd of camels at the same time. She would send the camels down a trail which she had taught them to take on their own. She would then spend the whole day on her donkey, shepherding the goats. On one side of the donkey’s saddle bag she put water and food, and on the other side she put her one year-old baby. Behind her back was a three year old boy riding with her, and like this she would spend the whole day in the pasture. On her way back home in the later afternoon, she would meet the camel herd and bring them back home with the goats, not before she had collected enough firewood to prepare dinner.

One of the old women, Haja in Arabic, told me that her son was born on a cold winter day. She had gone into labor while out in the hills with her goat herds, and it started to rain. The rains fell so hard that they flooded the wadi (riverbed) so she could not cross it to get back home. She ended up staying the night with her herd and her newborn baby, until the following morning, when the waters had lowered enough for them to pass.

One day I turned to the matriarch of the house where I lived and brought her a small sack full of camel wool. I asked her how to make yarn from the wool. She said to me: “Go to the hay bails, and there you’ll find find ropes (made of plastic). I insisted and told her that I wanted to learn how to make yarn, and she said: “Today we are no longer making yarn.” I continued to insist, and finally she sent her daughter to her grandmother to bring the old marzal (drop spindle). She held the marzal and attached a lock of wool to it, and with a wave of her hand and a small spin, like magic the lock began to transform and lengthen into yarn, with incredible speed.

I spent the long period that followed training myself to spin yarns until I managed to create a beautiful, uniform thread like the one I saw for the first time. When I accumulated a good quantity of spun wool skeins, I began searching for the next stage in the process – weaving. The family I was staying with had stopped weaving long ago, and the same was true for all the other surrounding clans. The craft had vanished out of sight, and no one remembered how it was done. So I went to the Bedouin town of Lakiya where I learned the basic fundamental of weaving. After that, I met my weaving teacher, Faiza Abu-Amra, from the town of Segev Shalom. From her I learned more complex techniques and designs. I wandered all over the Negev and found all sorts of remnants of a magnificent culture of weaving that existed until about 50 years ago, and almost became extinct within only 2 generations.

When I came back one day from my teacher, Faiza, I stopped by to visit the same woman who had taught me to spin yarn. I stretched out a small loom in front of her, which I had made with Faiza. Her daughters saw the loom and asked in amazement, "What is this?" Their mother answered them: "It's a loom. I remember how my mother, my grandmother, and I would sit together, weaving our tents, the carpets and all the fabric of the house."

In all the villages where I had gone, the weaving had disappeared from sight, but had not disappeared from the heart. I discovered that in many villages the "master woman" known as “nayara”, the one who knew how to set up the looms, passed away or was too old and could no longer set up the looms. There were other younger women who knew how to weave but couldn’t keep the craft going, because they had no one to set up the looms for them, which was the specialized skill and roll of the Nayara.

There was a rumor among Bedouin women that there was a Jewish woman who knew how to build the loom. I was honored with a great privilege to be invited by the women to set up their looms, each time an exciting experience for me again.

On the same day of the loom construction, the owner of the loom (the one I would set-up for) would invite all the women and daughters of the family to participate in the event. The women wake up every the morning and to decide who does what with regard to the loom. I would be in charge of arranging the sheds, and the design of the warp, a job that requires great concentration. At the end of the construction of the loom, the women bless in unison say, "Mabruch", “blessings. Congratulations.” and then prepare a feast for lunch. The loom holder or owner then sits to weave a little at a time until the warp has been completed, traditionally 30 meters (100 ft) long or more! And I return home with a broad smile and the knowledge that a new loom is being revived in the Negev.

I gathered this knowledge and accumulated for years on trips and adventures to all kinds of remote places, I learned every secret of weaving decoration and knot I could learn. I studied wide variety of examples from all over the Negev, Jordan, Sinai. I also found Joy Hilden’s book, “Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and it’s Neighbors,” which brought my work to a whole other degree of depth.

Next to that little farm where I first met the camels, and the desert, I met my partner and fell in love. We moved together to a small village on the southern edge of Israel, named Shaharut, where we built our home with our own hands, inspired deeply by years of acquaintance with the people of the desert. Our house turns east to receive the rising sun and its right corner to the northwest each morning, with large windows open to receive the cool breeze. Outside the house there is a meeting tent known as a “shig,” This tent is always open to receive guests at any time with or without notice. Here my loom is also stretched, on which I weave my creations. Outside the shig is a firepit for the cold nights. At the entrance to the courtyard there’s a Canaanite dog who warns us of every suspicious movement in the area. A few steps beyond is our goat pen, from whom we milk every morning, and make cheeses and butter.

In the heart of the courtyard two large acacia trees give shade to the chickens on hot afternoons. Around the house are olive trees and a grove of fruit trees. We travel to work on various projects throughout the desert, and always stop to visit our Bedouin friends. Our greatest joy is to visit during the period of migration. During our free time we go on afternoon walks with our camels and donkeys, on one side of the donkey's pockets we put the water and food and on the other side we rest our son, about a year old and go riding toward the sunset.

The art of weaving opens up every remote tent in time. Men who visit, get excited when they see the looms being stretched in the shig. They often say to me, "It reminds me of my mother, peace be upon her, who used to weave exactly like this, and I used to sit around playing with her." On rare occasions, they bring me weavings that their own mother wove. And I am awarded the company of such rare people who in their humble way reveal to me all kinds of sweet-smelling stories harnessed by fire smoke, and strong tea with wormwood

So I learned: to graze goats and train camels, spin yarn, weave carpets, to speak the local Arabic language, to churn butter, to make pita bread on a fire, and make shepherds’ bread on open coals ... But what did I really learn? I learned to listen.

I learned to tell a story. I learned that the most important part of the story you must say slowly and quietly. I learned that taking a break is no less important than the sequence of doing. I learned to breathe, I learned to speak without words and read without books. I learned that what cannot be seen can be sniffed. I learned the art of improvising. I learned that any work I give my attention to, can become art. I learned that a lack, only reveals what you do have, and that in poverty lies the greatest wealth. I learned and am still learning.

Written by: Yael Beit - Av

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