The Bedouins in Israel occupy an interesting place from the point of view of citizenship and tribal loyalty. They are Israeli citizens who serve in the Israeli military; they are also Muslims and so find themselves in awkward situations when appointed at Israeli checkpoints, where they are seen by their fellow Muslims as collaborators. There’s also deep prejudice among the Palestinians against the Bedouins; they are considered ignorant (one of the terms for a certain tribe of the Bedouins in the Judean desert is jahalin, which literally means “ignorant”) and thought to carry with them dark desert customs from before the birth of Islam. When I discussed honor killing among the Bedouins with my Palestinian friends, they said almost unanimously that “those people” still lived in Ayame Jahalia, the Age of Darkness before Islam.
The family I was dealing with had originally come from Be’er Sheva, the largest city next to the Negev. They now lived in a poor neighborhood of Ramle called Juarish, where there was a kind of desert lawlessness, which most of its residents were complacent about. The flying debris and open sewage were the first of many shocks that would unsettle an unprepared visitor. There were a few extravagantly decorated houses, which everyone knew were built on drug money.
In the absence of the traditional goat herding in the desert, the Bedouin youth in Juarish turned to the underworld and reportedly operated the drug-dealing belt in central Israel. They also revived the old custom of killing women who were seen to have defiled their family “honor.” They practiced both the drug dealing and the killing under the very nose of the Israeli police. I was told by the authorities—it was surprising for a police force to admit that they were defeated by the Ramle drug lords—that even the ambulances sometimes did not dare enter Juarish. You could not order a taxi; the streets of Juarish were eerily deserted.
After multiple murders of women—on average three every year—in the name of family honor, Juarish rose to notoriety when the mother of the latest victim, a 17-yearold girl called Hamda (whose bullet-riddled body was found in her bed, and whose brother was seen leaving the house a few minutes later), spoke out to the police and the media against her family, which she said had been behind the killing of nine women in seven years. Following her testimony, word of many of the past murders surfaced and took Israel by storm.
When Hamoudi and I arrived to do our first day of shooting, the streets were, as usual, deserted. We chose a spot outside the mosque to park our car, as Hamoudi thought that would be the safest place in case there were problems from the men if they found out that we were here to speak to the women of the community.
In Juarish, I saw the otherwise marijuana-induced relaxed mood of Hamoudi change. He looked more serious and alert. He went inside the mosque where we were meeting the sheikh who had agreed to be interviewed on the murders to explain that Islam had nothing to do with the desert code of conduct in his neighborhood. But when I followed Hamoudi into the mosque, there were neither the sheikh nor any worshippers. People started milling around where we parked the car. I came back to the car and sat inside nervously. Hamoudi came out a few minutes later and suggested that we visit the mother of Hamda, since the Bedouin sheikh, who condemned the murders, was not there yet.
We left the car outside the mosque. He took his camera bag, but we thought walking with a tripod would not be a good idea, so we left it in the car. There were rows of mature flame trees along the road that led to Hamda’s house. They were all in bloom and the sky seemed to have been sprayed with scattered bright red paint. I thought of Hamda’s body drenched in blood, and it felt as if in death her soul had merged with the crimson blossoms.
Later on, Hamda’s grief-stricken mother, Yamama, would show us the wall next to Hamda’s bed, which she said had been splattered with her daughter’s blood. Hamda was shot nine times.
“My son did it. My son too died for me on that day when he shot his sister. How could my own son, whom I gave birth to and breast-fed for three years, commit such a vile act, kill his sister for talking on the telephone to a man?”
“Who was she talking to?” Hamoudi asked.
“She wasn’t talking to anyone,” Yamama said, contradicting her earlier statement. “It was a lie, her brothers made it up to kill her because she rejected her cousin who wanted to marry her. She was too young to marry. My beautiful daughter, my youngest child, they took her life just like that.”
The wall next to the bed where Hamda had spent her final night was pockmarked with bullet holes, which Yamama would not let anyone plaster over. It had been a year since the murder and she was still mourning. She spent most of her daylight hours sitting by Hamda’s grave.
Excerpted from The Unlikely Settler by Lipika Pelham. Copyright 2014 by Lipika Pelham. Published by Other Press and on sale March 25, 2014. All rights reserved.