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Customs & Remedies

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Showing 1 - 18 from 18 entries

> The Semiology of the Palestinian Face
> Aida Kattan (1): The taboun
> Aida Kattan (2): The Palestinian Mukhtar
> Aida Kattan (3): the Palestinian wedding in the...
> Aida Kattan (4): Henna brought on the bride
> Aida Kattan (5): Nuzha, the summer picnic
> Aida Kattan (6) Traditions from the home courtyard
> Shepherds, Grazing Fields, and Recreational Games
> Nablus' olive oil soap: a Palestinian tradition...
> Palestinian Wedding
> Plant-Lore in Palestinian Superstition
> Mulberry
> Tosheh: a Palestinian Villagers’ Quarrel
> The Palestinian Wedding Practices and Rituals
> Privacy and Love in Palestinian Villages
> Feast days in Jerusalem as they used to be
> Washing their hair with herbs
> Chamomile (Babounej)
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Privacy and Love in Palestinian Villages
submitted by This Week In Palestine

Intimacy and the Other: By Dr. Ali Qleibo

The discourse of silence is constitutive of Palestinian individual identity. Discretion, knowing when to speak and when to observe silence, underlies the conscious awareness of the barriers between the private and the public. Nevertheless, the systemically suppressed discourse exerts a constraining outline on social interaction. In fact, social taboos delineate and colour the relationship between self and others.

Any casual visit to a peasant house or a Bedouin camp triggers questions that cannot be asked and that are almost immediately suppressed. Our bourgeois value system qualifies such questions as ‘indiscreet’, ‘out of line’, and ‘inappropriate’. The concept of ‘privacy’, our most sacrosanct value, has no place in either the Bedouin tent or the traditional peasant home. The luxury of privacy, granted to us in the architectural unit of a separate individual bedroom and bathroom, is a typically urban phenomenon. Our confrontation with one common living/sleeping room for all the members of an extended family, less than fifteen kilometres from Jerusalem, is a shocking encounter. The subject is quickly overlooked. It does not exist.

I still recall my shock, twenty years ago, while visiting Kufr Ein. Elena and I had been married for a number of years by then. But we did not want to have children. As usual, we were asked whether we had children. It was too difficult to explain to people our logic, and mother instructed us to end up any questioning by saying, ‘Allah Kareem’, that is, ‘it is God’s decision’. A kind old lady waited for the proper moment, took me aside, and explained to me the correct sexual act, ‘It is from the front not the back!’ I was shocked. I felt embarrassed that ‘such things’ would be spoken of albeit in a pedagogical form.

Sex is taboo.
Forty years ago, the romantic stone domes riding on top of square stone houses presented a romantic image of pastoral bliss. The single-room house was of two floors, rawyeh. The lower rawyeh, invariably a rock cave, served as a stable where chicken, sheep, donkey, and cow were put for the night. The upper rawyeh was cut into two parts; a living/sleeping room and food storage. Silos for storage of grains, cereals, dried fruits, etc., provided the separation wall. Behind the silo partition was the storage space, which occupied one-third of the total room space. The living/sleeping quarter rarely exceeded sixteen square meters. At night, the mattresses were laid out on the floor. In the morning, the floor was cleared: mattresses, pillows, and duvets were folded on top of each other and stacked in a specially built niche in the wall, el-rakzeh.

The majority of Palestinians of my generation have grown up in the Palestinian traditional stone home where signs of personal husband/wife intimacy were suppressed.

In the village of Artas, south of Bethlehem, Abu Isliman explained to me the order governing mattress arrangements. ‘My father and mother slept here.’ He pointed to the floor underneath the double window. ‘My older brother and his wife slept here, my other brother and his wife over there, my wife and I here … the unmarried brothers and sisters slept over there.’ The fact that the daughters-in-law were not strangers to the family should not be overlooked. Preferential marriages in traditional Palestinian families were encouraged between paternal or maternal cousins.

My friend Aladin, from Kufr el Deek, explained that each nuclear family in his grandfather’s household slept separately but shared the same bed cover. Each father, mother, and their offspring shared one duvet! This dispelled any possibility of privacy. ‘How could they sleep under one bed cover?’ He explained that they were desperately poor. Owning a bed cover, blanket, or duvet for each person was beyond their means then. ‘Besides’, he added smiling, ‘their life was so hard. You know they had to work the fields manually. By the time their heads hit the pillows, they were fast asleep.’

Mash-hur from Rameem confirmed the narrative.

‘But how did they have children?’ I asked.

‘Probably my father did it quickly, very early in the morning; before going to work in the fields’.

‘Did he perform ablutions afterwards? Wasn’t it difficult to wash in these conditions?’

‘He did not pray then. He prayed only after he reached his forties.’

Abu Saed in Saffa, west of Ramallah, smiled shyly. ‘These were desperate days. We lived in great poverty. We lived in quhor, we were maqhurin, defeated and humiliated by our poverty.’

Abu Saed is a well-to-do contractor. Though he now lives in a two-floor villa, and though each of his three married sons lives with him, each in his own bedroom fitted with its own bathroom, he still feels awkward about privacy with his wife. ‘I still find it difficult to lock my bedroom before two or three a.m. I wait till everyone has gone to sleep.’

