Tag Archive | 1948

Palestinian costume – background

The territory once known as Palestine was bounded on the north by Syria and Lebanon, on the west by the Mediterranean, and in the south by Egypt.

Ramallah woman c. 1890s (Library of Congress)

Ramallah woman c. 1890s (Library of Congress)

It was by geographic location a bridge – between Asia and Africa, and between the desert and the sea – and by cultural position a crossroads. The civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Crusaders and the Arab and Ottoman empires, have all left their mark over the centuries in the mingling of empires, cultures and nationalities. Three of the world’s great religions hold this tiny territory sacred.

Arab society in Palestine prior to 1948 consisted of three main groups: the townspeople baladin, the settled farmers fellahin, and the nomadic bedouin tribes. Some 80% of the Arab population depended on agriculture, with over eight hundred villages scattered from the coastal plains to the Jordan River. Many were economically and socially independent, and difficulties in communication and environment produced strong individualistic traits within the communities: different dialects, different crops and food, different clothes.

Within the family structure roles were well defined. Women were in a subordinate position but important within the family group, being required to look after not only houses and children, but playing significant parts in agricultural activities. In some regions they were expected to work in the fields and hold responsibilities for the harvest.
Southern Coastal Plains bride c. 1932-3 (Olga Tufnell)

Southern Coastal Plains bride c. 1932-3 (Olga Tufnell)

 In other regions there was less emphasis on agricultural participation and more time for leisure, and it was in these villages that the art of embroidery was developed.

It is difficult to discover what costumes Palestinians wore before the mid-19th century although there are some references made in the memoirs of various European travellers.

The first detailed evidence dates back to reports from missionary societies in the 1880’s whose collections of Arab costume eventually made their way to the British Museum. A study of Biblical subjects in late 19th century English painting can reveal some detailed and interesting studies of Palestinian costume. Whether these would have been worn 2000 years ago remains a moot point. The fact remains that we base our understanding of Christian traditional iconography today – Mary’s blue dress with white headscarf and Joseph’s striped coat, as typical examples – on 19th century Palestinian costume.

The majority of research done on Palestinian costume has focused on the elaborate garments made by village fellahin society for weddings and special occasions. In general, urban clothing was known to be influenced by Turkish and European fashions. During Ottoman times townsfolk wore Turkish dress, and with the rise of European influence adopted Western style outfits, modified by climate and society. By the turn of the century Beirut was functioning as the Middle East distribution point for Western clothing, from homburgs to parasols, and was distributing them in vast quantities down the coast into Palestine.

Traditional costume for men in Palestine was of very simple design and was similar in style to that worn by men throughout the Arab world. In contrast, women’s costumes, and in particular those costumes for special occasions, were regionally and stylistically diverse with great emphasis placed on ornamentation. The detailed visual elements of these costumes reflected a correspondingly detailed meaning system concerned with identity and status.

Historically both the bedouin and the fellahin women made their own costumes. While bedouin women usually bought their garment fabrics readymade, village women wove and dyed some of their fabrics. The majority were usually bought in the towns or direct from the various weaving centres in Palestine. Women would then assemble the garment and decorate it in the style of their region or village. Among both bedouin and fellahin societies, costumes would then be passed to younger members of the family. When finally outgrown or too worn to be used, a garment might be turned into household rags. Fine embroidery pieces, such as were found on the qabbeh – the embroidered chest panel of a woman’s dress – were often kept to be resewn onto new garments.

The range of textiles available for sale in Palestine was impressive: Damascus velvets, muslin from Mosul in Iraq, tabby silk from Baghdad, the finest white cotton from Baalbek in Lebanon, linen from Egypt, and silk, the Chinese secret invention that reached the Middle East on it’s way to Europe. Local fabrics favoured for Palestinian costumes were handwoven silks, cottons and linens. Cotton was historically cultivated in Palestine but from the mid-19th century onwards locally produced fabrics tended to be woven from yarns imported from Egypt, Syria and England. Garments were also made from wool bought from the bedouin tribes, although the bedouin themselves did not weave clothing.

