Bedouins celebrate nomadic past racing horses in the Negev desert

Israel's Arab minority population gather regularly to share their love of the sport

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For years, Bedouins have congregated in Israel's Negev desert, on a stretch of motorway, to enjoy a spot of horse racing.

They gather at sunset for the no-frills affair ― there's no grandstand or fence and spectators simply line up behind some plastic tubing tied to posts.

It's a meeting place for them to not only share a hobby, but also to revel in the nostalgia of their nomadic heritage.

They're off! Competitors in the weekly racing event. AFP

There are more than 260,000 Bedouins in Israel, part of the country's Arab minority who make up about a fifth of the country's 9.3 million population.

Partly nomadic, the Bedouin have been increasingly urbanised over recent years, but just as with other Arab countries and populations, horse racing has been an important part of their heritage for centuries.

Horse racing brings people together to celebrate a shared hobby and heritage. AFP

In the Negev, they're mostly left to themselves, to enjoy the revelry at these legal events, except when Israeli authorities try to shut them down over safety concerns, according to a police representative.

"We don't forbid these races," said Zivan Freidin, a police spokesman for the Negev. "We only have a problem with when they constitute a public disorder or endanger people, because they sometimes take place close to roads."

Competitors and spectators congregate from sunrise. AFP

Bedouins have been found to have "positive feelings" towards Israel's Lahav Forest in the Negev desert region, despite tensions in the country and the fact the popular leisure area is managed by Jewish-controlled state institutions.

This is according to a rare study by the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from 2021 of Bedouin leisure practices that explored the effect shared social spaces could have on relations between the Jewish majority and minority groups. It focused on Bedouin use of an Israeli forest, not specifically horse racing.

People of all ages attend the races. AFP

"Sport brings together Arabs and Jews," Zakaria Shamroukh, an owner and trainer at the track, told AFP. "They all come to the track and they like it, and they become avid followers and cheer for the horses."

The race is on. AFP
Updated: January 06, 2023, 6:01 PM