Ras Ali — You Have Never Met A Bedouin Town Like This

North of Haifa there is a road that seems like it is going nowhere. I knew there was a town at the end of the road, a Bedouin town, but I had no idea what kind of town I would find there other than that it has a population of about 700-800 people, perhaps a bit more. Small.

There is lots of activity in the region, now that Highway 6 is working its way feverishly northward, including modernizing Highway 70, building tunnels and otherwise helping traffic move smoothly between north and south. A new road parallel to Hwy 70 has been paved for local traffic, but immediately after passing the Bedouin town of Khawaled, the road turns into the kind I often travelled decades ago in this country: not much wider than a single lane, twisting and turning along the contours of the land, with narrow dirt shoulders.

road to Bedouin town, Ras Ali, and sign showing intention to upgrade the road

Signs at the side of the road promise that soon there will be a modern road here as well, leading to the small town at its end, Ras Ali.

After a number of twists and turns in the road, flanked only by rolling hills in green, gold and brown,

Road to Ras Ali, Bedouin town

I see a cultivated valley open up to the left of me.

agricultural fields belonging to Ras Ali, Bedouin town

I then see buildings on a hill, but they give no real hint of what I will find when I turn the last curve before town,

coming close to Ras Ali, Bedouin town

and when I finally do, my mouth drops open.

entrance to the Bedouin town, Ras Ali

I am greeted by a village entrance that is undergoing renovations. Poles for lighting are in place, as are traffic dividers, sidewalks, retainer walls, and a traffic circle. What is that red building up ahead? It looks new. It looks like a school.

Elementary school in Ras Ali, Bedouin town

I stopped a family driving out of Ras Ali to ask them. They confirmed that it is a an elementary school for the children of their village and Khawaled, that town I drove past 2 km back. My curiousity about this town was ignited and I asked who could give me more information. They told me to look for Nimer Samri, the head of their town committee.

Part way up the road I came across a girl of about 14. I asked her if she speaks Hebrew (I knew I could ask her in Arabic where Nimer Samri lives but I was not confident I would understand her answer.) She told me she does and then she showed me with her hands to turn right … and then go up … and turn left and right … and then go up some more. Her perfect directions brought me directly to Nimer as he sat on the balcony of his home with his wife and a bunch of kids running around, grandchildren as it turns out.

Nimer Samri, head of Ras Ali town committeeNimer, 64, is retired from his former jobs in maintenance at Kibbutz Maccabi and in the Haifa Bay industrial area. He was voted in as town committee chairperson about 5 years ago and it is a voluntary position. Another man I spoke to affectionately referred to him as the town Mukhtar. Nimer loves his town and is now devoting his time and energies to making sure Ras Ali gets the infrastructure and services that it needs.

Nimer also loves Israel.

You Are Going to Want to Know the History of Ras Ali

Way back in Ottoman times, four brothers of the Bedouin Samri clan and three of their friends, one from the town, Deir el Assad, and two of unknown origin, lived together in the area by what is now Havat HaZofim (Scout Farm) next to three kibbutzim of the Zvulun District. They were shepherds and goatherds and needed pastures and water for their livestock. Water was scarce and in 1928 the group purchased land next to Zippori River from a resident of Shfaram and moved there. From the beginning, there were good relations with the members of the three kibbutzim: Kfar HaMaccabi (founded 1936), Usha (founded 1937) and Ramat Yochanan (founded in 1932) and these relations were maintained after the Bedouin group moved onto their own land.

In the end, one of the group members preferred city life and moved to Shfaram rather than stay and work the land. That left the original Samri brothers and their two friends. Today their descendants populate Ras Ali in three family groups: the Samris, Hanafis and Naamis.

The land they purchased included a hill and surrounding lowlands that reached to Zippori River. They divided the land into three categories: private land for farming that was divided into plots, each plot registered in the names of each of the original members of the settlement, private land for housing that was also registered in the names of each of the original members of the community, and collectively owned land that was to be used by all members of the settlement for grazing. They established themselves as a collective – and set up the Ras Ali Collective Farming Association to manage their affairs.

Ras Ali and the State of Israel

When the War of Independence broke out between the Jews and the Arabs, the people of Ras Ali aligned themselves with the Jews. Arabs came to Ras Ali to take army-aged men off to become soldiers and join their fight against the Jews; those that could run away, did. Those who were unable to escape were either killed or held captive in the old flour mill located at the entrance to the town.

