Barefoot Bedouin teenage girls tearing up Israeli track circuit

If some day in the future you see an Israeli accept an Olympic medal for running, it is likely she will be a Bedouin Arab. And barefoot to boot.

A neglected, weed-infested field that once was a running track near the ancient town of Acre draws teenage girls on Saturday mornings. They race around the field while their stocky, garrulous coach — he is neither Israeli nor Bedouin, but an Italian — bellows orders at them.

Most of the young runners are Bedouin girls from the Galilee village of Arab Aramsha, but there are a sprinkling of (shoe-clad) Jewish teenagers as well.

Antonio Santori and his pupils have started to attract international attention. ("The barefoot Bedouin will be world beaters," blared a recent banner headline in the Italian sports journal, Atletica).

The experiment is serious sport, but more remarkably, a revolutionary step for the Bedouin girls: Muslim women are not supposed to wear shorts in public.

For the past two years these girls have won every middle-distance (from 1,000 meters up to 10 kilometers), cross-country and road race in their age groups on the local circuit. Most of them usually win races against girls much older than themselves.

The best of the bunch, Lotfia Juma, is only 14, but she won the under-19 section of a 10 km. event in March. Her time of 41:26 puts her among the top 10 women runners of all time for that distance.

Six of the girls recently took part in an international cross-country tournament for youth in San Vittore, Italy. The team was Juma, Yasmin Sa'ad, 13, Rania Eyada, 17, and Sama Musa, 17, all from Arab Aramsha; and Sheni Bloch and Yufit Misgav, both 15-year-old Jewish girls from Kiryat Bialik.

Running barefoot in cold weather, Juma came second out of 32 in the under-15 category for 2,000 meters, and Sa'ad came eighth. In the under-17 2,500 meters event, Eyada was third and Misgav sixth.

The flamboyant Santori is passionately devoted to the sport. "My father was a Catholic, my mother was a Moslem and my wife is a Jew. Athletics is my religion," he says.

Santori has used sport to overcome ethnic barriers in his adopted land. At the same time, he has opened new doors to Muslim women in Galilee. Fifteen years ago he founded the country's only Jewish-Arab running club, and he has single-handedly maintained the club. The girls' section is a spin-off.

His Sulam Tsur road-running and marathon club was never intended to have political overtones, but it was living proof that Jews and Arabs could get along, at least on the sports field.

In 1989 Santori was honored in parliament with a special certificate for "promoting sport and good relations between Jews and Arabs."

In this year's Tiberias marathon (the official Israeli championship), four of the first 10 in the men's event were from Sulam Tsur — as many as came from the well-heeled, well-established city clubs.

Nothing stops Santori's 9- to 69-year-old runners, neither snow, nor sleet nor even missile attacks. "Once, a Katyusha [launched from Lebanon] fell on our starting line in the morning," says Santori. "By the afternoon, everyone was back running, skirting the hole in the ground."

Santori first latched onto the winged heels of Bedouin girls in 1983, when Amal Abdalla drifted into his club, after discovering that she had athletic prowess. Until then, there were no Arab women runners.

Abdalla's parents and brothers were adamant that she not take part in road races, appearing in shorts and an undershirt in public. Santori sat with them for hours, night after night, cajoling and persuading until they relented.

Under Santori's tutelage, Abdalla made great strides, finishing first among women at the Tiberias marathon in 1988.

She was chosen for the national team and Santori had to go through the motions with her family all over again, to get them to allow her to go overseas and stay at hotels and training camps in a mixed group of Jewish men and women.

"I had to take on the neighbors and the village elders as well," he recalls.

He won them over because "I was direct and to the point," he says. "Contrary to popular myth, Arabs don't appreciate circumlocution — at least not by Westerners who lack the subtlety to make it interesting." He adds: "It helped that I am not Jewish."

Abdalla eventually gave up athletics and became a laboratory technician. But by then Santori had built up his reputation in the area's Arab villages. Fathers were ready to entrust their children to him.

The idea of a multi-racial club for girls was born about two years ago. Relations between the two groups are correct but formal.

"They [the Bedouin] come from a different world," says Bloch. "I have nothing in common with them but sport."

"I once asked them to visit me at my home, but they did not turn up. My parents won't allow me to go to the village," laments Misgav.

The Bedouin girls, smiling softly, say they love athletics, and they like their Jewish teammates and want to run for Israel. They are shy, and when speaking to strangers keep their eyes on the ground and hold a hand in front of their mouth when they speak.

Santori blustered that he is not interested in the social relations between his charges. "I am trying to make athletes out of these girls, not organizing a tea party."

He is tough with his charges. "A sportsperson must be disciplined. When I started training Amal Abdalla, she insisted on wearing long pants and covering her arms while running. I told her: `This is Antonio's running club. I am your trainer, not the Prophet Mohammed. You do what I tell you or go back and stay in the Dark Ages.' She was hurt and angry, but she returned to run. I don't care what my charges think of me — only that they run fast."

Then why doesn't he insist that the Bedouin girls wear track shoes?

"That's a different story. If I made them wear shoes, it would cut their speed by up to 20 percent. Shoes are not necessary for those who can manage without them. The great Ethiopian Abebe Bikele won the marathon gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, running barefoot. The South African middle-distance woman runner Zola Budd also ran barefoot at the Olympics."

He is reminded what long-distance running expert James Fixx wrote in his 1979 bestseller The Complete Book of Running, which launched a million joggers throughout the world: "Think of what you are asking your feet to do when you run. Each shoe lands on the ground 1,000 or so times during one mile. If you're not wearing the right shoes, your chances of having trouble with your feet or somewhere else are greatly increased."

"The only thing that advice was good for," sneers Santori, "was to set off the billion-dollar sports shoe industry, which is still thriving and misleading the public today."