Smadar Lavie, The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule (California, 1990).

The era of the nation-state has increasingly put into question pastoral nomadism as a way of life and as a distinctive cultural identity. In Saudi Arabia, Bedouin pastoralists have become ranchers who transport their herds to pasture in Toyota pickups. Jordanian Bedouin preserve their identity by soldiering for the Hashemite monarchy. The Bedouin may be central to the nationalist ideologies of states like Libya, but the free herders and warriors of the desert, always something of an idealization, belong to an ever more remote mythical past.

The Mzeini Bedouin of the South Sinai, the subject of Smadar Lavie’s lively and engaging ethnographic study, were long able to preserve a relatively integrated sense of distinctive identity due to their remoteness from centers of state power and economic development. Even after the Egyptian government was spurred by the 1956 Suez war to begin exploiting the Sinai’s mineral and oil resources and its strategic location, the new development projects offered the Mzeina only sporadic waged work. Instead, many Mzeinis turned to hashish smuggling, a profitable occupation which fit a migratory lifestyle.

Israel’s occupation of the Sinai in 1967 abruptly ended Mzeini isolation and profoundly disrupted their culture. Although Israel’s economic development of the Sinai was limited, it offered ample waged work to the Mzeinis, while military occupation eliminated narcotics smuggling as an option. The Mzeini homeland became a favored haunt for Israeli hikers and nature buffs as well as for Western counter-cultural tourists, for whom the Sinai’s pristine beaches offered a refuge from the drudgery of industrial life and a perfect site for nude sunbathing.

It was into this overdetermined political-cultural minefield that Israeli anthropologist Smadar Lavie ventured in 1975 and stayed until 1979. She visited the Mzeina again several times between 1981 and 1988 while earning her doctorate in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lavie’s account deals chiefly with the dilemmas and contradictions that Israeli occupation posed to the Mzeinis’ daily life and sense of identity. While they could make money off the influx of hippie tourists, they had to endure the visitors’ use of them as an exotic backdrop for their brazen nudity and public copulation. Although Mzeini ideology is strongly patriarchal, Mzeini men frequently worked away from home, leaving Mzeini women to head households and perform public, even official, functions. Mzeini sheikhs, the official tribal representatives, were appointed by the Israelis and had no real administrative power. “Whereas the Bedouin are nomads, the Mzeina are laborers (al-badu rahhalin wa al-muzayna shaghghalin),” one Mzeina wryly put it.

When such contradictions of life under occupation came up in Mzeinis’ everyday conversation, the talk broke down into awkward silence or uncontrollable anger. At such moments, particular individuals might rise to the occasion and spontaneously enact stories of their personal experiences that commented on the Mzeini situation. The mundane stories they told on such non-ritualized occasions, Lavie writes, were allegories of Mzeini identity.

Why allegory? Lavie draws skillfully on recent moves by literary theorists to revive long-discredited literary techniques held in disfavor since the romanticists toppled allegory in favor of the symbol. Unlike the symbol, which emphasized unity, wholeness and totality, allegory points to disintegration, hybridity and impermanence. [1] Allegory typically fixes on the fragment and the ruin, which signify the inevitability of decay in opposition to modernist conceptions of “progress.” It rescues that fragment for the present, using it to demonstrate the mutability of the established order.

The Mzeina often used such allegories to show that the “progress” heralded by the Israeli occupation did not necessarily doom them. For instance, there is Lavie’s own story of how she was sent off one day to the middle of nowhere by a Mzeini “fool” who was venting his anger about the Camp David accord on the nearest Israeli. After spending a night alone without food, she encountered a Mzeini woman who guided her to a Mzeini settlement. Lavie recounted this allegory at moments when Mzeinis were arguing over whether they remained true to their custom of hospitality — a tradition under great stress due to the influx of “guests” who ruled over and employed them. Her tale affirms that despite her misadventure, the code of hospitality, and by implication Mzeini identity, remained tenuously but situationally intact.

Mzeini allegories, Lavie argues, also provided demonstrations of how Mzeina were able to cope with and even exploit the quotidian contradictions inherent in the occupation. An old woman (‘ajuza) tells of an Israeli minister who came looking for a pedigreed saluki puppy (a renowned fast-running desert breed that resembles a greyhound). She promises to get the minister his saluki if he will give the Mzeina empty fuel barrels discarded by the Israeli army, which Mzeinis were frequently jailed for using as storage bins. Other Mzeini allegories mock the ways of the occupier and the hippie tourists, whom the Mzeina call batanka (“beatniks”), a word they believe derives from the Arabic naka, “to fuck.” Their sarcastic tales, at once biting and hilarious, poke fun at Israeli rock musicians who sing for peace on occupied land, the Israeli nature lovers who “protect” the land by forbidding traditional Mzeini practices like gathering bushes for firewood, and the hippies who buy the Mzeinis’ green tobacco in the belief that it is marijuana.

While many allegories ridicule occupiers and outsiders, some are equally self-critical. They reconstitute an identity for the Mzeina that is never completed, one that is situational rather than based on a notion of timeless Mzeini essence. For Mzeini existence necessarily involves delicate negotiation of conditions not in their control and often requires compromises with their own tradition.

In accord with the best in recent reflexive trends in anthropology, Lavie self-consciously works against the Western scholarly tradition of objectivizing “the Other” by incorporating her own persona and experiences into the text. Her self, she asserts, is divided between the academic who meticulously records and analyzes Mzeini daily events, and the self who experiences and participates in Mzeini life. She feels equally split between the Ashkenazi European heritage of her father and the Yemeni Arab-Jewish heritage of her mother, a split which works against stereotypes of Israelis as being simply European-Western. These internal contradictions are ably staged throughout the book.

Lavie also attempts to overcome the perils of objectifying the Other by carefully transcribing their own words, by “letting them speak.” Yet she takes care to inform us that she is not simply the innocent relay for the Mzeina. She takes responsibility as the one who chooses which Mzeini lines to relate. Nonetheless, through her scrupulous account, the Mzeini voices speak back to “us” as Western readers who are complicit in the webs of tourism, development projects, occupation and alienating academic discourse that continue to dominate the Mzeina. And Lavie is sufficiently ambivalent about the pressures that disciplinary expectations put on her own writing to record the reaction of “Hajj X” to an academic “explanation” that she appended to a story about his smuggling that they co-authored.

“Why did you finish this part of the story with so much khantarish [bullshit] that sounds just like the lessons in Islam that come from the transistor radio?”
“Well, [the anthropologist replies] this is how we tell stories in my work.”
“You and your work…and the university…. Since Israel occupied these lands I’ve seen so many people from universities — collecting stones, plants, mice, rain, even hyena dung…. God! You make me laugh!”

Lavie’s book often makes us laugh as well, but our chuckles are often discomfiting when we are the targets of the joke. In the best Brechtian tradition, Lavie’s account and the Mzeini allegories she recounts are in turns entertaining and thought-provoking, hilarious and provocative. The arabesque twists of the allegories and the analysis enjoin the reader to make his or her own interpretations, as the best allegory should.

Occasionally, one feels that Lavie’s analysis of the Mzeinis’ tales tends toward closure and definitive interpretation, particularly in her insistence that the allegories are about “identity.” This may be due to academic expectations that a writer make conclusive judgments, but surely it violates the allegorical impulse toward fragmentation, discontinuity and openness. Lavie’s use of literary criticism on allegory is, on the whole, skillful and innovative, yet at a few points her definitions are self-contradictory and confusing. She states at points that allegory is “transcendent” and forms a “consistent whole,” which certainly does not reflect the view of critics Paul de Man and Walter Benjamin, whom she cites, nor does it accord with her own deployment of allegory, which usually emphasizes its contingency. Moreover, one would like to know more about the precise nature of allegory in this particular situation. How does one “translate” a literary technique with a long history in Western criticism into a mode of storytelling specific to Bedouin of the Sinai?

Another concern is Lavie’s use of the term “occupation” to describe both Israeli and Egyptian rule over the Mzeina. She makes clear that the Mzeina themselves perceive the Israelis and Egyptians as alien occupiers, yet one would like to see the differences between those “occupations” more fully fleshed out. Egyptian rule is basically incorporative in the sense that it aims to make the Mzeina into full Egyptian nationals. This policy would tend, ultimately, to undermine radically the bases of the Mzeinis’ separate and distinct Bedouin identity. As Lavie shows, it is unlikely that the Egyptian government policies of national development will demonstrate the same concern for the natural environment of the Sinai that the Israeli regime could afford to show. But Israeli occupation never aimed to incorporate the Mzeinis as Israeli citizens. While it was more immediately interventionist and disruptive of Mzeina life than Egyptian rule, Israeli occupation paradoxically represented an attempt to “preserve” the Mzeina and their land as a kind of “reservation” for the “primitives” who, many Israelis believe, are the ancestors of the Hebrews.

These are minor quibbles with a spirited, engaged and fascinating account of a people doing their best to maintain their integrity with humor and perseverance under conditions of relative powerlessness. Lavie aligns herself with the Mzeina in order to make us consider our own implications in the forces of military occupation, intrusive tourism and academic objectification.

The humor of her account is therefore laced with the melancholy typical of allegory, melancholy that seizes one who surveys the ruin. Lavie concludes with an account of a Mzeina who worked as a Bedouin “extra” in the movie Ashanti, filmed in the Sinai in 1978. He complained to Lavie that his poverty had forced him to play the part of a slave trader when, as he observed, “We are the real slaves!” and that he had to wear uncomfortable Tuareg clothes, imported from France, in order to accord with the director’s vision of what authentic Bedouin were supposed to look like. “So why did you do it?” Lavie asked. “If my only other choice,” the Mzeina replies, “is to wash dishes and clean toilets and streets for these people, I’d rather be in their movies. At least I get to be some kind of Bedouin.”


[1] The late critic Craig Owens has argued that the impulse to allegory is a quintessential characteristic of postmodernist art. “The Allegorical Impulse,” October 12 (Spring 1980) and 13 (Summer 1980).

How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg "Lavie, The Poetics of Military Occupation," Middle East Report 178 (September/October 1992).

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