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June 2, 2004

One in twenty (2 of 2)

Ha'aretz, Israel - Jun 2, 2004

Four languages

The handling of the deaf on the part of the establishment already borders on mistreatment. In an unrecognized village, even the deaf who live in it are unrecognized, and the cries of their parents are swallowed up in its confines.

"There's no salvation," Salah al-Sayed says in summary. "There's no salvation, there simply isn't." He was one of the first in the village who tried to fight for deaf youngsters. When his deaf daughter was three years old, he traveled all over the country to find a suitable arrangement for her. At the end, he gave up. "It's hardest for people like me," he says. "In our area there isn't one framework that deals properly with deaf mutes. I tried, because I knew that I had a chance of improving my daughter's life, but I was unsuccessful."

In institutions where the level of instruction was reasonably advanced, the language was Hebrew, he explains: "Every school I went to presented impossible conditions, such as the requirement to review the material studied in class with the child at home, and four hours of study in Hebrew every day. The problem is that my wife knows very little Hebrew, I work and we have no possibility of meeting such a demand. I also thought of sending her to a boarding school in Jerusalem, but that means I would give up my child and give her to a foster family. I won't do that.

"In order to reach a situation where a communications therapist can treat her," Al-Sayed adds in desperation, "she has to understand Hebrew, and she doesn't. In order to have a chance, the deaf children in our tribe have to study four languages at an early age: Arabic, Bedouin sign language, Hebrew and international sign language. In all my searches I didn't find an Arab communications therapist who could help her. That's the situation today as well. There's nothing to do, it's a dead end."

Dalia Silberman, director of the southern branch of an association promoting equality of opportunity for the disabled, agrees with Salah al-Sayed. "It drives me crazy that the authorities don't do anything, don't take care of the children," she says, upset. "It's criminal negligence. There's no public awareness of the problem, and for the authorities it's business as usual."

Two and a half months ago, the Knesset Education and Culture Committee held a special discussion about the shortage of communications therapists in the Arab sector. It was said that of 1,562 certified communications therapists in Israel, only 34 speak Arabic, and not one of them is active in the southern region. The treatment of deaf Bedouin children, not only those of the Al-Sayed tribe, is now at a critical point. The Niv school in Be'er Sheva, which specializes in treating deaf Bedouin children, reduces its quota of students every year. In the past, 600 Bedouin students studied there; at present there are only 49.

"The school has closed its gates to additional children," says Silberman. "The intention here is clear: to bring about closure of the school. It's a terrible injustice; the same child who doesn't get to the special school in Be'er Sheva will go to a school in the Bedouin diaspora. There the school is usually not adapted to absorb him, there's no professional infrastructure to treat deafness. The deaf child won't enter the regular class, because he can't, and what will happen is that they'll put him in a class with severely retarded and autistic children. In the Niv school they study only in Hebrew, and in this way they get tools that they can't get at home or in school in the Bedouin diaspora. The Ministry of Education may have forgotten that a deaf child is a child of completely normal intelligence - in my opinion, they're letting these youngsters deteriorate totally."

'Strange phenomenon'

Through large windows in the spacious living room of Sheikh Akal al-Atrash, one can gaze at the yellow hills and the Western-style houses of the recognized village of Hura. One can't see the houses of the Al-Sayed tribe from here. The sheikh, 49, is reclining on a colorful rug, wearing a gray galibiya (gown) and a white kaffiyeh, and holding a string of orange beads. The Al-Atrash tribe is one of the most respected in the south. The sheikh is very familiar with the problem of the Al-Sayed tribe. "I even gave their children religion lessons in their school in Be'er Sheva," he says. "I had an interpreter who translated what I said into sign language. They sent me a very moving thank-you letter."

Between sips of coffee, Al-Atrash reveals that his memory has become weakened with time, but he easily recites the members of eight generations of his family, by name. "One of my great grandfathers was hard of hearing," he says. "At the time it was apparently a very strange phenomenon - after all, we're talking about the leader of a Bedouin tribe who couldn't hear, who was deaf. For the Bedouin, hearing is of utmost importance: His life, especially then, required that he hear, that was his strength. Because of that same unique problem of his, we were nicknamed 'atrash,' which means 'deaf.'"

The ghost of the old man is returning to the tribe. During the past 10 years, 15 deaf children were born among its members. "We are aware of the problem," says Al-Atrash. "What happened to the Al-Sayed tribe won't happen to us; we're making sure to mix with other tribes through marriage. The choice is in our hands. I don't understand the Al-Sayed tribe at all - in my opinion, they're at fault for their situation. I blame them. They should have set things straight: What do they want, a village of deaf people?"

He is silent for a moment. "There are many psychological and tribal barriers," he says later. "For example, from my tribe nobody has married members of the Al-Sayed tribe. Even today, every tribe regards the other as foreign, but I believe that will change in the future. And in spite of everything, the fact that they have so many deaf people only proves that they haven't done enough. They brought this complication on themselves. They had other options."

Nuri al-Ukbi, chair of the Association for the Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel, is familiar with the subterranean currents among the Bedouin tribes in the south. More than once he has had to stand between two tribes; it's not always pleasant, but the job requires it. He agrees with Sheikh al-Atrash.

"The people of the Al-Sayed tribe are to blame for everything," he says without reservation. "They themselves are not willing to marry off their daughters to other tribes. They say something like this: If they don't give our men women from certain tribes, those tribes won't get our women. They're the ones who have to change the situation - they have the problem, they have the plague. Why should the men in the Al-Sayed tribe marry three or four women? I'm sure that the moment they begin to give their women in marriage, the other tribes will return the favor."

Toward evening, Al-Atrash pushes back his white kaffiyeh. "There's a Bedouin parable," he says with satisfaction. "The parable tells of young people who wanted to examine the wisdom of their tribal elder. They caught a small bird and one of them held it in his palm. They told themselves that they would ask the old man if the bird they had caught in their fist was alive or dead. They wanted to set a trap for the old man, and planned that if he said the bird was dead, they would release it, and if he said the bird was alive, the young man who was holding it would crush it to death. You know what the old man said to them? 'It depends on you whether the bird will live or die.'

"I say to the Al-Sayed tribe, it depends on you - if you don't decide to fight the problem, you'll continue to fill buses with deaf children who will travel to special schools."n

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