Without male protection, the women of the village were vulnerable, firstly, for the simple fact that they were women and also because of the gold jewelry they customarily wore and the herds they now tended themselves. The Jewish defense forces in the region surrounded the town and protected the women from violence and robbery.

At the end of the war, the men who had escaped walked all the way back home, some from as far away as Jordan.

Ras Ali’s Land Problem

When the British had taken over the land from the Ottomans after World War I, they took their own census data and verified land ownership. They dutifully recorded the privately owned land that was bequeathable to the next generation. However, the pastureland that had not been divvied up and was registered to the collective as opposed to individuals was deemed by the British to be public land and they took it over, public land that was then passed on to the Israeli National Land Authority (ILA) when the modern State of Israel was declared.

There now exists the absurd situation in which land that had originally been purchased by Ras Ali founders was declared state land. Every once in a while the ILA opens a bid offering a number of plots for sale, giving town residents the “opportunity” to buy land they already own.

What impressed me most was that I was unable to detect any sign of bitterness as Nimer told me of this injustice, in spite of the fact that land is badly needed for their growing population.

Villagers find themselves in a “Catch 22” – they need land to have room to build homes for their sons who traditionally bring their wives to live next to their families. When there is insufficient land to construct a new house next to the parental home, Arabs generally build upward, adding new floors to accommodate the new couples, a floor for each son. In Ras Ali, however, regional planning codes do not allow for the additional floor area necessary to add new floors to existing homes and, at the same time, there is insufficient land on which to build new houses. Therefore, they do the only thing they feel they can do – they build the additional floors in contravention to the building code.

Ras Ali homes

More than one family is facing fines for illegal construction and one man is sitting in jail.

Nimer told me that the ILA, unfairly and not always with advance notice, puts up for sale a small number of plots in bids spaced years apart and keeps the bid open for too short a time for families to be able to organize the money required to (re-)purchase their land. Furthermore, the ILA may open the bid to potential buyers who are unrelated to the villagers. Nimer showed me a letter sent recently to the relevant government bodies requesting that the bids be closed to outsiders in order to help the town maintain its special character. He proudly told me about the positive working relationship Ras Ali has with the Zvulun Council in this and other matters.

Nimer did not sound angry even though I am sure he must be at least a little bit angry. He sounded matter-of-fact: there is a problem and one goes about finding a way to solve it. He uses his mind and his diplomatic skills rather than letting emotion get in the way of coping. I have no doubt that this attitude is what facilitates his ability to rally the regional council to help deal with the bureaucracy of the ILA.

I suppose that it is these same skills and attitude that has seen Ras Ali acquire the investment funds and support of Zvulun Regional Council to turn the formerly unassociated village into the pearl that it is becoming.

Ras Ali Joined Zvulun Regional Council Only Five Years Ago

Ras Ali was recognized as a legal Arab town in 1979. For decades the town tried to get itself “adopted” by any one of the regional councils in the general geographical area. None agreed in spite of friendly personal relationships. As a seriously under-developed community, the expenses involved in modernizing the town were more than any council wished to take on. Finally, about five years ago, the Ministry of the Interior decided that the town belonged to Zvulun Regional Council and left no possibility for objection. Thus Ras Ali became the third Arab town to join the other ten communities comprising Zvulun.

Since that moment, its development has taken off at an unbelievable and enviable pace. I am in awe of what they have accomplished in such a short time.

Canadian born, I am old enough to remember the ice truck coming around the streets of my Toronto neighbourhood in the summers, streets that had no sidewalks, and to fondly recall how we kids played ball in the road until the sun went down. And I arrived in Israel early enough to remember standing in line to make a phone call at the pay-phone at the corner, it taking five years or more to get a phone in one’s home; I remember the lack of air conditioners, the total absence of malls, and the poor roads. But Ras Ali residents far younger than me grew up without electricity or running water.

One man told me how, during his childhood, meat had to be eaten on the day the goat was slaughtered, how watermelons could be kept cool for a time submerged in the Zippori River, how water was drawn from a well and carried home on donkeys to be kept in a water tank next to the house. Sewage? I dared not ask. At some point, they began using refrigerators that ran on gas. Buses never came anywhere near Ras Ali.

