Thursday March 17, 2011
By Matthew Kalman
Janice Abu Hani, 42, explains why she ditched her animal-loving life in the Midlands for the Israeli desert....
I HAD a typically English childhood. I grew up in Acocks Green in Birmingham with my parents and elder sister. I was always mad about horses and went riding every weekend. My grandad used to work on the railways with the big shire horses and my dad always kept a couple.
I dreamt of working with animals. Sometimes I used to go up to my dad’s smallholding with a sleeping bag and sleep in the stable.
My dream did come true, my house and yard are full of animals that I use to teach local children not to be violent. However, in all my fantasies of adult life I never pictured myself married to a Bedouin man, speaking Arabic and living in Rahat, a Bedouin town in the Israeli desert.
After I left school at 16 I got a job looking after a deaf and blind girl at the Elizabeth Gunn Centre in Birmingham.
I expected to spend the rest of my life in the city, working with the disabled, clubbing with friends in the evenings and riding horses at the weekend.
However, everything changed in 1988 when I turned 19 and went to Eilat, Israel, on holiday and met a waiter at a hotel. Talab was so good-looking and we hit it off.
After two weeks I came back home and we started writing to each other. After a month, I returned to Israel. I sold my horse and car and bought a one-way ticket. I didn’t know if it was going to be serious with Talab but I wanted to give it a try.
My friends thought I was nuts. My mum was worried but everyone said I could always come home if it didn’t work out.
Talab was different to my other boyfriends and the whole experience was like a big adventure.
Talab, now 48, got me a job as a chambermaid and we lived in the hotel. I experienced discrimination from a few Israeli workers and guests who asked me how I could go out with an Arab.
I was brought up a Catholic but I never had any reservations about being with someone from such a different background.
We stayed in Eilat for almost two years but after a few months I knew I wanted to marry Talab. We started talking about going to England but the British embassy said Talab could only stay for three months unless we married, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to get a visa or work.
M Y family had already met him when I took him home for my 21st birthday but his family was a different matter. Their plan was for him to go home and marry a good Bedouin girl. They knew he had a girlfriend but I hadn’t met them because Talab hid me from them.
In January 1990 we went to England and got married without telling Talab’s parents, though we sent them the photos. We stayed for three years and I continued my work with deaf and blind people while Talab worked as a waiter at the Metropole Hotel in Birmingham.
Our three sons, Michael, 18, Sammy, 17, and 16-year-old Adam were all born in Birmingham. When Sammy was six months old he was diagnosed with asthma and we thought the climate in Israel would be better for him. The night we arrived in Rahat, Talab’s family sent a convoy of cars to meet us at the airport and threw a huge party to greet us. They were really happy about our marriage. In Bedouin culture, having three sons is like hitting the jackpot so they welcomed me like one of their own daughters.
I finally met my mother-in-law and learned a few things about my new family. I noticed a woman hanging around the house who was really helpful but she didn’t seem to go home. Talab hadn’t told me his dad had a second wife. I knew Talab had two sisters and a brother but they were his own mother’s children. He also had six brothers and three sisters from his father’s second wife.
Talab, now a manager at a nearby hotel, has become more religious recently but he won’t be taking a second wife. Not if he wants to keep breathing!
I became a Muslim in a simple ceremony and we had a Muslim wedding but I didn’t change my clothes or my habits. It was difficult to adjust in the beginning because of the language. Some objected to me riding a horse because women don’t do that here but I insisted. My children were so young when they moved here they don’t recall any other lifestyle. Today I speak Arabic like any Bedouin woman but I don’t cover my hair or wear long robes. I don’t pray or fast at Ramadan.
The family don’t say anything about it and I’m very close to them. I try not to drink alcohol which is forbidden under Islam. I can put any animal I want in the garden and nobody complains. I have a horse called Prince, which I rescued from near death, Molly the goat, Shula the dog and a donkey called Shrek who has only one-and-a-half ears.
Sometimes when I walk through Rahat, people gossip and the kids tease me. I’m the only woman in the village who rides a horse and some people mind. Many have told me I’m not going to go to Heaven. I tell them I’ll get there first. I’ve done nothing wrong, I help animals and I help people. I’m sure God will make an exception that I didn’t cover my hair.
Rahat is a Bedouin town on the edge of the Negev desert. There are about 200,000 Bedouin in Israel. They were semi-nomadic but they have been forced to settle in a few towns. It has created a lot of problems.
There is high unemployment so there are lots of young men just hanging around and there is a lot of violence. Arguments and disputes escalate quickly to guns and knives. That’s what I’m trying to address with my animal classes for children.
I’ve long been concerned about the violence towards animals in Rahat. If it’s got four legs and it moves, the kids will just kill it so I hold sessions in the house teaching children how to treat animals and be kind to them. We have a whole menagerie in the front room: ferrets, rabbits, mice, doves, gerbils, budgies and a disabled cat.
Violence is part of the culture here and it’s something that really needs to be addressed. If we can get in at nursery level and go into schools and teach them non-violence and respect for each other by being respectful to the animals, I think we have a good chance to change things. It’s better to start young than trying to change their attitudes later.
I opened my own daycare centre to provide good nursery education in 1996. In 2002 I worked in a residential home in Rahat with mentally and physically challenged Arab-Bedouin children and I saw how they were treated.
We decided to save at least one child from going into a home. That’s when we started fostering children with disabilities.
We then adopted a girl with developmental problems. I try to make real positive change in the lives of the most vulnerable children.
In 2008 I became director of the early childhood resource and training centre at the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace, a non-profit organisation promoting peace and development. I also co-ordinated its community education and family literacy project.
The violence and crime rate in Rahat is extremely high. Families fight and even shoot at each other. There are a lot of guns around and any dispute quickly gets violent but when friends from home ask if it’s hard to live here, I tell them: “Not at all.” I love Israel.
I don’t know what it is: there’s more time here, a slower pace to life and my Arabic is fluent.
When I speak Hebrew people laugh because I sound like a Bedouin. I speak English to my children although I’ve lost some of my Brummie accent.
Ultimately, if I weren’t happy, I wouldn’t stay. I’d never go back to England which is hard because my parents live there but I talk to them on the phone. This is my natural place. I’m a Bedouin and that’s that.
Janice Abu Hani is featured in the new documentary Back And Forth (Ruth Diskin Films, 2010). Visit ruthfilms.com