I was born in 1940 into the Al-Azazme Bedouin clan on our land a bit west of Beer Sheva, during the era of the British Mandate. When Israel became a state, I was 8 years old.
At that time, many Azazme fled to Jordan and Sinai. My clan chose to stay, and made an agreement with the Israeli government. In 1955 we moved so that the town of Ofakim could be built, to take in Moroccan and Tunisian Jewish immigrants fleeing their respective lands. Interestingly enough, the first thing established in Ofakim was a textile factory employed by these families.
My husband was of the Tarabin tribe, and served as one of the last Tarabin Sheikhs in the Negev. Sheikhs serve as tribal chiefs, the position of greatest honor, and responsibility. During the 19th century the Tarabin were the largest tribe in the Negev, and the most influential tribe in the Sinai. The Taraba get their name from the Taraba Valley in what is now Saudi Arabia, where they are originally from, tracing their lineage to the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.
I was born at home, since back then there were no hospitals. Sometimes women would die at birth, and the baby after birth would be given to another mother to breastfeed, or would be breastfed with camel’s milk.
Unlike most girls my age, I was not a shepherd nor was my mother. My grandmother and mother were great weaving experts and I was privileged to learn from them. My mother would weave for a living and many people would order from her all kinds of textiles, from simple tents to ornamental saddle bags for camels.
Most women knew how to make simple textiles, such as walls for their tents and basic carpets, but we knew how to weave the special designs that adorned the tents, camels, and carpets and made the craft of weaving work into a real art. We used to weave and make special adornments for lavish weddings. The entire wedding tent was woven. It was then decorated all around with colorful woven bands further adorned with tassels. More of the best dyed woven rugs would be laid out on the ground inside and outside the tent in honor of the guests and the bride, who would arrive to the wedding mounted on a camel completely covered and adorned with more of our weavings, all of which our family made by hand.
There were not many markets at that time, only the ones in Beer Sheva and Gaza. There was the ancient market in Hebron but that belonged to the Jordanians and we could not enter. Beersheba had the famous "Thursday Market," a large livestock market started during Ottoman rule. Bedouin from all over the Negev would come to sell their wares and their animals. This market exists to this day but no longer has any trace of the original animals, local products and crafts sold or traded there.
For our textiles, we took the wool which we hand-spun to the dyeing center in Gaza. There they dyed the white wool into various colors, and then sent us back home with yarn which we would then ply, and continue our work. The last time I went to Gaza it was just before the closure and I have not been there since.
Life used to be better. When I was young, life was peaceful and each season had its work. There was a period for sowing seeds, a period for growing vegetables, a period for harvesting, for milking, for making butter and cheese. Today the food is not the same food as it used to be. We used to sow lentils, beans, tobacco. Everything was from the ground.
Life used to be better. Today each person lives for themselves. All the materials we used for our everyday lives were once made of natural materials and lasted for a long time. Our textiles lasted for centuries. Today, we buy something in the market and within a short time it is worn out.
Years later, as the only woman in the Negev who knows the fine art of weaving, I became acquainted with several Jewish women who were interested in the craft. This led to a position at the Bedouin Heritage Museum where I served for 8 years as director of the Museum’s textile department, weaving new authentic reproductions, repairing old textiles, and acting as consultant on Bedouin weaving culture.
I host occasional weaving workshops now. This is also how I came to teach Elan, who is now like an adopted grandson to me. For the past 5 years Yael has also been bringing me to a traditional crafts’ conference, where I teach the art of the ground loom.
From time to time, I’m invited to Bedouin schools to demonstrate to urban youth what a loom looks like. They’re interested but do not want to study the craft in depth. Studying weaving gives me great pleasure. I love this craft with all my soul. It is a great honor that people from outside our culture come to me specifically to learn and understand the value of this art.
Written by: Faiza Abu - Amra, may her soul rest in peace.