My Fieldwork with Israeli Bedouins

By Monika Wanis

During the summer of 2017 I conducted a cross-sectional, mixed methods research project consisting of interviews, participant observation and case studies with urban and rural-dwelling Bedouin women in the Negev region in Israel. The goal of the research project was to determine how the enactment of the 1995 universal health insurance law has shaped Bedouin people’s patterns of utilization, awareness and preferences associated with biomedical and traditional health.

On July 8th 2017, I landed at the Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel-Aviv Israel. I rented a car and headed immediately for the Negev Desert, which was about 160 kilometers away. On the drive I immediately noticed climate and environmental changes as I approached the desert region. Almost every single day I was in the Negev, the temperature rose well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was hot, arid, and at times, unbearable, especially in homes that did not have air conditioning.

The Negev desert is beautiful. There were hundreds of miles of tan sand dunes everywhere around me. In the evenings it was still about 90 degrees Fahrenheit outdoors but it felt much cooler without the sun beating down. Throughout my time in Israel I learned fascinating information from the different types of healers, as well as the Bedouin women I interviewed. These included using a specific individual’s saliva to diffuse the effects of a poisonous spider bite, healing only on certain days of the month, and putting camel hair on aching body parts. I was surprised to learn about the variability of healing methods employed by the Bedouin healers.

Some of the self-built Bedouin homes that are located in the Negev desert. Specifically, this image comes from Kesefi, Israel, an unrecognized Bedouin town. (Photo: M. Wanis)

I quickly learned that some of the knowledge I had acquired through reading literature about Bedouins and their healing processes were no longer accurate or was unexpectedly different than what the literature implied. For example, based on my reading I assumed that after 1995, when the Israeli National Health Insurance Law was implemented, healthcare was free of cost to all. Contrary to my understanding, health insurance is actually collectively paid for by withdrawing certain amounts of money based on income from each individual’s paycheck or retirement fund.

These misunderstandings were incorporated into my research plans and my interview schedule was slightly modified to match what I was actually experiencing during my fieldwork. During the interviews, I also noticed some points of confusion. Dialectical differences between Egyptian Arabic and Israeli Arabic made for some humorous moments. For example, I interviewed one woman and commented on how “smart” I believed she was. Her body language and behavior shifted drastically after that comment. I later discovered that I had called her “fat” in the Israeli Arabic dialect!

Picking figs at my main informant Rawan’s neighbour’s house in Rahat, Israel. (Photo: M. Wanis).

Despite these misunderstandings, I was wholly welcomed by everyone in both the rural and urban Bedouin communities. Rawan, my main female Bedouin informant, was crucial to the success of the data collection portion of my project. Every day I spent in the Negev was spent with her taking me around to interview local Bedouin women.  One of the most interesting health care decision making trends that I found was that there weren’t as many distinct differences between rural and urban Bedouin women with respect to the utilization of biomedical healthcare and traditional medicine. Currently, I am working on transcribing my interviews and thoroughly analyzing the data I have acquired in order to accurately depict the rich diversity and complexity I found in the Negev.