Village where signing is lingua franca focus of Israeli documentary Voices from El-Sayed

'Voices from El-Sayed', photo:

The film Voices from El-Sayed, currently being shown in the One World festival, focuses on a Bedouin village in the Negev desert in Israel which has the highest concentration of deaf people in the world. Over the generations a unique sign language has evolved in El-Sayed, where deafness is so common it is not regarded as a handicap. The film’s director Oded Adomi Leshem told me why so many people in the village are deaf.

“It’s a genetic deafness. Sheik El-Sayed, who was the founder of the village, came to the Negev desert 200 years ago and he was deaf. And the many sons that he had were deaf and this continued on in the tribe.”

What is distinctive about the sign language of the people in El-Sayed?

“It’s just a different sign language that evolved during the many generations that deaf people were living in this village. So it’s completely different from Israeli sign language, which is completely from Czech sign language or from French sign language – they’re all different languages.”

Is it the case that even the people who aren’t deaf who live there also speak sign language?

“Yes, everyone in the village speaks sign language. It’s a harmonious way of looking at people who are a little bit different from us. We the so-called advance western people sometimes distinguish ourselves from for instance deaf people. But in El-Sayed, even though it’s a traditional kind of society, they really look equally upon their deaf people and there is just a harmonious way of living.”

What is the standing of Bedouins in Israel?

“Bedouins in Israel are citizens of the country, but unfortunately they are a little bit forgotten and neglected. They live in the secluded Negev desert and don’t get the same equal rights as other citizens of Israel. In the movie we see how they live, they live in unrecognised villages, meaning they don’t have electricity, they don’t have running water, they don’t have paved roads or a postal service or telephone infrastructure. So they live in a pretty bad situation.’

That leads me to my final question – how much are they connected to the modern world, or influenced by the modern world?

“It depends. In every society nowadays there is an influence…most Bedouins are in contact with other Israelis and work with them. Still when you come to a Bedouin village it has the traditional side…these people have cell phones, they have cars, they are not way back two centuries ago. I would say they are connected with the modern world but still the situation in Israel, just the way government treats their situation, with neglect, is the awkward thing about it. That’s what leaves them behind, that they don’t have electricity.”

The One World festival of human rights documentaries runs in Prague until this coming Thursday, before moving on to 29 other cities and towns in the Czech Republic.