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CHAPTER 1: In the Village of the Deaf

The house is a lighted island in a sea of gathering dark. The sun has just gone down, and the desert breeze blowing in through the large open windows is cooler now. Outside, just beyond the house, fields of yellow stubble give way to a flat expanse of sand and scrub that stretches toward the distant hills ringing the horizon. A band of vermilion hangs above the hills, and above that, the sky is an inverted bowl of deep turquoise. Across the sand, a line of shadowy forms can be seen picking its way slowly toward the house: the village camels, home for the night.

From a nearby mosque, the muezzin’s call to prayer floats through the open windows. The windows have deep marble sills but no glass, for the house is barely half-finished. Right now it is little more than walls, sheer slabs of whitewashed concrete that seem to rise organically from the surface of the desert. There is no front door yet, and no front steps: you enter, perilously, by clawing your way up a steep concrete ramp coated with blown sand. Inside, the house is hollow. Its half-dozen rooms have neither doors nor windows, and underfoot, where the floor will be, is only hard-packed dirt. Garlands of electrical wires sprout from the bare white walls; a black rubber hose of indeterminate purpose snakes across the ground from room to room. That is all there is to the house so far, but its raw state suits the desert.

On this summer evening, the half-built house is alive with people. In the main room, which overlooks the hills, the owner of the house, a stocky man in an untucked plaid shirt, has set a long plastic banquet table on the earthen floor, with a dozen plastic patio chairs around it. The table is filling with food. Children materialize with platters of nuts, sunflower seeds and miniature fruit—tiny pears, nectarines and plums. A tray of small china cups is set out, and a boy of about twelve enters, carrying a brass coffeepot, blackened from use, with a graceful spout curved like a pelican’s beak. He pours the coffee: thick, black, sweet and tasting of cardamom. At the other end of the table, a boy with a Thermos pours strong, sweet tea into small glasses crammed with fresh mint.

People start to take their seats. At the head of the table, the owner is joined by a group of men in their thirties and forties. Down one side of the table is a row of boys in graduated sizes, from toddlers to teenagers. More children play on the floor nearby; some very young ones, a few girls among them, peer shyly into the room from behind the door frame. At the foot of the table sits a knot of visitors. There are six of us: four scholars of linguistics, a video camera operator and me. We have all traveled great distances, some of us crossing oceans, to be in this half-finished house tonight.

The man and his family are Bedouins, and the house is at the edge of their village, Al-Sayyid. Though they live in the desert, the Bedouins of Al-Sayyid are not nomads: their people have inhabited this village, tucked into an obscure corner of what is now Israel, miles from the nearest town, for nearly two hundred years. There are no timeless figures from T. E. Lawrence here, wandering the sands in billowing robes. These Bedouins are rooted, even middle-class. Men and boys are bareheaded and dressed in Western clothing, mostly T-shirts and jeans. Families live in houses, some with indoor plumbing and vast sofas upholstered in plush. They own automobiles, computers and VCRs. But there is something even more remarkable about the Al-Sayyid Bedouins, and that is what has brought the team of scholars here this evening: a highly unusual language, spoken only in this village and never documented until now.

The house is a Babel tonight. Around the long table, six languages are in use at once, conversation spilling across conversation. There are snatches of English, mostly for my benefit. There is Hebrew: two of the linguists are from an Israeli university, and many of the men of Al-Sayyid speak it as well. There is a great deal of Arabic, the language of the home for Bedouins throughout the Middle East. But in the illuminated room, it is the other languages that catch the eye. They are signed languages, the languages of the deaf. As night engulfs the surrounding desert and the cameraman’s lights throw up huge, signing shadows, it looks as though language itself has become animate, as conversations play out in grand silhouette on the whitewashed walls.

There are three signed languages going. There is American Sign Language, used by one of the visitors, a deaf linguist from California. There is Israeli Sign Language, the language of the deaf in that country, whose structure the two Israeli scholars have devoted years to analyzing. And there is a third language, the one the linguists have journeyed here to see: a signed language spoken in this village and nowhere else in the world.

