Stitching together a better life for Israel’s Bedouin

Rachel Oren: The Bedouin are like the Israelis, they are willing to try new things, new colors, new products.Coming up with the idea of selling unique Bedouin handicrafts was easy but gaining acceptance with the Bedouin women living in Israel’s …

Rachel Oren: The Bedouin are like the Israelis, they are willing to try new things, new colors, new products.Coming up with the idea of selling unique Bedouin handicrafts was easy but gaining acceptance with the Bedouin women living in Israel’s Negev desert was a much harder task for Rachel Oren. The 52-year-old Israeli spent six months trying to persuade a local municipality employee that she genuinely wanted to help a financially depressed, neglected sector of Israel’s population. That accomplished, she was then permitted to meet with community members.

Four years later, Ethnicware Ltd. is a boutique business selling bright and colorful hand-embroidered clothing, jewelry, handbags and hangings made by Israel’s Bedouin women to exclusive American and Israeli stores. Most of the women behind the crafts never learned to read and write; for all this is the first time they are earning their own wages.

“I got to a stage in my life when I wanted to do something else,” said Oren. “It was the middle of the recession in Israel and every morning I read in the paper about people who didn’t have enough money to eat. Luckily I had enough to live on and I thought that I would prefer to leave work and start to do something to help others. I didn’t want to compromise anymore.

“My feeling was that the Bedouin were the most needy of all. They are Israeli citizens but because they are Moslem and because of their traditions and the way they live, they get very little special aid and live a very poor life. Women in this society have a particularly hard time since their husbands can have three or four wives,” she added.

Oren, who earned her undergrad at Israel’s Shenkar Fashion Institute and got a second, business degree at England’s Bradford University, spent most of her working life as a home furnishings buyer for Israel’s Mashbir department store syndicate and later as an industrial marketing manager.

In 2002 she retired from the work world and spent three months touring Israel for ideas and inspiration. She fell in love with the handicrafts being developed by Israel’s various ethnic groups including Ethiopians, Yemenites and Bedouin. The latter particularly impressed her.

“They have a very special way of looking at color. I’ve seen it in India as well,” she told ISRAEL21c. “It’s an amazing ability to combine different colors.”

She was also impressed by their willingness to experiment beyond personal tradition. “They are not afraid to try anything,” she said. “Many other tribal groups only know how to do one type of embroidery or use one set of colors. The Bedouin are like the Israelis, they are willing to try new things, new colors, new products. They know how to embroider dresses; so now ‘let’s do it on shoes or jeans, or leather.’ They can do whatever I ask them.”

Oren knew that as an Israeli Jew it would be difficult to find Bedouin seamstresses or persuade them to work for her. She approached Dalila, a Jewish convert to Islam and trusted Bedouin community member who married a Bedouin man and is attends to the social needs of a Bedouin village of 10,000 near Arad.

“I came to her and told her I was looking for women to carry out embroidery projects. I said that I was looking for the poorest people so that I could help them. Dalila was suspicious. She was afraid I would try to exploit them or take advantage of them. It took me six months to make her believe in me and my project. She took me very, very slowly.”

Despite Dalila’s introduction, many of the Bedouin women still had doubts. “They had so many questions. They looked at my clothes, they looked at my car. One day I drove my husband’s car instead of my own, and they got very worried and their husbands became suspicious,” Oren said. “Afterwards they asked me to use just one car. If I come in one car the neighbors get used to seeing it and don’t ask as many questions. This is a very traditional society; they are really afraid of what their neighbors might say.”

Today Ethnicware sells a large range of items from fashion items to straw baskets, hand-made albums, table runners, cushions, paintings, and wooden and silver boxes. Some of the crafts are unique while others are manufactured in limited quantities. Customers can either view products and place orders online or purchase directly from retail stores. In Israel Ethnicware products are sold throughout the country and in the US products sell at special events and in ABC Carpets and Home ethnic shop in New York.

Oren’s goal is to combine traditional Bedouin handicrafts in a modern style for blending within modern homes. The women use handicraft skills learned in childhood but Oren – who designs most of the items – encourages them to create new color combinations and to change sizes to suit today’s lifestyle.

Ethnicware also takes on projects for major manufacturers and retailers including Lee Cooper, Sacks, and Castro. The women embroider leather shoes for a designer shop in Israel and are currently working on an Israeli handbag manufacturer’s project.

A highly popular item over the years has been embroidered jeans and today a huge seller is a Hamsa – a hand or five-fingered lucky charm popular in the Middle East – embroidered by the women.

All Ethnicware products include labels explaining organizational goals: with “I can tell you that most of the shop owners have agreed to sell my goods because of this story,” said Oren.

When a project is large Oren employs up to 150 women from the village and surrounding area of Csaifa – where unemployment typically runs at 22%. She pays per item or job. “I would prefer to employ them on a permanent basis but I cannot afford to at present,” admits Oren. “I’ve been very open with the women about this. I’ve explained my situation and they value this openness.”

Over the years, Oren has invested her life’s savings – $50-70,000 in the project.

For the women the work-from-home fits well with personal lifestyles because Bedouin society encourages women to stay at home, care for children and run the household. “I have a small office in the center of Csaifa where the women come to pick up materials and drop off completed work. They carry out the work at home in their free time.”

The accommodating work conditions result in happy and supportive husbands. “Initially the men were afraid that I might influence their wives in a bad way and stop them from doing their traditional things. Now they accept that their wives are working at home and bringing in money,” said Oren, who speaks to her Bedouin employees in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic.

In March, BlueStar PR, a San Francisco-based media company made a short documentary about Ethnicware called Threads of Progress. shown throughout the US. It was screened at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on March 20, and Ishmael Khaldi, the vice consul of the state of Israel and an Israeli Bedouin Arab made an appearance at the film’s debut. The film will also be shown at other Jewish outlets around the country.

In continuing along the path of visual arts, Oren began teaching a course in Jerusalem called Art for Social Change. She now plans to introduce a phototherapy class to her employees wherein she’ll work with a guide and encourage women to take photographs and use them for exploring disturbing issues in their lives. When the project is completed, she plans to enlarge the pictures for the women to embroider.

“I try all the time to come up with new ideas because the market is full of products and you have to have something that will catch the eye of the customer,” said Oren.

She also has other ideas. She is now exploring turning Ethnicware into a women-owned and operated with outside management. With funding she also hopes to train women in business and computing skills.

Oren has many dreams. She would like to eventually employ 100 women on a permanent basis and open a chain of shops selling Ethnicware products. All of these dreams need money and backing, sometimes difficult to drum up as a one-woman entity.

“This is a very exciting project for me,” Oren said enthusiastically. “We are trying to strengthen the status of Bedouin while at the same time preserving the traditional Bedouin embroidery. But we are also doing something else. For so many of these women, this is the first time that anyone has shown interest in their lives or in bringing them work. I’m learning from them, and they are leaning from me. It’s an important process.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.