Posted on: 2002
By Majdi Shomali
This article reviews some elements that constitute Palestinian heritage, including customs and traditions, proverbs, folkloric dance, foods, handicraft and embroidery. Analyzing them enables us to see how essential they are to the formation of Palestinian identity, in Palestine and in exile. Many factors interact to make the national identity of a people. However, in the Palestinian case the importance of folklore and heritage is connected in fundamental ways to the land and to the loss of that land.
The elements of heritage described here evolved over many centuries, sometimes millennia, in agricultural communities where land was a main means of livelihood and production. Thus by means of solid family values, Palestinians enshrined traditions and customs related to marriage, childbirth, child raising, provision of nourishment, clothing, folk medicine, and handicrafts. They expressed these values in proverbs, dance and stories, and ethical and social beliefs. A total, unified relationship made up of the family unit, the home, and social environment was sheltered and consolidated under the umbrella of the land.
To recollect a time when life was simple and peaceful is painful. But it allows us to see what has remained and in what form, and how what remains is important for Palestinian identity.
As a result of the 1948 war, the name of Palestine almost disappeared. The land and the people were dismembered. Three quarters of the former British Mandate ceased to be “Palestine,” and four out of five Palestinians from more than 400 population centers became refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other countries. In the period 1948-52, many villages were destroyed or were populated by new Jewish immigrants, and their lands expropriated. A minority of Palestinians who remained were called the “Israeli Arabs,” including those who became internal refugees in Israel. The population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem lived under Jordanian rule and were called “Jordanians,” just as the Gaza Strip was set aside under Egyptian trusteeship with people holding special Egyptian refugee documents.
In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and once again hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees. Israel confiscated more land to build settlements and bypass roads, mainly on hills and mountains in areas that separate villages and towns. Israeli activities weakened the bond between the farmers and the land through control of water resources and restrictions on the marketing of produce. Most farmers were left with few options except to emigrate or work as unskilled laborers in Israel.
Family and Community Activities
Birth, marriage and death are common events in all human societies. In the Palestinian environment, they have acquired distinctive traits. The birth of a child is related to the family’s continuity, a source of additional help in farming or other work, and a connection and enlargement in the community through future marriages. Marriage is the central event in the Palestinian family. It is a new starting point for added stability and strength, a means of expanding the family and maintaining the land.
Marriage is also an important event to the community as a whole. Thus, it is usually carried out during the summer, in particular after the harvest, which allows the whole community to participate and show solidarity. In village areas, the harvested fields can be used as an arena for weddings. The whole community shares in the expenses and the preparation of foods and drinks and participates in the celebrations and dancing. The marriage ceremony has not changed much, especially in rural areas, and it retains some of its original flavor even in cities of the Diaspora.
In sadness as in joy, the whole community lends support. After a death, several visits are paid to the family, and friends and neighbors continue to visit for 40 days. Arabic coffee (without sugar) is served. Friends and neighbors provide food for the family of the deceased and guests during the first three days. Those who die for their country are called martyrs. Martyrs and their families are highly respected in their communities and their families gain a very high social status. On feasts, the whole town pays the martyr’s tomb a visit, which is not the case with other deaths.
Architecture in Palestine is a blend of ancient and modern. Some of the architecture in cities reflects cultural and religious influences that came to it from many parts of the world. However, the most distinctive is village architecture.
The strength of the bond between land and family was consolidated through building the home as a center to administer the land. In villages, an important task for a husband-to-be is to build a house or at least a room annexed to the family house. Selling one’s house is considered shameful. Especially in the current situation, even closing the house for travel is not approved of by the community. This is related to communal concerns and is also a precaution against the threat of confiscation in the owner’s absence. Houses of the same family or tribe are usually built close to each other in one neighborhood.
Palestinian houses were usually made of stone. Stones are not used just for decoration but are integral to the structure itself, its thick walls, pillars and arches. The roof is usually dome-shaped. This dome serves two purposes: it makes the roof stronger, at the same time helping rain water to flow toward the well. Palestinians use different kinds of arches for the house. The center arch stone is considered the most important and is inscribed with religious verses, the owner’s name and year of construction. Every house usually has it own well where the rain water is collected.
