It has been said that history is not what it used to be. In the Middle East certainly, a new mode of historian has arisen. These historians not only look at things as they once were, but, more to the point, they work backward as it were, finding a way to make sense of the madness of the here and the now by, in effect, restructuring—if not, revising—the there and the then.
And so it is with the The Naqab Bedouins. This monograph, written by rising scholar Mansour Nasasra is an impressive start. It is, however, a challenging work that I found difficult to navigate, and here is why: this is history but with a clear agenda. The goal of the monograph is not to discuss or to describe what was but rather, to present an alternative perspective of events altogether; that is, what we in the 21st century might project upon what was.
Thus, we are told on page 1 that the primary objective and argument here is that the history and politics of Bedouins from the Naqab (Negev) Desert have largely been "ignored" in the literature and that this work will serve as a corrective. Further, Nasasra suggests that what literature does exist presents the tribes in the role of "victims"; his goal is to reveal that throughout the past several decades, Bedouins have "resisted" domination, whether it originated from Ottoman, British, or Israeli "forms or actions" (pp. 2–3).
This argument is then repeated clearly and often throughout the book. Nasasra writes that Bedouins "have resisted and struggled, initially during the periods of Ottoman and British rule and increasingly under Israeli rule since the Israeli authorities failed to understand Bedouin culture and, indeed, aimed to destroy their culture, control them as an ethnic group, and dissociate them from the rest of the Palestinians" (p. 28). Such a statement well reflects a narrative of sumud (perseverance) in the face of a great force. Indeed, anyone who follows the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has heard such sentiments before. The question is whether such views are consistently supported in the historical record, and if so, how this can be measured.
There are two major theses which run throughout the narrative. One concerns the role of "resistance" and "struggle" (pp. 29–35) in the Bedouin community and how these traits have informed Bedouin society across the generations. And yet, more often than not, Nasasra offers examples of Bedouin refusal to do something, in essence, refusal to cooperate with authority. He presents this as a sign of power and an indication that the "victimhood" paradigm is racist and prejudicial. And yet, rarely in any examples provided through the text do Bedouins really have any choice in their own affairs. The choice not to do something is not the same [End Page 680] as the choice to do something. They do not have the power to act; they have the power to not act.
The second prominent narrative concerns "indigeneity" and Bedouin connection and ownership of the land that comprises today's Naqab/Negev. Working backward chronologically, Nasasra begins in the early pages of the book by discussing efforts to redefine the Bedouin as the indigenous peoples of Palestine (a project most directly associated with his colleague at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Dr. Oren Yiftachel). Several pages are devoted to this effort and include numerous theoretical, legal arguments to support the contention that the Bedouin condition and relationship to the land parallels other indigenous peoples colonized in "settler states." Aboriginal Australians are noted most especially, given that Australia is where Dr. Yiftachel has decades of ongoing expertise and where this model was developed and refined. Above all, one issue must be driven home: to fully accept the land ownership issue in a 21st century context, one must place the Bedouin community in the same category as other native peoples. In so doing, parallel arguments for them can be made equal with those of indigenous peoples around the world.
To an old...