The language is Al-Sayyid’s genetic legacy. In this isolated traditional community, where marriage to outsiders is rare, a form of inherited deafness has been passed down from one generation to the next for the last seventy years. Of the 3,500 residents of the village today, nearly 150 are deaf, an incidence forty times that of the general population. As a result, an indigenous signed language has sprung up here, evolving among the deaf villagers as a means of communication. That can happen whenever deaf people come together. But what is so striking about the sign language of Al-Sayyid is that many hearing villagers can also speak it. It permeates every aspect of community life here, used between parents and children, husbands and wives, from sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor. At every hour of the day, in the houses, in the fields and in the mosque, there are people conversing in sign. In Al-Sayyid, the four linguists have encountered a veritable island of the deaf.

Their work here will occupy them for years to come, in all likelihood for the rest of their careers. They plan to observe the language, to record it, and to produce an illustrated dictionary, the first-ever documentary record of the villagers’ signed communication system. But the linguists are after something even larger. Because Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language has arisen entirely on its own, outside the influence of any other language, it offers a living demonstration of the “language instinct,” man’s inborn capacity to create language from thin air. If the linguists can decode this language—if they can isolate the formal elements that make Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language a language—they will be in possession of a new and compelling body of evidence in the search for the ingredients essential to all language, signed and spoken. And in so doing, they will have helped illuminate one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.

Early that morning, the four linguists convened at the University of Haifa, in the lab of Dr. Wendy Sandler. An American who has lived in Israel for more than two decades, she is the director of the university’s Sign Language Research Laboratory, one of the few labs of its kind in the world. Proficient in both American and Israeli Sign Languages, Wendy is the lead researcher on the Bedouin project. She is small, dark and intense.

The rest of the team crowds into the little room. There is Irit Meir, the other Israeli linguist, a colleague at the university. She has a background in English and linguistics and also speaks some Arabic, which will be useful in Al-Sayyid. A former doctoral student of Wendy’s, Irit is now a colleague at the university, working alongside her analyzing Israeli Sign Language. (Her name, the Hebrew word for asphodel, a Mediterranean flower, is pronounced ih-REET.) She is the visual inverse of Wendy: tall, with sandy hair and long chiseled features.

Next to Irit is Carol Padden, a linguist in the Department of Communication at the University of California at San Diego. The only deaf member of the team, Carol is one of the country’s foremost authorities on the language and culture of the American deaf community. She has dark blue eyes set close together in a pear-shaped face, hair the color of dark honey, and a wide smile. The fourth member of the team is Mark Aronoff, from Stony Brook University, on Long Island. He is an internationally renowned linguist and an old friend of mine, my adviser for two degrees in the field. He is a trifle owly (though he would not care to have me say it), graying, with bottle-thick glasses and a bristling mustache. Mark is a specialist in morphology, the study of the internal architecture of words, and has done extensive work on Semitic languages, including Hebrew and Maltese. He, Carol and I had flown from New York to Tel Aviv the day before, driving up to Haifa in a rented van that in a few hours will carry the team into the desert.

The linguists are gathered around a video monitor, reviewing material they recorded a year ago, on their first visit to Al-Sayyid. (In the local Arabic dialect, the name of the village is pronounced “es-SAYY-id.”) A Bedouin woman in a headscarf appears onscreen, signing. “She’s the fourth deaf daughter of five daughters,” says Irit, who keeps a detailed genealogical record of each person the team videotapes. Watching the monitor, Irit spots the Bedouin sign SIT, which she demonstrates for her colleagues: two fists, held straight out in front of the body, travel downward toward the floor. It differs visibly from the Israeli sign SIT, which she demonstrates next: two flat hands, palms downward, traveling toward the floor. (The ASL sign SIT is altogether different: the curved index and middle fingers of one hand tap down onto the extended index and middle fingers of the other; the result suggests a pair of legs dangling off the edge of a seat.)