The weaving centres of Palestine were at Majdel and Gaza in the south, and Safad in northern Palestine with the towns of Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem also producing some fabrics. Palestinian weaving never developed to the artistic or technical level of neighbouring Syria and the industry declined noticeably after the introduction of machine-made mass produced textiles from Europe. It did, however, produce a range of garment fabrics specifically for village fashions.

Dyeing was a profession carried on by only a few families who kept formulas secret. Indigo was the most important dye for Palestinian costumes. Most women wore an everyday dress of indigo blue, but the dye was also used for men’s clothing and women’s headveils. The plant was grown in the Ghor area of the Jordan Valley, but stocks were later supplemented with imports from India. Saffron, for yellow, was grown in the villages. Sumac was used for a yellow-green colour. Red colour was obtained either from madder, or from cochineal or chermes insects mixed with pomegranate. Synthetic dyes reached the Palestinian market from Germany early in the 20th century, appearing in local markets around 1912. Many people still continued with their natural dyes but by the 1920’s the industry was in a sharp decline.

The metallic threads used in couching work from the Bethlehem and Jerusalem areas were made in Aleppo from cords of silver or gilt silver. Originally, couching cords were of spun silk, but after the First World War most were imported and were factory made of artificial silk. The thinness of the older type was still preferred for precision work.

The style of clothing worn by fellahin women was established by regional preferences and local social factors. Many of the basic garments maintained an over all similarity in design, if not in decoration. Fellahin costume consisted of the basic dress thob, pants libas, jacket jubbeh, and coat jillayeh. The thob, as with male costume, was generally a loose fitting robe with sleeves with the actual cut of the garment varying by region. Decoration on the thob was concentrated mainly on the square chest panel qabbeh, the cuffs and top of the sleeves, and vertical panels running down the dress from waist level. Some regions decorated a lower back panel of the dress known as the shinyar. Jackets and coats were usually kept for special occasions and were richly decorated according to local customs. Similar garments were sometimes worn by town women, although usually of better fabric and hybrid decoration styles. Unlike bedouin women, the fellahin did not veil their face except on their wedding day.  Various styles of veils were developed to cover the hair, as were intricate headdresses heavily ornamented with coins.

Girls were taught dressmaking skills usually from about the age of eight. Much importance was placed on embroidery, as it was thought that a prospective bride’s character and personality were revealed through her work. By the time of one’s wedding it was expected that a bridal outfit be completed, as well as items embroidered for the home. The wedding costumes of Palestine were ornate and symbolic and consisted of the heavily decorated wedding dress and accessories together with valuable coin which covered headdresses and many pieces of silver jewellery. The style of the bridal dress, as well as garments for everyday wear, was determined by the regional style.

To understand the distribution of embroidery styles in Palestine, Shelagh Weir, author of the publications Palestinian costume (1989) and Palestinian embroidery (1970 and 1988), requests one to imagine the country divided by two horizontal lines: the first placed south of Mount Carmel and the Sea of Galilee at the level of ‘Afula, and the second running from the coast to the Jordan River north of Jaffa and south of Nablus. Her research has shown that in the area between these two lines there is very little history of embroidery (although still showing traditions of fine decoration, including braidwork and appliqué, in women’s costume) and an Arab proverb found in this region, originally recording by Gustav Dalman in 1937, that “embroidery signifies a lack of work” certainly backs Weir’s findings. The areas where Weir found a long standing tradition of embroidery were in the area north of her top line, in Upper and Lower Galilee, and in the area south of the bottom line, in the Judean Hills and on the coastal plain.

A myriad of embroidery stitches were popular in Palestine. While cross stitch has come to be thought of as the most commonly used stitch throughout the country – with the couching stitch favoured in the Bethlehem region following in popularity – some areas, such as the Galilee, favoured a mixture of cross stitch, satin stitch, stem stitch and hem stitching. The gold and silver cord and fine silk thread couching produced in Bethlehem and neighbouring villages was so popular that wedding costumes featuring this type of embroidery were produced commercially by the women of Bethlehem for weddings throughout the country. Both Gustav Dalman in 1937 and Hilma Granqvist in 1931 record wedding songs in which Bethlehem wedding dresses are mentioned:

“God knows that our outfit today

A hundred ‘royal’ robes which we have cut

For the bride to whom we are betrothed.

