The Bedouins of Al-Sayyid have something to say. And it doesn’t involve talking.
Al-Sayyid is one of the only towns in the world to have developed its own language, independent of neighboring tongues. With a rate of deafness 50 times the norm, community members have a recessive gene for profound deafness traceable to one of the town’s founding couples.
Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a new form of communication that has developed in the last 70 years. Created by members of the Al-Sayyid community– 3,500 people based in the southern Negev– to cope with its inherent deafness, ABSL is noted for its complex grammatical structure and sophisticated linguistic patterns.
Margalit Fox, author of Talking Hands, notes the necessary conditions for the creation of a “signing village:” an inherited gene for deafness that can be passed through a large population quickly (via polygamy and the marriage of cousins or other close relatives). These conditions are present in force in Al-Sayyid.
Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language has been highlighted by linguists for the following reasons:
- It is one of the few languages to arise without an outside influence. ABSL is not based on the Arab or Hebrew patterns of the surrounding languages, but has a unique grammatical and linguistic structure (Science Daily)
- Linguists look to ABSL to give them clues about how languages originated. Prof. Carol Padden of UC-San Diego remarks: “Because ABSL developed independently, it may reflect fundamental properties of language in general and provide insight into basic questions about the way in which human language develops from the very beginning.” (ibid)
- In its third generation, ABSL presents a strong model for linguistic study in helping to understand how languages are formed and developed
Other Famous Signing Languages Are:
- Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (now extinct)
- Nicaraguan Sign Language (developed in the 1970s by children)
- Adamorobe Sign Language of Ghana
- Yucatec Maya Sign Language, noted in villages with high percentage of deaf residents
- Kata Kolok Village of Bali, with a high ratio of deaf to hearing residents
All of these languages are considered indigenous and are independent of their countries’ national spoken or signed languages.
The Future of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
Presently, researchers are concerned for the wellbeing of ABSL as an independent entity. As children are schooled outside of their community, there is a fear that other, more standardized sign languages will encroach and corrupt ABSL.
While such exposure seems inevitable given the numbers of residents in Al-Sayyid compared to the national deaf population, we can only hope that the interaction between ABSL and Hebrew and Jordanian Sign Language promotes integration and development rather than destruction.
Personal Encounters with Deaf Culture
I have had two encounters with deaf communities in my life that have influenced my thinking on deaf culture.
I went to college in a town with a very high deaf population. One evening, I was dining with friends in a popular restaurant when the wait staff began setting up for a party of 30 people right next to us. We had been promised a quiet meal and were annoyed to be disturbed.
The newcomers soon arrived. They were animated, but silent, their hands and facial expressions doing the talking. Conversations ricocheted across the room. As long as you held someone’s eye contact, you could have a conversation from 10 feet away. The table was a flurry of motion. Even the babies and young children, who were hearing, had adapted and learned to gain their deaf parents’ attention through movement and other visual signs.
Last year I was sitting in a cafe in Be’er Sheva when small groups of Arab men began to enter. Initially, it was a bit unsettling as Bedouin men do not usually travel in groups or frequent cafes, but it quickly became obvious that it was a planned social gathering of the deaf community. Soon conversations began to fly and men were talking with their hands to each other across the room. The cafe took on a party atmosphere, despite the fact that it was completely silent. (It later became clear to me that these were members of the Al-Sayyid community.)
Conclusion: How Al-Sayyid Relates to Israel & Jewish Philanthropy
Why do I consider the town of Al-Sayyid and its creation of a unique brand of sign language relevant to a journal on Jewish philanthropy, Israel, and giving in the Jewish world? Because Israel is a rich and diverse land whose inhabitants, with all of their cultures and variations, deserve to be recognized as part of the nation.
I hope that this entry has interested you and educated you about a little known aspect of Israeli life.
Photo Credit: Science Daily (see link above). Subject: An Al-Sayyid storyteller.