Carol asks to use Wendy’s computer. Today is her father’s birthday, and she wants to send a text message to his electronic pager wishing him many happy returns. Both of Carol’s parents are deaf, as is her brother, and she grew up equally at home in English and ASL. Her own pager, for deaf people an indispensable tool of communication, refuses to work in Israel, and she’s feeling a bit cut off—her husband, at home in California with their young daughter, is also deaf. “I should buy a phone for every country, I guess,” Carol says ruefully. Carol speaks and reads lips well, with less difficulty than many deaf people have. Her speaking voice is pleasant; she sounds like someone with a slight, hard-to-place foreign accent.

The members of the team have known each other for years. Linguistics is a small community, the subfield of sign-language linguistics smaller still, with perhaps a few hundred full-time practitioners in the world. These four began working as a group several years ago, analyzing the ways in which words are formed in American and Israeli Sign Languages. In a few days, when they return from the desert, they will begin to attack the language of Al-Sayyid, scrutinizing videotapes, pointing, conjecturing, arguing, rewinding and arguing some more, as they attempt to tease out the structure of this mysterious language.

Wendy first heard about Al-Sayyid in the late 1990s. Though insular, the village was not completely unknown to outsiders. An Israeli anthropologist had been there, as had some geneticists and social service professionals. Their interests lay in the deafness itself: how it was passed from one generation to the next, how it informed social relations in the village, how education for deaf children might be improved. They paid little attention, however, to the nature of the unusual language that the condition had brought into being. When Wendy learned of the village, she knew at once she had to investigate. “I thought immediately that this would be important,” she explained afterward, “because it was clearly an isolated sign language.”

Over the next few years, Wendy and Irit made a series of cautious forays into Al-Sayyid, setting in motion the delicate diplomacy that is a critical part of linguistic fieldwork: explaining their intentions, hosting a day of activities at the village school, over time earning the trust of a number of the villagers. Today’s visit will be only the second time the entire team has been to Al-Sayyid, and only the second time the four linguists have collected data there together. They plan to stay three days. On their first visit, the year before, they videotaped several of the villagers telling stories in sign. This time, they intend to do more narrowly focused work, administering a series of computerized tests designed to summon forth the words, phrases and sentences of this unknown language.

In Wendy’s lab, Shai Davidi, the resident technician and videographer, sets a laptop computer on a desk. With his close-cropped hair, narrow black-rimmed glasses and black T-shirt, Shai lends the room a touch of downtown Manhattan. The team huddles over the laptop to watch a slide show of everyday objects that Shai has prepared for them to take into the field: this will be used to elicit the basic vocabulary of the Bedouins’ signed language.

One by one, a succession of images fills the screen: Dog ... Cat ... Chicken ... Pear ... Banana ... Lemon ... Pencils ... Scissors ... Stapler.

“You think they have a stapler?” Carol wonders aloud, picturing daily life in the desert. “What would they be stapling?”

More images scroll by: Chair ... Wristwatch ... Eyeglasses. (Everyone laughs at this; the glasses in the picture currently reside on Shai’s face.) There is a bed, a dining table and a gleaming, restaurant-quality chrome stove.

“Nice stove,” says Mark, who likes fine things.

“It’s from a magazine,” Shai says.

The slide show is followed onscreen by a series of line drawings—people buying and selling groceries, sending and receiving a letter—which the linguists hope will elicit simple sentences with subjects, verbs and objects. “It’s very hard to do ‘send,’ ” Irit remarks in her impeccable, Israeli-accented English as the drawing flickers by. “How do you show ‘send’?”

There are more drawings; some short video clips of people sitting and standing, walking forward and backward, handing each other objects and yanking them away, kicking a ball back and forth. These are designed to test the particular ways in which Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, like all signed languages, an inherently spatial enterprise, indicates various kinds of directional movement. Next come colors: each of the world’s languages divides up the spectrum of color words in one of several characteristic ways. There are photographs of people in an array of emotional states—happy, sad, frightened, angry—and, finally, an animated cartoon of Sylvester and Tweety Bird that the Bedouin subjects will be asked to retell in sign.