God knows – today is our outfit

A green and a ‘royal’ [malak] dress we have bought

For the bride to whom we are betrothed!

Ten jackets [taqsireh] have we bought

For the beloved ones in order to appease her”

(Hilda Granqvist Marriage conditions in a Palestinian village vol.2 1931: p.42)

In southern Palestine and the Sinai Desert, cross stitch was certainly the preferred decorative technique, with either silk or cotton thread.

Motifs favoured in Palestinian embroidery and costume were also diverse. Palestine’s position on the international trade routes certainly exposed it to influences from diverse fields. Weir argues that cross stitch motifs may have been derived from oriental carpets, while couching motifs may have it’s origin in the vestments of Christian priests or the gold thread work of Byzantium (1970: pp.13-14). Research by Hanan Munayyer of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation reveals that some popular Palestinian motifs may have been in use in the region and in neighbouring Egypt since the fourth century AD. Munayyer also notes that the importance of Syrian textiles on Palestinian styles should not be overlooked (“New Images, Old Patterns: a historical glimpse” ARAMCO news Mar/Apr 1977: pp.5,7,9). Leila el Khalidi, in The Art of Palestinian Embroidery (2000), proposes a more global assimilation and selection of motifs.

Postcard of a variety of Palestinian regional costume (pre 1948) from the collection of Maha Saca, Director, Palestinian Heritage Centre, Bethlehem

Postcard of a variety of Palestinian regional costume (pre 1948) from the collection of Maha Saca, Director, Palestinian Heritage Centre, Bethlehem

Whatever their source, Palestinian embroidery motifs and patterns are of great intricacy and diversity. Again, their popularity was defined regionally, with certain designs being indicative of certain villages. Other motifs, such as the cypress tree saru, are found throughout Palestine in many different forms, some complex, some simple. In fact, many Palestinian motifs can be seen on analysis to be derived from quite basic geometric forms such as triangles, squares and rosettes. New patterns introduced into Palestine in the late 1930s, via European pattern books or magazines, promoted the appeal of curvilinear motifs such as flower and vine or leaf arrangements, and introduced motifs such as the paired birds which became very popular in central Palestinian regions. Geometric motifs maintained their popularity in the Galilee and southern regions, including the Sinai Desert.

For detailed study and illustration of Palestinian motifs we recommend Leila el Khalidi’s The Art of Palestinian Embroidery (Saqi Books, London 2000), Shelagh Weir and Serene Shahid’s Palestinian embroidery (British Museum, London, 1988) and Jehan Rajab’s Palestinian costume (Keegan Paul, London 1989). The Palestine Costume Archive will be adding a file to this website illustrating motifs at a later date.




Land, Heritage and Identity of the Palestinian People

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. museum-bethlehemAnalyzing 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.

Stone Houses

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.

Final Thoughts

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.






























Stealing Palestine: A study of historical and cultural theft

Posted on: 17 June 2014

By Roger Sheety

The cultural appropriation of books, music, art, cuisine and dress have been used by Zionists as a weapon against Palestinians

Stealing and appropriating the culture and history of indigenous peoples is a typical characterboy2_0istic of all modern colonial-settler states, but usually accomplished once the indigenous people in question has been eliminated, dispossessed, or otherwise seemingly defeated therefore making it safe to do so.  The colonial-settler state of “Israel,” established on the ruins of Palestine and through the expulsion of the majority of its indigenous population in 1948 and after, is no different.

The Israeli theft of all things Palestinian, however, does not simply come from misguided notions of nationalism or childish pride as is often argued by Western apologists, but is rather a conscious political policy of the state that seeks to erase Palestine from historical memory, particularly within Western discourse.  Indeed, the continuing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their historic homeland goes hand in hand with the theft of Palestinian land, homes, history, and culture.  It is an essential part of the larger, long-term Zionist project of eradicating the Palestinian nation altogether, literally writing it out of history while simultaneously assuming its place.