Nimer does not know when villagers left their Bedouin tents for more permanent forms of housing, if one can call the home he grew up in a permanent form of housing: it was made from corrugated metal sheets. In the summer, the heat would be unbearable and in the winter impossible to warm. The sound of rain on the roof would have been almost deafening at times. Married young, he began building his own house of cement blocks in 1974. Like most villagers, his house was built in stages, each stage determined by the amount of money he had saved.

Nimer and others told me that once they folded up their tents for good and settled in one place, they ceased being Bedouin. The younger generation don’t know what it means to be Bedouin. Therefore, the Bedouin visitors’ center that Ishmael Khaldi wants to set up in Khawaled is a way for the Bedouin to respect their own roots and preserve knowledge of their traditions.

Ras Ali Development

During the years 1975-1981, infrastructure began to be set down for water, electricity and telephone lines. The town’s people had to take care of organizing this all on their own. The Association always had good relations with the government, and funds for infrastructure, over an above what residents were able to contribute, were provided by the government. Various ministries deposited funds into the Ras Ali Association bank account and trusted the collective to use the monies as earmarked for roads, education, etc.

And now, after having joined Zvulun, they have a willing partner in their development. For example, a sewage system that cost over 4.5 million shekels has been installed; 50% of this cost was covered by a government grant, the remainder a loan to the collective to be repaid by the residents. Nimer, with his positive relations with the Zvulun Council worked out an arrangement whereby the Council covered 10% of the cost, leaving the residents to pay the remaining 40% rather than 50%. That comprises a substantial and appreciated contribution to the community. Some unfinished business remains regarding management of hydro payments and I have no doubt that Nimer and the Zvulun Council will find a way to resolve their differences.

There is a community center with activities for the elderly, young children and youth. The new elementary school is modern and fully equipped. A road encircling the residential area is in the process of being built and buses will soon facilitate transportation to and from town for those who do not drive. Funnily enough, Nimer is taking care of everyone in town but himself and I wonder if his wife nags him at all to get the road to his own house paved properly. Somehow I think he just smiles and goes about his business making sure the rest of the town is brought up to modern standards.

Nimer told me that he is working with Zvulun Council to set up a medical clinic in town. Currently, residents can go to Khawaled to see a doctor but that clinic operates only three times a week for two hours each time. Therefore many residents go to the doctor and dentist in Shfaram and while they are there, they take advantage of other services not available in town, such as the post office, banks, and shopping.

Tourism in Ras Ali

Part of The Israel Trail wraps around the lower section of town along the river. People park their cars near the entrance to town and walk in from there; others come down the hills from a trail point in Nofit, a nearby Jewish town that is also part of the Zvulun Regional Council. Residents of Ras Ali noticed that there were potential problems with security in the parking area and they arranged to have the border police patrol the area, mainly on Fridays and Saturdays when the trail is most frequented.

Nimer told me that design plans for Ras Ali include a hotel with up to 20 rooms and guest houses. Nothing seems to be on the horizon just yet, however.

Who Are the Residents of Ras Ali?

My impression of Ras Ali is that people here like to smile. They are proud of their town, proud of their clan, proud of their participation in the life of their country. The people I met liked to talk about the history of Ras Ali and about their lives.

Among the residents are doctors, pharmacists, engineers, teachers, psychologists and more. Many have participated in security professions, beginning in the army and working their way up the ranks, some quite far up. After the regular army service, a number have joined the police force and worked their way up the ranks there as well. There are even a number of female residents who are in the police force.

I have only spoken with Nimer and other residents of Ras Ali a few times. Each time I hear a new story. I think it would take quite a few more visits for them to run out of new stories to tell me. And given how welcoming they are, I just might end up hearing many many more tales from Ras Ali.

As I drove slowly down the hill toward the main street leading out of Ras Ali, kids moved quickly to the side of the road out of my way and roosters crowed along with their laughs. I kept my car windows open for a while as the cool late afternoon breeze and the quiet enveloped me.

Ras Ali mosque

Just as I left Ras Ali, I heard the muezzin – it did not blare as in some places in Israel, out of consideration for Nofit, the Jewish town within hearing range. Its quietly rising and dipping tones seemed to mimic the rolling hills among which the town is situated. I finally closed my windows, shutting out the rest of the call to prayer along with the humid air of the lower elevation, and turned right onto the road leading home to Haifa, still energized and smiling from my meeting with Nimer.

This was originally published on Israel Diaries.

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