Wendy closes the laptop and begins to gather the things she needs for the long trip to the desert. As the team leader, she has traditionally shouldered most of the anxiety about the project, and this visit is no exception. She is by nature thorough, meticulous, rigorous, ideal qualities for a linguist. One evening in Haifa, taking Mark and me to dinner, Wendy parked her little red car on a downtown street. She got out, locked it and began to walk away. Then she turned around. There were a couple of inches to spare between the front wheel and the curb, and the car was a few degrees shy of parallel. “Unaesthetic,” she announced to no one in particular, walked back, unlocked the door, got behind the wheel and reparked.

Circumstances in the desert will be much harder to control. In the hallway across from Wendy’s lab hangs a large framed poster advertising the 1999 meeting of the Israeli Association for Theoretical Linguistics, held here in Haifa. Mark is billed high up as an invited speaker, giving a talk entitled “Using Dictionaries to Study the Mental Lexicon.” Farther down is a listing of a paper jointly authored by Mark, Wendy and Irit, “Universal and Particular Aspects of Sign Language Morphology.” The four linguists are highly respected in their field—eminent, even—but they are mostly pen-and-paper theorists far more accustomed to dealing with language as the stuff of scientific abstraction, admittedly short on the hands-on anthropological field experience this project will entail. On their previous trip to Al-Sayyid, they were received politely, but with some wariness, and that after the careful advance work by Wendy and Irit. Nearly a year has gone by since then, and in the isolated village, a van full of strangers is bound to be an anomalous, perhaps discomforting, presence. Will the villagers still be receptive to the project? Will anyone show up for the recording sessions the linguists have painstakingly scheduled? Wendy can do little more than trust in the man who is her liaison in Al-Sayyid, a hearing villager who has undertaken to make the local arrangements.

She is also somewhat concerned about the language itself. Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language is by definition an unknown quantity. Over the last few decades, other “signing villages” have occasionally come to light. Often their language turns out to be something of a disappointment, less fully developed than a linguist would hope for, more a primitive pidgin than a full-blown linguistic system. Will the signing of Al-Sayyid turn out to be a full, real language? The linguists have not yet amassed enough data to be completely certain.

What is more, although the sign language of Al-Sayyid arose in a linguistic vacuum, unaffected by other languages, the social realities of modern life, even in a remote desert community, make it impossible for it to remain that way. Over the years, many of Al-Sayyid’s deaf children have been bused to special classes for the deaf in nearby towns. There, they are taught all day in spoken language—Hebrew or Arabic—accompanied by signs from Israeli Sign Language, a language utterly different from their own. They carry the signs home with them at night. The sign language of Al-Sayyid’s children, the linguists have already observed, is permeated with Israeli words. The situation lends the team’s work a certain immediacy: in just one generation, when the older Bedouin signers die, the unique signed language of the village, at least in its present form, may be significantly altered.

We descend to the university’s underground garage to pack up the rented van. The night before, Irit loaded in boxes of china and silver-toned serving trays, gifts for the Bedouin families the team plans to visit. To these we add personal luggage for six; three laptop computers; Shai’s video camera, tripods and lights; two straw hats; several very large bottles of water; and a bag of fruit. The van, a sleek blue Fiat of which Mark, the expedition driver, is inordinately proud, is not large, and it takes some careful geometry to fit everything in. In the front and rear windows the linguists place laminated placards that proclaim “Sign Language Dictionary Project” in Hebrew and Arabic.

Heading downstairs with a final armload, I pass a small framed document hanging in the hallway outside Wendy’s lab, opposite the conference poster. It is the lab’s mission statement, which reads, in part:

It usually comes as a surprise to the layman to learn that nobody sat down and invented the sign languages of the deaf. Rather, these are languages that arise spontaneously, wherever deaf people have an opportunity to congregate—which tells us that they are the natural product of the human brain, just like spoken languages. But since these languages exist in a different physical modality, they are believed to offer us a unique window into the kind of mental system that all human language belongs to.

The team climbs into the van and, dishes chattering gently, sets out for the desert in search of the mind.