This erasure has been correctly termed as memoricide by historian Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.  Nur Masalha, elaborating further, writes: “The founding myths of Israel have dictated the conceptual removal of Palestinians before, during and after their physical removal in 1948… The de-Arabisation of Palestine, the erasure of Palestinian history and the elimination of the Palestinian’s collective memory by the Israeli state are no less violent than the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 and the destruction of historic Palestine: this elimination is central to the construction of a hegemonic collective Israeli-Zionist-Jewish identity in the State of Israel” (The Palestine Nakba, 89).

Thus, the theft of Palestine and its culture has two essential and interwoven components, the removal/erasure of Palestinians and a concurrent assumption of nativity or “birthright” in Anglo-European Zionist terms.  Over the last six and a half decades, this brazen erasure and theft has been achieved mainly through two methods:  brutal violence (that is, terrorism) and mass media propaganda.

Al Nakba: Physical Destruction/Physical Theft

Between 1947 and 1949, at least 800,000 Palestinians, comprising the majority of the indigenous Arab population of Palestine at that time, were ethnically cleansed from their homes by Zionist militias made up of European and Russian colonists and aided by British imperialists.  Major urban Palestinian centres from the Galilee in the north to the Naqab (renamed “Negev” by Zionists) in the south were emptied of their original inhabitants.  During this three-year period alone, some 531 Palestinian towns and villages were also simultaneously ethnically cleansed and then later razed by the newly established Israeli state.  As Moshe Dayan, a native of the Ukraine, would later boast:

“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages.  You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either.  Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population” (Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969).

What is perhaps lesser known is that during this same period tens of thousands of books, paintings, musical recordings, furniture, and other artifacts were also looted by the Zionist militias from Palestinian homes, libraries, and government offices.  As documented by Benny Brunner and Arjan El Fassed in their film The Great Book Robbery, at least 70,000 Palestinian books were stolen from their owners.  As shown in the documentary, this theft was no mere accidental by-product of war; rather, it was a deliberate act with a specific purpose:

“For decades Zionist and Israeli propaganda described the Palestinians as ‘people without culture.’ Thus, the victorious Israeli state took upon itself to civilise the Palestinians who remained within its borders at the end of the 1948 war. They were forbidden to study their own culture or to remember their immediate past; their memory was seen as a dangerous weapon that had to be suppressed and controlled.”

1948, however, would not be the last time that Israeli forces would steal and destroy Palestinian books and other cultural productions.  In 1982, during its occupation of Lebanon, Israeli invasion troops would storm the homes, offices, and libraries of Palestinians and walk away with thousands of books, films, and other records documenting Palestinian history.  This is a common practice of Israeli occupation forces and continues to this day, most notably in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza, which were occupied in 1967 along with Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai.

The meaning behind this theft is not complicated.  Unable to assimilate actual, recorded Palestinian history (which was and remains mostly in Arabic) into its fabricated history, Israel chooses simply to destroy it, to physically remove it from sight, while simultaneously inventing and disseminating a fairy-tale account of Palestine as a virgin “land without people for a people without a land.”  Consequently, the destruction of Palestinian villages, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian cities, the aerial bombing of Palestinian refugee camps, and the looting of Palestinian books all lead to the same intersection: what cannot be absorbed within Zionist mythology must be eradicated.

Palestinian Artifacts: Re-writing History

The Zionist belief that modern European and Russian Jews (and all of worldwide Jewry for that matter) are somehow the direct, lineal descendants of ancient Hebrew-speaking tribes who lived on another continent some 2000 years ago and can thus lay claim to Palestine, its history, and its culture would be outright laughable if the political consequences of this fairy-tale ideology were not so tragic. That this racist belief, propagated by both anti-Semites and Zionists alike, is accepted as self-evident truth and not even worthy of questioning by most Western mainstream media outlets is certainly a testament to decades of Zionist propaganda and to a shameful journalistic laziness and conformity of thought that has now become the norm.