The emphasis in traditional architecture is on warmth and privacy. A typical Palestinian village blends with the landscape, its buildings not imposing on the environment. Of course today, perhaps unfortunately, development has adopted modern standards of engineering, and apartment buildings now use materials and designs convenient for practical living. In the impoverished refugee areas, poverty and need have forced the use of too much concrete and corrugated iron sheets by ex-villagers accustomed to building with stone. As a result, the mixture in building styles in Palestine is striking. In one town or city, the viewer could see an apartment building made of concrete (with a stone veneer), a refugee camp, older stone dwellings, an Islamic period mosque, a Byzantine church, a Roman structure, ancient Cana’anite ruins, and prehistoric cave entrances carved in a hillside.
Dabke: Dance and Music
The only indigenous folkloric dance form practiced and performed in Palestine is dabke (please don’t think of belly dancing!). Dabke is typical of village tradition, tied to the natural cycle of growth and fertility, and is therefore customarily performed on social occasions such as weddings and feasts. It involves timed steps to the beat of rhythmic music played on traditional instruments, with calculated movements (often circular) and punctuated stomping of the feet. Dabke is a group dance performed by men or by women with hands locked. More often, men and women dance together.
Dabke is a symbol of cooperation and solidarity, and a symbol of joy, strength, steadfastness and determination. It is a way for expressing the feelings of pride and gratitude to each other, and also to the land. Dabke does not only take place on wedding occasions and parties, but also when a new baby is born or when a new house is built and during the harvest. Members of the community look at participation in dancing as an integral communal pursuit rather than as a source for individual self-enjoyment, exercise or regular public performance. To them, it is a symbol of standing for that family that stood for them one day.
Stories, fables and legends, passed down through generations, are now playing a role in raising morale, expressing the harsh realities of the present, and maintaining hope by showing that justice will prevail. Popular songs and stories were passed down not only by the hakawati (popular story teller) but also by mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. It is true that the land was occupied, but memories of the land are alive through stories told to children and grandchildren. These stories play the role of fairy tales, yet the situation is now concrete.
Folklore songs have been adapted to suit the new Palestinian situation. Some songs are based on poetry. These songs express feelings of sorrow, dignity, and hope for return to the land. They are sung by almost all the Palestinians in Palestine and the Diaspora, and are even popular in Arab countries. Palestinian poets, among them Mahmoud Darwish and Ahmad Dahbour, depend on popular culture as a source, and many of their poems have become songs of resistance:
He came back in a shroud saying:
if this olive tree were to remember its planter,
the olive oil would turn to tears.
The streets of the refugee camp are overcrowded with images.
Our martyr’s voice has moved the stones to speech:
don’t clad yourself in black, oh mother of the freedom fighter;
do not accept condolences.
Relationship to land is intimately reflected in the daily proverbs used as a language of communication among Palestinians. Proverbs summarize in few words a long and rich experience, expressing a viewpoint, emphasizing family cohesion, offering a wisdom or a means to end a dispute.
Proverbs are sometimes characterized by a sense of humour, and always have rhythm and rhyme that make them easy to remember. Most proverbs address social and human relations. The following examples point out the need for family and community cohesion: “el-jar qabl el-dar” (the neighbor comes before the house); “akhouk min ummak besheel hammak” (your brother from your mother lightens the load you carry); “el-himil lamma betwazza’ bekhif” (a load distributed is lighter).
Hundreds of proverbs incorporate folk wisdom on subjects such as love, child raising, good manners, cooperation, courage, generosity and conflict resolution: “itha kibir ibnak khaweeh” (when your child grows up, treat him as a brother); “iger bilbour wa iger bilfelaha” (a foot in the wild area another in the planted plot, used to describe a hesitant person). Proverbs also emphasize love of work and attachment to the land, and give advice for better crops and house management. Other terms used in proverbs derive from agricultural products, the names of the villages, cities and animals, and from feasts and traditional stories: “izra’ qameh tlaqi qameh” (if you sow wheat you reap wheat, meaning if you raise a child well you will gain a good person); “aghla min baqrat juha” (more expensive than Juha’s cow, meaning ludicrously expensive, Juha being a folk character of ridicule who overvalued his cow).
