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The Sounds of Citizenship

In his film Voices from El-Sayed, Oded Adomi Leshem tackles the often-neglected issue of Israel’s unrecognized Bedouin villages. Contrary to stereotype, Israeli Bedouins lead a sedentary, non-nomadic life. 170,000 Bedouins reside in the Negev Desert, in the south of Israel, … Read More

By / May 6, 2009

In his film Voices from El-Sayed, Oded Adomi Leshem tackles the often-neglected issue of Israel’s unrecognized Bedouin villages. Contrary to stereotype, Israeli Bedouins lead a sedentary, non-nomadic life. 170,000 Bedouins reside in the Negev Desert, in the south of Israel, in some 46 villages and small towns. It is rarely noted, however, that between 40% and 50% live in one of 36 unrecognized settlements.

The term “unrecognized villages” refers to settlements that the Israeli government refuses to recognize as ‘legal.’ Accordingly, they are not marked on any commercially available maps, and are denied state and municipal services, such as connections to the electrical grid, water mains, and telephone network. These communities are excluded them from health, education and transportation planning as well (scores of unrecognized Bedouin and Palestinian villages do not receive any such services). It should be further noted that none of these villages are new. Some predate the state of Israel, while others are decades old, established as a result of government attempts to resettle Bedouins in these same areas.

Leshem does not take the all too-obvious and well-trodden route of recounting the history of these communities, tracing the predicament of their residents to the discriminatory policies of successive Israeli governments. All of them, Labor and Likud without exception, from the establishment of the State in 1948 to the present day have continuously refused to acknowledge the rights of Palestinian and Bedouin residents to the very land on which they reside. Yet, neither do the director nor his interviewees point fingers either. Rather, Leshem explores what life in such a village entails for its residents. He seeks to show the friction between the lives Bedouins in such unrecognized villages lead, and of life in “Israel proper,” that is, in a society that presents itself as part of the developed, “first” world, one that prides itself for being at the forefront of industrial and technological innovation.

Leshem thus turns to the village of El-Sayed (alternatively spelled as el-Sayyid), a village that went unrecognized until 2006 and that is located about 11 miles east of Beersheba, on the road to Arad. The reputation of this village lies, however, not in its troubled relationship with the Israeli government, but, rather, in the fact that it serves as a home to a community with arguably the highest percentage of deafness in the world: about 5% of the villagers are deaf, 50 times the average rate in the general population. Given the extraordinarily high rate of hearing loss, deaf people in this community are fully integrated, and are neither marginalized nor considered abnormal. Indeed, the villagers have developed a unique sign language, spoken by all villagers, hearing and hearing impaired alike, which has attracted the attention of scholars.

Usurprisingly, Voices centers on the question of communication (or lack thereof), not only between hearing and hearing impaired, but also between Israeli Jews and Bedouins, between health providers and clients, between employers and employees, between academics and laypersons, and, obviously, between “recognized” and “unrecognized” citizens of Israel. It is here that the director distinguishes himself, for whereas much of this communication is dependent upon translators and mediators, Leshem masters his subjects’ two languages: Arabic alongside sign language.

The significance of this gesture is huge. As enthusiastic as many Israeli directors may be in exploring Palestinian and Bedouin lives in Israel, few have the linguistic skills to dub their interlocutors without the mediation of a third language (commonly English, if Palestinian or Bedouin interviewees do not know or refuse to speak Hebrew,) or of a translator. This is all the more true for those directors who have featured deaf subjects. In many films, there are oftetimes three parties to every communication, a fact that underscores the alienation and the distance of a filmmaker from their interviewee. Leshem, on the other hand, converses and interrogates the people of El Sayed directly. Thus his interviews present a flow of language, uninterrupted.

Voices soundtrack avoids music altogether and is instead made of speaking voices (when auditory language is used), from natural background noises, and from long silent sequences. It thus accentuates the transition between the different types of sound, making them all the more audible and punctuates—so Leshem says—the experience of hearing and not-hearing. While this approach is not altogether original, it does produce a haunting effect during the interviews done using sign language. Undubbed, we are allowed to hear the background noises alongside the gesticulations of the interlocutors, which are commonly covered by the noise of auditory language.

More specifically, Voices from El-Sayed explores the interaction of this unique community with the outside world. The film revolves around the friction between the villagers’ unique life Voices from El-Sayed Trailercircumstances and the assumptions that the Israeli state has about what it means to live in a modern country. Nothing in this context highlights this friction more than the attitude of the state to deafness, which it brands as an anomaly and an impairment to be corrected via technology, even eliminated through pre-birth detection and abortion. Thus, Leshem documents the initial encounter of the villagers with the Cochlear implant operation. The procedure, which is designed to provide a sense of sound to deaf and severely hard of hearing people, is included in the health coverage guaranteed by the government, and as Israeli citizens the villagers—notwithstanding the uncertain legal status of their settlement—are entitled to have it at no cost to themselves.

Surprisingly, this technology is not unanimously welcome in the village. Some of Leshem’s interviewees contend not only that they should not strive to alter the way in which they were born, but that a deaf person is actually in a better state than someone who is not hearing impaired. “A hearing person shouts all day,” says Juma, “and then his head hurts from all the noise. Being deaf is great. It’s quiet in our house.” Juma is very doubtful when another villager, Salim El-Sayed, decides to have his two year-old son undergo the procedure. A Bedouin family, Juma argues, does not have the discipline to go through the daily audiological training required to make the implant effective.

Yet primarily, Voices from El-Sayed seems to suggest, the friction between its Bedouin subjects and Israeli society is the result of the myopia of the state and of its “recognized” residents. A group of doctors and nurses from the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba visits the village to introduce the procedure: notwithstanding the great proximity of the village to Beersheba, and, similarly, notwithstanding their familiarity with the Bedouin population, which relies on the services provided by the medical center, this is their very first visit to such a village; as shall become clear, they are completely oblivious to the discrepancies between the environment in which health services are provided in Israel and this specific context.

In a touching scene, Salim El-Sayed, his wife and son are at the doctor’s office immediately following the operation. They are given the external part of the implant for the first time, and are instructed as to how to operate it. They are told to charge it whenever the device is not being used, particularly at night. Yet, as noted, El Sayed is not connected to the electric grid. The villagers derive their electricity from small generators that they can only operate for several hours at a time, mainly in the afternoon and early evening. Doctors and parents are likewise surprised and baffled by this unexpected obstacle. Though they have visited the village and have been told of its circumstances, regardless of their good intentions, none of the healthcare workers note that the Bedouins’ limited access to electricity makes them incapable of taking full advantage of their services.

Voices from El Sayed is distributed by Go2Films

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