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Social Life in Hebron
submitted by This Week In Palestine

By Said Madhieh

Old houses in Hebron
The knotty cluster of ancient houses and buildings in the old city of Hebron - or what is referred to in political terms as the H2 area - manifests the continuity of the extended family. The houses carry the names of the families and host all their members: grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren.

The walls of the houses are one or two meters thick to keep them warm in winter and cool in summer. In front of the windows that overlook the street is a broad expanse called qandalon in the Hebron vernacular. Each house consists of two or three floors with an inner staircase in the middle. The senior and oldest family member, who is also the head of the family, resides on the uppermost floor.

As life progressed and new crafts and professions emerged, each member in the extended family chose a career, earned money, and built his own separate house where he and his wife and children resided. This was the beginning of the disintegration of the extended family.

The Sharabati family house in Hebron city centre was inhabited until 2002. Its owner, Youssef Sharabati (Abu Najeeb) adamantly insisted on staying in the house lest settlers from the adjacent Abraham Avini settlement usurp it. Abu Najeeb died at an old age and fought until his last breath to keep the house. On 29 July 2002, settlers stormed the house, physically assaulted the inhabitants, and expelled them. Al-Haq, an organisation for the defence of human rights in the occupied territories, filed a suit against the settlers and won it in 2004, but the Israeli civil administration continued to put off the execution of the court’s verdict.

In addition to Sharabati’s house, many other houses have been evacuated in Hebron city centre, and their inhabitants have moved to live on the outskirts of Hebron. These houses still carry the names of the families that dwelt in them. Some houses, however, have been renovated and inhabited by new residents.

Social traditions
Social traditions and norms survived in Hebron due to the fact that all the members of the same family lived together. In addition, the remote location of the city segregated it from the rest of the Arab community in Palestine. Social solidarity and nepotism are still apparent within the Arab community in Hebron and the surrounding villages. Individuals, especially women, feel that they are constantly being watched. They are expected to know the traditions and abide by them, otherwise they risk being ostracised. There is an elite group of male elders in Hebron who are experts in clan or tribal laws and regulations in the areas of social conflict and murder. The rulings of this group have the authority of the law and are obeyed and revered by all people - young and old alike. They are even more effective than the decisions taken by civil courts.

Social solidarity can best be seen in banquets that bring together all members of the same family especially married daughters and their husbands and children. The main dishes offered in family banquets include qidra, rice and mutton cooked in the oven and usually eaten with yoghurt and salad; mansaf, cooked rice served in a large tray and soaked in yoghurt; and musakhan, chicken and onion served with a special kind of bread called shraq or tabun soaked in oil. In addition, the people of Hebron are known for their generous hospitality; they welcome Arab and non-Arab guests and whole-heartedly offer them assistance.

Women in Hebron gather on occasions to make spinach and thyme pie. Before the big feast of Eid Al-Fitr that comes at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, women make huge quantities of ma’mul, a special sweet made of sesame dough stuffed with dates or walnuts. Women may agree to cook a special meal called mjaddara made of rice and lentils with fried onion. They eat and talk or gossip and gather their children to eat with them. Within each family is a middle-aged woman who specialises in cooking and is adept at organising social gatherings and special banquets for women only. She is also the counsellor of the family in matters related to marriage. Generally speaking, the woman encourages quality in food, clothing, and furniture.

The silat al-rahem (uterus or womb link), which means compassion and tender charity that is extended toward members of the same family, is common in the Hebron Governorate particularly during the holy month of Ramadan - so much so that some people do not eat at home for the entire month. In the countryside, male family members invite their sisters and maternal and paternal aunts to eat with them; in the city, however, the invitation is extended to all close and remote female relatives. Another food-related social custom is the shaabaniyyat, which consists of banquets held during Shaaban, the month that precedes the holy month of Ramadan.

Family social gatherings take place in a cosy, warm, and intimate atmosphere and offer family members an opportunity to meet, talk, and share feelings and ideas. Recently, however, due to the increasingly large circle of invitees, social gatherings - especially weddings - are held in public halls and cooks are hired.

Unfortunately, the pressing demands of modern life have put an end to the spirituality of social occasions and ceremonies. Banquets are no longer a manifestation of compassion and tenderness; instead they have become an occasion to show off and brag about wealth and social standing. Wedding ceremonies are a prime example of such fancy and sumptuous rituals.

Marriage in Hebron
Wedding ceremonies are a duty and, in my opinion, an obstacle that impedes progress and social change. The elite society elders in Hebron claim that wedding ceremonies are a bridge that should not be destroyed. This bridge is synonymous with social customs, and no one has the audacity to break or undermine them, except perhaps the poor who cannot afford them. Thus they constitute a major financial burden for families. The mother of the bride demands that the family of the groom bear the expenses of the wedding.

In the beginning, the betrothal is declared in the cities and neighbouring villages and hundreds of people are invited. A senior member from the groom’s family asks the senior member of the bride’s family for the hand of their daughter. After agreement the opening chapter of the Holy Quran is read, after which sweets, drinks, and coffee are offered to the guests. According to Arab tradition, women and men sit in two separate halls during wedding ceremonies. Women wear fancy clothes and make-up, and they dance and sing. Men sit together and eat, drink, and talk. Shortly before the end of the wedding ceremony, the groom offers the shabka or gold jewellery to his bride and puts a ring on the finger of her right hand. After the betrothal ceremony the groom’s family is invited to lunch at the house of the bride’s family.

One day before the marriage takes place, the groom’s family visits the bride’s family and brings a variety of sweets. This is known as the “passover.” Both families eat and drink together. On the night of the marriage, women of the bride’s family bring to the groom’s house a suitcase that contains the bride’s new clothes. The mother of the bride opens the suitcase and shows the clothes to the other women. Then all the women dance, sing, and eat sweets.

On the day of the marriage, the groom’s family holds a huge banquet to which all relatives and acquaintances have been invited. Guests usually arrive one or two hours before the banquet begins and, after eating, they shower the groom with gifts. Later, the family and all the guests go in procession to the family of the bride to take the bride to her new home.

The day after the marriage takes place, relatives and friends visit the newly wed couple and offer them gifts, usually gold rings, bracelets, and earrings. The bride wears her best clothes and gold jewellery and the groom wears a suit. Everybody wishes them a happy and prosperous life.

Said Madhieh is a member of the Palestinian Writers’ Union and a former member of the union’s administrative board. He served on the administrative board of the Jordanian Writers’ Union between 1984 and 1994. In 1994 he returned to his hometown of Halhul in the Hebron Governorate after the revocation of an expulsion order against him. In 2006 Mr. Madhieh published a book entitled Sand in the Eyes, and his most recent book, Pioneers of Enlightenment in Palestine will be published soon. He can be reached at asmadhieh@maktoob.com.

This Week in Palestine
April 2008

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