Desert Daughters

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DYKT on September 18, 2009

Mariam started the cosmetic businesses in Negev. organic soap and cosmetics are available.

DYKT on April 5, 2010

n Israel's Negev Desert, Bedouin traditions are kept alive Web Posted: 05/10/2008 2:00 CDT

(Courtesy Bustan)

Bustan project coordinator Tali Weinberg (left) and Bedouin herbalist Mariam Abu Rakeek at the center of the Tel Sheva Learning Site.

By Tami Brunk, Special to the Express-News

TEL SHEVA, Israel — “The Bedouins are known for their very sweet tea, and very strong coffee.”

Mariam Abu Rakeek, my host, is a Bedouin herbalist. We sat together earlier this morning on ornate, hand-woven mats, next to a smoldering fire, sipping Arabic coffee scented of cardamom, which she had poured from a beautiful silver coffee pot. Across from me, with eyes that seemed older than the desert itself, sat Mariam's mother. The small radio beside her transmitted a melodious male voice, reading the Koran's morning prayers, broadcast from the local mosque. Both women were dressed in elegant robes, with colorful head coverings.

If you go The Tel Sheva Learning Center accepts volunteers and visitors throughout the year. One option is a day visit, touring the Tel Sheva Learning Center and visiting Mariam's workshop, where you'll be sorely tempted to buy some of her fabulous soaps and creams. For more of an immersion experience, you may want to either attend workshops or volunteer to help build the Learning Site. Mariam has modest living quarters set up for volunteers at the Learning Site, a beautiful spot near the herb garden, overlooking the scenic Negev landscape. Cost for tours, volunteer visits and workshops vary but are modest. For more information on Mariam's project, Desert's Daughter healing cosmetics, or to schedule a visit, contact Mariam at Related Bustan promotes sustainability If I blink, I thought for a moment, perhaps I will wake up.

But no, I was really here in Tel Sheva — the first Bedouin town established by Israel in 1968. The Bedouin people have pursued a nomadic lifestyle in the Negev and Sinai deserts of the Middle East for more than 7,000 years — and Tel Sheva's founding represented Israel's effort to settle them.

I'd come to meet Mariam and hear of her work to nourish the traditions of her culture while meeting the challenges and opportunities of modern-day “landed” living. This was the culmination of my journey through Israel and the West Bank, seeking out joint Arab-Jewish projects to protect the environment and restore the human connection to the land.

The Negev desert, like the state of Israel itself, is a lesson in extremes and contradictions. It makes up nearly 70 percent of the landmass of Israel, yet holds only about 6 percent of its population. Within its 6,700-square-mile expanse (a bit larger than Rhode Island) is Israel's wildest landscape — which has lost its cheetah, lions and bears within the century yet still contains a smattering of leopards, hyenas, wolves, gazelles and a lynxlike desert cat named the caracal.

Juxtaposed on top of this, and the Negev's large population of indigenous Bedouin, are the majority of the country's industrial facilities, trash dumps, a nuclear reactor and Israel's nuclear arsenal.

It is unlikely that any modern-day people understand the true nature of the Negev better than the Bedouin, or “denizens of the desert,” as they have been commonly called. Maintaining a spiritual and practical relationship with the land is the daunting, yet vital, task of traditionalists such as Mariam Abu Rakeek. Yet this was hardly the path she first embarked upon when she left Tel Sheva at the age of 18 to study marketing in Great Britain.

“I wanted to become a successful businesswoman,” Mariam told me. “I never imagined that I would be taking this traditional path.” Yet when she returned to Tel Sheva and became immersed in a political conflict over her refusal to marry a member of her tribe, she found herself without support to start her business. It was in the next few years, at home, without clear direction, that she became drawn to the study of alternative healing methods. Mostly on the Internet, she studied broadly, from Western to Chinese medicine and macrobiotic health.

She soon discovered that a rich tradition for natural healing existed under her very nose — within the Bedouin culture itself. She began to remember the way that her mother and grandmother had a salve or medicine or rub for nearly any ailment, made of plants from the surrounding desert. She began to recall stories told to her about Mohammad and his philosophy of health and well-being, which was perfectly aligned with holistic healing in the West and Far East.

