Life is full of ironies. But as Oded Leshem demonstrates in his new film, Voices from El Sayed, the ironies multiply when you are a deaf member of the Al-Sayed [in Israel the tribe’s name is written with an A rather than an E] Bedouin tribe. In an understated, but convincing manner Leshem makes this point: For deaf people, this Bedouin tribe is both heaven and hell.
While Leshem’s documentary style is informal (he doesn’t employ “staged” questioning), he nevertheless mines a lot of information in his 75 minute film. For starters, he unearths this nugget: the Al-Sayed tribe has the highest concentration of deaf people of any community in the world. Estimates are that this desert community in Israel’s southern region (located northeast of the Negev city of Beersheba) has 3000 tribal members. Of this number 125-150 are deaf. Sixty-five percent of Al-Sayed’s couples are somehow related.¹ Deafness is therefore quite easily transmitted from generation to generation. Almost every family has a deaf family member.
In this village, deafness is acknowledged as a fact of life. Not only is deafness considered normative, but everyone in the film – hearing and deaf - knows and uses sign language.
On the face of it, deaf members of the tribe are totally accepted and function comfortably within the tribe. There is always someone with whom to communicate in sign language. But which sign language?
As Leshem’s film notes, the older deaf members of Al-Sayed converse in their own sign language, Al-Sayed Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL). A number of the younger members, however, have studied in outside schools. These schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Ministry of Education. So these Bedouin children study Israeli Sign Language (ISL). The twists of fate, however, don’t end there. In addition, these
same students learn to read and write in Hebrew, rather than Arabic, their mother tongue, as it were.
There is no school for the deaf on tribal land. Children are bussed to a school in Beersheba. From the film, it appears that not every deaf child attends or has attended this facility. As the audience learns, some young adults even studied in the center of the country. Currently, Beersheba has a special early childhood class for the hearing impaired taught by traditional Bedouin teachers.
The deaf young adult tribal members who spoke in the film either have a job or a vocational direction. The audience sees that one young man works in a garage as an auto mechanic (in fact, because he is already profoundly deaf, he doesn’t run the risk of a work-related hearing loss) and another, a young woman wants to be a film-maker.
These individuals want to marry deaf partners. But in this strongly paternalistic society, their fathers and mothers still have a lot of say-so in marital matches. And some of the hearing parents want their marriage-age children to break what they see as the chain of deafness. So they are interested in having their deaf offspring pair off with hearing mates.
Not only do some parents want to alter the course of future generations, they want to change the life course of their youngest offspring. So in the movie, a set of hearing parents decides that one of its children will be the first Al-Sayed member to undergo a cochlear implant.
The Israeli health care system covered the cost of the surgery and the implant itself. But as viewers soon realize, this family faces many other obstacles. The first several months
following surgery entailed regular and frequent trips back to the hospital in Beersheba. The child’s implant threshold and comfort levels frequently changed during this period. The implant equipment was repeatedly adjusted.
During these hospital visits, the parents also had to learn how to encourage their toddler to listen in everyday situations. Back at home, the mother was shown to have the huge task of ensuring that all the other children actively participate in the training. There was no question about it - for this large Bedouin family, this was a family project. The family was very supportive, but there was a price to be paid: The project spurred a lot of doubt, as the slow rate of progress began to dawn on family members.
Both the mother and father accompanied the child to the hospital. There they worked with a Hebrew-speaking professional staff. The father spoke and read Hebrew fluently, but the mother did not. There was no Arabic translator.
Just as critical was the staff’s lack of awareness of the everyday hardships at Al-Sayed. While Leshem’s camera reveals that high tension wires stand in close proximity to the village, the movie narrative discloses that Al-Sayed is not hooked up to the national grid. There is no electricity, except for the generators that power the village during the evening hours. Just as the hospital staff abruptly comes to terms with the family’s difficulty in
keeping all the implant parts properly charged, so the audience grasps just how challenging this procedure has been for this Bedouin family.
Needless to say, not everyone in the tribe approves of this new innovation. The “nays” come from both older and younger adult members of the tribe. What the different age groups seem to have in common is the acknowledgement that this technology may set hearing parents of deaf children against the deaf members of Al-Sayed.
In this film about a minority within a minority, film viewers are exposed to a number of concerns. Interestingly, a number of the same issues face deaf communities around the world: how the deaf community chooses to identify itself; how the deaf want to express deaf pride; what communication modalities deaf people prefer to use within their deaf community and with the hearing world. Moreover, just as occurs in other communities, the hearing family members of Al-Sayed face moral questions, as they make decisions affecting their children’s hearing.
For professionals who work with hearing challenged clients, this film reinforces the importance of assessing both their clients’ immediate home environment and their broader cultural milieu - prior to making professional recommendations. Finally, for general movie audiences, the film serves as an introduction to some of the adversities confronting today’s Israeli Bedouin community. In brief, Oded Leshem’s movie provides a window of opportunity into the complexities of Al-Sayed’s unique world.
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