A Bedouin experience
As a non-Jewish and non-Palestinian Californian, I grew up thinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was incomprehensible. While I was exploring opportunities for the research component of my Master of Integrated Water Management, I was presented with the opportunity to be a research intern at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) in Israel.
AIES is a peace-building and environmental studies institute that conducts research in the fields of water, desert agriculture, solar energy, and ecology, as well as offering courses for undergraduates and Masters students. I felt this was the perfect opportunity to not only complete my research, but also learn about a region I knew little about.
AIES is located on Kibbutz Ketura, a socialist style community where 400 people (including kibbutz members, their families, volunteers, students, interns, and employees from AIES) live and work. For five months I lived on the AIES campus with fellow interns and students from Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, and around the world.
My research involved working with four Bedouin communities (formally nomadic/semi-nomadic Arabic people) on water scarcity and gender issues. In this region, Bedouin communities are frequently marginalised and for various reasons face difficulties in water access, consistent supply, and management.
My research involved multiple visits to Bedouin communities located in the West Bank, Jordan, and further north in Israel. I partnered with two women studying at AIES, one Jordanian and one Palestinian, to accompany me on site visits and translate conversations. These two women played a fundamental role in my research, providing me with the ability to communicate with the communities and essential cultural guidance.
Building relationships with organisations that already work in these villages was integral to gaining access to the communities. Earning people’s trust involved meeting community leaders, drinking many cups of Bedouin tea, consuming delicious meals, and playing with children.
A view of Kibbutz Ketura from the Eilat mountains, with Jordan and the Edom mountains in the background (photo taken by Kristina Donnelly).
This project served as a ‘spotlight’ of each community’s water situation as perceived by a selected group of women in each village. The study aimed to identify potential similarities and differences among these communities and to develop a greater understanding of the ways that Bedouin women perceive and are impacted by the past, present, and future water situation of their community.
Prior to this study, there was limited research on Bedouin women’s perspectives of water access, supply, and management. As the primary household caregivers, Bedouin women’s knowledge of water issues is extensive, and these individual perspectives are valuable in future social and environmental endeavours in Bedouin communities. Although the socio-political, economic, and environmental context of each village varied, there were many lessons to be learned at an international level about both water and gender (and the way the two interact and impact one another) in Bedouin communities.
By examining water management as a common denominator amongst communities, I was able to understand the integration of gender, development, and modernisation in Bedouin communities of Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank.
While this project was the primary reason for my journey to the Middle East, my learning experiences expanded far beyond my research objectives. Between morning runs, hikes, desktop research in the AIES office, auditing classes, dropping into guest lectures, evening games of soccer, fun ‘green’ activities like gardening and mud building, and field visits, there was never a dull moment in this seemingly quiet desert home.
Contrary to weekends as a university student spent locked up in the library, I embraced the Jewish/Israeli notion of ‘Shabbat’, a day of rest, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Friday nights were spent having delicious potlucks under the stars, where international dishes cooked by my fellow AIES attendees pieced together a massive feast, and Saturday was spent playing grass volleyball, hiking in the Eilat mountains, playing in the sand dunes near the border with Jordan (just a few kilometres away), and having dinner with my ‘adopted’ kibbutz family.
I was able to visit the West Bank for more than research interviews and I spent one day building a bio-digester in a Palestinian village, Susiya, with an organisation called the Villages Group. The bio-digester runs on goat dung and is a fairly simple system that can provide the village with a small, but much needed, power supply.
In one day of work, our group of Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals installed the system. At the end of the day, we enjoyed a meal with the villagers and spent a few hours playing with the children and mingling with the community. While this community has no running water and experiences daily strife and violence, they were an inspiration and full of pride for their new technology, which now provides them with methane gas used primarily for cooking.
This trip was one of my most memorable experiences during my time in the Middle East.
A Bedouin mother in Um al-Khayr with an Israeli settlement in the background – West Bank
(photo taken by Cameron Davidson)
Living and working with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and other internationals was an opportunity to learn from many different perspectives. There were some intense conversations between both students and my co-workers, notably during Israeli Independence Day (referred to by Palestinians as al-Nakba or ‘Day of Catastrophe’) and the Gaza Flotilla incident in May.
Through listening circles, private conversation, and lots of reflection, efforts were made to create a space that fostered dialogue rather than hostility.
While living in the Middle East, I bore witness to, and was a part of, the bonds that are made between those who work or study at AIES. Conducting research in three contentious areas encouraged me to become aware of issues that I once thought were incomprehensible.
By being a part of AIES’ diverse community, I learned to listen, speak, and hope for change. Although I now live and work in Australia, I will forever feel a connection to the Middle East.
Through the International WaterCentre’s Master of Integrated Water Management program, I gained an exciting opportunity to learn about water management, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I must admit ... myself.
Story by Cameron Davidson