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The Poetics of Military Occupation

The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule

Smadar Lavie
Copyright Date: 1990
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  • Book Info
    The Poetics of Military Occupation
    Book Description:

    The romantic, nineteenth-century image of the Bedouin as fierce, independent nomads on camelback racing across an endless desert persists in the West. Yet since the era of Ottoman rule, the Mzeina Bedouin of the South Sinai desert have lived under foreign occupation. For the last forty years Bedouin land has been a political football, tossed back and forth between Israel and Egypt at least five times.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91160-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 THE POETICS OF MILITARY OCCUPATION: From Experience to Text
    (pp. 1-42)

    The Bedouin men in elegant pastel-colored terylene caftans sat in a circle on the ground, spellbound by the mimed hand gestures of a short, angular man dressed in beat-up Levis fringed at the ankles and a conspicuously short, dirty old caftan that had shrunk once upon a time in the wash. Over the caftan a brand new extra-large T-shirt, shining yellow, bore the black imprint of sun rays bursting up from behind craggy mountains that collapsed into lip-shaped sand dunes and flowed into a peaceful beach strewn with the obligatory palm trees. Above this pristine scene, a kitschy simulation of...

  6. 2 BEDOUIN IN LIMBO, OR DEVELOPERS OBSERVED: Israeli and Egyptian Policies for the South Sinai Bedouin
    (pp. 43-86)

    It was a summer day in 1976. Zeidānal-Shēba(the gray-haired) was sitting in his usual place between the crowded cafe ofmoshāvNeviʿōt (an Israeli agricultural cooperative) and the asphalt parking lot where overloaded tourist buses stopped. Zeidān was elaborately dressed in the traditional manner of the Mzeina Bedouin. As he sat impassively, tourists wandered by, wearing only bathing suits, and took his picture. They were attracted by his exotic costume and were astonished by the matchstick inserted vertically between his eyebrow and the wrinkles under his lower eyelid, to prop his right eye open. Some of the picture-takers...

  7. 3 THE SHEIKH Al-Sheikh
    (pp. 87-116)

    “But what can we do? We areahl al-dageʿa,” the people of the land. “They”—the potential or previous occupiers, whether Turks, British, Egyptians, Israelis, Americans, or Soviets,—“areshughlīn al-siyāsa” They are the people of politics. “So what can we do?”¹

    This was the answer I was given many times as I talked with individual Mzeini men while we engaged in such everyday activities as fishing, sitting in cafes, visiting households, or traveling by camel. Thinking about the heroic rebellion of the El-Shabana Bedouin (R. Fernea 1970) or the extremely successful economic war that the Rwala Bedouin fought against...

  8. 4 THE MADWOMAN Al-Majnūna
    (pp. 117-150)

    “Women—they say in Islam that they are like beasts, just like goats. We, men, should guard theirnafs(soul).” So said Hajj Slimān, a furrowed, pious old man who volunteered every Ramaḍān to wake up his neighbors for the late night meal. The men around him hummed in agreement.

    When I told his wife what he had said about her kind, she responded, “Well, you know, men have ʿagl(rational mind). They know Islam, and understand how to pray to God and Muḥammad his prophet. We, women—Allah blessed us only with nafs.”

    Indeed, Mzeini ideas about gender did...

    (pp. 151-184)

    “What kind of question is that?” Every Mzeini was baffled when I asked what the meaning ofBedu, or Bedouin was. After a pause, he or she would answer “al-Bedu raḥḥāla,” the Bedouin are nomads. This answer was uniform, and it was announced with pride. But only a handful of old people born around World War I proceeded with a detailed description of their memories—specific places and incidents of theriḥla, the complete classic annual nomadic migration cycle. These people had spent their childhood autumns and winters on shielded alluvial terraces near oases in lower altitude wadis. In the...

  10. 6 THE OLD WOMAN Al-ʿAjūz
    (pp. 185-218)

    “Each Bedouin community that has more than fifty families living there more or less permanently has an ʿomda. The government appoints him. They want him to be a mayor of sorts. But for us, the title ‘ʿomda’ is nothing but a joke. Any man who fusses and acts bossy, we call him ‘the ʿomda.’” This was an answer I received when I talked with Mzeini women and men about the official local conductors of their everyday life.

    ʿOmdas won their appointments because of their public collaboration with the occupiers. They received a very small salary from the civil government. In...

  11. 7 THE FOOL Al-Ahabal
    (pp. 219-240)

    “Every dog has its day [to get a beating], and every place has its Fool.” So goes the Mzeini saying. And the day young Manṣūr left for Zurich, to marry his love whom he had met on ʿAqaba Gulf nude beach,¹ his father declared himmesbammas, disowned from both family and tribe by the father’s statement that from this day forth, his son was dead. During the week of ritual mourning that followed, the father kept repeating, “The day has come when iron talks back and the Fool rules.”

    Indeed, the Fool, a Mzeini character present in almost every encampment...

    (pp. 241-284)

    “Every tribe has to have a father. This father is succeeded by (ʿagab) two sons. These two sons are followed by their two sons, and these four grandsons who succeed the first father make the fourrbāʿ of the tribe (rubʿ, singular—quarter). The sons of these four grandsons are the ones after whom thefrūʿ are named (faraʿ, singular—stream, tributary). Then there are the sons of these sons, who form thenbāz(nabaz, singular—nickname). And each nabaz is divided intokhamsāt(khamsa, singular—five). And most importantly, no one can be a Bedouin without having a khamsa.”...

  13. 9 THE ONE WHO WRITES US Dī Illi Tuktubna
    (pp. 285-309)

    On 24 September 1978 Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter signed an almost final draft of a peace accord at the Camp David retreat that was to give the accord its name. At that moment, thousands of miles away, in the very Sinai desert on which all the diplomatic hullabaloo had been focused, I labored in ʿEin al-Akhaḍar, a Mzeina oasis. An Israeli anthropologist of half Yemenite, half Lithuanian heritage, I listened to the Arabic version of the radio news as it wafted in a scratchy voice across the hot, lugubrious atmosphere of the magʿad. Two days later I...

    (pp. 311-312)

    Hajj x: But you, why did you finish this part of the story with so muchkhantarīsh(bullshit) that sounds just like the lessons in Islam that come from the transistor radio?

    Anthropologist: We have agreed that I should write some general remarks … Well, this is how we tell stories in my work.

    Hajj x: You and your work … And the university … Since Israel occupied these lands I’ve seen so many people from universities—collecting stones, plants, mice, rain, even hyena dung … God! you make me laugh!...

  15. 10 WHEN IDENTITY BECOMES ALLEGORY: The Poetic Reconstruction of Military Occupation
    (pp. 313-340)

    “But we know damn well how to play our stories!” So said Sheikh ʿAlwān, and any of the other six characters to whom this book has been devoted—the Madwoman, the Ex-Smuggler, the Old Woman, the Fool, the Symbolic Battle Coordinator, and The One Who Writes Us—could have said the same. Indeed, the collective lived experience of the Mzeina as a tribe, under perpetual military occupations generating an atmosphere of continual crisis, is mirrored in the personal narratives of this cast of characters. From the polyphonies of the many voices conversing, arguing, teasing, laughing, telling stories, and reciting or...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 341-356)
    (pp. 357-360)
    (pp. 361-384)
    (pp. 385-390)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 391-398)