Beersheba’s Big Mosque: An Empty History
By: Charlotte Silver
Published Wednesday, April 11, 2012
The Big Mosque in Beersheba, off limits to worshipers since 1948, was converted by an Israeli court decision last year into a museum. The first exhibit at the mosque presents a photographic history of the city that omits the most important element of the city – its people.
“There are no Muslims in Beersheba,” said the woman standing at the entrance of the city’s big Mosque.
The woman is employed to oversee an exhibition entitled, “The History of Beersheba, 1900-2011,” installed in the prayer hall of the mosque.
The Big Mosque is Beersheba’s only mosque – but no prayer has taken place there since 1948, despite the fact that the city is home to approximately 8,000 Muslims.
The mosque was built in 1906 by the Ottomans with the support of powerful local Bedouin tribes in the Negev.
Apart from a few trinkets and old rifles, the exhibition consists of a timeline created by a series of photographs that begin in 1900, the year Beersheba was “established” by the Ottoman Empire.
Of course the city’s history began long before the empire laid the groundwork for its first stone buildings.
Beersheba – the Hebraized name of the Arabic Bir al-Sabah – translates to English as “the well of the seven.” This is in reference to the city’s location which allows for easy access to underground aquifers that flow from the Hebron hills. This ready supply of water has been used in agricultural operations for millennia.
But the photographic timeline begins when it does because 1900 signifies something important. It marks the beginning of the efforts to “tame” the largely Bedouin Negev by the external governing power – whether Ottoman, British, or Israeli.
The Bedouin culture was one of Nomadic tribes that subsisted on – among other things – unregulated trade across borders. As the Ottoman’s borders with Egypt were threatened by British conquest at the end of the 19th century, the need arose for the fledgling empire to assert its authority.
The Ottomans wished to integrate the Bedouin population into their government by permanently settling the transient residents near the Egyptian border and ensuring their loyalty to the empire. The government purchased 480 acres of Beersheba from the al-Azazma clan, a powerful tribe in the area, and encouraged others to also settle there by offering them modest land grants.
The exhibit tells a tale of “progress.”
The first photographs show Bedouins living in tents greeting Turks riding in on horseback.
And from that moment, so tells the photo exhibit, the process of development is launched. Impressive school buildings for boys and girls appear. British doctors introduced modern medicine and in 1910 the city’s first printing press arrives.
In less than two decades, the area transforms from a bare desert to a flourishing metropolis with landscaped gardens, railway stations, and modern buildings.
The exhibit’s chronicle of the city depicts a linear march toward modernity, portraying the transitions from Ottoman to British to Israeli control as seamless. The main subject of this exhibit is the city – its buildings and institutions – portrayed as an eternal hero. Its inhabitants are inconsequential, if not inhibitors of the city’s progress.
What has developed in Beersheba since 1900 are buildings, restaurants, governmental, and cultural institutions. This is a progress whose roots supplanted those of the indigenous people.
There are other stories to tell about Beersheba since 1900. Poverty rates among the Bedouins began to rise when the British took over after World War I.
Estimations of how many Bedouins were expelled from the Negev during Israel’s 1948 conquest of the land vary slightly – but only 12 to 16 percent of the original population remained.
“There are no Muslims in Beersheba,” the woman tells me before I enter the prayer halls of the mosque, with my shoes on and my hair down, something normally forbidden.
Today 31 percent of the Negev’s population is Palestinian Bedouin – around 192,000 – now citizens of the State of Israel. Approximately 80,000 of them live in “unrecognized” villages, meaning they are denied basic services such as water, electricity, and education.
The legal battle to revive Beersheba’s Big Mosque as a place of worship began in 2001 and ended last June in the Israeli Supreme Court with a decision that deeply disappointed the Muslim residents. The mosque would remain off limits to prayer, but would be converted into a museum of Islamic culture (as opposed to a general museum). The municipality – which fought hard against the court’s decision – has apparently disregarded the ruling.
Nuri al-Uqbi walks around the exhibit and stops in front of a plastic mannequin clad in British army fatigues with a rifle strapped around his shoulder. He claps his hands together, “This should be only for prayer!”
Nuri, age 70, comes from the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Araqib, but now lives in Lodd where he works as an auto mechanic.
Both his father and grandfather came to the Big Mosque to pray before the 1948 Nakba.
Nuri has been fighting for the right to use the mosque for what it was built for decades ago. Nuri remembers when he came in 1974 with 12 others to the locked-down mosque to challenge the city’s prohibition against prayer there. Police found out that they had come to pray in the mosque and hauled them off to the city jailhouse.
In March 2000, Nuri wrote on the mosque’s door “This is the mosque of Beersheba.” That act got him arrested. His court case dragged on for the next five years, at the end of which he was told to pay 1000 Israeli Shekels (US$270) and spend seven days in prison for vandalism.
“There are no Muslims in Beersheba.”
A few kilometers away from the mosque is Beersheba’s souk. It is a maze of rectangular stalls with vendors selling everything from fruit to children’s toys. It’s the main trading post used by the Negev’s Arabs who come to Beersheba for their shopping, work and errands.
One man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has rented out two stalls to create a space for the city’s Muslim citizens to pray. He removed the wall that separates the two compartments and laid down deep pink prayer rugs in a space that is no larger than 2 meters wide and 4 meters long.
Five times a day, an imam comes here to conduct the azan (call to prayer) in a city that is emptied of any working minaret.
There are many Muslims in Beersheba, they just have no place to worship.
The hidden story told between the images is one of a continuous expulsion. As Nuri walks through the exhibit, carefully studying the photographs as he has done several times before, he is told very clearly that maybe he is part of Beersheba’s past – but not its future.