It’s a beautiful story about a Bedouin tribe’s honour and a very unique, ancient ritual that is practiced by the Bedouin, the Ordeal by Fire. It is one of those rare cases where a Bedouin writes about their own culture, not an outsider: the story is told by the son of the Sheikh whose tribe was involved in the case. The son, Salim Alafenisch, went on to study in Europe, and now lives and works in Germany. Unfortunately his books, including this one about the Fire Test, are only available in German, but here is the story in a few words.
The story starts in the Negev desert, before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In an area that was peaceful at the time someone gets shot and killed near the place the tribe of Salim lived. The footprints of the perpetrator were tracked by specialists from an independent tribe, who confirmed they didn’t lead to Salim’s settlement. Despite this, the victim’s tribe accuses Salim’s tribe of murder and want revenge. To keep the peace the Israeli authorities order the sheikh, Salim’s father, their family and some other leaders of the tribe to leave until they can find some agreement between the two tribes. Until then they have to live in exile on a third, neutral tribe’s land. After many months and many meetings involving moderators, the two tribes agree they will settle the case at the Bisha, the Ordeal by Fire. It is a ritual practiced by the Bedouin in the Negev and Sinai to prove someone’s guilt or innocence by making them lick a red-hot metal spoon three times. If the accused burns his tongue, he is guilty, if he doesn’t, he is innocent. But only a few people can perform the Bisha, the knowledge and position is passed from father to son. Only in Jordan and Egypt they know of someone, but wars break out and travel becomes impossible. The Sheikh, Salim and the others can move back to their village, but the relation with the other tribe is still tense, and will remain so until the sheikh of the Bisha announces the verdict. But they have to wait more than 10 years for this to happen. Finally the accused and accusing parties get all paper work, passports, visas, and meet in the hut of the Bisha in Egypt. Salim’s tribe is cleared in the ritual, and this is a verdict all parties have to accept – from now on no one is allowed to question their innocence. They return home and throw a big feast, and relations with the other tribe again become normal. The story doesn’t end here, there is another big jump in time. Now, Salim as an academic, returns to the family of the Bisha and stays with them for a while to research this ritual that survives to this day under the surface of modernity.
About Salim Alafenisch
Alafenisch is the son of a Bedouin sheikh, who spent his childhood as a camel herder. He learned to read and write himself and went to high-school in Nazareth, then he studied sociology, anthropology and psychology in London, UK, and Heidelberg, Germany. Alafenisch now lives as a freelance writer and storyteller in Heidelberg.
The themes of Alafenischs are derived from his own experiences and his life story. He writes about the encounter between modernity and tradition, as well as about the daily life of the nomads in the present. He draws from a rich oral storytelling tradition, which he has learned as a child in the tent of his father around the nightly campfire with other Bedouin.
Books by Salim Alafenisch on Amazon (de).
More information about the Ordeal by Fire.