My friend from Kufr el Deek comments, ‘He has the duvet mentality …’

I asked Abu Saed, ‘But how did you have intimate privacy before?’

‘They didn’t’, he explained. ‘Sex was stolen, sirqah, a very brief affair. Everyone heard and everyone in the room saw. No one dared talk, hint, or joke about it the next day. It simply did not happen.’

All my native informants are relatively well off. They live in huge modern houses. In addition to their jobs as school principals, building contractors, or even skilled labourers, they remain big landowners. As such, taking a photo of a traditional house is not easy. The single room partitioned into a living loft-cum-pantry right on top of the chicken, sheep, donkey, and cow pen belongs with nostalgia to the memory of a life that belongs to the distant past.

‘Only one such household still exists in Bil’in, west of Ein Areek. You knock on the big rusty metal door near the mosque and introduce yourself’, I was instructed by Abu Jameel. ‘It would put me in an awkward situation were I to accompany you’.

I had never needed introductions to enter peasant homes to ask all my questions. In fact, mediated introductions suppress the potential spontaneity and tend to formalize the relationship and, as such, preclude genuine disclosure of information.

A young woman, twenty-four years old, a great beauty, opened the door. Her white porcelain skin and jet black hair were reminiscent of the folk heroine Jubeineh. She could not leave me out in the street. I walked into the courtyard.

The scene evoked a picturesque nineteenth-century romantic painting.

An old, tattered woman crouched by an open fire as she baked bread on a piece of metal; they were too poor to afford a taboon oven. They were too poor to use wood or manure. Her fire was of torn twigs. On my left was a pen for goats. A middle-aged woman wrapped in a scarf opened the door of the room and inquired about the purpose of my visit.

I explained to ‘Jubeineh’ that I am an anthropologist and would like to be permitted to take pictures of their traditional lifestyle. The young woman was obviously dismayed, embarrassed, and humiliated. The word ‘tradition’ did not ring right. ‘Who sent you here?’ she asked defensively. She was beautiful and poor. The words of Abu Saed came to my mind, ‘We were defeated and humiliated by our poverty’.

I felt embarrassed.

Tradition for her was not the nostalgia of the wealthy for the good old days of poverty. Tradition was her yoke of poverty. She stood there, tears welling up in her eyes, ‘Who sent you here? Who told you about our living conditions?’

I felt embarrassed. I fumbled an apology and left-the smell of the burning twigs drenching my hair, clothes, and eyes.

You cannot photograph misery.

By the same token, there are many pictures I shall not be able to take. The pictures I glean from the memories of my welcoming hosts have no objective reality. Their homes, lifestyle aesthetic, and value systems have become modern suburban.

I shall not know, hence I can’t write of intimate privacy in these homes or of the ethnographic details that constitute the ‘discourse of silence’. But I know that in these bygone days, a man and a woman, a husband and his wife, were never alone. Not a whisper could pass unheard. They lived under the gaze of others.

For millennia, Palestinians were born, lived, and died together under the same domed roof. Love, in the absence of privacy, must have existed. In this collective lifestyle, jealousy, hate, kindness, and tenderness overlapped. Two thousand years ago, in Bethlehem, the Virgin Mary was given shelter by such a family to give birth to baby Jesus. Semitic concepts of purity and impurity had assigned the ‘stable’ in the lower floor for giving birth.

‘Only after the seventh day after delivery, once pure again, would the woman be allowed to leave the cave underneath and join her husband in his mattress and duvet in the loft upstairs’, explained Abu Nidal in Um Salamonah as he remembered the old days.

For thousands of years, the Palestinians lived in dire poverty, barely surviving on a subsistence level. They grew up in such rooms and married in such conditions.

The modern concept of intimate privacy did not exist. The couple never undressed. They were never alone behind closed doors for a single moment. But they gave birth to many children. They grew old together, and they gave a lot of love. And when they died, they were surrounded by their loved ones.

In Beit Rima, counting his graces, an old man said, ‘Indeed we are lucky; we stayed in our homeland, surrounded by our olive fields, and next to our ancestral cemetery’.

Driving in the West Bank, one sadly sees that the silhouettes of these domed single-room houses have almost disappeared from the landscape. Instead concrete buildings of shapeless masses of square structures saddle the mountain tops.

The traditional landscape has changed. But once inside, one is awed by the feeling of an indescribable sublime transcendence. As I become accepted into the family, I am invariably taken into their old ancestral home. Underneath the modern additions, still hallowed and deferred to, the house with the upper and lower rawiyeh remains intact, enshrined. Here the, muneh, the annual supply of wheat, rice, oil, olives, cheese, and butter are stored. Also it is the room where the dry piece of bread ‘Baraket Ramadan’, the blessing of Ramadan, is kept. A loaf of bread, from the last batch of bread baked in Ramadan each year is kept. ‘This way, the grace of the previous year moves into the new year’, Um Nidal solemnly told me.

Land confiscation escalates, settlements increase in number and size, but against all odds, Palestinians survive in a state of grace in their homeland.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at aqleibo@yahoo.com.

This Week in Palestine
January 2007

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