Costumes and Embroidery
Like other arts and handicraft, such as pottery and jewelry, the costumes of Palestine reflect the diversity in its people and their ways of living. Traditional costumes are the handcrafted costumes of villagers and semi-nomadic bedouins. Men’s dress has become famous as a symbol of Palestinian resistance, particularly the white and black kaffiyah. But women’s dresses are much more colorful, and while still worn on a daily basis by some villagers, they were also made for special occasions such as weddings.
Most characteristic are the dresses of women villagers in hilly and coastal regions. There were more than 800 inhabited villages in Palestine in 1948. Despite the similarities, each region or cluster of villages had its distinct uses of color, pattern and structure. The basic cloth is made of natural materials: cotton, linen, wool or silk. Until the 1930s, when cotton thread became popular, village embroidery was usually done in floss silk, which was twisted into threads of required thickness. Before the advent of chemical dyes, the most typical colors of thread were shades of red.
Embroidery is a language. The earliest Palestinian embroidery combines geometric patterns with some motifs such as flowers and trees. Later, these patterns were supplemented by more motifs, birds, animals, but few human figures. Every embroidery pattern, like every stitch, has a name. Patterns are usually named after things in the natural surrounding. Palms and cypresses are associated with the tree of life that goes back thousands of years. Some patterns have historical and political meanings, such as khiyam al-basha (tents of the Pasha) or, more recently, the Intifada and other nationalistic themes.
Falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed vine leaves, mjaddarah and other “health” foods are native to the Arab Middle East and particularly Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. (Falafel is also popular in Egypt, where it is called to’miyeh.) They are based on principles of nutrition, economy and good taste that can only be produced over hundreds of years of cultural practice. Beans and vegetables are common ingredients, being high in protein as a substitute for meat, along with natural additives that enhance taste and presentation. Meat is used in other dishes. One typical bedouin meal is mansaf with layers of very thin bread (shraq), covered with rice, large chunks of lamb or goat meat, a flavorful cooked yogurt from goat milk, fried pine seeds and almonds on top. All this is placed in huge trays and usually eaten by using the right hand to roll up mouthfuls. It is an experience not to be missed if you can get invited to the right feast.
But, typically, Palestinian food uses grains (particularly lentils, fava beans and chick peas), vegetables, usually a lot of olive oil and lemon juice, onions and garlic, and a variety of taste-enhancing spices. In season, certain wild herbs and wild vegetables are part of the Palestinian diet. After the main meal, coffee or tea is served. Coffee is made thick and is served in demicups, while tea is flavored either with mint in the summer or wild miramiya (an aromatic species of sage) in the winter months.
The political, social and economic catastrophes that befell Palestinians made some believe that dismembering the land and people would result in the breakdown of spiritual and social values and consequently the integration of Palestinians in exile. However, the Palestinian people and their heritage have survived, despite the disruptions and restrictions. Even outside Palestine, folklore and popular culture have played an essential role in formulating political and social groups and their programs. Preserving popular culture became another kind of struggle, whether for maintaining elements of its survival or remembering it as an expression of a bond to the land people could not reach. The threat inside Palestine comes from confiscation of land and economic difficulties that are driving a distance between villagers and the land as a means of production, and thus undermining the concrete foundations of Palestinian national identity. Culturally, the difficult situation at present also restricts the diversity and openness to the world that characterized Palestine throughout its long history.
A little anecdote tells a rare case of cultural attachment. It is the story of Miguel Littin, whose grandfather emigrated from Beit Sahour in 1914 to Greece and then Chile. Littin is a filmmaker and is the subject of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In 1995, he came to the region intending to find his roots in Beit Sahour, carrying with him an old photograph and a couple of words in Arabic (habibi and karshat, his grandmother’s word for “darling” and a recipe she cooked). Upon arrival, Littin expected to find his family right away and was disappointed the people were not wearing the kinds of clothes he imagined from the photograph. The people in Beit Sahour told him there is no family by the name “Littin.” But before long the photograph helped. A certain facial resemblance confirmed that the family name is “El Yattim,” transformed to “Littin” over the years in Spanish-speaking Chile. Mikhail El Yattim was the grandfather who left Beit Sahour in 1914, whose name was given to grandchild as “Miguel.”
Imagine then what has happened to the diverse memories of all those Palestinians living in different exiles, as the memories deepen. And how many bits of heritage are retained or fragmented, even among those who are still living on the land.