A typical example is this article from the Huffington Post titled “Israel Ancient Jewelry Uncovered in Archeological Dig.”  According to the article, “Israeli archaeologists have discovered a rare trove of 3,000-year-old jewelry, including a ring and earrings, hidden in a ceramic jug near the ancient city of Megiddo, where the New Testament predicts the final battle of Armageddon.”  Based on the guesses of Israel Finkelstein, who co-directed the dig, “the jewelry likely belonged to a Canaanite family.”  That may well have been so, but the unquestioned assumption throughout the piece is that this jewelry is in some way Israeli.  (Note, as well, how a biblical tale associated with the ancient Palestinian city of Megiddo is mentioned as if this was of any relevance.)

In 1919, the World Zionist Organisation officially presented a map of its future state of “Israel” at the Paris Peace Conference.  This map included not only all of Palestine, but also southern Lebanon, southwestern Syria, including the Golan Heights, significant parts of western Jordan, and parts of Egypt’s Sinai.  Let us for argument’s sake say that the WZO’s colonial wish was granted at least in the case of Lebanon.  Would that make all the ancient artifacts found in occupied southern Lebanon, “Israeli”?  What of Syria’s Golan which remains occupied today; are the artefacts found there today somehow “Israeli”?  And what about Egypt’s Sinai, a territory that Israel occupied from 1967 to 1979; were the ancient relics discovered there during the period of occupation “Israeli”?  And did they stop becoming “Israeli” after the Zionist state properly returned the stolen land back to Egypt?

Since all of Palestine is as stolen as the once occupied Sinai and the currently occupied Syrian Golan, what exactly is so “Israeli” about this ancient jewelry discussed in the Huffington Post article besides the unsubstantiated claims of its author who completely ignores Palestinian history?  The European/Zionist re-writing of ancient Palestinian history is so blatant, so ubiquitous, it is almost invisible.  Not only have Zionists re-written Palestinian history, they have also written themselves into it even as they remove indigenous Palestinians both physically and notionally out.  Wielding history as a weapon, this type of propaganda utilises the laziest and most common form of censorship, that of simple omission.

This particular form of cultural theft, however, is not limited to Palestine.  Israel, against all historical evidence, continues to conflate its racist political ideology, its raison d’être, Zionism – a uniquely European creation – with Judaism, a universal religion with origins in the Arab world.  Thus, Zionists justify the theft of Iraqi-Jewish archives, for instance; or they claim that 1000-year-old Jewish documents originally from Afghanistan belong to the Zionist state.  The assumption is that, since a document has Hebrew or even Aramaic script written on it, it must somehow belong in “Israel” and not where it was actually found.  It never occurs to the author of the Haaretz piece that a 1000-year-old document discovered in Afghanistan has absolutely nothing to do with a European colonial-settler state established in 1948 on top of Palestine.  Or have perhaps Israel’s undeclared borders now stretched to Afghanistan?

Palestinian/Arab Dress

Palestinian women are rightly proud of traditional Arab dress, as any people would be of their creations.  These stunningly intricate, handmade embroidered dresses, scarves, and other accessories have deep roots within the Arab world, especially Greater Syria.  The skills with which to create them have been passed down from generation to generation and the evidence of their authenticity and artistry is undeniable.  So refined is Palestinian dress in particular, that one can identify their place of origin within Palestine from the colours and designs of the embroidery alone.

Historian and scientist Hanan Karaman Munayyer, an expert on Palestinian clothing, traces “the origins of proto-Palestinian attire from the Canaanite period circa 1500 B.C. when Egyptian paintings depicted Canaanites wearing A-shaped garments.  The distinctive silhouette is observed in a 1200 B.C. ivory engraving from Megiddo, Palestine, identified as a ‘Syrian tunic’” (Sovereign Threads by Pat McDonnell Twair, PalestineHeritage.org).  In short, they are living works of art that carry within their stitches millennia of indigenous cultural memory.

