Palestinian Social Customs and Traditions
Posted on: June 26, 2006 by
Palestinian social customs and traditions are similar to those of other Arab countries and date back to when Palestine was a rural, agricultural society and life centered on the village and the farming calendar. There were a few small cities, like Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron and Gaza, that specialized in the production of goods.
With modernization and increased education levels, social customs began to change as well. Cities and the professional class grew, weakening somewhat the traditional strength of clans, or extended families that lived and worked the village land together. The eventual dispossession and displacement of the Palestinian people with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 – known as the Nakba or “the catastrophe” – had an enormous effect on Palestinian social customs and traditions as well. The loss of land, the creation of refugee camps, the search for wage labor in the Gulf states, in Europe and in America, all posed serious challenges to the maintenance of traditional values and customs.
As in most largely rural cultures, the family is the most important unit in Palestinian society. The Palestinians’ political experience and reality have served to further strengthen family ties. With no real government-sponsored social safety-net, and with the lack of a functioning economy or enough independent government institutions or even enough banks to provide home or student loans, Palestinians have had to rely on family and neighbors to fill the gaps. The family serves as the primary source of identity and extended families live together in compounds or villas divided into apartments for all male sons and their families.
Family identification and solidarity can be seen as the one traditional structure to have survived the Nakba. Even in refugee camps, far from their villages or towns of origins, Palestinians continue to live, work and socialize within the confines of the family. Many men from the Occupied Territories or refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries often leave behind wives and young children to work in the oil-rich Gulf States. They send money home to support the extended family. And these extended families pool their resources and provide for each other when money is needed for medical reasons or for college expenses.
Palestinian children are raised with a keen sense of responsibility to family members. Older parents and grandparents rely on the financial support and care of their children and grandchildren. Though this responsibility usually lies with the eldest son, it can typically be borne by those who are most financially able or by the family as a whole.
A guest in a Palestinian home will never want for food or warmth.
Palestinians place a high premium on generosity and hospitality, as does Arab culture in general. Palestinian homes are always ready to receive an unannounced guest with food, sweets and Arabic or Turkish coffee. Visits with family and neighbors are commonplace, often occurring once or twice a week.
As in other traditional societies, a family’s honor is often reflected in the virtue of its women. Modesty and chastity among women are key values. But this notion has changed over time. Education, highly valued in Palestinian society for both men and women, brings honor to a family. Connection with the land, a prized and diminishing resource, is another source of honor. Steadfastness and service to the people and the cause of Palestine are perhaps the greatest source of family honor today.
Customs and Rituals
The birth of a baby is a particularly joyous occasion in Palestinians society. For several weeks after a baby is born, family, friends and neighbors will visit the new parents and grandparents to offer their love, support and best wishes. A traditional dish, mughli – a pudding made of semolina flour, sugar and cinnamon, topped with fresh nuts – is served, along with coffee or tea. The child’s Baptism, for Palestinian Christians, is another key celebration, as is confirmation which takes place at age seven. Muslim Palestinians may hold an informal naming ceremony or akikah to welcome a newborn into the world.
Courtship, Weddings and Marriage
In rural areas, marriages are arranged by the fathers of the bride and groom. The women of the family play a key role in introducing the couple, and daughters are often asked if they accept a potential groom before the arrangements are made. This is true for both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Courtship differs somewhat in larger towns and cities, where young men and women are more likely to be introduced by family, but then spend time getting to know one another, usually with a family chaperone, before deciding whether or not to marry. Though a minority, some middle and upper class Palestinians enjoy the type of courtship most common in the West, meeting and choosing a spouse on their own, based on love. It has also become common for Palestinians living in exile to marry people from other nations and cultures.
Palestinian wedding ceremonies are elaborate affairs and typically last three days. Weddings in villages may be attended by the entire village. The bride is carried in a parade to the groom’s home, where the celebration takes place with food, sweets, music and dancing. The family may slaughter one or more lambs to feed the guests, and members of the extended family often pitch in to prepare other dishes. Weddings in urban areas may be smaller, but are no less elaborate.
It is common for a newly married couple to move in with the groom’s parents. Because of the economic devastation of Palestine, most young couples cannot afford to live on their own. This also allows Palestinian women to work outside of the home without having to be solely responsible for childcare and household chores.
Funerals also bring together families and extended kin, who drink unsweetened bitter coffee and recount the life and qualities of the deceased. It is customary for Palestinian families to be in mourning for at least forty days. During this time, women wear black clothing and men wear black ties. Some widows or mothers may wear black for as long as a year, sometimes three. Muslim and Christian Palestinians share these traditions.
