“This is a traditional culture, but there are a lot of things that we can share. In every culture in the world, there are things that we are creating. In every community, there is something special. In every community, we need to accept and believe in that.”
Khadra Elsaneh, director of Sidreh – Lakiya Negev Weaving, carries a commanding presence, speaking with authority and confidence; yet in conversation, her tenderness toward her community and humble candor regarding her own personal growth are clear and startlingly human. Time spent with Khadra reveals her to be a woman who has learned to holistically embrace, integrate, and adapt the varied aspects of her identity as necessary; and under her leadership, her Bedouin community is learning to do the same.
“People here are very warm to each other and to strangers. If you come from outside, they want to give you everything,” she says of that community, painting a picture of benevolence and interconnectedness. But even that warmth which seems to pervade her society must face the demands of a modernizing world. Khadra recalls a time when survival in her desert village was entirely dependent upon a give-and-take system of generosity called al-‘auni. If someone was struggling, members of the community helped him to overcome the obstacles facing him; later, he would do the same for others. Khadra believes this lifestyle has been rendered nearly obsolete by modernization: “It used to be that you lived from the land – if you had a camel, you and your neighbors didn’t feel hungry. Now, if you don’t have money, you’re hungry.” The wealth of the earth was easier to share with community members than concrete currency.
While recognizing this transition, Khadra and her community tenaciously cling to the value attached to their land, explaining that “We want the younger generation to feel like they’re part of this land, part of this life, part of this community. We have modern houses, but we still have sheep and chickens and horses and camels.” Khadra acknowledges the necessity for change, but steadfastly believes that change can be implemented in a way that both embraces her community’s heritage and moves them forward.
Enter Sidreh. Founded in 1998, the nonprofit organization brings Bedouin women together to support one another and their community by sharing their traditional weaving skills with the rest of the world. Through Khadra’s tireless efforts, the organization quickly gained recognition on an international scale. The demands of running an international business brought a wave of firsts to the community: the first fax machine, the first telephone, the first website, the first female lawyer…
Despite these modern innovations, however, Sidreh’s work allows the women to remain rooted in something they have known well since childhood: the inherited art of weaving. Once, this art was practiced alone in the home. Sidreh creates a community of women who weave together and, by selling their products, are empowered to support their families.
And their families are beginning to recognize the power these women hold. Khadra recounts tales of trips to Jerusalem, where children saw their mothers’ crafts in elegant restaurants and hotels. Only then, she says, could they realize how special the women’s work is.
As her own community is beginning to appreciate the value of Sidreh’s work, so are many other communities. “When foreigners come, they learn and feel how strong the women are.” The joy of demonstrating this strength to others excites Khadra. “We really want Abraham Path people to come here,” she says, “because now we know how to share this community with others.”
As Khadra finished telling us this, as if on cue, a young woman walked through Sidreh’s facilities, a group of international tourists in tow. We watched her begin to explain the weaving process to the foreigners; Khadra leaned in and whispered to us, telling us that the girl’s father had been adamantly opposed to the idea of his daughter learning English and working outside of the house. Inspired by the work she saw women doing at Sidreh, though, she stood up to him and came to work with the organization. Now, while I observed the girl’s interactions with the tourists, I marveled at her flawless English and at the ease and authority with which she handled the group.
Bringing us one more cup of Arabic coffee before we left, Khadra asked if we wanted sugar. “Not long ago, people here never drank coffee with sugar. Their lives were hard, not sweet. Now, though,” she said with a laugh, “almost no one drinks their coffee without sugar.”