Student Thoughts: On Meeting Asma, a Force for Change in Israel's Bedouin Community

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By Nichelle Alston, Stanford University, Bus 1 On the rural streets of Israel, I am a roadside attraction. People stare at me. They take pictures. Children point at my body, pull on their mother’s skirt, and ask them to explain what I am.

I am a dark-skinned black woman.

Like most brown people traveling-while-black in traditionally white spaces, this treatment is not uncommon. I know that when my spectators show the pictures to their families and friends, they won’t speak about me with admiration, but with absurdity. It feels as if my body is public domain and that my privacy is not guaranteed, that I have unequal claim of the public spaces that I explore.

When traveling through the Bedouin village of Rahat, a town in mid-western Israel’s periphery near Beer Sheva, I was able to meet three black Bedouins who spoke about their experience being black and Arab in Israel. Asma, a black Bedouin woman studying law, explained her experience being discriminated against within and without of her own community. As she recounted her own experience in cities such as Tel Aviv she remarked, “I don’t look like them, I look like you,” and pointed to me and the other black women who were traveling with The David Project. It was in that moment that I understood that there were aspects of the black experience that were universal. Though I will never be able to deeply understand how Asma feels as a black Arab Israeli, we relate when it comes to feeling foreign in places that we have the right to feel at home.

Asma is a force in her community: she wears her hair uncovered, pursues higher education, and is unmarried. Asma’s struggle for respectful visibility and recognition within her own community mirrors the struggle of the Bedouin community as a whole. Unlike Rahat, many Bedouin settlements are not recognized by the Israeli government and are being uprooted because the community members there are regarded as squatters. Just as Asma interacts with her communities, the unrecognized Bedouin communities aim to assimilate in ways that both strive towards the modernity of Israel while respecting the rich Bedouin culture. Along with this attempt at a balance between cultural tradition and modernity, it is women like Asma that push the Bedouin community to have better relationships between faiths, genders, and races at both the community and national level. As Asma explores her future as a student and advocate, I will continue to explore what Israel Uncovered has to offer; and as for the staring, I will treat each curious pair of eyes as a reminder of Asma’s remarkable story.  

Nichelle Alston Hall is a Freshman at Stanford University, pursuing a major in computer science and a minor in both Sociology and Public Policy. She is a core member of the Black Feminist Collective, the Black Student Union, and the NAACP. She also serves as a fellow for the CS+Social Good computing group on campus and works as a Research Assistant at the Stanford Medical School.