By Sheri Oz
The place: Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel, notorious for clan wars, crime and poverty. The event: The fourth snnual Rahat Race.
The City of Rahat invited Jews and Arabs from around Israel to a racing event last Friday, June 10. Due to the violence, many Jews are afraid to enter the city, but those who came to run anticipated that a police presence would ensure their safety.
Over 200 adults and one eight-year-old competed in the 10 and five-kilometer races, and 100 children and a smattering of adults competed in the two-kilometer heat.
Another 100 local families and children came out to watch. Among the competitors were five Bedouin women from Rahat and over 20 Jewish women.
Runners began arriving at 6:30 a.m., when the temperature was already 23ºC (73ºF). By the time the runners in the first heat set off down the road and disappeared from sight beyond a traffic circle, it had climbed to almost 30ºC (86ºF).
While many registered participants failed to show up because of the forecast of extreme heat, it did not seem to drain the energies of those present.
For many of the Jewish participants, entering the Rahat race was simply another opportunity to run and return home with a prize. For the Bedouin women it was groundbreaking.
Until 6:30 that morning, Alaa Abu Shaab, 26, did not know whether her husband would allow her to enter the competition. For reasons of modesty, he was opposed to her running in front of men. Finally, after a full night of heated discussions, they agreed she would run.
She was thrilled to take part and excited to describe the difficult path to realizing her dreams. It began when she wanted to study sports education and become a physical education teacher, and continued until she opened a fitness studio for women in Rahat last year.
Dina Um Mohammed, 39, ran in a long gray skirt with a black niqab covering her face. She was there without her husband’s or her family’s knowledge. She returned home directly after her run, not waiting to see whether she had won a prize. Proud and happy, she set about preparing dinner and cleaning the house.
However, someone recognized her in spite of her costume and sent her photo to her husband. Unmasked, she spoke freely of her love of running and the unbridled joy she felt on the race circuit.
“I’m not afraid. I like to break rules,” she says, explaining that sports for women is not against Islam, but only against cultural traditions.
“This is my right. For the first time in my life, I just wanted to enjoy the experience and to know what it is like to run a marathon, and I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was doing it.”
Her only way to train for the run was on the treadmill she bought years ago with her first salary. She had many questions about how to prepare for a marathon. After having participated in this race, she got answers to them all.
Her husband is furious. Her father and one of her brothers are also furious. Um Mohammed, however, is relaxed and says that with time they will calm down. In contrast, her mother is on her side.
“Her life was difficult. She used to draw water from the wells with a donkey, for example, and she did not learn how to read. The men were not supportive of the women in the family, but my mother used to do things without asking permission from her husband. When I was 10, I taught her how to read.”
A teacher by profession, Um Mohammed intends to help other women in Rahat prepare for future races.
“Yesterday was a revolution for me,” she says.
Hassan el-Abid, Rahat community center sports director, was pleased to see the empowerment of women in Rahat and anticipates more female runners next year.
This race was called “Running Together — Living Together.” Rahat Mayor Fayez Abu Sahiban expressed satisfaction at hosting Jews and Arabs, saying that “sport is a language everyone can share in spite of social and cultural differences.”
It all seemed so normal to have Jews and Arabs running together, relaxing together after the races and going up to the stage together to be awarded their prizes.