Yet even Palestinian dress has not been immune from shameless Israeli theft and appropriation.  Basem Ra’ad, in his superb Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean, writes:

“An Israeli book on embroidery, Arabesque:  Decorative Needlework from the Holy Land, starts with “biblical times” and ends with photographs showing Israeli adults and children wearing the embroidered clothing of Palestinian villagers (many from the villages from which Palestinians were forced to flee in 1948).  These Israelis have put on an act for the photographs.  The book not only takes over a Palestinian art form; it impersonates it.  The euphemistic allusion to the “Holy Land” helps to camouflage the real, Palestinian source of this unique form of village art” (128).

As Ra’ad notes throughout, often within Israeli cultural works no mention at all is made of Palestinians thus rendering them invisible.  A more recent and equally outrageous form of appropriation was documented in an article from Ma’an News which describes the theft of the Arab kufiya or hattah.  Though common throughout the Arab world, the kufiya became a Palestinian symbol of resistance during the Great Palestine Revolt of 1936-39 when the majority of Palestinians rose up against the British occupation and their Zionist colonial allies.  That Zionists today choose to appropriate this symbol in a pathetic effort to make it their own is yet another example of both an ignorance of Arab history and a complete lack of imagination.

Palestinian/Arab Cuisine

What is more fundamental to any people and its culture than its food?  The stealing of Palestinian cuisine by the Zionist state has been just as shameless as its theft of Palestinian land.  In fact, since cuisine is so overtly geographically-based, the two are in reality one and the same.  Jaffa oranges, olives and olive oil, hummus, tabouleh, arak, falafel, kubbeh and almost every other kind of Arabic food, drink, and ingredient native to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the rest of the Arab world suddenly becomes “Israeli” within the state’s various media and through its Western advocates without any acknowledgement of its true origins.

Consider, for instance, this article from the Jerusalem Post which states that arak is “indigenous to Israel.”  “The largest-selling spirit in Israel may be vodka,” claims the writer, “but the indigenous spirit is arak.”  Note, too, how several countries from the region are cited -Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Jordan – but, somehow, Palestine remains beyond the recall of the writer.  This is a typical strategy of Zionist cultural appropriation and usurpation; list the surrounding countries and cultures as if you are a part of them, but don’t mention the country you destroyed and whose culture you stole.  One must also wonder how a colonial settler state established in 1948 by Europeans can lay claim to an indigenous Arab cuisine which existed for millennia before it ever came into being.  Perhaps this is another example of the fabled “miracles of Israel.”

Or take the example of falafel which Israel claims is its “national” dish, an assertion repeated in countless cook books, blogs, and even academic papers.  “What distinguishes the case of falafel from those of rice and wine is our access to its historical origins,” writes Yael Raviv.  “Falafel was not assimilated into Israeli society by a long, slow, natural process.  Rather, its transformation into an icon of Israeli culture was rushed and deliberate.  In its urgent search for symbols of unity, the nationalist movement hit upon falafel as a signifier of Israeli pride.”  This is a remarkable bit of ahistorical sophistry.  How exactly is falafel – which existed long before “Israel” – a “signifier of Israeli pride” unless one is proud of cultural theft?

In a refreshing moment of honesty, Gil Hovav admits:  “Of course it’s Arabic.  Hummus is Arabic.  Falafel, our national dish, our national Israeli dish, is completely Arabic and this salad that we call an Israeli Salad, actually it’s an Arab salad, Palestinian salad. So, we sort of robbed them of everything.”  Although it is always appreciated to hear Zionists admit their various thefts, take away the apologetic qualifier “sort of” and we will arrive to a much closer truth.

The usual defence or apologetics, however, is that this is a trivial matter; it is only food after all.  Unfortunately, Israeli claims to inventing Palestinian and Arabic cuisine are used for distinctly political purposes – to marginalise, discredit and, ultimately, to dispossess the Palestinian people.  Did the Russian-born Golda Meir (originally, Golda Mabovich) invent hummus?  Did the Polish native David Ben-Gurion (originally, David Green) create the recipe for tabouleh?  Perhaps it was the family of current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (originially, Ben Mileikowsky), who created falafel?  As ridiculous as these questions are, this is essentially what Zionists are asking us to believe whenever they refer to Arabic food as “Israeli.”

