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
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
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:
ÇáÏÇÑ "el-jar qabl el-dar" (the neighbor
comes before the house); ÃÎæß ãä
åãß"akhouk min ummak besheel hammak" (your brother
from your mother lightens the load you carry);
ÈÊæÒÚ ÈíÎÝ "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: ÇÐÇ ßÈÑ
ÇÈäß ÎÇæíå "itha kibir
ibnak khaweeh" (when your child grows up, treat him as a brother);
ÑÌá Ýí ÇáÈæÑ
ÇáÝáÇÍÉ "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:
ÊáÇÞí ÞãÍ "izra' qameh
tlaqi qameh" (if you sow wheat you reap wheat, meaning if you raise
a child well you will gain a good person); ÃÛáì
ãä ÈÞÑÉ ÌÍÇ "aghla min
baqrat juha" (more expensive than Juha's cow, meaning ludicrously
expensive, Juha being a folk character of ridicule who overvalued
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
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
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
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.