Voices from El Sayed

Audience at film

The Bedouin village of El Sayed has the largest proportion of deaf people in the world. Over the generations they’ve developed their own unique sign language, now the most popular way to communicate among both deaf and hearing. The documentary “Voices from El Sayed” follows what happens when one father decides to give his three-year-old son a cochlear implant so he can hear.

On May 23 at Cinemapolis, the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME) screened the film as the concluding event in its free series, “Israeli Citizens of Color: From Ethiopia to Chicago to the Negev,” which explored the complexity of culture in a multiracial country (about half of the citizens of Israel are people of color).

“We at ICUCME firmly believe that if we are to achieve peace in the Middle East, it must come through understanding and empathy. Learning about different cultures and the challenges that different communities face is one way to develop this understanding and empathy,” said Linda Glaser, ICUCME chair in her introduction to the film.

The screening was followed by a discussion with Inbal Shlosberg, a social worker who has worked extensively with the Bedouin. Lisa Witchey provided sign language interpretation for the discussion.

Shlosberg gave an update on the Village of El Sayed, as the film was released in 2008. She said that the village is now recognized by the Israeli government and has been provided with infrastructure services like electricity. She explained that even the unrecognized Bedouin villages receive full medical and educational services for free, as Bedouin are Israeli citizens.

“The Bedouin and Israeli cultures are very different,” said Shlosberg, resulting in some of the problems the Bedouin face. For example, she said that the Israeli government views the towns it has built for the Bedouin as something positive, while many Bedouin prefer to live outside the towns, even without electricity or other services.

Shlosberg described a recent initiative by the Israeli government to devote more resources to alleviating the poverty of the Bedouin community. “Things are getting better,” she said.

The discussion also raised questions about the value of cochlear implants. Susan Wolf, an educator for the deaf and hearing impaired, described her experiences with children given cochlear implants and said the results vary widely.

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