Palestinian Agriculture and Land

A common Zionist historical fabrication, still disseminated today, is that “Israelis made the [Palestinian] desert bloom.”  Palestine, according to this tall tale, was a horrid, barren place until European Jews arrived with their superior technology and know-how and made it flower.  It was only then, as the tall tale continues, that those poor Arabs arrived (from other countries, of course) to find work in this new, green, and blooming land.  As recently as the 2012 American election campaign, openly anti-Palestinian bigots such as Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney would parrot this ahistorical fiction in an attempt to score cheap political points.

Here, however, are some historical facts to counter this racist fairy tale.  In 1901, the Jewish National Fund was founded in Basel, Switzerland with the explicit goal of buying land in Palestine for exclusive European Jewish colonisation.  By 1948, after nearly half a century, they had succeeded in buying less than 7 percent of Palestinian land, mostly from absentee landlords living outside of Palestine.  In other words, the enterprise was a failure; Palestinians understandably would not give up rightful ownership of their land for any price.

Why is this important?  When Britain invaded and occupied Palestine from 1917 to 1948, they not only came with their military and typical savagery, but also with their surveyors and scholars whose main job was to produce information on the country they happened to occupy.  This information would fill volumes of books sent back for consumption by the British public and in order to justify their government’s imperial projects abroad.  One of those volumes is the 1300-page A Survey of Palestine published in December 1945.

Summarised brilliantly by the Lawrence of Cyberia Website, the survey reveals that Palestinians produced the vast majority of Palestine’s agricultural output as late as 1948, including “92 percent of its grain, 86 percent of its grapes, 99 percent of its olives, 77 percent of its vegetables, 95 percent of its melons, 99 percent of its tobacco, and 60 percent of its bananas.”  Sami Hadawi in his Village Statistics of 1945: A Classification of Land and Area ownership in Palestine showed similar results.  It simply makes no agricultural sense that Zionist colonists, who were in the minority at the time, were minority land holders, and who had only recently arrived in Palestine, overnight turned a supposed desert into a flower bed.

The reality is that it was Palestinians who made Palestine bloom through centuries of labour and hard work, not recently-arrived foreign colonists from Europe, Russia, and (later) the United States and elsewhere.  These are the facts as recorded in 1948 by both indigenous Palestinians and their British occupiers.  Those who believe in magic and fairy tales, on the other hand, can always return to the comfort of Zionist myths and Hollywood.

Conclusion: The Rope of a Lie is Short

Books, music, art, cuisine, dress—these are what constitute the essence of a people’s culture and history.  Israel’s cultural claims on Palestine are as vacuous as its claims on the land; both have been taken, and are still being taken, by force and fabrication.  The Palestinian intellectual Dr. Fayez Sayegh once said, “Israel is, because Palestine has been made not to be.”  Sayegh was not only speaking of the land but also of the entirety of the Palestinian nation which, naturally, includes its cultural productions as well.  Zionism, like all other European colonial-settler movements, uses cultural and historical theft as key weapons in its war of elimination against the indigenous Palestinians.

Israel’s delusion that Palestinian culture belongs to it is no different from the fantasy that it somehow sits in Europe and not in the heart of the Arab world.  The continuing theft of Palestinian culture in particular and of Arab culture in general is a damning reflection of its own artificiality, its poverty of spirit and, indeed, of its very illegitimacy.  There is a Palestinian proverb that says, “The rope of a lie is short (قصير الكِذِب حبل)” meaning, a lie will sooner or later be found out.  The goal of the Zionist project in Palestine, to erase it from history and take its place using all means possible, has been obvious to Palestinians almost from its inception; it is time for the rest of the world to come to this realisation.  For the sake of justice and common decency, it is also long time to give credit where credit is due.

– Roger Sheety is an independent writer and researcher, and is a regular contributor to PalestineChronicle.com.  Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ibinfalasteen.