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Aida Kattan (5): Nuzha, the summer picnic

Contributed by Spirit Of Sumud Tourism Program on 28.08.2009:

Aida Kattan is teacher from Beit Jala.

Fifty, sixty years ago, inhabitants of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, and also from Jerusalem, came over and visited the countryside here for a long picnic. Then the majority of the townspeople went out. Everybody in Beit Jala went for instance to the Maghrour [the countryside west of Beit Jala] or Sharafeh [further in the direction of Jerusalem]. The Maghrour is a very fertile area and good for agriculture. All people in Beit Jala had land in the countryside, or they rented it. My grandfather originally rented the land, and after 20 years bought it. On top of the Everest hill, the so-called ras [head], he had fruit trees and on the slope some 100 olive trees on 12 dunams of land [1 dunam is 1000 sq meter].

Many Bethlehemites went to the village of Al Khader, to the south; where they had beautiful lands, cultivated especially with grapes.

The Nuzha was not a picnic of a day. It went on for several months. People came in April or May and stayed, with breaks, in the countryside until September – from the time of Easter to the Feast of the Cross [September 14]. Some people remained even until October, when the olive harvest takes place, and when there is a lot of work. But in that season they went back home in the evening because in October the weather is colder.

I remember it very well, I was a small child. By going to the countryside people wanted to take care of their fruits and vegetables. The countryside was open, there was space and fresh air. It was pleasant to stay there. As if it was a long picnic. In case people had work in the town during the day, they would come in the afternoon to the countryside. Sometimes 10 people of the extended family went and 40 remained behind, and then next week another ten went. Something similar used to happen in Lebanon and Egypt.

It took half an hour to go there by foot or on a donkey. There were no cars. People brought food that was easy to carry, and also small pieces of furniture, small kitchen utensils, and burners to cook easy things as there was of course no fridge. When they had many vegetables or fruits, the women carried them on their head back to town, in a large basket. Afterwards they went back again to the countryside.

Cooking took place all days. For food, they used the products of fruit trees, like grapes and apricots, and vegetables like tomatoes. There were wells; people drank from the well. Coffee or tea was made, and fresh bread baked in a low stone oven (tabboun). The meat and other food were barbecued which made a nice smell. They baked all kinds of food, like pigeon or chicken, on a burner and put that on a flat bread from the oven. They supplemented the food with olives and olive oil, figs, dried figs, or tomatoes. That was sufficient. They ate easy things like salads and lentils. The people kept products for winter, like dry tomatoes, raisins from grapes, dried figs.

All were happy. There were lots of friendships. People laughed and had fun with each other. The children played, for instance putting the smaller children or a baby on a swing made under a tree. Of course there was no television, there was no electricity. There were maybe ten families who stayed together in the same field as neighbors. They came and visited each other. In the evening all men came together. Popular songs were sung, they were often very long, and all danced and clapped. I remember that they played a gramophone working on batteries, with a box and a large loudspeaker.

Storytellers told stories about persons called Abu Issa, Abu Hanna, stories from long ago, folk stories. People did not know how to read and write. They memorized the story. When somebody talked, the children learned those stories by heart. After a year or two the stories were told further to each other. Remember – fifty, sixty years ago few people went to school. The stories were derived from the history of Arab literature; they were real stories. About Abu Zeid al-Hillali or Harb al-Bissous, and similar ones. Somebody stood up and started telling the story. Or somebody was asked to come forewords: “Ya Flaam…” [Oh people…]. The stories were told by men. The women told stories for the smaller ones, the children, about the ghoule [witch] for instance, or about animals. That happened earlier in the evening. I remember that there were older men who performed poems, sometimes accompanied by the rababeh [kind of violin with one snare]. These were also memorized. Such poems were like stories.

People stayed up after dinner from about eight until midnight. All people. They slept in little “castles” that were built from stones and rocks. Beds and mattresses were brought into them. There were maybe also caves in which they slept or they slept on roofs, or under big trees. They even made little huts of branches of trees, as in the Jewish Sukkoth feast.

It was an easy and happy life. Visitors and family members came from Jerusalem and Jaffa. They liked to come to Beit Jala. They all shared in the food, the singing, all of them. They talked, listened, all together, whether they came from the area or from Jerusalem or Beit Jala, and they exchanged the latest family news. People respected each other. Life was almost without conflicts. When somebody wanted to bring fruits to town, for instance, they gave it to somebody else to carry, or they borrowed donkeys from each other. They left their homes in Beit Jala and Bethlehem open; there were no thieves. You left the door just a little open. There was nothing expensive in the house. People had mattresses, beds, a cupboard – nobody wanted to have something expensive at home. Life was cheap at the time.

Weddings were not conducted in the countryside but in the town, at the homes. You needed the church, the priest; such celebrations took several days. They were done before the summer, in spring. In the summer people used to be busy in the countryside. Now it is different: all weddings are in summer.

Two years ago, after the 40 years that my family owned the land near the Everest, the Wall was planned to be built there. The 12 dunam has been expropriated. Now I am afraid to go there, it is forbidden. Three-four years ago we went there to collect the olives, but now it is not possible anymore.


December 2008

Interviewer: Toine van Teeffelen

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