At about the same time she began to learn about the environmental threats facing Israelis. These had hit the Bedouin the hardest, as many of their communities are located near industrial sites, trash dumps or nuclear waste, similar to our American Indian reservations. She began to believe that recovering the traditional wisdom of herbal healing, as well as many other land-based traditions held by the women of her culture, was her calling. She felt that through helping other Israelis — Jewish and Bedouin alike — connect to the land and their own bodies in a healthy way, she might reverse some of the destructive trends she saw all around her.

So she enrolled in a two-year Desert Plant Medicine course at a local college and decided to merge her growing fascination with traditional Bedouin healing with her dream of starting her own business. That business now goes by the name Daughter of the Desert, and her product is a unique line of organic healing soaps and creams derived from the same desert plants used by her mother and grandmother. A primary ingredient in many of her soaps and creams is black cumin oil and seeds — the same medicine that Mohammad exhorted all of his followers to use daily for supreme health. Many of her soaps use either olive oil or camel's milk as a base, two dietary staples for traditional Bedouins.

This afternoon, we set off to visit the Tel Sheva Learning Site, located on Mariam's family farm, just on the outskirts of town. This site, which was established with generous financial and volunteer support by Bustan, an Israeli environmental justice organization, is where Mariam organizes workshops and tours to share traditional Bedouin knowledge. Workshops cover topics ranging from the medicinal uses of desert herbs, traditional ways, including bread making, organic farming and natural building, as well as the philosophical framework for natural healing found within the Bedouin Islamic tradition.

On our walk through town to the site, a camel ran across the road, followed by two hollering boys. It was easy to see how the Bedouin people, much to the chagrin of the neat-and-tidy Israeli government officials, insist on bringing their country style of living right into the city. Many families, it seems, have goats, chickens, horses, rabbits, and yes, camels, living with them, just as their ancestors did.

We arrived at the site about an hour before sunset, and my eyes were immediately drawn to its centerpiece — a beautiful, circular herb garden. Mariam stooped to pick a fragrant sage plant, and passed it on to me.

“This is my favorite,” she told me, and I inhaled a surprising blend of pungent sage and sweet peach. This plant, like all the plants at the center of the garden, is native, harvested from the surrounding desert. In the outer rings of the garden are planted valuable but non-native healing herbs and flowers such as chamomile and marigold.

Off to the side was a traditional Bedouin tent, where workshops are held. An orchard and organic garden flourished on the other side of the path, ending with a golden field of wheat. The crop was a special species of ancient black wheat, grown and protected for multiple generations by the Abu Rakeek family. It is the only one of its kind, and preserving it, like most original strains of important food crops, is the charge of indigenous people such as Mariam and her family. As part of her project she plans to keep a nursery and seed bank to preserve other cultivated plants and seeds integral to the Bedouin culture.

She explained that it was the job of the herbalist to care for the wild desert plant populations. Normally, when the plants are harvested, one must never take more than half the plant, plus take the seeds from the plants one finds and plant them in promising locations throughout the desert. Often, people even build small water catchments for the seeds, so that the soil will absorb more water and increase their likelihood for survival.

As we walked home, amid the sounds of donkeys braying, chickens clucking, and the clip-clop of three boys astride Arabian horses behind us, then quickly passing, I mused on my time in Israel — the beauty and deep history of the landscape, as well as the vibrant Bedouin culture that stubbornly holds to its old traditions in the face of modern pressures to change.

I considered also the wisdom of Jewish Israelis such as Bustan's founders, who are joining with the Bedouin and other Arabs through their shared love of the land and concern for future generations. If there is any hope at all for peace in this region, surely, the seeds for this kind of peace, as well as health for the people and land of this beloved region, are planted in Mariam's garden.

Tami Brunk is a freelance writer and environmental consultant liv-ing in Albuquerque, N.M. She canbe reached at

Gabriela Gleizer on March 2, 2013

Very nice picture, like.

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on June 26, 2009
  • Attribution-No Derivative Works
    by DYKT
    • Taken on 2009/05/31 09:31:08
    • Exposure: 0.002s (1/500)
    • Focal Length: 7.80mm
    • F/Stop: f/5.300
    • ISO Speed: ISO80
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash