The following short essay is based on the author’s encounters with Bedouin Sheikh Ahmad and on thoughts stemming from the reading of two books: Richard Sennett’s “Authority” (1980) and Manfred Kets de Vries’s “Leaders, fools and impostors” (2003).
Azayyim, March 2009.
Sheikh Ahmad just finished a Sulha over the theft of some bronze utensils by a member of one of the Bedouin families, from the local church that was taken care of by a Christian organization. This incident could have resulted in a longstanding dispute between the Bedouin community and the local Palestinians, but was solved peacefully. The Sulha was the end of a process of negotiation, and attended by representatives from the organization and from the Bedouin families, including the whole council of families. Altogether there were about sixty men. Sheikh Ahmad functioned as mediator. To add force behind the need to solve the issue, he had brought along his heavy-built friend and helper, Ali. The different parties sat together and finalized the agreement. The representatives of the organization had threatened to go to the police, something perceived as especially shameful for the Bedouin community. Therefore, the family was eager to return the utensils. Eventually, an agreement was signed in which a large sum of money would be given to the church in case a similar incident would repeat itself. They drank coffee and as part of the arrangement, the guests were served a feast, paid for by the alleged suspect.
In the Yehuda desert near Jerusalem live about 22.000 Bedouins, together with other Palestinian Arabs, dispersed among several villages. These Bedouins belong to eleven extended families. The Sheikh takes a leadership role in the community. He functions as police officer, mediator and judge in conflicts between families. He is the one people come to consult with, not only Bedouins. The function of Sheikh is since short an elective function. There are circa 3.000 Bedouins with voting rights, all men between 18-50 years old. The members of the families elect each their representative for the council of families. The two weakest families (as based on their property, wealth, level of education, size and other aspects of status) do not have their own representative, whereas the two strongest families have two representatives each. The council then chooses among itself the next Sheikh. The task of the council members is to support the Sheikh and to solve issues that occur within their own family. The Sheikh and the council stay in office for two years. The Sheikh receives a modest salary from the Palestinian Authority, which is barely enough to cover the basic costs of living.
In the first elections, in 2008, about 1.200 men participated; they elected a council of 11. The council nominated a woman, to consult with on women-affairs. This was perceived as a very progressive step in the community. However, for the sake of family honor, this woman cannot participate in the council’s gatherings. Ahmad is one of the representatives of the strongest families, which had put him in a good position to be elected Sheikh. He also is one of the few representatives on the council who speaks both Hebrew and some English, besides Arabic, and who is acquainted with the world of computers. More than that, Ahmad has a strong sense of justness and knows what’s good for you.
Jerusalem, February 2009.
While I was taking something out of the refrigerator, Ahmad suddenly turned to me and asked to hit him. Though quite astonished, I gave him a soft punch on the chest. We then sat down and he explained that he believes I need to learn how to beat up people. When he found out that I never physically attacked anyone in my whole life, he was surprised. He said he had attacked about a hundred men, many of them being people in power, like the school principle and an Israeli police officer. Many of those people he had beaten up still give him honor. He added that I would not necessarily have to use my power, but that I need to know I can use it if I want. Although I was initially appalled by the idea, I had a strong feeling that he was right. He had touched a sensitive spot concerning my lack of self-protection, which is not that obvious because of my rather self-confident appearance. On several occasions in my life, I had paid a price for my tendency to withdraw when attacked. Actually, forty years before, at age five, my father had instructed me similarly to hit him. He had done so in order to teach me, since other children would bully me and instead of negating them, I would withdraw. Soon after, I had my first lesson.
Both Sennett and Kets de Vries relate to the characteristics of leaders. Kets de Vries refers to the negative effects of childhood injuries. Ahmad, now 35 and rather young to be a Sheikh, grew up in a desert tent as one of ten children of illiterate parents. For him life was – and to some extent still is – a fight, but he keeps on going strong. Sennett writes about reconceiving authority through personal authority, letting go of the position of victim, and disengagement. Ahmad exhibits all three characteristics. Ahmad throughout his youth took care of the sheep, with a clear sense of direction. In between, he walked for hours to go to school. He made it to university and became a strong student leader. He was arrested many times for crossing borders – in more than one sense of the word – and more than once put in an Israeli prison for his activities. He also won prizes as an amateur boxer. People feared his aggression. In recent years – as he said – he “cooled down”. He married and is the proud father of two small boys. He presently studies for a Masters degree in Political Science. Actually, he has the highest education in his whole family (circa 1000 people), after his older brother who received a Ph.D.. With this personal history, Ahmad is able to level with an immense variety of people. All these factors heightened his status in the Bedouin community. In spite of the enormous toll paid by the Israeli occupation, which keeps him from moving around freely and earning a decent living, he never adopted the role of victim. He does not fear. Moreover, the Bedouin community is a tight family oriented community. Through his personal capacities, Ahmad succeeded in disentangling himself from the huge family pressures, common in this kind of communities, and does things in his way.
Sennett writes about “paternalism, the authority without love” and Kets de Vries about “narcissism and the exercise of power”. The leadership of the Sheikh is paternalistic. He acts like a father towards those who are not his children in order to promote their wellbeing or protect them from harm. He is both police officer and judge and he may use his personal charms, superior intelligence, higher education and good human insight as well as his physical power, in order to get things done his way. It is obvious that Sheikh Ahmad portrays narcissistic characteristics and that he does not always take into account different needs of those he takes care of. Then, what differentiates him from the overly narcissistic leader? The answer is unambiguous. He is humble, and for example does not like to be called Sheikh. He also returned his salary to the community, despite the fact that he himself hardly gets along financially. He is grateful and thanks others for what they do for him. He admits his faults when confronted, and he feels guilt about wrong decisions he made. So, is this paternalism with false love? I doubt it; his narcissism seems of a healthy kind. He genuinely cares about people.
However, Ahmad feels disappointed. The standard of living in Azayyim is very low, and he is severely limited in his freedom, because of the Israeli occupation. He also has second thoughts regarding the position of Sheikh. He expected to advance the community, and assist in the development of educational and community projects, but finds himself mostly dealing with petty crime and sex offenses. Not surprisingly, he dreams of a world with more opportunities, of continuing education, of traveling to foreign places, and of living in the United States.
Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (2003) Leaders, Fools and Impostors. iUniverse, Inc.
Sennett, R. (1980) Authority. New York: Knopf Pub.