Palestinian society, like most traditional societies, is largely patriarchal. Fathers are considered the heads of households, with decision-making authority in family matters. This authority, however, comes with the responsibility for the family’s economic well-being and security. In this regard, gender roles in Palestinian society – for both Muslims and Christians — are seen as distinct, but complementary. Women take primary responsibility for raising the children and maintaining the household. In this role, women serve as the glue that holds the family together and as the keeper of family bonds and affinity. Families gather often to share meals, exchange stories and news of loved ones. Several generations of women typically prepare the meals together, passing on family recipes and keeping family bonds strong.
Historically, village women were responsible for working in the fields and taking the produce to market. In cities, women had more opportunity for educational advancement. With education came greater opportunities for work outside the home, and women began playing a role in the economic, political and cultural life of Palestinian society. Economic depression in Palestine after World War I also increased the number of women seeking employment outside the home and led to the establishment of women’s charitable organizations; many of these groups developed political agendas that sought the advancement of women’s rights and self-determination for the Palestinian people.
The role of women also changed dramatically in the years since the Nakba, as poor economic opportunities in the Occupied Territories required them to work to supplement the family income. The departure of men in search of jobs and the large number of men imprisoned by Israel left many women as the sole breadwinners. Palestinian women not only engaged economically, they were also politicized by the struggle for independence. Young women activists formed grassroots committees in the Occupied Territories that included volunteer work groups, trade and student unions, youth movements and educational centers. Palestinian women continue to play a prominent role in the political, economic and social life of their people. They are represented in all the professions and within the governing structures of the Palestinian Authority.
Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, takes place at the end of the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. In honor of this feast, Muslim families slaughter a sheep and share it with families, neighbors and the needy, while gathering to celebrate together with food and sweets. Children are given gifts of money and new clothes.
Eid al-Fitr, the Fast-Breaking Feast, marks the end of the month of Ramadan, believed by Muslims to be the month in which the Prophet Muhammad began to receive his divine revelation. Throughout the month, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims abstain from food, drink and intimacy. Families and friends gather each evening at sunset to break their fast together. Dates and milk are followed by light meals and sweets, like qatayef, a crepe-like pastry stuffed with ground nuts or cheese. Palestinian men commonly congregate at the mosque each evening for taraweeh prayers; one section of the Quran is read each evening, finishing the entire holy book by the end of the month. Eid al-Fitr is a joyous occasion that once again brings families together to share food and sweets. This is also a time of alms-giving for Palestinian Muslims, with money and food given to the less fortunate.
Christmas festivities in Bethlehem begin with prayers and songs nine days before Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the Patriarch of Jerusalem makes a traditional procession through Bethlehem and the faithful gather in Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity at midnight to celebrate the birth of Jesus. For centuries, they have been joined by pilgrims from around the world. Traditionally coming in the hundreds of thousands, the numbers of pilgrims have dwindled to the tens of thousands in recent years. Palestinian families celebrate Christmas with gift-giving, carols and traditional meals of roast lamb, sweets made with nougat and sesame seeds, roasted chestnuts, a hot, sweet drink of rosewater and nuts and semolina pancakes stuffed with nuts and cheese.
Easter in Palestine is also an occasion for celebration with family. Observances begin with Palm Sunday, when families in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter prepare palm branches decorated with flowers and ribbons for the annual procession from Bethphage, a village on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, to the Church of St. Anne inside Jerusalem’s Old City. At the procession’s end, Christian and Muslim Boy Scouts from all parts of Palestine circle the Old City walls, waving flags and playing music.
On Good Friday, Palestinian Christians and pilgrims from around the world mark the Stations of the Cross, along the Via Dolorosa. Easter observances culminate with Sabt an-Nur, or Saturday of Light, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ. Hundreds of pilgrims sleep overnight by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, waiting to receive the “light” from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch who leads a procession to the site of Jesus’ tomb. After prayer and meditation, the flame from Jesus’ tomb is used to light candles carried by the faithful from village to village, and town to town. Crowds of people gather in village, town and city centers to welcome the flame and greet each other by saying, “al-Massih Qam,” or “Christ is risen.” In the largely Christian city of Ramallah, Boy Scouts parade in the streets in full uniform, with drums, banners and flags, and march towards the Greek Orthodox church where the Easter service takes place.